Maltese for Beginners.

As I wrote in 2015, “We seem to discuss hyperpolyglots every couple of years (2009, 2011, 2013), so it’s time for another installment”; I’m a year late, but herewith a piece from the latest New Yorker, Judith Thurman’s “Maltese for Beginners” (that’s the title in the actual magazine — online they’ve chosen the more boring “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages”). Much of it will be familiar to anyone who has read about such people before (the usual suspects are here: Mithridates, Cleopatra, Mezzofanti, et al.), but there’s more than enough new material to make it well worth reading. Thurman accompanies Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia to Malta for a week to watch him learn the basics of Maltese:

His father is a Peruvian businessman, and the family lives comfortably in Lima. His mother is a shop manager of Italian origin, and his maternal grandmother, who cared for him as a boy, taught him Piedmontese. He learned English in preschool and speaks it impeccably, with the same slight Latin inflection—a trill of otherness, rather than an accent—that he has in every language I can vouch for. Maltese had been on his wish list for a while, along with Uighur and Sanskrit. “What happens is this,” he said, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Nijmegen, where he was chatting in Mandarin with the owner and in Dutch with a server, while alternating between French and Spanish with a fellow-student at the institute. “I’m an amoureux de langues. And, when I fall in love with a language, I have to learn it. There’s no practical motive—it’s a form of play.” An amoureux, one might note, covets his beloved, body and soul. […]

People who live at a crossroads of cultures—Melanesians, South Asians, Latin-Americans, Central Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans, plus millions of others, including the Maltese and the Shawi—acquire languages without considering it a noteworthy achievement. Leaving New York, on the way to the Netherlands, I overheard a Ghanaian taxi-driver chatting on his cell phone in a tonal language that I didn’t recognize. “It’s Hausa,” he told me. “I speak it with my father, whose family comes from Nigeria. But I speak Twi with my mom, Ga with my friends, some Ewe, and English is our lingua franca. If people in Chelsea spoke one thing and people in SoHo another, New Yorkers would be multilingual, too.” […]

No one becomes a hyperpolyglot by osmosis, or without sacrifice—it’s a rare, herculean feat. Rojas-Berscia, who gave up a promising tennis career that interfered with his language studies, reckons that there are “about twenty of us in Europe, and we all know, or know of, one another.” He put me in touch with a few of his peers, including Corentin Bourdeau, a young French linguist whose eleven languages include Wolof, Farsi, and Finnish; and Emanuele Marini, a shy Italian in his forties, who runs an export-import business and speaks almost every Slavic and Romance language, plus Arabic, Turkish, and Greek, for a total of nearly thirty. Neither willingly uses English, resenting its status as a global bully language—its prepotenza, as Marini put it to me, in Italian. Ellen Jovin, a dynamic New Yorker who has been described as the “den mother” of the polyglot community, explained that her own avid study of languages—twenty-five, to date—“is almost an apology for the dominance of English. Polyglottery is an antithesis to linguistic chauvinism.” […]

I didn’t expect Rojas-Berscia to master Maltese in a week, but I was surprised at his impromptu approach. He spent several days raptly eavesdropping on native speakers in markets and cafés and on long bus rides, bathing in the warm sea of their voices. If we took a taxi to some church or ruin, he would ride shotgun and ask the driver to teach him a few common Maltese phrases, or to tell him a joke. He didn’t record these encounters, but in the next taxi or shop he would use the new phrases to start a conversation. […]

Linguistics gave Rojas-Berscia tools that civilians lack. But he was drawn to linguistics in part because of his aptitude for systematizing. “I can’t remember names,” he told me, yet his recall for the spoken word is preternatural. “It will take me a day to learn the essentials,” he had reckoned, as we planned the trip. The essentials included “predicate formation, how to quantify, negation, pronouns, numbers, qualification—‘good,’ ‘bad,’ and such. Some clausal operators—‘but,’ ‘because,’ ‘therefore.’ Copular verbs like ‘to be’ and ‘to seem.’ Basic survival verbs like ‘need,’ ‘eat,’ ‘see,’ ‘drink,’ ‘want,’ ‘walk,’ ‘buy,’ and ‘get sick.’ Plus a nice little shopping basket of nouns. Then I’ll get our guide to give me a paradigm—‘I eat an apple, you eat an apple’—and voilà.”

There’s a lot more, including interesting research on the kind of people who become hyperpolyglots; thanks to all who pointed me in the direction of this piece, starting with my wife!

