Comparisons amongst languages

I wanted to respond to Terry’s post:
“I already have other language versions in the works – Spanish first. They should be published within a month. The issue is that things cannot just be “translated” — you have to consider what makes each individual language easy. For example, in the Spanish one, I’m deliberately skating around the subjunctive. (Yes, I realize it can be **made** comprehensible, but I want to avoid that need as much as possible. The same expressions are easy in Chinese. It’s really quite interesting once you start to think about it a lot.)”

I realized that my response covered some of what I wanted to say for my Personal Language Learning category.

So, a bit of background first. Over many years I have studied to one degree or another a large number of languages. I hope that, since I am addressing fl educators, I don’t need to insert the caveat that “study” does not equal “become proficient in”. On my retirement, I looked over the array of languages and decided I needed to do two things: decide which languages to concentrate on and to decide what my goal for my study was. Due to my interest in Indo-European languages and the history of the countries where they are spoken, I have only one language not in that sphere: Kweyol aka Haitian Creole. The only Eastern language is Urdu, still an I-E language. Among the languages, I certainly wanted to continue with ones I already had a good start in, i.e. those whose texts I could read without great difficulty. Those are Spanish, Latin, French, and Russian. Urdu is coming along but I still read mainly texts for learners. Next is Kweyol, which is fairly comprehensible due to the French origin of much of its vocabulary despite its totally alien grammar, which is what puts it in the non-I-E category. The languages I have only a toe-hold in are Dutch, Norwegian, and Greek. One more: Italian, which I thought would be in the latter category but turns out to be at least as comprehensible to me as French; I just don’t have a grip on the paradigms the way I do for French (pronouns, verbs, articles, and so on).
As to the way I was going to study these languages, I wanted to place acquisition first although I leave plenty of room for grammar study, the history of the language, the cultures the language bears, etc. But in order to acquire the language, I needed a lot of input. Most of that would come from reading, although Spanish is readily available (I was in a great book club for a long time) and I have an Urdu-speaking friend I meet with weekly. I wish I could do the same for Russian and French, maybe Italian. When my Greek gets up to snuff, I’m going to go to the large Greek Orthodox church near here and see if some shut-ins or other Greek speakers might be happy to talk with me. The same for Kweyol – a surprising number of speakers in this area (Phoenix, AZ). I do know a Dutch speaker, the husband of one of my wife’s friends, but he’s probably not interested. Norwegian? Zero.
So I focus on reading. Now, here’s where my response to Terry’s post comes in. I track vocabulary in various ways and in the process find it delightful to see how languages handle features like the subjunctive. As Terry states, some languages require a shift in inflection for this mood, others, like Russian, do not. (Latin and the Romance languages all do as does Urdu; Dutch and Norwegian have the subjunctive mainly in frozen expressions. Contrary to what many think, the English subjunctive is alive and, if not vigorous, is at least present, e.g. “I don’t think that it’s top priority for Bannon that Trump win.” (- Ben Shapiro on The Last Word, MSNBC); the indicative would have been “wins”, itself acceptable but this example just shows that the subjunctive is not moribund.
In the process of tracking vocabulary, comparisons forcibly suggest themselves. Some are cultural, as the word for a courtyard; some are conceptual, as are words for family; some are hierarchical, as are words for give or come or enter or name; some are slippery, like words for honor and respect; and some require a lot of context, like swear words – Ay dios in Spanish, when used literally among many Americans – oh, God – gets your mouth washed out with soap. So what is the equivalent for Your Honor used to a judge? And so on. Lots and lots of fun for word nuts.
Then there’s the grammar that affects and effects the vocabulary e.g. the causative in Urdu where it creates a word for “tell” is the causative of “hear” i.e. cause to hear. In both Spanish and Urdu the future tense is used in the sense of probability, cf. English on hearing a car in the driveway: “That’ll be Dad.” The past perfect in Urdu is used as a narrative past, a use found in the Black dialect of East Palo Alto, CA but the present progressive in Urdu cannot be used as a future of planned action as it can in English, “I’m flying out tomorrow.” And so on, ad infinitum.
I enjoy making lists (I just learned that is a calming device and Boy, do I need that) and vocabulary lists are perfect b/c you can compare your lists to those in textbooks or on-line (many on-line word frequency lists are made up from movie subtitles). Many major languages have more scientifically formulated frequency lists. One more category of vocabulary I love is what I call Advanced – not really advanced so much as peculiar, e.g. pothole, werewolf, tree hollow, button hold, watering can, threshold, and other weird things. I remember my thrill in hearing a Cajun song and recognizing the word loup-garou.
So I’ll end here and welcome comments, suggestions, queries, etc. but now I’m off to find out how to say werewolf in Urdu (weretiger? werecobra? One of my favorite horror movies as a kid was about a woman who could transform herself into a cobra. I think that’s a universal, a deep cultural artifact given that the English cognate for Latin vir = man is this compound formative were-)

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