Speaking Slavic and Turkic.

A guest post at the Log by Peter B. Golden addresses a fascinating issue: to what extent can speakers of Slavic and Turkic languages understand each other? (Within each family, that is.) He describes mixed E. Slavic regional dialects, then continues:

When I was a student of Ihor Ševčenko, he presumed that those of us who were native-speakers of a Slavic language (both those born abroad and those born in the US) could simply pick up a book in another Slavic language and read it. In fact, in one of my first seminars with him, he assigned me a book in Bulgarian (which I had never really looked at previously) to read and report on at the next meeting. Bulgarian grammar is largely non-Slavic, having been heavily influenced by Romanian / Vlach – it even has post-positioned articles – articles are completely lacking in all the other Slavic languages (except Macedonian, which is closely related to Bulgarian). The occasional post-positioned preposition does surface in Russian, but these are largely frozen forms, somewhat archaic (e.g. Бога ради / Boga radi “for God’s sake // Bog “God” radi “for the sake of” – used to underscore a plea / request for something). Grammatically, then, Bulgarian is strange, but I could figure it out and the vocabulary, built on literary Church Slavonic (just like literary Russian) was not a serious problem. I read the book and gave my report.

When I studied in Turkey, the attitude was the same: if you know one Turkic language, you can manage any of them. One of my professors, Saadet Çağatay (the daughter of a famous Tatar poet) for my first assignment gave me a folklore text in Qarachay (a Qıpchaq / northwestern Turkic language of the N. Caucasus, with considerable vocabulary differences and some grammatical features that are strange at first encounter (but understandable once one knows the history of Qarachay phonology). Her assumption (and I am not a native speaker) was that one could figure it out – and one largely can. My job was to translate it into Turkish. Chuvash (the sole descendant of West Old Turkic / Oğuric/Bulğaric, which split off from “Common Turkic” ca. 1st cent. BCE-1st cent. CE) and has been heavily impacted by Volga Finnic and other non-Turkic influences, is an exception – but even there, once one gets accustomed to certain “peculiarities,” there is a familiar feel to it. Yakut, which broke away later, i.e. much more recently, and has been isolated from other Turkic languages under Tungusic, Mongol and other influences, also presents problems with vocabulary, etc. but again has a certain familiarity to it.

Have any of you had such experiences?

Comments

  1. Definitely. I’ve studied Azerbaijani and Turkish, and combining those with speaking Arabic (vocabulary help) means that I can read for gist most Turkic texts that are in the Roman alphabet. I struggle with Ottoman and Cyrillic-lettered texts because I don’t know how the sounds map onto those alphabets, one very familiar to me and one alien.

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    As an extremely casual student of Czech I have found that my limited proficiency does extend comfortably to other West and also Southern Slavic languages–I can get the gist of a folksong in Serbian or Polish quite easily, in fact. The other dancers in my folkdance group think I’m very smart, almost magic, but it’s really just that my limited vocabulary turns out to be prominent in these songs.

  3. What about you, hat?

  4. My knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian does not allow me to understand Polish or Czech speech or writing. Though, of course, some words are familiar. I remember trying to read a Polish book about bridge and not any book, but specifically about the strong club system and failing miserably. I probably could have deciphered it, but just as a read it was torture.

  5. The story with Bulgarian and Russian is more complicated, as Ivan Derzhanski explains. First Bulgarian (aka “Old Church Slavonic”, not to be confused with Church Slavonic) heavily influenced Russian, then Russian heavily influenced Bulgarian.

  6. Average Bulgarian text looks to Russian speakers somewhat like this:

    Battle on Actium e decisiv glaringthe at Finalthe War at Roman Republicthe. Dis e one of goliam-est naval battlesthe in ancient times. Battlethe placetook on entrancethe at Ambracian Gulf in Ionian Seathe near Roman colonythe at Actium in Greece (near todayly townthe at Preveza) at September 2, 31 BC. Dis e battlethe between Octavian and combined forcesthe at Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Fleet on Octavian e led by Admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Fleetthe on Mark Antony e accompanied by dat on his mistress – Cleopatra.

  7. SFReader, what’s ‘e’?

  8. I would think that anyone here (i.e., with an delight in languages) and with a native language of Germanic or Romance stock will have had many such experiences within those branches.

    Personally, with Danish as my mother tongue and school instruction in English, German, Latin and French (and 40 years of using it), I can get quite far reading the more formal registers of most Germanic and Romance languages, but of course some are more difficult than others. Romanian is a hard case, but recognizable. And when the Mexicans think they’re alone in certain chat channels at work, I’m lost. jejeje.

    EDIT: So the question was restricted to Turkic and Slavic. Don’t mind me.

  9. The referred to Bulgarian text in fact looks like this:
    Битката при Акциум е решаващият сблъсък от Последната война на Римската република. Това е една от най-големите морски битки в древността. Битката се провежда на входа на Амбракийския залив в Йонийско море, близо до римската колония Акциум в Гърция (близо до днешния град Превеза) на 2 септември 31 пр.н.е.. Това е сражение между Октавиан и обединените сили на Марк Антоний и Клеопатра. Флотата на Октавиан е водена от адмирал Марк Випсаний Агрипа. Флотата на Марк Антоний е съпроводена[3] от тази на неговата любовница[4][5][6][7], царицата на Египет[8] – Клеопатра.[9]
    (from Wikipedia) and easily understandable to a Russian speaker, me.
    I have a Bulgarian friend (who speaks Russian) and I understand most of what she says in Bulgarian. When I (try to) read Ukrainian or listen to Ukrainian I find I understand less. Less even, than when I (try to) read or listen to Polish.
    You can understand a lot, but it’s definitely not a free walk-in, walk-out.

  10. -SFReader, what’s ‘e’?

    Bulgarian for ‘is’.

  11. @Y – e is is or was, like есть, был in Russian.

  12. I’ll second Lars’s comment on Germanic and Romance languages. Am continually surprised to find Galician (Spain) and Portuguese are not mutually-intelligible to native speakers, when they both seem fairly transparent to me in the same sort of way you’ve all described Slavic dialects and languages. I’m now quite curious to know, specifically, what Peter B. Golden meant by “a certain familiarity” when talking about feeling out Turkic languages. (This also reignites my interest in Turkic languages in general–thanks!)

  13. I studied Russian and Polish formally. My experience is that I can read texts in Czech, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Belorussian and Ukrainian, looking up the occasional word that stops me, as long as they are on a topic I know more or less well (history, linguistics, economics). Literary prose and poetry with lots of descriptions are more difficult, because I often get to a point that I have to look up too many words (e.g. rural implements, architecture details, names of plants, animals, etc.) and reading becomes a chore. My aural understanding is generally worse, even in languages I know well, and I understand the languages mentioned only when spoken really slow. On the grammatical side, the differences are small enough that I can normally make out the basics (is the action in the past or present, logical relationships between clauses, etc.) The only part of grammar that I found I have to look up when reading in a new Slavic language is the conjunctions, as there is considerable variation between the individual languages.
    As for Turkic languages, I have only some basic knowledge of Turkish, Kazakh, and Uzbek, so I just noticed how many words jump at me when I see texts in other Turkic languages. From the samples of Chuvash and Yakut I’ve seen, I can confirm Golden’s impression that one recognizes less words at first glance – Chuvash as it branched off long ago, Yakut due to sound changes that merged many Turkic phonemes.

  14. It does depend on the register and context. I speak fluent Russian and decent Polish, and I find I understand about 80-90% of the news being read on the radio when I am driving through Slovakia. I can also decipher Czech and Slovak newspapers fairly easily, especially once you learn a few high frequency non-cognate words and false friends. I have been in some formal business meetings where the Slovaks spoke Slovak and the Poles spoke Polish and everybody understood each other easily. But in colloquial situations I understand maybe 50% of Slovak and 25% of Czech. What I find interesting is picking up newspapers or magazines in languages that I have never studied, like Bulgarian or Swedish (via German/English) and being able to quickly understand a lot more of the content than I do in a newspaper in Japanese, a language I studied for years. I also find it interesting that I understand more spoken Ukrainian and Slovak than I do Swiss German, despite speaking fluent Hochdeutsch and living in the (nominally) German speaking environment of Vienna.

