Category Archives: Language

That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!

Who is hoping for Esperanto

Cxu vi parolas Esperanton?” he asked.
Iomete” I responded, startled that someone had actually asked me that.

We were outside a conference in Chisinau, Moldova; he was Romanian. He did not speak my language, I did not speak his, yet we mustered a conversation about linguistic minorities. What was going on?

My last two language blogs have both focused on Ulster Scots, and specifically on some people’s desire to use government money to provide translations in a language which is in fact made up. I have noted that this is a gross inefficiency and total nonsense, because there is a real Ulster Scots in which it is possible to write formally (as I demonstrated by writing both pieces in formal Ulster Scots). I noted also that, for all that, if you are developing a language which has fallen largely out of use, the very formal end is the wrong end to start.

The other thing, of course, is that not only does real Ulster Scots exist, but so do real made-up languages. However, they are usually “made up” in a consistent and logical way. Some have a specific dramatic purpose – Klingon was made up, for example, and even contains irregularities for realism. Others have been deliberately designed to be regular and easy to pick up (much unlike the garbage put out too often under the heading “Ulster Scots”), the most famous of which is Esperanto.

L.L. Zamenhof, topically perhaps, grew up in the mid-19th century in a town which was then within the Russian Empire but which is now in Poland, and where the contemporary dialect was in fact a version specifically of Belorussian. Himself a Jew, he in fact probably spoke Yiddish (closely related to dialects of Western Germany) natively, and married a Lithuanian. This mix of languages (his father also taught French and German) seemed to him to cause confusion and confrontation, and so as a young man he created a wholly new language, with a vocabulary predominantly of Latinate, Germanic and Slavic origin, to be used as everyone’s second language. He did so under the pseudonym “Dr Hoping” or, in his new language, “Doktoro Esperanto”, and so the story (and the name) began.

The language he designed had just 16 “rules”. He had begun in 1878, entered into widespread correspondence and thus changed his language to something very close to the current one by 1887, attempted a reform based on further correspondence in 1894 which was almost universally rejected by supporters, and then laid out the “16 rules” of the new language in the “Fundamento de Esperanto” of 1905.

Zamenhof was a remarkable innovator. He did many of the simple things well – ensuring that all parts of speech and all tenses were formed entirely regularly, for example. He also did some complex things well, developing an elaborate system of affixation from which new words with immediately understandable meanings can be derived (for example sana ‘health’ goes to malsana ‘ill-health’ to malsanema ‘prone to ill-health, sickly’ to malsanujo ‘sick person’ to malsanulejo ‘hospital’ in the same way that bela ‘beautiful’ goes to malbela ‘ugly’, batalo ‘battle, war’ goes to batalema ‘bellicose’ and lerni goes to lernejo ‘school’). He did introduce some tricky but arguably simplifying measures such as the 45 “correlatives” (translating words such as ‘how’, ‘hence’, ‘what kind of’, ‘in this way’); and some quirks such as an accusative case used even with adverbs and what is, in effect, a subjunctive mood.

From 1905, however, Esperanto developed in very much the same way as any other language. There were battles over usage (particularly around participle tenses and neologisms, i.e. new words entering the language). There was even a split, as 10-20% of speakers left on 1907 to speak a reformed version called Ido (meaning “derived from”), which removed some awkward sounding letters and some of the quirks, but also became slightly less predictable. Some innovations have crept in – new affixes or even derivations from affixes, and the ability to convert adjectives directly into verbs (e.g. vi belas “you are beautiful”).

Zamenhof’s own destiny, having designed a language as a vehicle for world peace, was to receive a cruel lesson from human nature. He himself died with the world at war, in 1917, and yet even worse was to follow – all three of his children perished in the Holocaust a generation later. Sadly, there is rather more to peace than communicating in the same language, as we know in this part of the world.

Therefore, the goal of the so-called pracelistoj (roughly “original goal people”) has not been achieved and never will be – in any case, English fulfils most of the role they were proposing for Esperanto globally, despite their rational claims that this gives the English-speaking world an unfair advantage. However, Esperanto retains a sizeable speech community, as many now in East Asia than in Europe, and given its “origins” in a mix of the three main Indo-European branches (spoken by more than half the world’s population), it does offer on account of its regularity a potential bridge into language learning – not least for a Chinese person wishing to learn an Indo-European language or indeed, say, for a Spaniard (Latinate) wanting to learn Russian (Slavic). Some primary schools in England are even trialling its use as a first “foreign language” because children find they can communicate in it so quickly that they are then inclined to continue language learning rather than deem it “too difficult”.