Comments

  1. I imagine this has been asked here before on previous hyperpolyglot threads. I would be interested in a good autobiography of a modern hyperpolyglot, to understand whether all their time is spent keeping up their art, or whether they can benefit from the storehouses of culture they have access to.

  2. Christopher Culver says:

    I was sympathetic to the suggestion in this article that twenty languages should be the lower bound for hyperpolyglots, not ten. Someone doing an MA or PhD in a language family like the Uralic, Romance, Turkic, or Slavic languages is likely to gain pretty solid proficiency in ten languages (e.g. German, French, English and Russian as languages of scholarship, then several languages from that family), and enough people do degree programs like that, that it does not seem such an exclusive club.

  3. Illiterate Uzbek grandmothers could understand and make themselves understood in twenty Turkic languages if they wished so.

    The term hyperpolyglot really needs some refinement beyond simply stating the number of languages.

  4. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    How many languages you speak is obviously famously going to depend on what you mean by “language”, which is a pointless rabbithole to go down in search of rigour.

    If you’re going full hyper, there had better be (a) lots of (b) properly different languages. After say two(2) from a given subfamily (Germanic, Slavic, Romance in IE), the others count for half-credit up to a maximum of six(6), and then nothing after that.

  5. to understand whether all their time is spent keeping up their art, or whether they can benefit from the storehouses of culture they have access to.

    My understanding, from the very scattered and superficial reading I have done, is that so much of their time is spent learning and maintaining their languages that they have none left for storehouses of culture. Really, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. I used to learn a new language every year or so (one year Georgian, the next Persian, then Hungarian…), but when I got seriously interested in Russian literature I quit, because there are only so many hours in a day and if I learned Hausa I’d never get to the Brothers K (which it seems I may reach as early as next year, ahead of schedule!).

  6. Then there is the linguist’s reason for learning languages (apart from metropolitan languages to keep up with the literature): for the light they throw on grammatical theories, human thought, phonology, etc. Tagalog looks very interesting to me at the moment due to the Austronesian alignment (see Wikipedia). And, of course, Amerindian, Australian, African languages, the list goes on … so many languages, so little time!

  7. I like the self-deprecating attitude: Joseph Vella wrote a book called “Learn Maltese – why not?”

  8. reckons that there are “about twenty of us in Europe, and we all know, or know of, one another.”

    Well they don’t seem to know of me. But I suppose I am not a hyperglot. I can converse and read in about 15 languages, but I only speak 7 fluently.

    My understanding, from the very scattered and superficial reading I have done, is that so much of their time is spent learning and maintaining their languages that they have none left for storehouses of culture

    That is my impression as well. There is something vaguely autistic about considering you have “mastered” a language just because you can express your own wants and needs in a foreign language. Isn’t the interesting thing about a foreign language learning how strangers think and accessing new ways of looking at the world? That is why most of us Westerners find Japanese far more interesting than Dutch.

  9. I abandoned idea of “maintaining languages” long time ago, because it’s simply not feasible with dozens of languages.

    So I no longer bother – I just learn to read without dictionary and skip acquisition of active proficiency altogether.

    Because frankly, how likely is it that you will ever need to speak Irish or Itelmen?

    The good thing is, passive language knowledge at this level doesn’t really require any maintenance at all.

    You learn to read Danish or Finnish once and it’s very likely you still will be able to do this fifteen years later.

  10. The good thing is, passive language knowledge at this level doesn’t really require any maintenance at all

    I agree that passive language knowledge is underrated. I don’t speak Serbian very well, but I can read enough and understand enough to have a “window” into Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian culture that is still very useful and probably just as revealing about the way people from that region see the world, or maybe more so, than what I would glean if I spent three years learning fluent Serbian and tried to converse about sensitive topics with natives. And I can read all the anti-Austrian graffiti in Vienna, which is fun.

    Even passive knowledge requires some maintenance though, especially if it is a language unrelated to the ones you know well. 30 years ago I could read newspapers in Bahasa Indonesian, today I can’t even make out headlines.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    It does seem as if it would be more impressive to be a “polyglot” whose languages are all at considerable distance from each other, e.g. “How many languages do you speak? Alas, only five. What are they? English, Korean, Malayalam, Tagalog, and Yoruba …”

  12. There is a German linguist who wrote comprehensive grammars of rare Sino-Tibetan, Paleoasiatic, Yeniseian and Mongolic languages.