    I once studied both Kazak and Turkish to a basic level, and while there are certainly lexical and grammatical similarities, they didn’t strike me as obviously mutually comprehensible at a level beyond expressing basic daily needs. The verb conjugations and tenses in particular seemed to be far more divergent than between Spanish and Italian, or Russian and Polish, but maybe native speakers don’t feel that way. Kazaks would claim to me that they understood Turkish, but I suspect they could probably get by in Turkey ordering in restaurants or asking for directions, but not much more.

  15. Re: Czech

    While Czech shares great deal of common vocabulary with Russian, it has very non-Slavic ‘feel’ in its grammar, word usage and especially intonation.

    Sometimes Czech feels like a Dutch which switched to 85% Slavic vocabulary.

  16. Kazaks would claim to me that they understood Turkish, but I suspect they could probably get by in Turkey ordering in restaurants or asking for directions, but not much more.
    That also looks like what Turkish friends living in Kazakstan told me – simple conversations are possible, more complicated discussions become difficult.

  17. @Lars & Trond
    Speaking of Germanic, is stod occasionally pronounced stog in Danish/Norwegian, too, or is it a purely Swedish thing?

  18. Stog is purely Swedish, unless it’s splashed over the mountains to Norway somewhere. (Some Swedes claim it is a Stockholm aberration). Blame it on paradigmatic interference from log and dog which have semi-etymological -g from their strong preterite plurals. (PG 3pl *hlōgun > ON hlógu > Sw lo:go and *dedawun > **dogu > do:go).

    Swedish is not like the others here because it kept the separate preterite plurals in active use a bit longer and because the non-geminate *-w- in ‘died (pl)’ seems to have behaved similar to a geminate (*-ww- > *-ggv); it’s in ON and Danish/Norwegian has lost the strong past of ‘die’ altogether (though loge as past plural of ‘laugh’ looks familiar) — which means that Swedish was alone in having the logo/dogo past plurals that could attract log/dog and then stog.

    Also note that Sw stod/stått are etymologically forms of stånda (only found in Germanic), while stå is a suppletive present that may go back to PIE but has no non-present forms attested. That probably made it easier for the strong past to patch over to the log/dog pattern. (And add to that dialects that lost -d in Auslaut).

  19. Ian Press says:

    I learned Russian at first by myself and then formally. I did a bit of Czech and Bulgarian with Stuart E. Mann and Vivian De Sola Pinto (son of the celebrated EngLit scholar) at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I learned all the other Slav(on)ic Languages by myself, one or two of them before I started studying Russian. Although I don’t really fit in with the question posed here, the comments strike me as so convincing. But, as an outsider with a good deal of knowledge of the history of the Slav(on)ic Languages, I find I can get the gist of most texts I read without much trouble (so far as I know!). Writing is more difficult, but not too difficult. When it comes to understanding speech it’s more testing, but I do tend to tune in after five minutes or so. As for speaking, it’s hard to say; yes, I can open my mouth, but I have, alas!, for much of my life been rather quiet. When words do come out, it’s perfectly good enough. I’ve found much the same with the ‘families’ of other languages I’ve studied, formally or informally. As the native speaker of a Germanic language (English), and trying to imagine I don’t know any other Germanic languages, I think I’d have a hard time making much sense of the spoken form of any of them. But, if we accept I’ve studied them all (informally), I can make immediate sense of nearly anything I read in them all. More remote languages are special; as someone struggling to get to grips with Japanese, written and spoken, I’m amazed I’m being so determined, but I’m going to Japan for the first time in November and no way am I not going to be able to communicate, in every way. Making sense of any language is so difficult, but I have little doubt that, faced with several languages (or whatever we’d call them) and being a blank slate, I or anyone would tune in very quickly. Only the other week my optician, a young Bengali woman, said she could speak six languages, and all that without learning any of them, just acquiring at least one, in her family, and the others (all related to Bengali) coming along because of the way she lived. Plus totally native English.

  20. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    After eight months of an introductory Swedish class in Uppsala (SFI), I found I could carry a simple conversation with someone speaking Norwegian, and I could read an academic article in Danish. Spoken Danish, however, is still beyond my ken, except for a word here and there.

  21. Ian Press says:

    I meant to add this earlier. I find it so moving, and funny.

    In The Mind’s Eye, The Memoirs of Dame Elizabeth Hill, edited by Jean Stafford Smith, The Book Guild Ltd, Sussex, England, 1999.

    pp. 315-6 (in a section relating to 1949, but possibly not this extract):

    A third was an undergraduate called Furness – we called him Pechka, meaning stove or furnace in Russian. He was shy, silent and uncommunicative. Students provide one with
    surprises. I couldn’t get a word out of him. I asked my gentle 16-year-old niece, who had found refuge with me from the air raids in London, to explain when he arrived that I would be late for his supervision and to offer him tea.
    ‘Pechka, would you like a coffee? My aunt is sorry she will be late because she has an unexpected meeting to attend.’
    ‘No, thank you,’ in broad northern accent.
    ‘Oh. What about a cup of tea?’
    ‘I never tooch that stuff.’
    Even she could not move him to talk. At the next supervision I asked him how he spent his time (he was in his first term). He brought out a notebook. I was amazed to see that every minute was planned from the moment he opened his eyes to the time he closed them. Get up; wash, etc. 9 a.m. Russian Grammar 10 a.m. Russian Translation 11 a.m. Russian Composition – the five hours of Russian provided by the university fitted in over the week, and one hour of supervision, plus French, German and every Slavonic tongue, then Sanskrit and finally, half an hour of Colloquial Tibetan. I had completely misjudged this man’s wide linguistic ambitions.
    ‘You clever fellow! Where did you find a Tibetan to talk to?’
    ‘I haven’t,’ he answered solemnly.
    ‘You mean you’ve found someone to teach you Tibetan here?’
    ‘No, I haven’t. I don’t know any Tibetans. I’ve got a book.’
    ‘But who do you talk with?’
    ‘Myself,’ he said. ‘I talk to the wall. I read the book out loud.’
    That man was a very serious student, and I believe he has had a splendid career in codes and cyphers in many languages.

    And I utterly agree about Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. I learned Danish before the others, and did it pretty thoroughly. But I find it strangely difficult to read the works of, say, Jussi Adler-Olsen in Danish. I reckon I can understand 50% or more of the dialogue in Danish films, but that may be due to increased exposure to spoken Danish, horrendous as it is.

  22. What about you, hat?

    I can may my way through most Slavic stuff, but then I’m a linguist by training and grew up speaking several languages. I’ve never studied any Turkic languages (though of course I have dictionaries).

    So the question was restricted to Turkic and Slavic. Don’t mind me.

    In the first place, no it wasn’t; “such experiences” implicitly includes all language groups. In the second place, there’s no restriction to a specific topic at LH (unlike at other sites I could name). So you’re good!

  23. I meant to add this earlier. I find it so moving, and funny.

    That’s a great story; thanks for sharing it!

  24. As long as we are bring up Swedish and Norwegian – has anyone here read the second volume of Knausgard’s Min Kamp in the original or in Swedish translation? He is a Norwegian living in Stockholm, for much of the book, married to a Swede, and it is unclear to me from the German or English translations what language he uses to communicate with his wife. Die he learn Swedish? Is he just speaking Norwegian to her and she responding in Swedish? What language is he using with his children? For a writer infamous for supposed attention to detailed descriptions of banal quotidian activities, I found it odd that the language issues are just glossed over. Sometimes, at least early on, he does seem to be speaking Norwegian to Swedes, and he mentions shopkeepers in Stockholm staring blankly at him, or answering in English. But in general his conversations with his wife and other Swedish friends/acquaintances are presented as if everyone is speaking the same language. I wonder if this is clearer in the original, or if all the dialogue is just written in bokmal?

  25. My experience is limited, but, knowing Russian and Turkish, I find the Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs I sing very easy to learn and remember, although I am often left with the impression that there are a lot of extra pronouns floating around in them. I’m not sure if I’m misinterpreting small, pronoun-like words as pronouns, or if something else is going on, but the Wikipedia chart of Bulgarian pronouns does confirm that their system is more complex than the Russian.

