Category Archives: Language

Language Acquisition

Auntie Kerensa is very proud of her twin niece and nephew, Northern Star and Big Lad. As regular readers will know, the children are almost entirely bi-lingual as they have a Danish mother and an English father.  As they are only 10 years old (the twins, not their parents), they are still learning both languages. I find the whole process quite fascinating.

In Denmark, children go to school and start the formal learning process a lot later than in England (at about age 7 rather than 4 or 5 as in the UK) and yet they seem to whizz along and be almost at the same stage as their English counterparts within a much shorter space of time.

For example, their English cousin, Bex, who is only 6 months older, was once reading them a bedtime story when they were all 7 years old. She felt very grown up and important as the twins had not yet started to learn to read. She read the words very fluently and we all enjoyed listening. [As an aside: She came to a word she didn’t recognise and said “Mum, what’s this word?” Before Mum could move, Big Lad said “scissors”. Our eyes popped out of our heads – until we realised that he had heard the story several times and knew what was coming next!]

Now, three years later, the twins are able to read and write almost as fluently in Danish and English as Bex does in just English – which I find amazing as they haven’t had any formal training in English – and given that our spelling is not exactly straightforward, this is quite an achievement.

However, their English is not yet quite perfect as I discovered when I sent a text message to Northern Star the other day.  I told her that the weather was quite mild. What was it like in Denmark? She replied:

“Its sunning in denmark love me xxx”

She had taken the form “it’s raining, it’s snowing” and applied it to the sun. Logical, really. I think I’m going to use this from now on.

And just in case you’re interested: it’s sunning in the Ancient Roman City this afternoon – although it’s clouding over a bit now.

Pennsylvania Dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch is the language spoken by the Amish communities in the US. The Dutch bit of the name is not Dutch at all but a corruption of the word “Deutsch” (German). This community left Europe (mainly Germany and Switzerland) in the 1700s to escape religious  persecution. They live their lives pretty much the same as they always did as they do not allow modern innovations to intrude on their lifestyles. And their language has not been modernised either; it sounds like German but it has not developed in the same way as modern German.

I watched a BBC programme entitled  “Trouble in Amish Paradise” last night – if you’re interested it is still available on iPlayer.

The lifestyle, although hard work and somewhat old fashioned, seems very attractive in some ways. The Amish demonstrate an exemplary way of living in community – families go to enormous lengths to support other families when the latter face difficulties such as sickness, financial problems and so on.

The documentary focused on two men, Ephraim and Jesse, two very humble men, both of whom were having difficulty in accepting the Amish bishops’ rules unquestioningly. These bishops are the leaders and effectively the guardians of Amish culture. Ephraim and Jesse had discovered for themselves that the Bible does not lay down the incredibly strict rules that the Amish live by; these are man made.

Why had the men only just discovered this?  The Amish still use the German version of the Bible which was brought over from Europe 300 years ago.  This written form of German is not the same as their current spoken form – and many Amish do not understand it all. And many now speak English as fluently as they speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Ephraim and Jesse had started to read the Bible in modern English and had been astonished by the lack of rules. (Their rules range from how wide your hat band can be, the way you should wear your braces, to the colour you can paint your buggy and how you may not make it to heaven if you break any of these, and many other, rules).

In wanting to study the Bible and have prayer meetings, they were considered to be going too far beyond the Amish way of doing things and so were under threat of excommunication. This is a serious situation because it is not just a case of being obliged to leave their particular church but being obliged to live outside their entire culture and everything they have ever known. [The point of excommunication was not entirely clear to me: Jesse for example was excommunicated but still attended church meetings. I would have thought that he had been banned from church – but perhaps I misunderstood that bit – or the editing went a bit wonky at that point!]

The programme makers did not point out the irony of this situation. I could not help but be struck by the fact that this community of believers had no doubt been in conflict with the Catholic church three hundred years ago. They would have been influenced by the protestant reformers of the time, Calvin, Luther et al. who were determined to translate the Bible from Latin into the vernacular to allow people to understand the Word of God and the services.  Three hundred years later, the wheel has turned a full cycle. The Amish elders seem to be paranoid about allowing their congregations to use a translation that they will understand and seem to want to maintain their control of the people.

The world is a big scary place – with all sorts of temptations and problems. But it is not the elders’ responsibility to sort all these things out. I would suggest that is their responsibility to equip their congregations with the wisdom and knowledge of how to face these challenges in a language they understand and to trust in God.

John 8:31 “If you obey my teaching,” [Jesus] said, “you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth. And the truth will set you free.”

I take my hat off (band width unknown) to Ephraim and Jesse for having the courage of their convictions and for seeking out the truth for themselves.  Be of good heart!