    Now that’s a hyperpolyglot…

  13. Joseph Vella wrote a book called “Learn Maltese – why not?”

    Love it. I hope it was one in a series. “Learn German If You’ve Nothing You’d Rather Be Doing”. “Learn Japanese – You Might As Well”.

  14. I always thought that title “Spanish for Dummies” is kind of racist….

  15. and if I learned Hausa I’d never get to the Brothers K

    You could learn Malayalam instead.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    A Maltese-speaking colleague in England told me that one of the advantages of understanding Maltese is that she knows what the Tunisian students in her department are talking about (even if she doesn’t understand all of it).

  17. Deutsche Welle has a course called Deutsch – warum nicht?

  18. I like this idea of requiring some real distance between languages for the languages to count. Otherwise you get absurdities such as considering Latin and Italian, or Classical Chinese and Mandarin, as knowing two separate languages. I get that the members of two sets those are different from each other but then you’re left with arbitrarily deciding what span of time separates one language from its descendant.

  19. Latin and Italian

    As someone who still finds Latin impenetrable, despite being able to more or less read all of the European national Romance languages (except Rumantsch) and having spent a month attempting to learn Latin, I don’t find this absurd at all. Now, if you had said Italian and Spanish, on the other hand…

  20. Anonymous Coward says:

    As for Mandarin and Classical Chinese, whoever masters Written Mandarin to a very high level automatically reads easy Classical Chinese, but 1) that level is not what second-language learners usually imply by “knowing Mandarin well”, 2) the best Mandarin stylist cannot produce a paragraph of coherent, pure Classical Chinese, unless they explicitly trained themselves to do so.

  21. Or English and Icelandic:

    http://www2.hu-berlin.de/bragi/index.htm

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Bragi heitir einn (“one is named Bragi”) looks like brich heiter ein – “break into this place merrily”. A good lesson in false friends! (heißt einer is obvious only in hindsight.)

    absurdities such as considering Latin and Italian, or Classical Chinese and Mandarin, as knowing two separate languages

    Neither of these strikes me as absurd. I mean, with Classical Chinese vs. Mandarin you’re spared the pronunciation differences, but that leaves an enormous difference in vocabulary, quite some in syntax, and the unbelievably terse Classical style.

    With Latin and Italian, it matters which one you learn first. There’s a lot of morphology in Latin you have no way of guessing from Italian or any other Romance language; conversely, you’ll have to unlearn almost all syntax – Latin is less like Italian there and much more like Russian.

  23. absurdities such as considering Latin and Italian, or Classical Chinese and Mandarin, as knowing two separate languages

    As has been pointed out, this statement is in itself absurd; it would have been better phrased as, e.g., “though Latin and Italian, or Classical Chinese and Mandarin, are of course separate languages, it is easier to learn one if you know the other, so less impressive than learning unrelated languages.”

  24. In connection to the above statements on Latin and Italian (which certainly are separate languages, indeed typologically they are quite dissimilar in many ways) I should perhaps quote an older gentleman I met in my Italian class (back when I was an undergraduate): he had studied Latin quite thoroughly in his youth and described Italian as a language with “French-like grammar and Latin-like vocabulary”. The statement highlights the fact that most if not all Romance varieties share a great many features (definite and indefinite articles, for instance, deriving from common etyma -“illum/illam” or “ipsum/ipsam” in the case of the former, “unum/unam” in the case of the latter) which are quite alien to Latin.

    Yvy tyvy: On Spanish versus Italian: to my eyes this is tricky. Spanish and Italian are quite unlike one another in many ways, but it seems to me that what makes this dissimilarity less apparent is the fact that the gap between Italian and various so-called Italian “dialects” is often comparable to the gap between Spanish and Italian. Since Italian “dialects” are not perceived as separate languages/systems (for strictly sociolinguistic reasons), I suspect that there is a tendency to downplay the gap between Spanish and Italian because of the (basically true) perception that Spanish, in terms of structure, is about as distant from Italian as many an Italian “dialect”.

    The above is not an armchair linguist’s observation, incidentally: I do know of some Italian migrant koine varieties which have emerged in contexts where Spanish (and/or Portuguese) speakers participated in their creation, because linguistically the first generation of Spanish- and/or Portuguese-speaking migrants (outnumbered by Italian migrants) found Italian about as difficult as various first-generation Italian dialect speakers.