    I usually understand the gist of Bulgarian conversations if I listen carefully, and once at a Bulgarian folk festival where my group performed, I was surprised to find that I understood the MC’s higher-register official speech (of the “this festival has been made possible by the generous support of…” type) extremely well.

  26. Charles Perry says:

    On the other hand, Turks visiting Uzbekistan tend to speak rapid Turkish, confident that they’re being understood (when it’s clear that they’re not, they just repeat in a louder tone of voice, as Americans do). But a lot of Persian and Arabic words developed different senses in the Ottoman period, so the vocabulary is full of faux amis.

  27. But in general his conversations with his wife and other Swedish friends/acquaintances are presented as if everyone is speaking the same language. I wonder if this is clearer in the original, or if all the dialogue is just written in bokmal?

    That’s an excellent question, and I hope someone can answer it. (I was disappointed to learn that the original versions of the Ferrante novels have all dialogue in Italian, with only occasional mentions that someone is speaking in dialect, just as in the English versions.)

  28. per incuriam says:

    I was disappointed to learn that the original versions of the Ferrante novels have all dialogue in Italian

    There are occasional Neapolitan words and expressions in the dialogue, “chillu strunz” for example, which appears quite a few times.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    I suppose I’m the one to answer it. I can’t. I have never read Knausgård, not even his much acclaimed debut novel Ute av verden. I do know, from an interview after his debut novel, that he felt the story coming together when he chose to abandon his own more “radical” colloquial Bokmål and let the protagonist tell his story in a “conservative” Riksmål type. I think he has kept this form in later novels, including the very close and personal Min kamp.

    A few notes on Scandinavian:

    My impression is that Scandinavians moving from one country to another generally don’t switch but instead gradually find themselves speaking a watered-down version of their own language, much like people moving from one part of a country to another. But people have different strategies, or different abilities in adjusting.

    Swedes used to not understand Norwegian. In Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) Per Petterson’s teen protagonist, in a sudden violent outburst, knocks down a shopkeeper in Karlstad, Sweden, who doesn’t understand him. This has improved significantly lately, and Swedes I speak to all say it’s because of Fredrik. Sociolinguistically it may rather be about oil.

    As for Knausgård, his spoken Norwegian is that of his home region on the southern tip, which is less familiar to Swedes than the high-end Oslo variety.

    Danish is more difficult than Swedish. Or it takes more effort to tune the phonological devices. I remember understanding nothing as a child. Now it’s no problem, but my kids don’t understand much. Much the same with Danish adults and kids and Norwegian.

  30. Jim (another one) says:

    This sounds like about the time depth for the oldest splits in Sinitic and those varieties are notoriously not mutually intelligible, even in the case of splits that are a lot less deep..

    I wonder what the situation is in Bantu.

  31. original versions of the Ferrante novels have all dialogue in Italian

    They pretty much have to, with occasional standard phrases. The dialetti of Italy are separate languages not mutually intelligible with Italian: having Naples residents speaking Neapolitan would be like a Spanish film set in Lisbon in which the characters speak unsubtitled Portuguese.

  32. There are occasional Neapolitan words and expressions in the dialogue, “chillu strunz” for example, which appears quite a few times.

    Thanks for that, and googling “chillu strunz” led me to this enjoyable (if short) list.

  33. part of it may be your guys’ linguistic sensibility. Like being able to sense stems and their spectra of meanings, to gauge the natural ways of phonetic variation, etc. I understand Ukrainian spoken with a regular speed, not in the breakneck pace of Lvov girls. But I was exposed to Ukrainisms in the continuum of the old country dialects. My children OTOH are lost in it, probably because they experienced only one flavor of Russian

  34. speaking a watered-down version: Where’s the fun in that? When I moved to Sweden 10 years ago, at 46, I kept Danish and Swedish separate from day one, but I’m far from native-sounding in Swedish. My ex-wife didn’t, with predictable impact on her Danish. The girl who was 13 when we arrived spoke perfect Swedish three years later, and still has perfect Danish, the boy who was 9 still mixes things up lexically but has the phonologies down pat.

    One interesting fact is that the language barrier is much much lower when people want to do business with you, as opposed to public servants for instance.

  35. … not in the breakneck pace of Lvov girls.
    After many years in the US I consider myself fluent enough in English. And yet a year ago, for the first time, I had a conversation with a speaker of standard American English who speaks too fast for me to keep up with without intense concentration.

  36. Slightly relevant, and slightly funnier than relevant: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/005137.html

  37. Trond Engen says:

    I haven’t moved between Scandinavian countries myself, so it’s not first hand experience. It’s just my impression from people around me. But I do know counter-examples too.

    When I go to Denmark or Sweden on holiday, I enjoy talking to people without changing my own speech, and to understand their speech as it is, wherever we happen to be. They do of course make it easier by normalizing, as do I, if I have to, but I do find that as they notice I understand, they relax and fall into their natural speech. I have had similar experiences in bilingual meetings. Most local forms of Scandinavian languages aren’t more different than the standard varieties, and we aren’t enough exposed to the standard of the neighbouring country for normalizing to help (seemingly challenging my own argument about Knausgård in Sweden). Though there are exceptions. Norwegians claim to understand all Swedes except those from Skåne, the southern tip (but I find that dialect quite straightforward as soon as you map the vowels). Danish and Swedish speakers will probably need some time to adjust to Non-Eastern Norwegian (explaining Knausgård again).

  38. Here’s a passage from Henning Mankell’s story collection Pyramiden, titled Pyramid in English. I was reading it in English yesterday and thought I’d see what the Swedish looks like. Wallander is meeting a Danish sailor named Jespersen in Copenhagen:

    […] Jespersen togg sin kaffekopp och log när han såg att det var Wallander.

    — Det var övantat, sa han på bruten svenska. En svensk polisbetjänt i Köpenhamn.

    — Inte betjänt, sa Wallander. Konstapel. Eller kriminalpolis.

    — Det är väl samma fan det?

    Jespersen scrockade och lade fyra sockerbitar i kaffet.

    — Hur som helst är det trevligt att få besök, sa han. Jag känner all som kommer hit. Jag vet vad dom kommer att dricka och vad dom kommer att säga. Och dom vet samma sak om mig. Ibland undrar jag varför jag inte går nån annanstans. Men jag tror inte jag vågar.

    — Varför inte?

    — Nån kanske säger nåt jag inte vill höra.

    Wallander var inte riktigt säker på att han förstod allt vad Jespersen sa. Dels var hans dansk-svenska grötig, dels kunde han vara en aning svävande i sina utalanden.

    (Sorry for any typos.)

    And here’s the English:

    […] Jespersen took his cup and smiled when he saw Wallander.

    ‘This is unexpected,’ he said in broken Swedish. ‘A Swedish police servant in Copenhagen.’

    ‘Not a servant,’ Wallander said. ‘Constable. Or criminal investigator.’

    ‘Isn’t that the same thing?’

    Jespersen chuckled and dropped four lumps of sugar into his coffee.

    ‘In any case, it’s nice to get a visitor,’ he said. ‘I know everyone who comes here. I know what they’re going to drink and what they’re going to say. And they know the same about me. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t go someplace else. But I don’t think I dare.’

    ‘Why not?’

    ‘Maybe someone will say something I don’t want to hear.’

    Wallander wasn’t sure he understood everything that Jespersen was saying. For one thing, his Swedo-Danish was unclear, for another his pronouncements were somewhat vague.

    Now for all I don’t read Swedish, it’s obvious that the phrase “in broken Swedish” is being supplied by the translator. If the translator is correct, the language is basically Swedish with Danish influences rather than the other way around, and the reference to Swedo-Danish should rather be to Dano-Swedish (cf. dano-svenska in the original).

    If anyone cares to explain this semi-creole, or intertwined language, or whatever it is, in some detail, I’d love to hear about it. If you want more, there are another two pages that I didn’t have the energy to type in from Google Books.

  39. it’s obvious that the phrase “in broken Swedish” is being supplied by the translator.

