Far From My Mom’s St. Petersburg – A Conversation about Tajikistan with Leora Eisenberg

 

Today is the Independence day of Tajikistan, a place that is fascinating to many people throughout the globe but nonetheless relatively unknown by many. For the future I’ll be partnering with curious souls like you in order to share stories. Today I brought Leora Eisenberg, who had the marvelous privilege of spending the past summer in Tajikistan. Here she is discussing the many sides of her Tajiki story and how it left her greatly changed for the better!

1.What sort of background do you come from and how did you get interested in Tajiki / Persian culture in general? How have your experiences been with either prior to visiting Tajikistan?

My mom and stepdad (and consequently, their whole family) are from St. Petersburg, although they refer to it as Leningrad; they grew up and were educated there. At home, I grew up in a very… Russian household. That is to say that I grew up watching Soviet children’s cartoons, eating Russian food, and speaking the language at home. There was also a very strong Russian-Jewish work ethic. (That is to say I had to be the best.) My awareness of the former USSR was part of my identity, but I still never knew that much; I had never taken a class or written a paper on the topic. That said, I was certainly more aware of the Soviet Union than most of my fellow Russian-Jewish birth cohort. I was always interested in Soviet history and culture… to such an extent that I’m now majoring in the field!

As for Tajiki/Persian culture… regardless of the fact that I was aware of the USSR, I didn’t think much about Tajikistan. I mean, sure, I knew that its capital was Dushanbe, but that was it. To be fair, I attribute a lot of this to my parents who are very proud of being Europeans from St. Petersburg, for better or for worse. Tajikistan wasn’t part of their consciousness, and consequently, it wasn’t part of mine.

I stumbled onto Tajiki and Persian culture completely accidentally. I thought I was going to major in Near (Middle) Eastern Studies, so I chose Persian as a foreign language. I ended up falling in love with it, and I applied for the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Tajikistan, which teaches primarily Farsi, at the encouragement of my professor.

 

2. What makes Tajikistan and its culture stand out? How about the Tajik language?

It’s important to note that I came to Tajikistan to learn Iranian Persian, i.e. Farsi. As a government program, CLS cannot send American students to Iran to learn the language, so it is, then, left with the two other Persian-speaking countries: Afghanistan (which speaks Dari) and Tajikistan (which speaks Tajiki). They certainly couldn’t send us to Afghanistan, so Tajikistan was the only option left.

We had almost all of our class in Farsi, but we had 2-4 hours of Tajiki class a week. That said, I spoke almost exclusively Tajiki at home with my host family, which I ended up learning, more or less, by osmosis.

Contrary to what people might say, it’s not the same as Farsi. The literary language is indeed close to it, but the everyday, conversational language is substantially different due to the heavy Russian influence, both in the standardization of the language itself and in pure vocabulary. There’s also a significant Turkic influence coming from Uzbek, since about 25% of Tajikistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek.

As for the culture… it’s unlike anything I’ve ever known. As a whole, what I noted about the culture was that people truly had an inclination to do good. If given a choice between a good and a bad action, Tajiks almost inevitably went for the good one. For example, if someone on a bus offered me their seat (which they almost always did, even if they didn’t know I was a foreigner) and I refused, they would almost always offer to hold my bags because “I looked tired.” I was no anomaly; I’ve seen Tajiks do the same to dozens of other people. It’s just the way they are.

I could write extensively on the topic. A few other things that I noticed were the importance of hospitality and the prominence of color and vivacity in everyday life.

 

3. How was your experience learning and using Tajik in Tajikistan? What sort of reactions did you get and what sort of struggles did you face?

In the beginning, it was very hard simply because I had had no exposure to the Tajiki language before. I only knew Farsi. For the first two weeks or so, I just didn’t understand anything.

A story to illustrate the point: one evening during my first week, we went to my host aunt and uncle’s house. Many family members, whom I didn’t yet know, were there. I didn’t know much Tajiki yet, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. They would ask me questions occasionally, and I would just freeze, unable to answer. I was so embarrassed. Sometimes, they would switch to Russian entirely for my benefit; other times, they continued with their conversations. Since they wouldn’t let me, a guest, clear the table (my activity of choice when under duress), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for about ten minutes. I didn’t want to face them because I was so ashamed of my lack of knowledge. I only spoke Farsi at that point — not Tajiki.