There are qualifications and diplomas available which can be attained quickly given the language’s regularity and predictability. I got mine in 2004, but to my shame have not kept it up – mi estas malfelicxe eksesperantisto; mi estis gxin plejparte forgesinta. It is a pity. It was later in 2004 that I went to Chisinau. I would not now be able to have a conversation with a random Romanian outside a random conference in a random venue in Moldova. Yet it was a remarkable thing that the conversation took place – Esperanto may not have achieved its “pracelon“, but it has certainly achieved something.

A guid naem is suiner tint nor wun

Gan on frae ma screed seiven dey syne, a wheen fowk his cam bak speiran at me, whit wad we fash oursels wi the Ulster Scots for ava. Hit is a guid quaisten.

A canna gie a repoen tae it, an no first shawan at the linguistic oncum on Ulster Scots haes nocht a-dae wi the linguistic oncum o the Airis leid. The baith o thaim is claucht thegaither frae the 1998 Greeance, at caad for lyk respect for Ulster Scots an the Airis leid. This is nae fash tae me, but hit isna meanan the baith bes needan the ae thing.

The oncum o Ulster Scots (tak tent: “the variant of the Scots language spoken in parts of Northern Ireland and County Donegal“) maun be sindert frae the oncum o the Airis leid for thrie heid reasons:
– Scots is a mukkil nearer the admeinistrative leid (Inglis);
– thaim as taaks (Ulster) Scots deyandeilie disna forordinar pit it at the founds o thair national identitie; an
– Scots haes nae tradeition, athin the 400 year bygaun, o uiss in the admeinistration.
Thir thrie pynts is claucht tae ilkaither.

First aff, thaim as taaks Ulster Scots forordinar haes nae fash wi the readin in Staundart Inglis. Thon isna a-dae wi its staundin as “leid” or “dialect”, it is juist a fact o lief for thaim as bieds wi the Ulster Scots in deilie uiss.

Forby that, naebodie pits Scots alane at the founds o thair national identitie. Hit is a pairt o our linguistic identitie – wirds the lyk o “wee” or “anent” kythes ein in Staundart Inglis screeds in Scotlan an, whiels, on this sied o the Sheuch anaa – but juist a aefauld pairt o monie. Hit isna in uiss the wey the Airis is as a pairt o a oweraa national identitie, naither haes oniebodie as taaks it forordinar a notion o makkan it ane.

Linguists taaks o “Dachsprache“; “ruif leid”. Fowk as taaks ae leid forordinar deyandeilie whiels uises anither for admeinistration – for ensaumpil, fowk in Luxembourg taaks Luxembourgish forordinar but maks uiss o the Frens, an wrytan admeinistrative. The ae thing gaes on in Scots-taakan airts – fowk taaks Scots unformal an ocht near Staundart Inglis formal, an sae thay wryts Staundart Inglis forordinar. Sae the ar nae tradeition o, an nae caa for, the uiss o Scots in the admeinistration – fowk is blythe aneuch makkan uiss o Staundart Inglis, the warlds foermaist langage in uiss, for offeicial ettils.

The ar nae pynt fowk giean out services naebodie bes wantan, an nae caa ava for the govrenment tae be makkan uiss o our siller, an daean it. Scots is a langage fowk maks uiss o, an taakan about a wheen things. The ar a caa frae thaim as taaks it anaa for a bit creative wrytin in it – bairns stories an the lyk (an mebbes a orra blog screed this lyk o this ane!)

“Lyk respect” isna meanan “lyk oncum”, for Ulster Scots an Airis isna lyk things. Ane is gey near the big langage (Inglis), an haes its docht in fowks wey o taakin in the kintra an wi the creative wrytin (pairteicular poems); the tither is gey differan frae the Inglis, an haes its docht in the braidcastin an the studdie o the Celtic leids.