    “sa han på bruten svenska”

  40. having Naples residents speaking Neapolitan would be like a Spanish film set in Lisbon in which the characters speak unsubtitled Portuguese.

    Anecdote: I once watched a Portuguese documentary on YouTube about Fernando Pessoa with Spanish subtitles, and most of the time the Spanish text and the Portuguese audio were identical. The subtitles felt more like captioning for a thick accent than a translation.

    Another kind of related story: I was watching a clip of Pope Francis in Mexico talking about Donald Trump, and I heard him say, “Una person que solo tanto ????” I couldn’t understand anything, which surprised me, because he was talking pretty slowly and I thought my Spanish comprehension was decent. But after a while I realized that he was actually speaking Italian, and that “solo tanto”, which I thought was a Spanish phrase I was unfamiliar with, was really “soltanto”.

  41. A Swedish police servant is really the only thing that stands out, German Bedienter borrowed with different status connotations to make a false friend. Non-officer-grade uniformed police are betjente in Danish, konstapler or just poliser in Swedish, while betjänter in Swedish are low-status servants.

    With language confusion firmly established in a semi-translatable form, the rest of Jespersen’s dialogue is pretty standard (colloquial) Swedish, though there is a characteristic Danish turn of phrase at the end of the first page at John’s link: Vad är det så du vill veta? = Hvad er det så du vil vide? = “So what is it that you want to know?” — you can’t really have in that position in Swedish, I think the most likely phrase would be Vad är det du vill veta, då?. There may of course be other Danicisms that pass under my radar because I’m guilty of them myself…

    EDIT: A real Danish sailor with a smattering of Swedish would make many more mistakes. For instance I though that övantat for oväntat might be an example of Jespersen guessing wrong when attempting the Swedish equivalent of Danish uventet — but it was a transcription error. There are no “eye broken” spellings, just the token lexical and perhaps grammatical Danicisms.

  42. @Lars: mange tak!

  43. “sa han på bruten svenska”

    And it is also obvious that I’m an idiot.

    Non-officer-grade uniformed police

    It’s remarkable that in English (or American English, at least), all police are called officers, whether they have supervisory responsibilities or not. Historically I suppose this was because they held commissions from the executive branch, just as military officers do; nowadays, it might be more a matter of being able to operate alone, as military privates normally do not.

    transcription error

    Oops, and thanks for the analysis!

  44. And in fact I used ‘officer-grade’ as the English equivalent of the higher grades in Denmark — slightly skewed I suspect, since we have betjent and assistent as the lower, originally non-commissioned, grades. (The tjenestemand/embedsmand distinction to be precise) — on the assumption that constables/corporals and sergeants aren’t officers. ‘Entry-grade uniformed police’ might have been a better description of betjente.

    I don’t think Scandinavia has ever used military grade designations for civilian police, though.

  45. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    John Cowan may know more than I, but I’m skeptical Ferrante truly needs to avoid Neapolitan to be understood by her readers. So-called Italian dialects are indeed distinct Romance languages, but some are fairly mutually intelligible with Italian, especially in writing. I’m from Turin, which is pretty far north by Italian standards, and I have never even been to Naples, but I find I can read Neapolitan Wikipedia without difficulty.

    Andrea Camilleri is a best selling author, and while I don’t believe his novels contain much if any proper Sicilian, they are entirely written in a highly sicilianized Italian of his own devising. Massimo Troisi was an extremely popular comedian, and I think at least in his early movies he spoke outright Neapolitan, not just Neapolitan-accented Italian. I’ve always found him very hard to follow myself, even in his later and less Neapolitan works, but I seem to be in the minority.

    All in all, I suspect the problem is not so much that Ferrante readers cannot handle some Neapolitan, but rather that they don’t wish to, and forcing it upon them would constitute a literary and ideological statement she isn’t interested in making.

  46. I suspect the problem is not so much that Ferrante readers cannot handle some Neapolitan, but rather that they don’t wish to, and forcing it upon them would constitute a literary and ideological statement she isn’t interested in making.

    Yes, I’m pretty sure it has to do with ideological/literary decisions on Ferrante’s part and not with interdialectal comprehensibility.

  47. John Cowan may know more than I

    I doubt it in this case!

    So-called Italian dialects are indeed distinct Romance languages, but some are fairly mutually intelligible with Italian

    It’s just hard for an anglophone to keep a firm grip on this: for us, it’s a contradiction. There are no languages distinct from English that we understand without individually studying them or immersing ourselves in them.

    but rather that [readers] don’t wish to

    Indeed. Writers of English who use non-standard orthography to represent even fully mutually intelligible varieties, like Artemus Ward, are typically little read. (Mark Twain and D.H. Lawrence are exceptions, probably because they are “school authors”.)

  48. How about Scots?

    Notwithstanding the UK government’s and the Scottish Executive’s obligations under part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Scottish Executive recognises and respects Scots (in all its forms) as a distinct language, and does not consider the use of Scots to be an indication of poor competence in English.

    Can anyone explain what ‘notwithstanding’ is doing there? Does a legal fiction exist whereby the Scottish Executive could recognize Scots as a distinct language (from English) without affording it the privileges of a minority language?

  49. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, I was going to say that the closest English equivalent I can think of would be novels set in Glasgow or Edinburgh featuring Scots, like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

  50. Trond Engen says:

    Me: My impression is that Scandinavians moving from one country to another generally don’t switch but instead gradually find themselves speaking a watered-down version of their own language, much like people moving from one part of a country to another. But people have different strategies, or different abilities in adjusting.

    That’s an impression I’d like to, er, unpress. It’s how I see colleagues and neighbours from Denmark and Sweden adjust to living in Norway. Norwegians I know of who live (or has been living) in Sweden have acquired full-fledged Swedish. I have fewer data points in Denmark, and none between Denmark and Sweden. But given the lower rate of mutual intelligibility between Danish and Swedish, I’d suspect bilingualism to be the norm.

  51. When it comes to Slavic mutual intelligibility: isn’t it odd that educated Polish speakers can generally understand Czech, even though it has undergone some distinct vowel shifts for West Slavic, while Polish speakers cannot understand Kashubian where, again, the big innovation is in the vocalism? It’s frustrating to be an outsider to these languages and unable to understand exactly where the barrier to understanding lies.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    Trying to tie the themes together, in one of Boris Akunin’s Fandorin novels there’s a Ukrainian-speaking (and this is part of the plot) character. In the Norwegian translation he is rendered in Swedish to, as far as I can tell, good effect. But I don’t know to what degree the original uses standard Ukrainian or ukrainianisms.

  53. How about Scots?

    Yeah, I forgot this time to interject “(always excepting Scots)” as I normally do.

    Notwithstanding the UK government’s and the Scottish Executive’s obligations

    I think the point is that the UK government, which is a party to the treaty, does not recognize Scots as a minority language either of Scotland or of the UK, and so this is a euphemism for “notwithstanding the UK government’s and the Scottish Executive’s lack of obligations”.

  54. So actually it’s the converse, that notwithstanding the recognition by the Scottish Executive that Scots is a language, the UK Government as party to the treaty will not afford it minority language status in either jurisdiction. Or in other words again: Subject to / respecting / not disputing its status under part II aso, the SE recognizes Scots as a language.

    Why do bureaucrats so love to paint themselves into linguistic corners?

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the West Indies, and probably not only there, there is a code-switching continuum between local versions of approximately standard English that are intelligible (with some effort to follow phonology, possible puzzlement at odd lexical items, etc) to a native speaker of AmEng and deeper/thicker versions of creole/patois which are not necessarily fully intelligible to AmEng (or BrEng) speakers. I imagine these days native speakers of the deepest/thickest/broadest Scots can likewise mostly code-switch over to a distinctively-pronounced version of approximately standard English if they feel so inclined, but because the history is different there the case for the autonomy/identity of “pure” Scots is easier to follow than for the almost-but-not-quite-Englishes spoken in a creole context. Except I guess in parts of the world far from the West Indies where creoles have become fully standardized and official or semi-official. Is Tok Pisin a West Germanic language? If so, is it closer to English than Frisian is? Are these even coherent questions?