That said, as time progressed, I understood more and more. If the “older generation” (40+ years) was talking, I could understand 40-70% of what they said by the end of the trip. (With young people, the number was much lower.) I learned primarily by osmosis; Tajiki class wasn’t very helpful at all since we primarily focused on learning the alphabet, which I already knew.

Whenever I spoke Tajiki, Tajiks were, naturally, proud. I was speaking their language. I remember that my host dad was particularly excited about this. He liked to read me poems sometimes and hope I would understand. Toward the end of the trip, Tajiks on the street used to sometimes think I was Tajik even after I had said something, which was a sign that my language skills had really improved.

 

4. What sort of tourist attractions throughout Tajikistan are not to be missed? How about local delicacies?

Tourist attractions:

Tajikistan is an absolutely beautiful country. I strongly, strongly recommend that any tourist go hiking. There is a great FB page called Hike Tajikistan which organizes for bimonthly (or so) hiking trips across the country. There are several good museums, like the National Museum in Dushanbe. The bazaar (there is one in every city and several in Dushanbe) is not to be missed; it’s a real glimpse into Tajik life, and it’s a micro-economy of its own. Also a great place to buy souvenirs.

 

Local delicacies:

Plov, also called osh, is rice, meat, chickpeas and carrots. It sounds bizarre, but is delicious. There are some tasty soups like ugro and lagman, but my favorite dish of all is called qurutob. There is no adequate way to describe it, but it, very crudely put, is a mix of hot oil, very thick puff pastry dough-type bread called fattir, tomato, cucumber and a type of sour cream-type liquid. You eat it — with your hands —  at a special restaurant designated for it.

 

5. What are some of your favorite words and/or idioms that you picked up during your time in Tajikistan?

Az pasha fil nasoz — lit. Don’t make an elephant out of a fly = don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill

Ba khoda = lit. “With God” = this could mean anything from “oh really?” To “yeah, right!”

 

6. What was your host family like and how were your interactions?

I cannot speak about my host family without smiling — and having a tear form in my eye. They became my family. My host mom always referred to me using the Russian word rodnaya, which means something like “biological” or “real.” I became her real daughter. My host dad always announced to everyone that I was his daughter. It was never a question.

My host family was very special because I didn’t just become close with my immediate family, but also with my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. I went over to my cousins’ house every evening; with the girls, I gossiped, danced, etc. With the boys, I played soccer, played practical jokes, etc. My host aunt texted me a few days ago. I still talk to my host cousins a few times a week.

To illustrate how close we became, let me tell a story. On my last day, my host parents, like all the other host parents, drove me to the pick-up site, where all of us were being met to be taken to the airport by bus. The other host parents hugged their students, took a picture, and left. In my case, my parents hovered around and weren’t leaving. My host mom would ask me a question; I would answer. At one point, my host dad surveyed the group and whispered to my host mom, “you know, out of all the kids, only our Leora looks like a Tajik.” Host parents kept coming and going, but mine stayed. They were the last ones to go. When they finally did, all three of us were crying. My host mom said that it was “as if they had known me all of their lives.” I’m getting teary-eyed just writing about it.

That's (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress

That’s (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress.

 

7. How did your time in Tajikistan leave you genuinely changed?

I noticed that when I came back to the United States, I laughed a lot more. I watched the same movies, heard the same jokes, etc — but I laughed at them this time. I was much freer with enjoyment of the world around me. Tajikistan taught me an appreciation of the beauty and joys of life. The experience also gave me, literally, a family whom I love and care about and can’t wait to see again next summer. Lastly, it gave me the confidence to experience the completely unknown and make it part of my soul.

On a more cosmetic note (pun intended), I pay a lot more attention to the way I look now. In Tajikistan, women pay much more attention to their physical appearance that women do in the United States, so dressing well/putting on makeup is a habit I certainly picked up there.

