DONER THE HYPERPOLYGLOT.

I’ve posted about Michael Erard’s Babel No More, about hyperpolyglots, a couple of times (project, book); now R.L.G. of The Economist has a wonderful interview with a 17-year-old hyperpolyglot, Timothy Doner. The interviewer is knowledgeable and asks good questions, the interviewee is charming and gives good answers, and it ends with clips of him speaking French, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian; what more could you ask for? (His spoken Russian isn’t great, but it’s perfectly understandable, and he’d be the first to agree it needs work—he’s very modest about his accomplishments.) I hope it gets seen by a lot of people, some of whom might decide studying languages looks like fun and not as hard as it’s cracked up to be!

Comments

  1. From King of the Hyperpolyglots, a chapter in Babel No More: “(Emil Krebs) was someone who could tell you off in dozens of languages. He once translated the phrase ‘kiss my ass’ (known as ‘the Swabian salute’) into 40 languages.”
    I am humbled. I must buy the book.
    As to Hat’s comment that “studying languages looks like fun and not as hard as it’s cracked up to be!” – well, I’ve come to believe, and Emil Krebs and Tim Doner are extraordinary examples, that some are born with greater gifts than others. In some ways I’m better than many with languages, but I can still recall the anguish in trying, with nary a glimmer of success, to memorize French verb conjugations from Grade 9 in my last year of high school.

  2. As a hyperglot manqué, my experience is that learning languages is and isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be. It seems to me that it’s not just one skill.
    Good pronunciation is one particular skill that some people have and other people don’t. It can be improved with teaching but doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
    Then there is the problem of learning grammatical rules. The big problem here is not just one of learning the rules (including French verb conjugations), it’s one of being able to apply those rules automatically without thinking. Good teaching and a good approach can work wonders.
    Another problem is that of learning to speak idiomatically. Textbook language can only teach you the framework. After that you need to actually ‘pick up’ the language. That is where contact contact contact becomes important. It’s a matter of learning how things are normally said in actual conversation, applying those fancy rules that you’ve learnt.
    Vocabulary is one of the biggest problems because there is so much memorisation involved. Contextual memorisation is far better than brute force (learning lists).
    Then there is aural comprehension. This dimension isn’t, it seems to me, completely related to the others. However you learn a language, this is an area where you have no control. You can carefully control and develop your ability at self-expression or your reading ability, but being able to make sense of everything that’s thrown at you is something else again. People who are poor at speaking a language often prove to be good at making sense of what is said to them, while people who are good at speaking are not necessarily great at aural comprehension.
    The written language is a field apart. Some people are more ‘oral’ in their approach to language, some prefer the written word. I suspect that people who prefer the written language are people who like to have firm control over what they are learning.
    With so many aspects to cover, and so much memorisation work to do, it’s not surprising that learning a language is regarded as a formidable task. For myself, I’ve found that since the Internet has started taking up so much of my life, learning languages is harder than ever. Surfing the web or creating content (including comments) takes up a lot of the time that could be spent actually going out and speaking to people. The Internet is an otaku paradise.
    I don’t know anything about Emil Krebs, but the concept of translating ‘kiss my arse’ into 40 languages seems ludicrous to me. Sure, you can transpose the words and put them into grammatical sentences, but if the result is meaningless, what’s the point? I have no idea whether Emil Krebs can say ‘kiss my arse’ in Japanese, but if the usual level of what is called ‘knowing Japanese’ applies, it is probably Watashi no oshiri ni kisu o shite kudasai, which is grammatically correct but ‘sociolinguistically’ completely inappropriate — foreigner’s Japanese. Ore no ketsu ni kisu shiro is sociolinguistically appropriate, but I don’t think any Japanese actually say that. If you look it up on the Internet, you’ll find it, but only as an explanation (i.e., a direct translation) of ‘Kiss my ass’. I am humbled only by the fact that Emil Krebs has learnt the basic grammar and vocabulary, but that is a long way from knowing a language.

  3. “With the utmost respect, would you be so kind as to osculate my gluteus maximus? Thank you.”
    Douglas Hofstadter calls himself an oligoglot, a word I like very much. I myself, to be sure, am a monoglot who knows a lot of things about a lot of languages.

  4. Victor Sonkin says:

    His spoken Russian is quite good; much better than I thought it would be.

  5. I once had a Hungarian immigrant colleague – a computer programmer – who wanted to know all the English obscenities. When I asked him if Hungarians say ‘kiss my ass’ he said, no, they say ‘lick my ass’ – which sounded even more obscene to me. No, I don’t know the Hungarian for that, and we’ve lost touch. I do wonder whether Krebs used the Hungarian for ‘kiss’ (more literal) or for ‘lick’ (more idiomatic) – assuming Hungarian was one of his forty languages.