  25. January First-of-May says:

    It had been noted by Anna Korosteleva (in the comments over here) that it’s almost impossible to get a native Russian speaker to learn remotely fluent Ukrainian, because the two languages are so similar that the would-be learner would feel that they know all of it already, but sufficiently different that they wouldn’t actually know all of it already.
    With Polish or Czech, said she, it’s at least possible to clamp down and say “this is a foreign language, I don’t already know it”, and end up learning it properly. With Ukrainian, this still doesn’t work.

    I suspect that similar problems could happen with a native English speaker trying to learn Scots, a native German speaker trying to learn Dutch, or a native Spanish speaker trying to learn Portuguese…
    (I wonder if any native English speakers ever learned fluent Cockney, Geordie, or AAVE, without either being native speakers of said dlalects in the first place or lots of learning through immersion.)

  26. Lars (the original one) says:

    Speaking from personal experience, it is possible for a native Danish speaker to approach fluency in Swedish, but it does take hard conscious effort to identify and unlearn things that don’t transfer — not just false friends in vocabulary, but things like noun gender and word order in verb nexus. I think that’s a comparable case.

    I never did get to where the process /r/ + dental -> retroflex was automatic across word borders, though. I was faking it and sometimes my heuristics failed.

    The upside of treating the two languages as separate in so far as I could, is that (as far as I can tell myself) I have much fewer arrant suecisms in my Danish than other Danes I’ve met who lived for 10+ years in Stockholm — though I do get caught out once in a while.

    A funny incident: I was on the commuter train once, speaking Swedish with some friends, and on the seats across from us a young woman was speaking English to her (Hungarian) friends. At one point, she and I turned to each other almost simultaneously and said, “You are Danish, right?” It’s an indelible mark. (But she was in fact a linguistics student, it turned out).

  27. it’s almost impossible to get a native Russian speaker to learn remotely fluent Ukrainian

    I am a counterexample to that. Speak Russian natively, learned Ukrainian in school. The latter is rusty now, no chance to practice, but I am very well aware of any gaps and would not automatically use a Russian word when speaking Ukrainian to the mirror.

  28. My daughter speaks near-standard English and AAVE and automatically switches as necessary and useful, but she is completely unaware of doing so or that the dialects are actually separate: “Black people speak differently???”

  29. I have a hard time trying to imagine a native English speaker learning AAVE by anything except immersion, for several reasons. There are almost no materials for it, because learning it is not deemed important and (relatedly) because there is very little written prestige literature in AAVE. Moreover, it is very easy to learn by immersion, since so much of it really is the same as standard American English; and anybody who needs to learn AAVE should have the opportunity to immerse themself anyway.

    I learned AAVE very quickly by immersion. The biggest difficulty is maintaining fluency is that I only feel comfortable speaking AAVE among African-Americans that I know really well; otherwise, it can come off as mocking or patronizing.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    she and I turned to each other almost simultaneously and said, “You are Danish, right?”

    Awesome.

    but she is completely unaware of doing so or that the dialects are actually separate: “Black people speak differently???”

    I can imagine that she hasn’t had a sample size large enough to figure out that use of AAVE correlates with skin color. I cannot imagine that she hasn’t noticed there are two different forms of speech there.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Moreover, it is very easy to learn by immersion

    Really? I find the aspect system described in the Wikipedia article (and elsewhere) seriously scary.

  32. @David Marjanović: The aspect system is complicated, but if you already know standard English (which was the situation I was talking about), it’s the only hard thing that you need to learn. I’m not certain how long it took me to be able to spontaneously produce statements with the full range of aspectual complexity, but I got to that point just through interacting with and listening to African-American speakers.

  33. At least Standard English has an aspect system, so the whole idea isn’t alien, just the details. German has no aspects worth mentioning, per many of David’s posts, so it’s a matter of figuring out the right aspect, not merely how to express it, in real time. No easy matter.

  34. One mo’ thing: Not all aspect be present in every version of the dialect.

    [It was surprisingly difficult to type that. I have so little practice typing AAVE, I kept automatically correcting to standard English.]

  35. Why mo’ but not aspec’ or dialec’ (maybe even e’ery)?

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    Surely “aspeck” would be better if one were trying to standardize an orthography here. (“Respeck” as eye-dialect for “respect” in the relevant variety of English seems to have some currency Out There on the internet.)

  37. Yes, but in that case I wouldn’t use an apostrophe after mo.

  38. @Keith Ivey: I thought about using more apostrophes (especially in e’ery), but I decided against it because the AAVE pronunciation of more is so much more divergent from the standard than the pronunciations of the other words are. I could drop the relevant consonants of every and respect while speaking in my normal prestige dialect, and nobody would notice. But if I said mo’ in the course of standard speech, it would sound decidedly odd (at least to me; I cannot swear that other people would actually notice, but it feels like they should).