 

8. Any general concluding thoughts you’d like to share with the world, concerning anything at all?

I don’t think I can put into words how much I love Tajikistan and its people. After the program ended, I traveled straight from Tajikistan to Russia and had a very difficult time. I compared everything with Dushanbe. I cried a lot; I missed “home.” Distraught, I emailed my grandfather about this dilemma. He said that I had tried to make myself part of the country — and succeeded, and that separation from it was separation from a treasured part of my consciousness. It all sounds melodramatic, but I truly believe that I’ve taken a piece of the country in my heart.

On that note, if anyone knows of any good internships in the area, please feel free to let me know….

 

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This is from when I taught them how to swim 🙂
This is only part of my family; it was in reality much larger but I wanted to illustrate how large it was.


Definitely! Thanks for telling your stories for all of us! I hope that you can continue to be an inspiration not only to me but everyone else you know! Keep going from strength to strength!

 
Leora Eisenberg
Speaks: English, Russian, French, German, Hebrew, Farsi, Tajiki — also speaks Egyptian Arabic, Japanese and Somali very poorly

Leora Eisenberg is a current sophomore at Princeton University, where she is majoring in Slavic Studies. Shockingly, is fascinated by Soviet Central Asia. When not reading on the topic, she can be found biking, studying Talmud, seeking out new experiences, and inviting her friends over for Persian desserts. Leora hopes to return to Central Asia next summer, and every summer over the course of her academic career.

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6 Attitudes you Should Adopt for the Sake of the Future’s Linguistic Diversity

Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).

I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.

This is not that article.

Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.

I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.

Here goes:

 

  • Stop referring to languages as “useless”

 

I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.

A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?

And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…

Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.

Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.

But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).

 

  • Referring to Certain Groups of Languages as “Dialects”

 

Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.

This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.

It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.

Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.

 

  • Saying that “Having Everyone Speaking One Language is a Good Thing” or that English is the only language worth studying.

 

Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.

For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.

Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…

 

  • Refusing to Use Your Native Language with Learners

 

This. Is. A. Big. One.

And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.

The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.

And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.

It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)

But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)

There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)

 

  • Saying that “dying languages should just die off and we should only care about those that are still alive”

 

I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?

 

  • Saying that Only Political Powerful Languages are Worth the Effort

 

This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.

I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.

There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.

Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?

This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).

I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)

If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.

Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).

In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.

Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.

And you can, too!

ga

Does Learning Languages ACTUALLY Make You More Open-Minded?

Let’s start this one out with an incontrovertible fact: most of the planet speaks more than one language. It knowing more than one language actually led to being more open-minded, it would follow that most of the planet is, by that metric, open-minded and non-hateful. It seems that the correlation is actually nowhere to be found.

In other words, if multilingualism led to open-mindedness and we could dispel hatred from the world by just teaching people multiple languages, given that most of the planet already knows more than one language, it would have happened by now.

However, learning more than one language CAN lead to being more open-minded, and I’ll relate how to in a moment.

But first, I would like to mention the fact that I’ve been addicted to polyglot culture since I first encountered it in 2013 in Germany and then in 2014 in the United States. I’ve been to WAAAAY too many meetings and social events to count.

Regardless of whether you take into account people who spoke several languages from birth and those who learned several languages later on in their life (even anywhere from 6+), I encountered very curious people who wanted to explore the world and ask questions, and others who were painfully judgmental about the world and other cultures.

In some cases, there were those that event insulted my choice of languages OR insulted other people’s accents and attempts to speak their language to their face (the latter was quite a rarity although sadly the former really isn’t).

Let’s put it this way: in my personal experience, speaking multiple languages does not necessarily lead to an enlightened understanding of the world and a general curiosity to learn about other people.

Nor is it the amount of languages either. I’ve met people who spoke only 2-3 languages who were significantly more curious and open-minded than some of those who spoke seven.

And yes, this also needs to be said: some people who speak only one language can be significantly more open-minded than those who speak several!