  56. All: the claim that Bulgarian (+Macedonian) grammar owes its non-Slavic features to contact with Vlach/Romanian is one which many a scholar of Balkan languages would disagree with (although I personally think it is quite true).

    On spoken versus written mutual intelligibility: one of my first teachers of historical linguistics, a Romance scholar (L1 English speaker) who had a good command of Spanish and Portuguese (and almost native-like command of French), told us in class once that at a colloquium in Galicia (the one in Spain, not the one in Central Europe!) he was surprised to find that spoken Galician was largely unintelligible to him, whereas written Galician was perfectly comprehensible (this contrast between spoken and written Galician surprised him).

    On the mutual (un)intelligibility of Italian “dialects”: this is complicated. The trouble is that over most of Italy you do not (or rather, you no longer) find a sharp barrier between standard Italian and dialect, each with its clear domain of use in a stable diglossic situation: rather, you find a continuum, where Standard Italian and dialect stand at endpoints, with dialect-influenced Italian and Italian-influenced dialect shading into one another in such a fashion that it is difficult to tell where dialect ends and where “Italian” begins (this is very similar to the continuum between standard European language and local creole language found in countries such as Jamaica for instance). Claims of mutual intelligibility between non-adjacent dialects are probably true when referring to the more Italian-influenced varieties/registers: but among less Italian-influenced varieties mutual intelligibility, often even between geographically close varieties, is typically close to zero.

    To get some idea of such continua in Italy, have a look at page 5 of this article, which describes a typologically most unusual Romance variety:

    https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pfrlsu/documents/Ferrari-Bridgers,%20The%20Ripano%20dialect.pdf

    Christopher Culver: in the case of Kashubian versus Czech I suspect sociolinguistics has a major role to play: a native Polish speaker may well find it easier/more natural to try looking for similarities to Polish in what to them is a separate system (Czech) than in what they perceive to be a very “low prestige” form of Polish. Doubly so if you consider that (nearly?) all Kashubian speakers also have a command of Polish.

    J.W. Brewer: in answer to your question I would say that Tok Pisin is West Germanic; genetically it is much closer to English than to Frisian (English and Frisian have a common ancestor, granted, but the Germanic variety which was pidginized and became Tok Pisin and its relatives was indisputably a form of English, not a form of Frisian), but typologically, because Tok Pisin is a pidgin/creole, it differs typologically from English far more than Frisian does. Indeed the typological relationship between the three is quite parallel to the relationship between, for instance, Haitian Creole, French and Occitan.

  57. the claim that Bulgarian (+Macedonian) grammar owes its non-Slavic features to contact with Vlach/Romanian is one which many a scholar of Balkan languages would disagree with

    Surely many a scholar of Balkan languages would disagree with pretty much any claim one could make, considering the fact that Balkan scholarship is and has always been awash in nationalism.

  58. Trond Engen, I believe I’ve read all Akunin’s Fandorin novels and short story collections as well, but don’t remember a Ukrainian-speaking character. If you give me a hint, I would very much like to see what that was all about.

  59. January First-of-May says:

    Battle on Actium e decisiv glaringthe at Finalthe War at Roman Republicthe. Dis e one of goliam-est naval battlesthe in ancient times. Battlethe placetook on entrancethe at Ambracian Gulf in Ionian Seathe near Roman colonythe at Actium in Greece (near todayly townthe at Preveza) at September 2, 31 BC. Dis e battlethe between Octavian and combined forcesthe at Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Fleet on Octavian e led by Admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Fleetthe on Mark Antony e accompanied by dat on his mistress – Cleopatra.

    Definitely change all cases of “the” to “that” when feminine or neuter, “those” when plural, and “-ut” when masculine (Bulgarian -ът doesn’t really mean anything to a Russian speaker) – though this snippet apparently has no cases of the latter.

    The actual (translated) literal Russian interpretation of the above Bulgarian (or, at least, as I see it – also it’s mostly word-for-word, so the English is a bit stilted) is probably something like this:

    Battlethat at Actium e decisive-t sblusuk from Lastthat war on Romanthat respublic. Dat e one from golam-est-those sea battles in antiquitythat. Battlethat this occured on entry to Ambraciane gulf in Ionian sea, close to Romanthat colony Actium in Gerece (close to day city Preveza) at 2 Septemver 31 pr CE. Dat e fight between Octavian and unitedthose forces on Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Fleetthat on Mark Antony e accompanied from basins on ??? mistress, queenthat on Egypt – Cleopatra.

    [The ??? is неговата, a word that has too many possible interpretations for a Russian speaker – the correct is probably него-ва-та “him-‘s-that”, meaning “his”, which in principle could be guessed, but I doubt it’s easy to stumble on even with context, unfortunately. I would have probably guessed “naked”, incidentally.
    “Basins” is a chance resemblance of an unrelated word, as is, in fact, the only occurrence of “this”; “golyam” and “sblusuk” are just nonsensical in Russian so kept as in the Bulgarian original. I kept the “e” too, but a Russian speaker would probably recognize them, in the context, as a shortened form of “is/am/are”.
    Not featured, because I’m not sure how to hint on it in English: the two dozen or so places where the Russian case endings randomly disappear.]

    …As a small kid, I had (and occasionally read) a small Bulgarian book on the early history of Cyrillic, with a bit on Glagolitic (Нашето аз-буки-веди).
    It was clearly not Russian (I’m not sure when I consciously found out it was Bulgarian – my memories seem to say it was a mystery for a while, but I’m not sure how much I can trust my memories for stuff that would have happened 15-20 years ago), and it wasn’t as easy reading as all the Russian books I had, but the text was easy enough to vaguely follow through when one knew what the topic was anyway.
    We still have the book, incidentally.

  60. Trond Engen says:

    D.O.: If you give me a hint, I would very much like to see what that was all about.

    Will do, but I’m not sure which one anymore, so I’ll have to leaf through a few of them.

  61. Trond Engen says:

    .. or i could just Google it. It’s the novella The Decorator, part of Special Assignments. Which is why I was confused — I couldn’t find the title I remembered among the books on the shelf.

  62. Christopher Culver: why do you have the impression that educated Polish speakers don’t understand Kashubian?

  63. -But I don’t know to what degree the original uses standard Ukrainian or ukrainianisms.

    His speech is very peculiar. He switches on and off between normal colloquial Russian and standard Ukrainian. A perfectly normal sentence or two in one language and then two-three similarly normal sentences in another.

    Such speech behaviour is highly unusual for an uneducated cemetery guard (they usually tend to produce surzhyk – mix of Russian and Ukrainian words within each sentence)

    Of course, there is an explanation for that.

    He is actually Jack the Ripper trying to fake Ukrainian speech…

  64. Of course, it’s likely that Jack the Ripper was from Poland.

  65. “Christopher Culver: why do you have the impression that educated Polish speakers don’t understand Kashubian?”

    My wife is Polish. Playing Kashubian radio or YouTube videos to her and her friends and relatives of similar high education evokes only bafflement. It is hard for them to even get the gist of what is being discussed. Yet my wife regularly converses with Czechs and Slovaks without problem.

  66. Christopher Culver: why do you have the impression that educated Polish speakers don’t understand Kashubian?

    Kashubian is stereotypically considered unintelligible in Poland, and this long predates its official recognition as a separate language.

    There are quite large phonetic differences from standard Polish (in vowels, consonants, stress) and loads of Germanisms. E.g. ‘water’ is [vOda] in standard Polish and may be [wEda] in Kashubian depending on dialect, ‘sing (imperative)’ is [s\pjEvaj] in Polish while it may be sth along the lines of [sp_jIvI] in Kashubian. These are larger phonetic differences than between Polish and Slovak, in two very basic words and such differences accumulate in sentences.

    To me written Kashubian isn’t hard to understand at all but then it’s written fairly etymologically and the literary register is largely modelled on Polish (I imagine an everyday conversation on agricultural activities or fishing would be much more difficult to comprehend).

    Of course, it’s likely that Jack the Ripper was from Poland.

    And thus, Brexit.