  39. Someone doing an MA or PhD in a language family (…) is likely to gain pretty solid proficiency in ten languages

    No, I don’t think we are. If there’s some qualitative difference between between knowing ~10 languages and 20+, it’s more like a second-degree contrast of “superpolyglot vs. hyperpolyglot”.

    For comparison, I’m about one credit away from finishing my MA, and I think I have studied pretty much every Uralic language to some extent so far, but the only one in which I could give someone directions across town remains my native Finnish (and while I’d like to reach decent proficiency in Hungarian at some point, there would not be much point in me trying to learn this in any of the dozens of minority languages). Necessity seems to get people only up to proficiency in some 4-6 languages, i.e. 1-2 main language(s) of specialization plus a handful of scholarship languages.

  40. I agree — I studied a whole bunch of languages for my Indo-European grad work, but I didn’t achieve “pretty solid proficiency” in any of them. We were concerned with learning the historical relations and development, not with the languages themselves. My dissertation director was amused by my excessive interest in Russian and Old Irish, but he was OK with it as long as it didn’t distract me from my main official concern, zero-grade thematic presents in the early IE languages.

  41. Whenever the topic gets round to zero-grade, my eyes glaze over and I look around for something to prove that I actually do know something (anything) about language. A brave admission, I think, in a community that can spend whole threads discussing IE historical linguistics.

  42. Just think of it as zr grd, and it will seem nice and Serbian to you.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    In Germanic it has very often ended up sporting u, as in sung, or with the usual later complications as in found. That’s because *u was the epenthetic vowel of choice in Proto-Germanic times.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve entertained the idea that the “epenthetic vowel of choice” says something important about the community. What kind of society would cultivate that default position of the mouth?

  45. Trond Engen says:

    I thought I wrote “the community of speakers”.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    A society of grumpy grunters?

  47. Lars (the original one) says:

    There was some mention here recently of a finding that different languages have different default “settings” for some or all of tongue / tongue root / jaw positions. (I’m not up to figuring out how to search for it).

    But whether that correlates with the epenthetic vowel that appears with syllabic resonants, is another question. I am reminded of the fact that Sanskrit, which otherwise seems to prefer /a/ as a vowel, has /i/ to replace syllabic laryngeals. (Or maybe extra-syllabic ones?)

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Admittedly, that may have been [ə] > [ɨ] > [i] (already indistinguishable from */i/ in Proto-Indo-Iranian), and the first step of this could have served to distinguish it from */a/, if the PII */a/ was really [ə] at some point. (Evidence for that may be that compensatory lengthening of */a/ specific to Indic produced Sanskrit e [ɛː], not ā.)

    Or maybe extra-syllabic ones?

    “Syllabic laryngeals” never existed, just like syllabic *s didn’t. Instead, some difficult consonant clusters, many of them involving laryngeals, were repaired already in PIE by adding some kind of non-phonemic [ə] (Piotr writes it to distinguish it visually from the phonemes in his otherwise arguably phonemic transcription), and many of the Indo-Iranian cases of i are directly descended from these. Robert Byrd on academia.edu has the details.

  49. Lars (the original one) says:

    I’m sure I read that/those papers at one point, but the search on Academia.edu is not being my friend today. Wasn’t the point that sometimes there just isn’t a place for a given consonant in the surrounding syllables and it’s left as extra material? (Very attractive to epenthesis, of course).

  50. David Marjanović says:

    Where am I taking “Robert” from? (…Wasn’t there once a politician?) Andrew Miles Byrd is the IEist.

    Extrasyllabic consonants can’t be inside a word, so deletion and epenthesis are the only options there.

  51. Lars (the original one) says:

    That senator, middle initial C, former staunch supporter of the KKK, is indeed the main Robert Byrd to appear in search results. A namesake works in oil drilling research.

    I knew there was something I forgot about those extrasyllabic consonants.

  52. My favorite fact about Senator Robert Byrd is that he went to law school before he went to college.

  53. John Woldemar Cowan says:

    When my father went to Harvard Law for his S.J.D. in 1932, it was still true that all you needed to get into the LL.B. program was a high-school diploma and a smallpox vaccination certificate.

  54. January First-of-May says:

    Extrasyllabic consonants can’t be inside a word

    Perhaps they can’t, but the рь in Russian декабрьский “of December” (similarly for September, October, November) is probably trying its best.