  6. Bathrobe: learning languages is and isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be. It seems to me that it’s not just one skill.
    You’ve made an excellent analysis of the many aspects of learning a language. Also: Age of the learner is hugely important. We seem to be programmed to acquire language(s) when young.
    Vocabulary and memorization: Not an issue for me because I don’t memorize vocabulary, or at least not consciously or with effort. I see a word (yes, see), am told or read its meaning, and if often just sticks with me. The more the exposure the greater the retention. I also ‘see’ word patterns, i.e., Latin or Germanic roots, and can thus with relative ease determine meaning, or at least head myself in the right direction. But memorization is indeed a huge issue for me when it comes to verb conjugations, because not being able to ‘see’ a pattern with irregular verbs, I’ve got no way to make them stick. (I have great difficulty memorizing anything.)
    I don’t know anything about Emil Krebs
    Read the chapter (it’s short). My comment was intended to be humorous. The man was indeed a hyperpolyglot.

  7. When I asked him if Hungarians say ‘kiss my ass’ he said, no, they say ‘lick my ass’
    I suspect they borrowed it from German, with which they were in intimate contact during the Habsburg centuries.

  8. I suspect they borrowed it from German, with which they were in intimate contact during the Habsburg centuries.
    It sounds like very intimate contact.

  9. Learning languages is every bit as difficult as it’s cracked up to be. Damn the people who say otherwise.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Also: Age of the learner is hugely important. We seem to be programmed to acquire language(s) when young.

    Well, for some people the age makes a huge difference, for others it doesn’t seem to matter at all…

  11. When U.S. General Anthony Clement (“Nuts”) McAuliffe (see other thread) was given a surrender ultimatum during the Battle of the Bulge, he sent a one-word written reply: “NUTS!” The Germans requested an interpretation, which was given to them orally as “Go to hell”. But if either party had had a better translator available, he could have rendered it appropriately into German as “Götz von Berlichingen!”

  12. David Marjanović says:

    From the closed thread about the Val(l) d’Aran…
    Basque haran is said to mean “valley”.
    Erromintxela: “The research by Muñoz and Lopez de Mungia has confirmed that Erromintxela is not derived from Caló, the mixed Spanish-Romani language spoken throughout Spain, but is instead based on Kalderash Romani and the Basque language.[6] The vocabulary appears to be almost exclusively Romani in origin; the grammar however, both morphology and syntax, derives from various Basque dialects.[6] Few traces appear to remain of Romani grammatical structures.[7] The language is incomprehensible to speakers of both Basque and of Caló.[6]”

    “Vasconi”

    Vascones. But Ouaskonoi in Greek (I don’t know if there’s an omikron or an omega in the middle or where the stress goes).

    “Ni oui, ni non, bien au contraire!”

    So much more eloquent than “jein”! :-)

    And at the end there’s a comment by David Marjanović, which makes me ask once again: Where is David? Come back! We miss you!

    ^_^ I was busy before, during and after a conference, and my latest paper just came out.

    I’ve noticed over the years that it’s extremely common for people to confuse east and west, even in scholarly works; I just had occasion to change “southeast” to “southwest” in something I was reading. Nobody ever confuses north and south. Interesting.

    Plain obvious: they’re left and right.
    manche meinen
    lechts und rinks
    kann man nicht
    velwechsern.
    werch ein illtum!

    Ernst Jandl
    We’d confuse north and south if we had kept the convention of east being “up” on maps.

    Hat: I’ve just been rereading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she repeatedly refers to the German genocide in “Southeast Africa,” by which she plainly means German Southwest Africa, now Namibia.

    Gah. Certainly helped by the existence of German East Africa (Tanganyika, now the mainland part of Tanzania).

    Looking for something else I came across this description from a 1498 description by the Spanish ambassador to Scotland of the polyglot capabilities of James IV, using Iberian analogies: “He speaks the following foreign languages ; Latin, very well ; French, German, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish ; Spanish as well as the Marquis, but he pronounces it more distinctly. He likes, very much, to receive Spanish letters. His own Scots language is as different from English as Aragonese from Castilian. The King speaks, besides, the language of the savages who live in some parts of Scotland and on the islands [i.e., Gaelic]. It is as different from Scots as Biscayan [i.e., Basque] is from Castilian. His knowledge of languages is wonderful.”

    …I sit in awe.

    So on the night where pagans believed the souls of those in the beyond were briefly coming back to earth

    But wasn’t that a purely Irish or at least purely Celtic thing? I’m not aware of a Germanic, let alone Roman or Greek tradition around that time of year.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    David, nice to see you back!
    pagans: I used the term loosely, thinking of the early days of Christianity in Western Europe. You are probably right that is was a Celtic thing.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    “Götz von Berlichingen!”