  67. Interesting. As a non-native speaker, Kashubian seems easier to me, at least based on the samples up on Youtube. I suspect Etienne is right about it being a sociolinguistic phenomenon. Educated Czechs or Slovaks can avoid colloquialisms, obvious idioms and slang if they know they are speaking to a Pole. A Kaszub presumably would just switch to Polish rather than trying to speak a more formal literary Kaszub to a Pole. How much does your wife understand if she is listening to a conversation between two Czech friends?

  68. isn’t it odd that educated Polish speakers can generally understand Czech,

    Seems disputable to me. I struggle to understand even simplified spoken Czech. But then, Slavic speakers can quickly improve their comprehension of other Slavic langs by immersion. I’m not very immersed in Czech despite living several dozen kilometers from Czechia, being more of an East-Slavophile. Also Czech has always seemed to me weirdly laden with unexpected false friends (like every second word) and strange neologisms.

  69. I too have difficulty with Czech; when I spent a couple weeks in Prague I confidently expected I’d be able to pick up at least the basics, but I pretty much only learned to recognize simple greetings and the “warning, doors are about to close” announcement on the subway. And order beer.

  70. Is either Sorbian language intelligible to Polish or Czech speakers?

  71. On Czech/Polish; I was once part of a day in 1996 where 3 choirs from schools from Liberec (CZ), Jelenia Góra (PL) and Zittau (DE) were putting on a joint appearance. Despite extensive opportunities, none of the Polish and Czech speakers, all of whom had grown up a few kilometres from the triple border, seemed to be making any attempt to communicate with each other in any language or compromise between languages, suggesting they didn’t find it easy. Communication between the Polish and Czech adults, all teachers, was established via German (some of it translated into Czech via me, a native speaker of English). Of course we had to speak to all the German participants in German as none of them showed any knowledge of West Slavic.

  72. Trond Engen says:

    For school-age kids I think awkwardness is a big part of it. And I don’t just mean awkwardness towards the other group, but the social cost of standing out from one’s own peers. Nobody can afford taking the first step, or be caught investing the necessary effort. It’s the same mechanism that makes just about every schoolkid everywhere fail in acquiring any foreign language other than English or the local majority language, and that makes local heritage languages wither away until after the last native speaker is dead.

  73. @anhweol: Perhaps it was for the best they didn’t try. My favourite examples of Czech/Polish extreme ‘falsefriendliness’:

    Po. poszedł – went (on foot)( (perfective)
    Cz. pošel – snuffed it (I think they use šel as ambiperfective)

    Po. szukać – seek, look for
    Cz. šukat – fuck

    Cz. dívka – girl, děvka – whore
    Po. dziwka – whore, dziewka – maid, girl (old fashioned)

    Po. mam napad – I’m having a fit / attack
    Cz. mám nápad – I’ve got an idea

    Po. droga – road
    Cz. droga – drug

    It seems impossible to say a few basic sentences without running into this kind of business. Maybe it’s best for us not to try to communicate in our respective languages with each other…

  74. The post-2004 EU migration to Ireland and the UK had a good mix of West Slavs (and even East Slavs from Lithuania or Latvia), mainly young working adults, not shy about eliminating the awkwardness Trond describes through drinking.

    I wasn’t here for the first year or so when I’m sure they were forced to take more advantage of mutual intelligibility, but it has always surprised me how little of I-speak-my-language, you-speak-yours happens among them. As a datum, a group of my wife’s rock-climbing friends a few weekends ago, two Czechs, two Slovaks, four Poles, everyone seemed to understand the within-language conversations, but all communication directed at anyone of another nationality was in English.

  75. Speak French when you can’t think of the English for a thing: it saves time.

  76. If you’re going to quote the Red Queen, for god’s sake do it correctly — you know what she’s like when she’s angry: “Speak in French…”

  77. Trond Engen says:

    Young adult peers are very different from school-age adolescent peers. Luckily. That’s one of the main reasons for bothering to grow up.

    In a situation like the one Aidan describes, it might be that they are all more comfortable using the lingua franca with outsiders, but it could also be that rock-climbing is an anglophone domain. That might depend on how the group came together, or how they came into rock-climbing in the first place.

  78. Young adult peers are very different from school-age adolescent peers. Luckily. That’s one of the main reasons for bothering to grow up.

    Even as a kid — and I had a perfectly fine childhood — I was confident that I was going to enjoy being a grown-up more than being a kid, and I was right; in fact, I have never been sorry to be older than I used to be. I am baffled by people who long for their lost youth and consider it the high point of their life.

  79. Trond Engen says:

    Amen.

  80. On Polish / Czech: I once was in a negotiation between a Polish company I was seconded to and a Czech company. The Czech side spoke Czech, and the Polish side spoke Polish, and we understood each other well, as everyone tried to speak not too fast. But the reason we did it this way was that the owner and boss of the Czech company was a Spaniard living in Prague who knew only Spanish and Czech – his Czech employees and my Polish colleagues all spoke perfect business English and switched to speaking English when the boss was not in the room.

  81. What a world!

  82. That reminds me of an amusing story John Cowan posted in a comment on Language Log:

    Scene: Somewhere in Europe. Two groups of obvious tourists are talking among themselves. The first group is speaking Spanish. One of the members of the second group goes up to the first group and begins to address them in Italian.

    A man from the first group says, “Perché parlate noi in italiano quando parliamo spagnolo?”

    “Non parlo spagnolo.”

    “Ah. Parlez-vous français?”

    “Pas trés bien. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

    “Jawohl, sprech’ ich Deutsch. Übrigens woher sind Sie?”

    “Wir kommen aus den Vereinigten Staaten.”

    “We’re from New York!”

  83. -3 choirs from schools from Liberec (CZ), Jelenia Góra (PL) and Zittau (DE) …. Of course we had to speak to all the German participants in German as none of them showed any knowledge of West Slavic.

    Very sorry to hear that.

    Because

    “Žitawa (čěsce Žitava, němsce Zittau, pólsce Żytawa) je wulke wokrjesne město we wuchodosakskim wokrjesu Zhorjelc. Pjate najwjetše město Hornjeje Łužicy leži w samym juhowuchodźe Sakskeje při Nysy a Mandawje a mjezuje z Pólskej a Čěskej. Prěnje historiske naspomnjenje je z lěta 1238.”

    Closer to Polish than Czech, I think. If people of Zittau retained speech of their ancestors, they would have had no trouble understanding both of their neighbours.

  84. Back to Decorator. Just as expected, the person in question was faking his Ukrainian roots. His Ukrainisms are haphazard and make no sense. And not at all in a surzhik type of speech. For example, he mentions months of January and February in Russian where they are pretty unnatural words. I am hard pressed imagining Ukrainian with about half of vocabulary in Russian to switch like that.

  85. Yvy tyvy: What does “yvy tyvy” mean?

    Google reports it in the Guaraní translation of Leviticus 25:25, but nowhere else except as your nym. The verse is “Xapy’a rei penderyvy e’ỹ vy penderyke’y iporiaukue’i vy oyvy ovende ramo peteĩ hetarã ou ‘rã hepyarã, ha’e vy ojogua jevy ‘rã yvy tyvy e’ỹ vy tyke’y ovende va’ekue.” I’m assuming this is a direct or indirect translation of the Vulgate “Si adtenuatus frater tuus vendiderit possessiunculam suam et voluerit propinquus eius potest redimere quod ille vendiderat.” The Rheims-Douay gives it as “If thy brother being impoverished sell his little possession, and his kinsman will, he may redeem what he had sold.” Which helps not at all.

    Checking a Guaraní dictionary, I find yvy ‘heredad; suelo, tierra, mundo; sur’ and tyvy ‘yacija, sepulcro’. Again, less than clear.

  86. I’m curious too, but I’m pretty sure Guaraní is a red herring.

  87. @ John Cowan

    I think they are the Guarani words for “earth” and “tomb”. Combined, I think as a whole it means “The earth is a tomb,” but I may be wrong about that. (For comparison, “nde tavy” (lit. “you crazy”) means “you’re crazy”.) I did not have the Bible translation in mind, and in fact I only found out this combination of Guarani words existed on the internet after creating my name.

