Language links at Christmas

It is the first Friday of December, which means the first language post of the Christmas season, and what better way to start moving through the advent calendar than this superb version of “God Bless Us Everyone“, popularised by a “Christmas Carol” (the 2009 Carrey version)?

I have written many times before that the best way to learn languages is through music. The linked version is a particularly good example because, of course, those of us who have seen the animated film (probably several times each Christmas if my household is remotely typical) will be familiar with the song and the lyrics. Putting those lyrics into another language, ideally the original, means that we have a head start because we know roughly what they say already (although the demands of rhyme and meter do not allow for word-for-word translations, so there is still some challenge).

So it is with the magic of “Silent Night” (original German “Stille Nacht“), “O Holy Night” (original French “Cantique de Noël“) or even “Feliz Navidad“. Learning the linked original gives us a chance of understanding, while also picking up the rhythms of the language as we go along – without, really, much effort.

The other main trick to language learning, of course, is to recognise the links between languages. In the linked version of Bocelli’s performance, the lyrics are provided subtitled in both Italian and Portuguese. Both of these languages are derived from Latin and, although both are closer to Spanish than to each other, it is not difficult to see how closely linked they remain.

It is not just the links between them we pick up in this way, but also the distinct flavour of each language. Why not look at some examples?

  • Italian notte “night”, Portuguese noite (Spanish noche) derive from the Latin nox-noctem (generally nouns in modern languages of Latin origin derive from the object form, not the subject – noctem in this case) but none retains the awkward ‘c’ before ‘t’, merging it in slightly different ways (and even the Classical Romans did not pronounce the final ‘m’ except in very careful speech, so it is long lost in all derived languages);
  • that is just one of the majority of the words in the lyrics which are obviously cognate in both languages (a few are identical, e.g. sempre “always”; some are distinguished only by orthography, e.g. Italian che “that, which” versus Portuguese/Spanish que, armonia “harmony” versus harmonia, or iniziare “to beginversus iniciar; some are only a matter of an additional syllable or minor change, e.g. Italian qui “here” versus Portuguese/Spanish aquí; others still have markedly different spellings marking only minor differences in pronunciation, e.g. Italian Dio “God” is apparent in the written Spanish Dios but slightly less so in written Portuguese Deus);
  • Italian retains ogni “all, each” from Latin omnes “all”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) uses cada from later Latin cata “by”; all three also have a word for “all” derived from Latin totus (tutto, tudo/todo and todo respectively; cf. English “total”);
  • Italian cuore “heart” derives directly from Latin cor, whereas Portuguese coração (and Spanish corazón) derive from the later expanded Latin version coratio (also the derivation of “courage”);
  • Italian esultare “to rejoice” in this case shows Italian modifying and awkward combination (note also the coffee is “espresso” not *”expresso”!) where Portuguese (and Spanish) retain the original exultar;
  • Italian (also Spanish) libero “free” has become livre in Portuguese; this is a fairly standard switch (cf. Italian possibile, Spanish possible but Portuguese possível);
  • Italian male “evil” (as well as Natale “Christmas” with which it rhymes) shows the straightforward Italian preference (near requirement) for words to end in vowels (which makes it such a fantastic language for music), where Portuguese and Spanish are quite happy with mal – we see this again with Signore “Lord” versus Senhor (Spanish señor) in the next line and with grammatical endings such as amare “to love” versus amar (also apparent in the noun amore “love” versus amor);
  • Italian guidare “to guide” is again more conservative, identical to the Latin, where Portuguese (and Spanish) have both removed the medial ‘d’ to become guiar – this loss is more common in Portuguese than in Spanish, and occurs again later in the lyrics where Italian padri, madri “fathers, mothers” becomes Portuguese pais, mães (but the ‘d’ is maintained in Spanish padres, madres).
  • Italian ascoltare “to listen” is similar to Spanish escoltar but Portuguese prefers ouvir (more typically translated as “to hear”) in this case;
  • Italian aiutare “to help” shows the standard voicing of medial ‘t’ to medial ‘d’ versus Portuguese ajudar (Spanish ayudar) – shown immediately again in lodato “praised” versus louvado;
  • Italian miracolo “miracle” also shows a standard distinction from ‘r’ to ‘l’ and again voicing from ‘c’ to ‘g’, thus Portuguese milagre (Spanish milagro).
  • The Italian object pronoun ci is a development of Latin hic “this/here” and is thus markedly different from all other Latin-derived languages including Portuguese (and Spanish) with nos “us.
  • Italian preghiere derives directly from Latin  precor “pray”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) have rezar from Latin recitare “recite”;
  • The ending on the Italian carità “charity” from Latin caritas-caritatem becomes by standard derivation (noting again the above devoicing from ‘t’ to ‘d’) caridade in Portuguese (caridad in Spanish) – this also applies in the very first line to Italian felicità “happiness” from Latin felicitas (versus Portuguese felicidade and Spanish felicidad);
  • Italian infondere “to instill” is from Latin infundere but the chosen Portuguese translation incutir derives from incutio (which is perhaps closer to “inspire” in a general sense);
  • Italian sono, in this case “(they) are”, shows how unstable the verb “to be” is – though it is not apparent, it does derive from the same origin ultimately as Portuguese estão (Spanish would have son like Italian here, but also has estan like Portuguese in some contexts);
  • Italian has cercare “to search” and (ri)trovare “find (again), retrieve” distinctly from Portuguese (and Spanish) buscar and (r)encontrar, but ultimately three are derived from Latin (circare “to look around”; tropus a way of singing; incontrare “to encounter, meet”) and one (buscar) is of unknown origin – the choice between them is one of usage through the ages;
  • Italian quello “that” does have a Portuguese cognate aquele, as the Portuguese este “this” does have an Italian cognate questo (it just so happens that the different one was chosen in the translation to reflect modern usage);
  • Italian vincere “to win” by regular differentiation has become Portuguese (and Spanish) vencer – above, this also applied to Signore versus Senhor, and it even applies to distinctions such as di “of, from” versus de;
  • Italian benedicere “bless” derives more directly from bene “well” plus dicere “say” (which are both still the contemporary forms) than the Portuguese abençoar which derives from older ben plus diçoar (modern bem and dizer); and
  • we also see throughout that Italian has maintained the formation of the plural by changing vowel (typically -o to –i, –a to –e or -e to -i) whereas Spanish and Portuguese typically add -(e)s.