Fact, the siccarmaist wey o tynan respect for the Ulster Scots is makkan uiss o it for things naebodie bes wantan, an makkan uiss o thair siller for it! It’s a waur thing yet, haean fowk wi nae ken o the langage juist makkan it up for tae dae things, as disna (yet) ansuer tae it.

Thaim as kens the leid an taks tent tae it wad ken the auld Scots proverb: “A guid naem is suiner tint nor wun”!

Scunnert wi seean our cess gien thaim as disna ken the Haemlie Tongue

A taen a mukkil scunner, an seean the new strategie for the oncum o the Ulster-Scots Langage, Heirship an Cultur ower the twintie year cumman. It wis a ill aneuch thing at the strategie taen nae tent o the reed, frae me an thaim A ken, at “langage” disna belang wi “heirship an cultur”; a mukkil waur wis whit kythed alang wi the Inglis version! For whit kythed wisna the Haemlie Tongue me an monie ithers kens weel, but a maed-up mixter-maxter o haivers. A wad howpit siclyk wis lang bygaun.

The heidin alane gies you aneuch awaur o whitna haivers hit aa bes. Whit wad a “roadin” be? How wad “fur” an “tae” cum thegither as the ae wird? Whit is the umlaut ower “bring” for? Whan did “graith” cum a verb? Hou wad “bring forrits” an “graith” gae foernent the Inglis “enhance” an “develop“, an thaim richtlie meanan “bring forwards” an “equipment” (a noun, no a verb)? “Heirskip” is nae forordinar spellin, an ither sic sounds written “sh”, no “sk”. The waurst is the haivers o pittan “an” atween the first twa an last twa deigits o the year – hit is a nummer (2015, 2035), no a wird, sae aa leids wi alphabets juist haes the feigurs written nae maiter whit wey ye speaks thaim!

Ein in the Depairtments ain heidin, hou is “cultur” nou “fowkgates”, an whaur did sicna wird cum frae? “Aisedom” disna gie a richt translate o “leisure” forby, an whit the deil is “trokin”? A “exchange” in General Scots coud be a “niffer” (frae “neive”), gin ye be for makkan wirds o braider meanin, but the ar nocht wrang wi “exchynge” (fact, “trokin” wad be a gey auld-farrant wird for the graith a bodie daes the exchynge wi, no the exchynge itssel). The ar a wheen Scots an Ulster dictionars; but the ar nae dictionar, haes aa sic wirds wi aa sic meanins!

The skaithsom an kenspekkil thing is, at whit is written in “Ulster Scots” in sic screeds is juist maed-up haivers an aabodie kens it. An wrytan formal, a bittie licence bes ay nott; but that isna the ae thing as juist makkan wirds an meanins up! Forby aa that, whit kythes in the screed isna a richt translate o whit kythes in the Inglis, an isna near oniebodies actual wey a taakin (or wrytan, an makkan poems an siclyk). Deed, A am shawan, an wrytan this screed, at ye can wryt the Haemlie Tongue formal an no juist mak it up! Aabodie in Scotlan an Ulster will ken, at whit A am wrytan is relate the tradeitional tongue o Burns an Orr, but whit kythes in the strategie is juist haivers at naebodie can unnerstaund (lyklie ein thaim as maed it!).

The ar nae dout ava, the bodie at maed thon screed wisna acquent wi the linguistics, an haes a pukkil notion o whit fowk, as maks uiss o the tongue deyandeilie, is thinkan anent its richt oncum thenou.

It is a orra thing, at the Depairtment itssel lat sicna translate gae furth, an it siccar no in oniething relate Ulster Scots (as hit bes taakit in the kintra thenou or as hit wis written in Ulster frae makkars the lyk o Orr or Thomson 200 year syne). We aa peyed for siclyk wi our cess, an that is an ill thing anaa.

Thon siller is haean an inpit, no tae the oncum o the Haemlie Tongue, but tae its deith. The ar nae howp for bringan on the Tongue ava, an sic haivers put furth unner the heidin “Ulster Scots”. A wad maun speir at thaim, wad that be the pynt? An we war for bringan the Haemlie Tongue foerairts, we wad gie it thaim as kens it, an as knaws a bittie anent the linguistic oncum. This screed alane shaws ye can mak it formal an yet hae fowk ken it weel as a Tongue relate a leiterar tradeition (the “Rhymean Wabsters” an ithers) an fowks wey o taakin ein thenou. The ar nae caa for makkan it aa up. But A amna siccar, we ar richtlie for bringan it on; mebbes gin “20an35″ hit will be gaun awa an we can aa hain our siller for ither things?