Counting down the words

Jack the Lass and Farli have been comparing notes on how to rack up the number of words required for their essays (writing chapter headings and bibliographies first seems to have the required psychological effect for getting over the terror of facing a blank page).

I am currently ploughing my way through a 2,000-word powerpoint presentation – which is mind-bendingly dull. In the absence of chapter headings and bibliographies, I have written the numbers of the slides down on a sheet of paper and each time I finish one it gets crossed off. Of the 46 I have crossed off 22 – so nearly half way through – which is good on the one hand – but not so good on the other as time is running out. It all has to be back with the client by lunchtime tomorrow and I’m currently doing about 3 slides an hour. It’s going to be a late night. It’d be alright if I had anything like a clue about what they are talking about. Something about fire protection measures, ignition points and combustion trials. Just up my Straße.

As an aside to the person who found me by googling “Translate Good Morning Mr Chambers in Indian”: Indian as a language does not exist. The official language of India is Hindi but there are other official languages depending on which State you (or Mr Chambers) are (is) in. Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujerati, etc. Hope this helps.

‘Scuse my French

Jack the ‘Bedside Manner’ Lass commented on my post about mein Mittelfinger that I am one of the least sweary people she knows. I find this quite amusing as I think I use some colourful language relatively often – and certainly more often than seems to be the norm in the church circles I move in.

I must assure my more refined and gentle readers that I do not go out of my way to swear and try to restrict my swearing vocabulary to the milder words. In the Mittelfinger episode, the swearing Richter scale was hitting a good 9/10 which is why I couldn’t understand why Maggie thought I wasn’t being forceful enough.

Swearing is an interesting subject as the likelihood of offending people is pretty high. And swearing in a foreign language is particularly tricky. Years ago, when I first met the Great Dane, he was helping with the church’s annual summer project for four weeks. (You will remember that the GD speaks near-perfect English – almost like a native.) One week of the four involved running a Kids’ Club. He was telling me all about a group of teenagers he was working with. At the end of their day, they’d had a bit of a discussion about something or other and he told them they’d better f*** off. My eyebrows shot up my forehead and my chin hit the floor.
Me: You said WHAT to them?
GD: I told them to f*** off.
Me: Er – do you know what that means?
GD: Yeah. It means to go away.
Me: Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, it does. Where did you learn it?
GD: From the subtitles on the films we get in Denmark.

I felt obliged to explain the finer points to him. In the circs, he agreed that the church youth club was perhaps not an appropriate venue for using this particular phrase.
Ever since then I’ve wondered if strong language in films is downgraded. As I can’t believe that Danish does not have an equivalent phrase, I imagine the language may be modified to allow the parental guidance ratings to be lower if there is less likelihood of children being corrupted.

There also seems to be an innate understanding of the nuances within swearing. There are phrases which when said amongst friends with a smile and friendly wink might be considered to be a matey bonding sort of statement. When said in different circumstances with different body language the same phrase could be interpreted as hugely offensive.

Some people like to learn a few swear words when the first learn a new language. There is nothing wrong with that in my view – it’s all part of the whole experience. But using them in the right context is a completely different matter and best to be avoided.

I had a French colleague at my last place of work who went to meet her English boyfriend’s parents for the first time. She was chatting happily with his mother when the mother said “Oh, and why didn’t you do that?” Corinne said “Because I couldn’t be arsed”. The mother’s face was a little shocked but she said nothing and Corinne wondered what the matter was. Later, her boyfriend said she should perhaps have said she couldn’t be bothered. It turned out that Corinne thought that the phrase was “I couldn’t be asked”* – and she thought it meant that ‘you shouldn’t bother asking her to do [whatever] because she wasn’t going to comply’. This example is pretty mild (in my view) and it didn’t entirely wreck her relationship with the boyfriend’s mother as she is now the mother-in-law but it goes some way to illustrating the minefield that swearing can be.

Translations of swear words are not always reliable for although they may be accurate on a word-for-word basis, they do not always translate the power or force or offensive nature.

Just yesterday, I was browsing in a bookshop when I came across a dictionary of German slang. I have various books on idioms, phrases, and colloquialisms so I wondered if it would be duplicating books I already possess. I picked it up and looked at it. It was an eye-opener. There before me were words which I would not use in polite society with their translations – and examples of alleged appropriate usage. Gentle reader, I bought it. Purely for research purposes, you understand.

* Southern English accents pronounce “ask” as “arsk”.

It’s been all go

while I’ve been “away” from the blog over the past week.