So what have we learned just from this short section?

  • as with any pairs of Latin-derived languages, a lot of words (e.g. sempre or armonia/harmonia) are absolutely identical or at least essentially the same (there are many more, e.g. casa “house”, costa “coast” or verde “green”);
  • voiceless consonants before vowels are often voiced in Portuguese (e.g. aiutare/ajudar), so we may reasonably guess that Italian sete “thirst” will be Portuguese sede or fuoco “fire” will be fogo;
  • voiced consonants between vowels can be lost completely in Portuguese (as in fact can others such as ‘l’; Italian salute “health” versus Portuguese saude);
  • Italian retains higher vowels (e.g. vincere versus vencer; also in “in” versus em, diciembre “December” versus dezembro);
  • in some cases Italian retains an older syllable (e.g. settimana “week” versus Portuguese/Spanish semana) or even just a more directly Latinate word (e.g. domandare “to ask” versus Portuguese perguntar);
  • endings can be predictable (just as Italian felicità “happiness” is Portuguese felicidade, so qualità “quality” is qualidade; likewise possibile “possible” versus possível and mobile “mobile” versus móvel; and there are others – if attenzione “attention” is atenção, we may guess that nazione “nation” is nação); and
  • the basic structure in terms of verb conjugations, positioning of pronouns, basic word order and so on is similar in each language, with notable exceptions (such as plural formation).

Remember, we got all this ultimately from the lyrics of one short, very memorable song!!

This is the fun and effective way to learn languages – through obvious linkages based on memorable music.

Now, where is that Advent Calendar…?




2 thoughts on “Language links at Christmas

  1. […] from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar […]

  2. […] I had shown words the development of words such as veritate, which developed to Portuguese verdade ‘truth’ (see also here); […]

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