But by now you’ve probably read countless articles about how “language learning makes you experience the world differently and will make you understand more cultures and make you a better human”, and now you’ve encountered my experience and you wonder, “What? Are you possibly for real?”

And no, education level also doesn’t play a significant role in how open-minded (or not) you are, especially given how many degree-chasers there are just because of a supposed or real employment advantage.

Here’s what is probably meant when people say “learning languages makes you a more open-minded person…”

The Reasoning Behind Your Choice Matters

As some of you know, I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment during my teenage years (I’ve written about it many times on this blog).

Throughout my time there, there was a lot of distrust in the air for many different people groups, real or imagined. Some of them included:

  • Jews of other denominations, especially, at times, secular Israelis.
  • Eastern Europeans
  • Scandinavians
  • Muslims of any variety
  • Arabs (Mizrakhi culture was, in my memory, never brought up at school, nor did I even know that Arab Christianity was a major force in many Arab countries until the late 2000’s).
  • Anything smacking of the secular Yiddish culture, including having one rabbi respond to my speaking Yiddish (not to him) with resentment and fury (although there was one from New Square who heard me speaking Yiddish and he smiled and said, “so that’s what they teach you at college!” Oh, that was one time when I came back, not in the early 2000’s when I was actually in the school)
  • African-Americans, Afro-Caribbean peoples, and Africans in general.

Because of the prevalence of liturgical Hebrew as well as the fact that knowledge of the French language (and Latin) was highly prized there, my school wasn’t a monoglot environment.

It is very possible to have knowledge of multiple languages, even living languages, and still be closed off and, in a way, close-minded and fearful.

Later on in life, having my eyes opened by my experience at Wesleyan University, I began learning Polish (months before I knew that I was actually going to be spending my first year outside of college in Krakow).

I did it for several reasons. For one, I had heard stories about Poland being backward and anti-Semitic (it’s no different than the United States in many regards, and I doubt many Polish people would disagree). I also wanted to discover many pieces of my heritage and realize that I could use the opportunity to be a peace-maker of sorts (which I have, since then, definitely become).

I gave up on Polish several times, last year I came back to it although I don’t really think I’d call myself fluent…yet…and I haven’t been giving it my full effort, to be honest…

In more recent times, I only hear Hungary being spoken about in the context of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, and as a result I embarked on a long-overdue quest to discover the many faces of contemporary Hungary as well as its fascinating history that my ancestors were a part of.

The Hungarians that I have spoken to since I began my journey earlier this year feel like long-lost relatives to me, and I even get to see my father’s side of the family in a whole new light. (Note: I’m not really that good at Hungarian yet, if you have any music recommendations in the language, PLEASE let me know so I can get addicted!)

Throughout the world I’ve seen cultures misimagined, viewed with distrust, or otherwise dismissed. Israel. The Scandinavian Countries. Papua New Guinea. Pretty much all of Africa and all of the Pacific Islands. Greenland.

And I haven’t even mentioned anything about Muslim-majority countries in general (Tajik and Mossi / Mòoré have been the two languages from such countries that I have focused on the most, even though I’ve read some things saying that Burkina Faso is actually majority Animist!)

What did I do?

I realized that I could be the healer.

I realized I could step in that I could introduce people to these cultures.

I realized I could be the bridge, the peacemaker, and turn people away from their prejudices.

I realized that, whatever little prejudice I have in my, I could uproot.

I could encourage people to study their family histories and learn the languages of their ancestors.

I could encourage people to learn more about cultures that their family or the TV or the media has taught them to be afraid of.

That’s how you learn languages to become more open-minded.

And you can even pick global languages like Spanish and French and use them as an opportunity for healing and discovery! (I remember Olly Richards having written a post on why Donald Trump should learn Spanish. Given what’s sadly happened since he wrote that [before the November 2016 election], it would seem that the family should probably invest in many more languages as well…)

I wonder how many people would live boring lives of wishing they were more and quiet lives of conformity, knowing that in 2017 and beyond, the whole world and knowledge of everything in it could be theirs…

Go get ‘em!

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The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

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They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

DSC00096 (2)

Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

2015-07-06 11.22.31

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!