    Wikipedia:

    Only the editions of 1773 and 1774 had the full quote. After that, in both printed editions and performances of the play, it was long common practice to truncate the quote to “er kann mich —”

    Ah, yes. I’ve seen an edition from the mid-late 20th century that had: “Er aber, sag’s ihm, er kann mich — — — (geht ab)“.

  15. SFReader says:

    –they say ‘lick my ass’
    Exactly same expression is used in Mongolian.
    Now I wonder where they got it from…

  16. SFReader says:

    —- Hat: I’ve just been rereading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she repeatedly refers to the German genocide in “Southeast Africa,” by which she plainly means German Southwest Africa, now Namibia.
    –Gah. Certainly helped by the existence of German East Africa (Tanganyika, now the mainland part of Tanzania).
    And Germans conducted genocide there as well.
    “The famine following the Maji Maji Rebellion was partly planned. Von Götzen was willing to pardon the common soldiers as long as they gave up their weapons, leaders and witch doctors. However, he also needed to flush out the remaining rebels and famine was the chosen weapon. In 1905 one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote to von Götzen, “Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean.”[6]
    After the Maji Maji fighters undertook guerrilla tactics as the Germans were using machine guns and cannons to systematiclly destroy villages and wells, including removal of livestock, and burning of fields and food stores. This forced the Maji Maji to surrender. The resulting famine caused an estimated 100,000-300,000 deaths.[7] Not until August, 1907, were the last embers of rebellion extinguished. In its wake, the Maji-Maji rebellion left 15 Europeans and 389 African soldiers and between 200,000 and 300,000[8] insurgents dead. It also broke the spirit of the people to resist and the colony remained calm, thanks also to a change of governors which brought a more enlightened regime, until the outbreak of World War I. Lions in the area developed a taste for human flesh in the wake of the slaughter and the Songea region is still plagued by man-eaters.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maji_Maji_Rebellion

  17. Is the name of the Maji Maji rebellion in what is now Tanzania etymologically related to the later Mau Mau rebellion in neighboring Kenya? Wikipedia says the latter’s etymology is unknown. If the Js in Maji Maji are German Js – I mean if they sound like Y not like DZh – the words are not all that different. Of course, if initial M-sounds and reduplication are characteristic of the local languages – I wouldn’t know – the similarity is more likely to be coincidental.

  18. SFReader says:

    Maji is a Swahili word meaning “water”. It is pronounced as MaDZhi.
    Apparently the rebels believed that their leaders possessed a certain magic called “Maji-Maji” which will turn Germans into water…

  19. We’d confuse north and south if we had kept the convention of east being “up” on maps.
    This reminds me that if you lay the pivoting N – S axis of a globe horizontally, it is much easier to see the Southern hemisphere. The Northern hemisphere isn’t obscured, because any part you want to see will move to the top as the globe is revolved. The E – W orientation has the added advantage that you see land masses from different directions and not just how they appear when North is up.

  20. We’d confuse north and south if we had kept the convention of east being “up” on maps.
    Hmmm. As one of the (alleged) 15 per cent or so of people who confuse left and right, and who also confuses west and east, I’m unconvinced by that claim. To me, north is the way I face, and south is behind me. But that’s not universal: according to Wikipedia, “When speaking Mongolian, speakers will typically use the words for ‘front’, ‘back’, ‘left’, and ‘right’ to mean ‘south’, ‘north’, ‘east’, and ‘west’, respectively.”

  21. marie-lucie says:

    “When speaking Mongolian, speakers will typically use the words for ‘front’, ‘back’, ‘left’, and ‘right’ to mean ‘south’, ‘north’, ‘east’, and ‘west’, respectively.”
    This assumes a position facing the sun at noon. Our usual “North on top of the map” makes sense at night, looking at the Polar Star. Ancient navigators relied on the stars, not the sun, to get their bearings.

  22. Our usual “North on top of the map” makes sense at night, looking at the Polar Star.
    Not in the Southern hemisphere. It only makes sense for the top part of the “top” half of the world map.

  23. SFReader says:

    Mongols set up their gers (felt tents) facing to the south.
    So, from POV of a person inside the ger who faces the door – the south would be in front of him, north in the back, west to the right and east to the left.

  24. John Emerson says:

    Mozart’s “Leck mich im Arsch” Canon
    “Lick my ass” in German seems to be a relatively friendly thing to say, at least in Mozart’s family.
    Mozart and Scatology

  25. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, you are right, I thought of the contradiction, but when you see a map of the world (distorted as it is) it shows the North half at the top. One reason to keep it that way conventionally is that there is a lot more land, including people, in the Northern half than the Southern half. Similarly, (switching the axis 90 degrees as you suggested) the Pacific half is mostly water, the continents are concentrated in the other half, but East and West can only be conventional terms there, depending on the observer’s position.