Ancient Romans couldn’t read… and what that means for language

Agricola servat nautam.

That was the first Latin sentence I learned. “The (or a) farmer saves the (or a) sailor”. The point of using this sentence straightaway (written in a textbook used across the British Isles whose author was Head of Latin at Methodist College, out of interest) was emphasised by the next one:

Agricolam servat nauta.

This means “The (or a) sailor saves the (or a) farmer”. The point is that it is the word endings which contain the grammatical information as to who acted (the subject) and who was acted upon (the object). With the exception of personal and occasionally relative pronouns (e.g. “he saves him“, “the sailor, who(m) he saves”), modern English and nearly all languages derived from Latin no longer use the word endings to provide this information – instead they use word order. Modern English, alongside most national languages derived from Latin (French, Italian, Spanish, etc), are all known as “SVO” languages – generally, the subject (“doer”) comes first, then the main verb, then the object (“done to”) – “l’agriculteur sauve le marin”.

Furthermore, the ending could also be used to indicate other information: nautae is “to/of the sailor”; agricolā is “by/from the farmer”, and so on. So “Servo agricola nautae” may mean “I save the farmer with the sailor”. As a result, fewer prepositions were employed by the Ancient Greeks and the Classical Romans.

As it happens, Latin was generally an “SOV” language (thus the most usual form was “Agricola nautam servat“), which is in fact the most common type. Hints of this remain in modern French, Spanish and Italian where, for example, pronoun objects precede the verb (“Je t’aime”, “(yo) te quiero“, “(io) ti amo“) – literally “I you love”). Unusually, German and Dutch are “V2″ languages, where the verb comes second in the sentence regardless of what came first (Old and early Middle English were like this too, and Modern English contains vestiges – “So am I”, “Hardly had I arrived…”, etc). However, the main point is this: Latin generally determined subject and object (and other such grammatical information) by word ending, whereas modern languages derived from it (as well as English, which is not) do so by word order.

Why did this change?

For me, the likeliest reason is this: the Romans couldn’t read.

Well, some of them could read – obviously. However, they could not read other than aloud. If you were transported through the Time Tunnel to Ancient Rome, you may glance over and see a Roman reading a tablet, and you would immediately notice him mouthing the words as he did so. In Classical times, speed reading was unknown. Reading itself, after all, was a comparatively new “technology”. Just as it took 500 years to move from the word on the page to the word on the screen, it took many centuries to move from reading an alphabet at all, to speed-reading it in the head without having to read it aloud (or at least mouth it).

Speed-reading in the head is clearly a much different thing from reading something aloud. Mouthing the words as they went, the Romans (and the Ancient Greeks and others, for that matter) had time to consider the grammatical information contained in word endings as they went along. They needed fewer words in total, because the endings showed how they went together without to the need to worry about word order or too many prepositions.

Once speed-reading became the norm – where small words can be skipped and little attention paid to endings – it became more useful to add more prepositions and determine grammatical relationships by word order.

We can tell from the writings between the Roman Republic and the Fall of Rome that this process began in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ; so it is possible that speed-reading began in that period, perhaps from around 200 AD. However, we cannot be sure of this, as we also know that the letter “-m” after a vowel at the end of a word came not to be pronounced in Latin from about that time, restricting grammatical distinctions in speech regardless. In fact, it is even possible that changes in pronunciation actually enabled speed reading, as it became possible to pay less attention to word endings and easy to use the extra prepositions as “signposts” while reading quickly.