    @languagehat

    Nope, not a red herring!

  88. „Is either Sorbian language intelligible to Polish or Czech speakers?”

    Not impressively so, to this Polish speaker. Judging by the videos on youtube, Upper Sorbian’s pretty hopeless, while I can make something out of the Lower Sorbian (but crucial words are often hard to understand, so I hear that, let’s say, someone came home and saw something but I can’t figure out what they saw and how it came about. After several focused listenings some of the gaps are filled but not everything).

    The fact that the speech of the younger generations is pretty Germanized phonetically doesn’t help at all.

  89. I forgot to mention: I picked “yvy tyvy” not necessarily because it actually means anything, but because it appears to consist entire of consonant letters (which is not true, obviously). But then, nothing beats Welsh: ffwrdd, yng, nghytser, hwn, yw’r, nghylchgrawn, bywyd.

  90. *entirely

  91. J.W. Brewer says:

    Speaking of Welsh, I just by chance learned today that one of the Welsh-language songs recorded by Super Furry Animals (who record primarily in English but are probably the most prominent rock band to have any substantial Welsh-language body of work) has the rather “meta” title “[Nid] Hon Yw’r Gân Sy’n Mynd I Achub Yr Iaith,” which translates more or less to “This Is [Not] the Song That Will Save the Language.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvWstdNHzZU It’s got a good beat; you can dance to it (and/or get stoned and watch the clouds drift by etc.)

  92. Nope, not a red herring!

    I am pleased to be wrong! When I was living in Argentina, I visited Paraguay and bought a grammar of Guaraní; I didn’t get anywhere with it, but I’ve always had an affection for the language.

  93. Hugh Rodwell says:

    Well, as for Turkic, Altaic, Mongolian, Korean and prodigious feats of language acquisition and scholarship no one can hold a candle to the Swedish-Finnish farmer’s son Gustaf John Ramstedt. (https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustaf_John_Ramstedt; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustaf_John_Ramstedt)
    At the end of a long career (not a very distinguished one at home in Finland because he was a peasant, and that got you nowhere either in the Grand Duchy under the Tsars or independent White Finland after the Bolsheviks removed the Russian yoke from the country and the Germans made sure the Reds were defeated in the Civil War) he was appointed Finnish envoy/chargé d’affaires in Japan (ambassador was out because he was the son of a peasant). He was the only foreign representative in the capital to master Japanese sufficiently well to spontaneously converse with the natives in the language.
    I was with an exceptionally polyglot friend in Helsinki in 1999, when he was leading an international research effort on Chinese migration, and among the scholars he visited was Harry Halén, who just happened to have written a biography of Ramstedt, and who gave my friend a copy to take to a colleague of his in Britain. Feeling a bit guilty I read the book as invisibly as possible (normally I devour books, chew them up and spit them out, so to say) before my friend had to return to Britain from Stockholm, where I live. Not only is this book relevant to this blog topic, but it’s a mind-blowing read for any linguist or polyglot.

    Halén, Harry. Biliktu Baksi. The Knowledgeable Teacher. Finno-Ugrian Society Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia 229 Vammala 1998. €38.00

    https://www.tiedekirja.fi/english/catalogsearch/result/?q=biliktu+bakshi

    He was a dab hand at Esperanto, too…

  94. Mark Shoulson says:

    @John Cowan, @yvy tyvy

    At least the “earth” part makes sense in the Biblical verse: the inheritance that the redeemer would redeem refers to *land*, after all. Not sure of the relevance of “tomb” though. Then again, check Genesis 23, all about buying a gravesite. Is that “yvy tyvy” in the Guaraní also?

    Fave Welsh song linguistically: the one with three different mutations (counting the zero mutation) in a repeated line in the chorus:

    A channwn ninnau gân
    Cannwn ninnau gân
    Fe gannwn ninnau gân o awr i awr i ysgafnhau ein gwaith

  95. I did not have the Bible translation in mind, and in fact I only found out this combination of Guarani words existed on the internet after creating my name.

    So how do you say it? I mentally said “IVvy TIVvy” before learning it was Guarani.

  96. More or less. Actually all four vowels are the same, the English short i, or /ɪ/ in IPA.

  97. /ɨ/, rather, which is very common throughout Amazonia.

  98. I know how it’s said in Guarani, I was asking how yvy tyvy said it.

  99. @languagehat
    I pronounce it /ɨvɨ tɨvɨ/, although it did cross my mind that someone not knowing the words’ origin would probably pronounce it /aɪvi taɪvi/.

    @Mark Shoulson
    I’m afraid I don’t actually know Guaraní, so I have no idea what the Bible translation says.

  100. Lev. 25:25 is the only place where the sequence “yvy tyvy” occurs in the Guaranï Bible.

  101. I pronounce it /ɨvɨ tɨvɨ/

    Thanks, I will now follow suit!

  102. January First-of-May says:

    I don’t really know anything about Guarani except that it’s from South America (I don’t even recall which part of the continent it’s from specifically), but any transliteration with a lot of y’s is making me think of Ukrainian – where, in fact, the sound transliterated as y (and locally spelled with и) is basically /ɨ/.
    My feeble Russian phonotactics still make me a bit dizzy at /ɨvɨ tɨvɨ/ – I want to say “иви тиви” in Russian, which is, suffice to say, a bit off (though would’ve been nearly perfect in Ukrainian) – but I doubt I would even have considered /aɪvi taɪvi/ (or anything similar).

  103. the grapheme y represents the vowel /ɨ/.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guarani_language#Phonology

  104. It’s quite precisely ывы тывы in Russian — four “nasty Asiatic vowels” in a row. In Ukrainian, иви тиви would be only slightly off, since Ukrainian и is not [ɨ] but [ɪ], the vowel of English kiss. (Some varieties of English also have [ɨ] as a realization of /ʌ/ in certain words like unstressed just ‘only’.)

  105. Not a native Spanish speaker, but fairly fluent (learnt it in Chile). I was once speaking with a Brazilian girl and was very surprised I could understand her Portuguese almost without effort. It wasn’t before a long time I realized that she was actually trying to speak Spanish with me. It was very comical because I felt like such a linguistic genius at first.

  106. @ barzam: That reminds me of the time 20 years ago when I had to entertain two Frenchmen; they spoke English with such a strong accent that I understood almost nothing and for some time I was actually thinking that they spoke French with me. Luckily they had a third colleague whose English was very good, and I then steered most of the conversation through him.

  107. January First-of-May says:

    I’ve thought, at least for the last few years, that Paganel’s problem with being understood in Chile was less about having learned the wrong language (Portuguese instead of Spanish) and more about his horrible French accent (as he had nobody on the ship to speak Portuguese, or indeed Spanish, with, and Portuguese – or indeed Spanish – spelling isn’t particularly like French spelling).

    I don’t think it’s explained in-story sufficiently well to contradict my explanation; in any case, once already in South America, having actual local Spanish speakers to talk with, he adjusted fairly quickly.

  108. @hans

    This is perhaps a rather different situation, but there is a video on YouTube of a Russian pronouncing the name of the chemical titin with such a strong accent that if I didn’t know beforehand what the video was about, I’d think he was speaking Russian. (Or maybe he’s just saying the name of the chemical in Russian? The name of the video is “The Longest Word in English (Pronounced)”.)

  109. reminds me of great scene from “Twenty years after”

    “”My friend,” D’Artagnan interrupted, “as I don’t understand English and we all understand Spanish, have the kindness to speak to us in that language, which, since it is your own, you must find pleasure in using when you have the chance.”
    “Ah! excellent!” said Aramis.
    As to Porthos, all his attention was concentrated on the allurements of the breakfast table.
    “You were asking, then?” said the host in Spanish.
    “I asked,” said Athos, in the same language, “if there are two parliaments, a pure and an impure?”
    “Why, how extraordinary!” said Porthos, slowly raising his head and looking at his friends with an air of astonishment, “I understand English, then! I understand what you say!”
    “That is because we are talking Spanish, my dear friend,” said Athos.
    “Oh, the devil!” said Porthos, “I am sorry for that; it would have been one language more.””