  26. there is a lot more land, including people, in the Northern half than the Southern half.
    m-l, There are more people in the top half, but for those in the Southern hemisphere – and they must be in the high millions or low billions these days – it’s really quite inconvenient to have to peer at the under side of a globe; also some of them (I remember Stuart from NZ was one) don’t like to be thought of as living upside down, near the bottom. It’s true that if you pivot the globe horizontally it’s harder to see East from West – I think you’ve identified the down side. Otherwise, everybody ought to be fairly happy.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, most mounted globes can pivot so that the Southern half can be at the top, and vice-versa. But when we think of “the top of the world”, I think it is more likely to be Tibet than the North Pole, no? If New Zealanders don’t like to be “at the bottom” of the world, do Icelanders boast of being “at the top”?

  28. “the down side”, ho ho ho.

  29. I have to confess that “the down side” was only a subconscious association.
    I’d like a globe with an adjustable pivot, but what I really want is one with all the writing rotated ninety degrees. All the long thin countries in the N-S direction: Chile, Italy, Thailand, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, England, NZ & Norway, for example, could fit their name over their own land mass for a change. I can’t think of any currently short fat countries that would lose by the rotation except maybe Switzerland & Austria.

  30. Really impressive to see a hyperpolyglot who is only 17 years old!

  31. Etienne says:

    Marie-Lucie, AJP Crown: are either or both of you familiar with the Argentinian comic strip MAFALDA? Its center is a little girl (Mafalda) who looks at the world of adults with a keen sense of the absurd.
    It was mildly popular in Québec in the eighties, and while most of the humor travelled well, there was a series of jokes reminding us that its origin was in the Southern hemisphere: at one point Mafalda persists in placing her globe upside down, explaining to her parents and friends that there’s a conspiracy in the Northern hemisphere aimed at “keeping down” people in the Southern hemisphere, makers of maps and globes being in on it of course.
    Your discussion brought that particular series of jokes to mind…

  32. Etienne, I’ve never read Mafalda, but our friend the Zompist is right on top of it — languages aren’t his only interest, and me, I’ll read anything he writes. Well, not the whole one to ten in 5000 languages page, but it has its own charm, starting with PIE and ending with Flaidish.

  33. Étienne, Yes, Julia – she’s from Buenos Aires – shows Mafalda cartoons sometimes. I’ve seen upside-down globes but not sideways ones.

  34. Étienne says:

    John Cowan: Thank you for the link. The Zompist is quite right, by the way, MAFALDA is a wonderful way to acquire some familiarity with more colloquial (Argentinian) Spanish for those of us whose knowledge of Spanish (such as it is) is too heavily weighed in the direction of literary/bookish registers.

  35. I remember it from when I lived in Buenos Aires in the ’60s!

  36. Maps with the South on the upper half have been drawn with explicit political intent, as in Joaquín Torres García’s América invertida (‘Inverted America’, with the broader meaning of ‘the Americas’, as usual in Spanish), drawn under the motto nuestro norte es el sur, playing on the double meaning of ‘north’ and ‘goal, objective’.
    @Étienne: Mafalda is a great source for colloquial Rioplatense, although its language has dated noticeably (nobody would use papafrita as an insult nowadays, for example), and the family audience precludes Quino from including any of the more colourful colloquialisms. ‘Kiss my ass’, to get back on the original track, is best rendered in Rioplatense as ¿por qué no me chupás el orto?— a kind of language you won’t see in Mafalda!

  37. My ortho, is it? Well, that’s a clever term for it. “Orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy is your doxy.”

  38. Australia had McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World, which Wikipedia claims was the “earliest commercially published upside-down map”, published by an Australian Stuart McArthur, in 1979. See Reversed Map. I was never impressed by McArthur’s map because I think I’d noticed well before that that putting north at the top was artificial. In fact, I don’t think that was an original thought of my own (I don’t have many of those) but something we were told by a teacher at school.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    I have a t-shirt with the design of a map showing South at the top, which I got at a conference in Australia a few years ago. It does not quite show the whole world, but at the top is a lot more sea than land.
    Bathrobe, thanks for the link. It says that when shown maps of imaginary cities, most people would rather live at the North end than the South end. This seems strange here in Halifax (Canada) where the South End is the posher area.

  40. “It was eleven A.M. before they finally slept, and by that time they were in someone else’s car, heading, ironically enough, north by northwest. It’s the best way out of Halifax.”
         —Spider Robinson, “Satan’s Children”

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