A not dissimilar process may have happened in Germanic languages (though none was written down at all until 350 AD). Modern German may still express grammatical relationships by endings to some degree (so “Der Bauer rettet den Seemann” meansThe farmer saves the sailor“, but “Den Bauer rettet der Seemann” means “The sailor saves the farmer”, at least technically). Other Germanic languages (and German, in modern practice) now depend almost entirely on word order, just like those derived from Latin. The process may in fact have started slightly sooner, as Germanic languages are marked by having shifted the stress on words to the first syllable of the word (whereas Latin-derived languages it tends to be on the penultimate), meaning endings were pronounced less distinctly in Germanic even 1700 years ago. This has left Germanic languages not reliant on endings even for verbs, whereas most Latin-derived languages still are (with the notable exception of French, precisely because it was heavily influenced by Germanic languages in its early development separate from Latin). Thus, for example, Latin-derived languages except French tend to allow the dropping of pronoun subject whereas Germanic languages and French do not – hence “salvo” in Italian and Spanish (and “servo” in Latin), suffice on their own to mean “I save”, whereas the pronoun is required in German (“ich rette“) and French (“je sauve“) as in English.

However, the process of moving away from reliance on word endings generally did not occur in Slavic languages, where they are still an essential part of each language (which makes them very difficult to learn for most Western Europeans). It is unclear when Slavic speakers began speed-reading or even whether they do – it is not as necessary, after all, because there are fewer prepositions and word endings remain crucial to understanding.

Oddly, this Slavic linguistic conservatism led to the inclusion of an object ending in the well known constructed language Esperanto (thus the above would be “la konstruisto konservas la mariston” versus “la konstruiston konservas la maristo“), whose creator Ludwik Zamenhof grew up around Eastern Europe surrounded by Slavic and Baltic tongues – it would be unthinkable for a Western European to have included such a distinction. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the nasal suffix, either -m or -n, is common as a marker of the object across almost all Indo-European languages and would have existed even in Proto-Indo-European, the common predecessor language of Latin, Proto-Germanic or Old Church Slavonic, spoken many millennia ago – thus agricolam, den Bauer, and even konstruiston; note also even English him, whom, them).

This is yet another example of how linguistic development gives us a fascinating insight, in and of itself, into historical  and even technological change – and perhaps into how similar, ultimately, we all are.

The medieval rise of English

This week is a week where many feel a little down – the Christmas break is becoming a distant memory; the weather is still as cold; and the daily grind has returned with a vengeance. All hope is lost!

I was glancing at some historical texts over the break (as you do…) and was interested to find a number from Elizabethan England essentially castigating the English language. It was noted at the time (just as Shakespeare was beginning to write) that the language was a mongrel, consisting of borrowings from Norse, French and Latin thrown on to its German base to create something wholly unsatisfactory; it was noted that it was not cultured in any way; and it was noted that it was in any case useless beyond the shores of England (and the odd English garrison in the Pale, perhaps).

Yet, as we write, there are more people with at least a degree of conversational proficiency in the world now than there were in the world at all a century ago – some estimates now suggest up to 2 billion. So how did this mongrel, uncultured and useless tongue (one castigated even by its own speakers come to take over the world? It’s a remarkable comeback – and maybe an uplifting one on the first full working week in January!

As ever, it was a few events of huge import – some innocuous at the time – which turned the tide. In 1475, England was just a backwater – it had just effectively lost the Hundred Years’ War allowing France to unite with three times the area, three times the population and three times the economic might. Even at that, the real coming superpower was Spain, itself newly united and about to restore Christianity to the entire Iberian Peninsula. Five and a bit centuries ago, it would simply have been inconceivable to anyone, even (actually particularly) in England, that English – a language not even spoken by England’s own King until just over a century before and which was still avoided by much of the Upper Class in its own land – would attain global dominance.

Two things suddenly turned the tide. Firstly, the Printing Press arrived in England; secondly, the Tudors won the Wars of the Roses and took control of the country. These two events enabled rapid dissemination of written English (leading in effect to a written standard of sorts based primarily on dialects within the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle) and improved administration of the country to ensure at least that it could defend itself.

The Printing Press had a dramatic impact on the language, as it dramatically slowed down changes within it (by creating a standard which people recognised and adhered to, at least to some extent). Shakespeare’s writing is easily accessible to us, but Chaucer’s writing was not accessible to people of Shakespeare’s time – even though they were in fact much closer together in time. The language had changed swiftly between Chaucer and Shakespeare, but has comparatively changed scarcely at all since.