    (The usual pronunciation is the epenthesis, which ironically restores the original vowel; I’m not sure whether the dictionaries have caught up.)

  55. Lars (the original one) says:

    It’s a question of terms, I think — by definition any consonant between two syllable peaks that is (not deleted and) pronounced without an epenthetic vowel belongs to one of the syllables (or maybe both?), so your syllable structure hypothesis has to accommodate it — but empirically you sometimes find consonants at the margins of the word that won’t fit in other positions, so you call them extra-syllabic.

    So if you say декабрьский without epenthesis, -абрь is by definition a valid syllable ending in your phonology.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    Extrasyllabic consonants can’t be inside a word

    …in Proto-Indo-European; at least various things make sense under that assumption, as Byrd has shown. Other languages are another matter.

  57. January First-of-May says:

    The tricky part for декабрьский (and its siblings) specifically is that, normally, adding the adjectival suffix -ский to a base in -рь results not in -рьский but in -рский (losing the palatalization) – e.g. январский; the four final months are traditionally said to be exceptions.

    An obvious explanation is that bases in -Cрь keep the palatalization while those in -Vрь don’t; this is basically untestable (apparently the only non-month options are вихрь, вепрь, изюбрь, none of which form -ский adjectives*) but fits the existing data… as long as we ignore the epenthesis (which is very common even in unsuffixed forms – I know I say it).

    *) as it happens, Google attests both вепрский and вепрьский, both in sufficiently marginal amounts that it’s hard to say which one is less uncommon

  58. > some difficult consonant clusters, many of them involving laryngeals, were repaired already in PIE by adding some kind of non-phonemic [ə]

    Interesting, I didn’t know that (which admittedly isn’t saying much since I don’t know much about PIE at all). But that makes me wonder how those difficult consonant clusters arose, and I would assume that the most likely scenario is elision of phonemic vowels that were there previously, but not necessarily in the places where the non-phonemic [ə]’s were later inserted.

    And this whole thing in term makes me think of the status of /ə/ in French, which (without knowing much about French either) also feels borderline non-phonemic to me, or maybe a phoneme kept alive by literacy (cf. how forms like “ourse blanc” and “Arc ed Triomphe” exist, where /ə/ is inserted in non-etymological places).

  59. David Marjanović says:

    Many of these PIE clusters have morpheme boundaries through them; many others, however, are morphemes in zero-grade, and the same people think zero-grade was still predictable in PIE: */e/ disappeared whenever an inherently accented morpheme followed, “inherently accented” meaning “ended up bearing the stress if it was the first such morpheme in a word”. (Words without inherently accented morphemes got initial stress.)

    also feels borderline non-phonemic to me

    In Paris, it seems to me, it is more or less always dropped (outside of careful speech) unless the resulting consonant clusters would become too long, and then, as you say, it’s sometimes reinserted in non-etymological places.

  60. “That’s because *u was the epenthetic vowel of choice in Proto-Germanic times.”

    In Slavic at some point it was too, i.e. “yer” (a.k.a. yor) was historically a short u (with the front version: short i)

    Also sometimes in Balto-Slavic times, i and u were added to syllables containing syllabic r’s and l’s…

  61. David Marjanović says:

    In Slavic at some point it was too, i.e. “yer” (a.k.a. yor) was historically a short u (with the front version: short i)

    They weren’t epenthetic, though.

    Also sometimes in Balto-Slavic times, i and u were added to syllables containing syllabic r’s and l’s…

    Yes (usually *i), but that’s just the regular resolution of the syllabic consonants (also *m and *n in addition to *r and *l). In Germanic, it goes farther: the noun “milk” was *meluk in Proto-Germanic, with an *u that came out of nowhere and later disappeared several times independently, while the verb remained *melk- the whole time, giving Milch (with the High German consonant shift) and melken (shift blocked by the preceding consonant) in modern German.

  62. Coming late to this, but couldn’t help but be reminded of the following anecdote from the BBC:

    Michael Levi Harris may demonstrate these principles the best. An actor by training, Harris also has an advanced knowledge of 10 languages, and an intermediate understanding of 12 more. Occasionally, his passion has landed him in some difficulty. He once saw an online ad for a Maltese meet-up. Going along, he hoped to find a group of people from Malta, only to walk into a room full of middle-aged women and their white lap dogs – an experience he recently relayed in a short film “The Hyperglot.” http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150528-how-to-learn-30-languages

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