My visitor stats show that my US visitors have just nosed ahead of my visitors from Oz at 77 visits over 76. I don’t know if this is Rain and Ian in competition with each other (thank you both for visiting today – even though I hadn’t written anything for over a week 🙂 )- or whether more residents of those countries pop by to see what’s going on in the Old Country. I have had my first visitor – or even visitors – from Germany (a grand total of 2 – is this one person who has visited twice, or two separate individuals who have stumbled upon my witterings?) Herzlich Willkommen!

Someone also tipped up in a fruitless search for a translation of the Danish phrase “sitting between two chairs”. This sounds to me as if it has been translated from a foreign language into English (a little literally) and now the original language is required again. (This is known as a “back translation” and I am booked to do one next Tuesday for a psychological test for a human resources department….). I think the phrase my visitor really wanted was “falling between two stools”. I did a quick bit of research and found this phrase on the internet (disclaimer: no responsibility taken for inaccuracy. I have only consulted one source – and I still haven’t got round to looking at Chapter 4 of Teach Yourself Danish..) in case the searcher is still looking: sætte sig mellem to stole – which looks to me as if it literally says “to seat oneself between two chairs”. Perhaps it will be useful – perhaps it’s utter rubbish.

Which reminds me of a slogan I was asked to comment on this week. I suspect from the way my client phrased her email that the person who had translated the text was not a native speaker of English as she asked for “your native speaker input”. Of course, as usual, I wasn’t given any context or the original text. It read along the lines of: “over the hill and aged to perfection”. You don’t have to be a translator to realise that these two phrases are opposites of one another – the first somewhat pejorative and the second a compliment. In my reply to my client, I had to cover myself from all angles as I didn’t know what the end client was trying to sell – or even convey. It could be what they want to say for all I know but I doubted it. My client agreed with me having read my reply – with examples – on the subject.

There is a bit of a harumphy PS to this story: my client asked me to comment on the proposed slogan for no payment. As I have already pointed out, you don’t have to have special qualifications to see that this particular slogan doesn’t work. So you could argue that anyone could do the job and therefore it is not really worth much in monetary terms. On the other hand, you could argue that by giving the client my full and considered professional response (having broken off from another job to do so), I have saved her client a whole shed load of money – not to
mention face – by not committing a ghastly faux pas in blitzing a totally inappropriate slogan around the world. Ought to be worth a bob or two, no? Harumph.

So, what has kept me away from the Wonderful World of Wibble? All will be revealed in another post. Stand by your beds!

Displacement activity

I am supposed to be translating some press releases but I really cannot dredge up the energy to be sufficiently enthusiastic right now.

A recent visitor stumbled across this blog in a quest to discover the Norwegian for “my pencil is blue”. I have no idea why my blog was listed in the available hits. Just in case you are still desperate to know, the answer is now available. Lots of disclaimers – I have never looked at Norwegian before but I believe the following will be of some use:

min blyant er blå

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I suppose I really ought to get back to extolling the virtues of “mean machines” and the fascinating level of detail that has been lavished upon them.

Thugamar fin an samhradh linn

I have just returned from a Folk Evening which a German acquaintance of mine invited me to. I loved it. There were so many songs from different traditions, Country and Western, Scottish, English, Australian, recitations and instrumental pieces. (Someone also sang a Kate Rusby song – info for Jack the Lass.) The barmaid, an Irish colleen, taught us to sing the refrain in the title of this post. It means “We brought the summer with us” – a reminder that there might be an end soon to the downpours we have been experiencing this week. (One end of the village high street was under a foot of water a few days ago – that’s 30cm to you metric types).

One man introduced his song by saying “Here is a song you haven’t heard before; it’s a song I haven’t heard before either. I’ve only just made it up and the tune is still developing.” He sang a wonderfully witty piece about a page – number 177 – in a remaindered scientific book. I wish I could tell you all of it but sadly can only remember snatches.

My acquaintance fancies contributing a German folksong on another occasion but needs some moral and musical support. I have a feeling I might be roped in…..

Spitting it out

Yesterday, I mentioned the difficulty of articulating unfamiliar sounds in Russian. It seems that I am not the only one in the choir finding this a challenge. I overheard some fellow singers discussing the problem in the ladies’ loo after our rehearsal the other day. (I mention the location, gentle reader, not because I feel it adds anything much to what I am about to relate, but merely because I want you to understand that I do not, as a general rule, eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. In this particular case, I was, as you might realise, something of a – ahem – captive audience.)

Singing lady 1: I’m quite enjoying this music.
Singing lady 2: Yes, it’s already grown on me, too.
Singing lady 1: It’s going to be difficult to get the words right, though.
Singing lady 2: I know, the pronounciation is really difficult.