It is probable that social upheaval after the Black Death plague of the 14th century led to a particularly swift change in the English language in the 15th century. Grammatically, noun cases were all but abandoned and verbs greatly simplified; phonologically, the Great Vowel Shift commenced. The second of these was relatively unaffected by the Printing Press, as this provided a written but not a spoken standard. The consequence was that English spelling still largely reflects pronunciation of the 15th century, even though this was in the middle of a dramatic shift. Even by Shakespeare’s time (examples of pronunciation here and elsewhere), many spellings made little sense. Modern German still pronounces “Name” and modern Danish “time” more or less as they look (“NA-MEH”; “TI-MEH”), English shifted them dramatically and complicatedly.

The other, non-linguistic change was the prestige of England itself, under Elizabeth. Suddenly, in the 1580s, there is a shift in view among the (educated) English from acceptance that theirs is a second class language, towards a sense that its unique mongrel status is in fact an advantage. Growing English power, even before its fortuitous victory over the Spanish Armada, meant growing interest in English. This applied not just in England; already, prior to the Union of the Crowns, educated Scottish writers like John Knox began to adopt “Southern” (i.e. “English”) as their written standard. Where Queen Elizabeth I had noted “Scottish” as a “foreign language” that she spoke, James VI/I spoke of a “common language” between his two kingdoms. The scene was set. Oxford-Cambridge-London English, once an obscure dialect or an irrelevant tongue dubbed useless even by those who spoke it, would four centuries later become by far the most spoken language ever.

Hope regained?!

Irish Language Acts and debating things which don’t exist…

I had a short cameo on Tuesday’s BBC Talkback programme concerning the case for an “Irish Language Act”. My point was that the whole discussion is somewhat pointless as we don’t know what would be in such an Act! There is a world of difference between, for example, the Gaelic Language Act in Scotland (which more or less confirms services already provided for Irish in Northern Ireland) and the Welsh Language Act in Wales (which places all kinds of requirements even on private businesses).

I would have added two more things, given time. Firstly, the Sinn Fein MLA on the programme said that an Irish Language Act was a “core demand of the Nationalist community“. This may be, but it is exactly that sort of phrasing which plays into the instinctive majority view among Unionists and indeed probably even Progressives that there should be no such Act because it would be ostensibly sectarian. It was also suggested by the POBAL representative, who was otherwise very reasonable, that an Act would mean “more jobs for Irish speakers” - something which is really problematic, at least at this stage of development, for all kinds of reasons (not least that it would favour one “religious background” given the segregated nature of our schooling).

Secondly, I was very concerned as several callers saying that they wished only to speak English “because we’re in the UK and we’re British“, a line I hear alarmingly often. I was concerned because it shows a deep ignorance about what it is to be British, which itself I think touches the core of why so many Unionists are so insecure about their identity. Britishness is an innately multi-cultural identity, by definition – you have to be “British-and”, you can’t just be “British”. The development of the Welsh language, albeit from a much stronger position that Irish (or for that matter Gaelic of Scots) is in now, is one of the best examples of minority language promotion in Europe – by the UK. There was an MSP on BBC Talkback explaining how his Gaelic linguistic identity in no way contravened his Scottish and British national identity. It is an utter nonsense for so many Unionists to cling to a singular “British” identity when everyone else who claims that identity recognises immediately and obviously that it is multi-cultural and diverse.

(It was, after all, the UK which signed the European Charter and gave Irish additional protection and support – Ireland, out of interest, is not a signatory.)

As for an “Irish Language Act”, I’ve always instinctively favoured a “Languages Act” confirming the UK’s and Northern Ireland’s Charter obligations and adding rights for those who wish to speak Irish in education and broadcasting. This would still, by my reckoning, be cost-neutral. What’s not to like?!

Benefits of bilingualism specific to certain types

We often read of the benefits of the bilingualism – notably to delaying dementia. Research is confirming this – but only in particular instances. The difficulty surrounds defining bilingualism or, perhaps more accurately, defining different types of bilingualism.

One issue is the distance between the two languages involved. This language tree is a particlarly good demonstration of how close – both geographically and historically – different languages of Indo-European and Finno-Ugric origin are. The evidence is if someone speaks two languages which are very close together – say Norwegian and Swedish or Afrikaans and Dutch – then the benefits are extremely limited. The difference has to be at least as great as, for example, French to Spanish.

Another point is the context in which a language is spoken. If, for example, a Portuguese person moves to Brussels and uses French professionally but Portuguese at home, the benefit is limited – because the two languages are used in different spheres. Indeed, literally most people in the world are bi- or multi-lingual in such a way. A Berber, for example, may speak Berber at home, Arabic for trade and French for administration. These are three distinct languages but because their use never crosses over, the “bilingual benefit” is significantly reduced.

Then there is, of course, the difficulty with defining “speaking a language”. The ultimate benefit accrues to someone who grew up speaking two languages all the time and continues to use them – say, someone brought up in Belgium by one Dutch-speaking and one French-speaking parent who continues to use both languages professionally and in general daily life. It is more limited – though no doubt still present – for someone who grows up monolingual but learns and regularly uses another language fluently later in life. Then there is the issue of what is “fluency”? There is a range of levels – from being able to order to meal, to being able to “get by”, to being able to hold a conversation, to dreaming in the language; and then competence varies depending on how often the language was used and when it was last used (for example my own Spanish was somewhere between “hold a conversation” and “dreaming in the language” at the end of the half year I studied there; but it has dropped back a level, perhaps more, since).

Ultimately, research shows the benefit is specifically this: people who, when using a particular phrase, are “blocking out” another phrase from another language (because they are fluent in at least one other language) get the benefits referred to – this is something which keeps the brain exercised and thus has significant mental benefits including delaying dementia by an average five years. If, on the other hand, they are not “blocking out” another language – because that language is already similar, or because they would never be using it in that context, or because they’re not really fluent in the other language – will find those benefits reduced, to close to zero.

Whatever, this is a very interesting area for further research!

If you’re going to be a pedant…

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt corrected Alliance leader David Ford in the Assembly this week – when the latter used the word “referendums“, the former couldn’t get in quickly enough to interject with “referenda!

Well indeed, every Oxbridge-educated scholar would know that the plural of neuter second declension nouns in Latin is -a.

Except, ahem, referendum is not a second-declension noun. It is a gerund, and thus has no plural as such.

It is true that gerunds have plural forms. However, because it is a gerund, referendum in Latin means “referring thing” or perhaps more idiomatically “referred matter”; thus the plural form referenda would mean “referred matters”.

However, only one matter was referred to the people of Scotland last week – thus it was a referendum. The clear context of Mr Ford’s remarks was to refer to similar instances of a single matter being referred – in which case the productive plural formation is quite correctly referendums.

If you’re going to be a pedant, it pays to know your stuff. Quod erat demonstrandum.

UK needs more German students

Germany’s victory at the World Cup was interesting in the sense that most people in the UK reacted to it positively – a great sign of a thawing in attitudes towards Germany in the UK; a shift ongoing since Germany hosted the tournament in 2006.

Yet it also saw an increase in appalling mispronunciations of German words and general misunderstandings of the country itself in the media. One commentator suggested Germany’s anthem is still called “Deutschland über alles” (a phrase whose basic meaning is misunderstood anyway); there was a whole discussion about a “specific German word” to describe the process of taking a penalty in a shoot-out (in fact Nervenstärke merely means “strength of nerve”); and there was constant reference to Angela Merkel as “Head of State” (she is equivalent of Prime Minister, i.e. Head of Government; the President and Head of State, who was also in attendance at the final, is Joachim Gauck).

It would be helpful, first off, if we simply understood more about what is a highly influential country. For example, the Nazis actually replaced “Deutschland über alles” with their own anthem; many “specific German words” merely derive from the German tendency to put words together in writing; and Merkel’s and Gauck’s rise to prominence both involve astonishing scandals the latter of which, in particular, offers a particular challenge to German democracy (the removal of Christian Wulff, Gauck’s predecessor who was forced to resign for a number of minor alleged misdemeanours hinted at by certain elements in the media but all of which were then thrown out in court, was a fascinating disgrace challenging the whole concept of privacy and the free press).

Of course, it would be easier to understand the country if we spoke its language. Here, the disgrace lies firmly in the UK. Fewer students took German A-Level in the UK this year than took it at Higher Level in Ireland – in other words, more Irish students (in total, not proportionately) speak reasonable German than in the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. This is scary; for a start, it makes Ireland a vastly more attractive trading partner for Europe’s largest economy.

We need to do more to understand Germany better; and not just for the sake of our football teams!


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