Displaying unbelievable external self-control, Kerensa restrained herself from commenting. I cannot tell you, gentle reader, why the English language has: pronounce, pronouncing, pronouncement but proNUNciation. It may be easily explained; on the other hand, it may be one of those great mysteries in life. The fact is that when it is mispronounced the effect on me is like the sound of chalk screeching down a blackboard or the winking eye effect one experiences when sucking lemons.

I remember being absolutely horrified once when a colleague, with a brain like a planet, who translated a mere nine languages, once mispronounced “pronunciation”. I nearly suffered a cardiac arrest, on the realisation that he, the man known as the Meisterübersetzer, could make such a mistake! I pointed it out to him as humbly as I could. His reaction initially was a breezy “Oh, it must be one of those words with two pronounciations” [More electric bolts through my delicate bod]. Upon checking it in the dictionary, I heard him say “Oh. Haaarm. Aaaah.” He never mispronounced it [within my hearing anyway] again.

And now I’ve got that off my chest, I think I’ll go for a little rest. I’m feeling quite weak.

Ochen priyatno

Gentle readers interested in the Russian language will not need reminding that the above phrase is the equivalent to “nice to meet you” in English.

This is pretty much the extent of my Russian and happens to be the title of my beginners’ textbook. When I first graduated, back when Shakespeare was a lad, I decided I would be lost without filling my spare time with language study, so enthusiastically signed up for Improvers’ Spanish and Beginners’ Russian.

I used to sit in my room voicing out loud the new vocabulary in Russian in an attempt to read the Cyrillic alphabet. My flatmates would sit sniggering outside my door as they listened to me slowly spelling out “L-e-n-i-n-g-r-a-d”, “S-p-u-t-n-i-k”, N-o-v-o-s-i-b-i-r-i-s-k” and “D-o-s-t-o-y-e-v-s-k-i”.

These language courses both took place twice a week. In my enthusiasm, I had not thought through the implications of being in classes four consecutive evenings a week which left next to no time to do any homework as I was employed full time. I managed to stagger through a term of increasing incompetence before abandoning both languages.

But, gentle readers, it was not time entirely wasted for I still remember a curious fact in Russian. The word for train station is “voksal” which is apparently a Russianisation of the English “Vauxhall” – an area of South London. The story goes that a group of Russian officials visited Vauxhall and its newly opened railway station in the 1830s. They thought that the word Vauxhall meant station – and took this new knowledge back home with them. I don’t know if this is true – but our teacher who was Russian told us the story, so it seems to be part of popular folklore, at least.

This term at choir we have a new conductor. After a year of performing Requiems (Duruflé’s last March, Mozart’s in June, Brahms’ German Requiem in July and Verdi’s in December), the choir is quite pleased to be exploring new avenues. We are working on Russian Choral Masterpieces by various composers, and John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos and his Song for Athene. Appropriately, although I think entirely coincidentally, we will be performing these pieces in the Abbey on Russian Orthodox Easter Eve – 26 April. (Ian will be able to confirm/put me right). The Russian pieces have had their texts transliterated for English speakers so we do not have to read the Cyrillic alphabet – but still have to twist our tongues round unfamiliar sounds – one being “schch” which is apparently pronounced the same as the last sound of “fresh” and the first of “cheese” – together – in the space of a semi-quaver.

What is the Russian for “Tchaikovsky, have mercy on me, a humble singer”?

Ashes and diamonds

This is the title of a Polish film I went to see recently (Popiól i diament). It was made in 1958 and was billed as being a “multi-award winning film which signalled the renaissance of Polish cinema…and remains to this day one of the finest achievements of Eastern European cinema….with Zbigniew Cybulski imparting a unique sensibility, a youthful frustration which reflects Poland’s turbulent history, as a result of which he was often described as the ‘Polish James Dean.’ ”

I didn’t really work out how the title related to the plot – and come to that – I didn’t really work out the plot either. It was either incredibly complex and I missed most of the intrigue or incredibly simple and I was waiting in vain for it to become deeper.

As my Polish extends to “good day”, “thank you” “yes” and “no”, I was obliged to read the subtitles. Frankly, these did nothing to enhance the enjoyment of the film as the standard was completely erratic. Some were wonderfully colloquial and correct, some were very stilted and clearly translated by a non-native speaker but conveyed the general message and others were simply bizarre – a complete tangle of inappropriate words and phrases.

All in all, rather frustrating. I can’t decide whether or not to see it again. On the one hand, I want to get to the bottom of why it is considered to be so wonderful – on the other hand, I don’t feel I can afford another 103 minutes of my life pursuing the issue. Diamonds – yes, Cybulski is/was a handsome fellow and I should feel grateful I wasn’t forced to watch some ugly bod for that length of time – but Ashes – definitely. It was grey, boring and burnt out – as was my brain when I left the cinema.