  110. @Yvy tyvy: Would we even be able to tell? If to words are basically the same in both languages and a speaker pronounces it with a strong Russian accent, but wants to speak English, how do we decide which language he’s speaking? (And yes, the guy in the video really has a strong Russian accent.)

  111. I presume this is the video in question; I wonder if anyone has ever watched all three-plus hours of it? (I watched the first couple of minutes, then skipped to the last couple of minutes.)

  112. I certainly didn’t; I stopped listening after three minutes.

  113. David Marjanović says:

    My experiences: oh yes, plenty, with Slavic, Romance and to some degree Germanic, though all mostly written.

    No surprises about Romance: knowing French and Latin, I’ve found I can read scientific papers in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and understand a fair amount of spoken Spanish after having taken just a tiny introductory course, too. When I went to non-metropolitan Spain for a conference a few years ago and found that the owner/receptionist/everything of my accommodation was a monoglot, I understood everything I was told (like how to actually get to the room far upstairs) and managed to speak what little I had to. – A colleague says he successfully faked Spanish in a similar situation for two weeks, and while his education in Latin was apparently really great and even included some smattering of historical linguistics, he knows very little French.

    I can basically read Dutch. Put German, a bit of English, a few extra French words, a few regular* sound shifts and the different but more regular spelling system together, and there you go. The grammar is the same, there’s just less of it. 🙂 Understanding spoken Dutch would require more practice; under ideal circumstances I’ve understood up to half, but that’s rare. Scandinavian languages are considerably harder; their vocabulary is more distant, their grammars have a few selected quirks, and – even ignoring Danish – they’ve done things to their sound systems that I haven’t fully understood. So, on the written side, I’ve managed to slog through half of the very interesting thesis on Finlands samiska förhistoria that was presented here a (long) while ago, but still haven’t tried the other half. The spoken side is currently rather hopeless.

    In my very limited experience, Icelandic is too distant, even though the spelling system tries to lie about it.

    Let’s not neglect the remaining corner of the Germanic-speaking area. Of spoken High and “Middle” (“Lake Constance”) Alemannic, I understand about half. That’s already triangulating from Standard German and my own (East Central Bavarian, so fellow Upper German!) dialect plus extra French sprinkles on the vocabulary. I’m not at all surprised that Vanya understands Ukrainian and Slovak better.

    I don’t speak any Slavic language well enough that I could fully take advantage of this effect. Still, any bit of knowlege about any one tends to help with most or all of the others. After all, their last common ancestor was spoken around the same time that the last common ancestor of the dialects that today count as German, Dutch and Luxembourgish was spoken.

    * The second you let go of regularity, you drown in false friends. Historical linguistics is really useful.

    ================

    My experience is limited, but, knowing Russian and Turkish, I find the Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs I sing very easy to learn and remember, although I am often left with the impression that there are a lot of extra pronouns floating around in them. I’m not sure if I’m misinterpreting small, pronoun-like words as pronouns, or if something else is going on, but the Wikipedia chart of Bulgarian pronouns does confirm that their system is more complex than the Russian.

    Serbian, in any case, is full of particles that Russian almost completely lacks. Maybe that’s what you mean?

    ================

    I usually understand the gist of Bulgarian conversations if I listen carefully, and once at a Bulgarian folk festival where my group performed, I was surprised to find that I understood the MC’s higher-register official speech (of the “this festival has been made possible by the generous support of…” type) extremely well.

    Ooh… ooh… that reminds me. 🙂 At a conference in Slovakia, I found the little sheet the short welcome speech had been read off of, noticed I understood it because of Russian, and spontaneously translated it to the colleague I happened to be talking to. – “Tu arrives à lire ??” 🙂

    ================

    Swedes used to not understand Norwegian. In Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) Per Petterson’s teen protagonist, in a sudden violent outburst, knocks down a shopkeeper in Karlstad, Sweden, who doesn’t understand him. This has improved significantly lately, and Swedes I speak to all say it’s because of Fredrik. Sociolinguistically it may rather be about oil.

    Language learning for entertainment should not be underestimated. Lots of people learn Japanese just to read manga. I know two Slovaks who learned German for, and by, watching the commercial TV channel RTL. Surely Swedes learning passive Norwegian from Fredrik by the millions should not be surprising?

    ================

    This sounds like about the time depth for the oldest splits in Sinitic and those varieties are notoriously not mutually intelligible, even in the case of splits that are a lot less deep..

    Sinitic other than Min indeed appears to be descended from Early Middle Chinese, whose phonology was first described in 601 as a conservative standard in a work that is apparently based on earlier, now lost ones. That puts it somewhere close in time to Proto-Slavic (~ 500) and the first splits in the German-Dutch-Luxembourgish or rather Saxon-Frankish-Alemannic-Bavarian continuum (also ~ 500 or perhaps a bit earlier, I guess). Maybe the difference lies in geography? Except for northern Mandarin, Sinitic is spoken in places that look much more like Switzerland than like the North German Plain, and indeed Switzerland is where it’s hardest to understand dialects that aren’t close enough to one’s own along the dialect chain. On the Slavic side, the most divergent variety appears to be Kashubian (isolated for political instead of physical geographic reasons, but isolated all the same), followed by some in the Alps around the northwestern corner of Slovenia and in the Balkan mountains on the south border of Bulgaria – again the places that look most like China.

    Comparative Wikipedia studies, in particular the article “Proto-Min language”, suggest that Min split off before 200 BC, but not much earlier.

    ================

    On Kashubian, Wikipedia actually has all the answers. Particularly striking to me is that Kashubian has shifted most vowels in most directions. Most vowels, especially the common ones, are rock-solid in all the rest of Slavic, save for a few mergers here and there (many of them also very widespread, like *y > *i). Not only has Kashubian experienced more vowel shifts than the whole rest of Slavic combined, but the shifts have gone in directions I’m not even used to from German! Add the abovementioned sociolinguistics, distracting free stress (which messes with the perception of word boundaries) and German loans, and I can see why spoken Kashubian is so hard to understand if you start from Polish.

    Czech has much better-behaved vowels. Get used to a few mergers, keep ignoring the length distinction, and you’ll get pretty far. And the stress is as reliable as in Polish. On several paleontological digs in Poland (as I’ve told here on several occasions), I’ve witnessed conversations between Poles, Czechs and sometimes Slovaks, each speaking their own language; these conversations weren’t effortless, but worked pretty well.* I was told that Czechs understand Polish more or less right away, while Poles understand it after two days of exposure. (It’s not surprising that ignoring distinctions is easier than getting used to mergers.)

    * BTW, Czech šukát was explained to me** as not even meaning “fuck”, but being coarser still, like “bang” or “boink”.

    **…by a Slovak. In German (learned from RTL). So, the word he actually used to explain it was bumsen, as opposed to ficken.

    ================

    To get some idea of such continua in Italy, have a look at page 5 of this article, which describes a typologically most unusual Romance variety:

    A mind-blowing paper. Thanks.

  114. David Marjanović says:

    Forgot the obligatory retelling of the time when a Pole and a Croat tried to have a bilingual conversation. It ended with the Pole saying nie rozumiemy się, “we don’t understand each other”, and the Croat protesting to the contrary: razumjemo se!

    As it happens, Russian would use a completely different verb here. Still, the noun разум razum “mind, ratio” is shared, so I’m sure a Russian monoglot could guess the meaning of the verb from context.

  115. I was told that Czechs understand Polish more or less right away, while Poles understand it after two days of exposure

    Actually, I gather it takes years of exposure for Poles to understand Polish.

    Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here until the next sound change, don’t forget to tip your neogrammarian!

  116. David Marjanović says:

    🙂

    (In before the “literally nobody understands Danish” YouTube video.)

    I was recently on the Isle of Skye and took a tour led by a local who speaks Gaelic natively. If I remember everything right, she said she understands Irish.

  117. Czech šukát was explained to me** as not even meaning “fuck”, but being coarser still, like “bang” or “boink”.

    Matters are not so simple. Originally, bang and boink were euphemisms for fuck, but fuck has now developed a bimodal distribution: it can be used in literature, whereas the others cannot except in dialogue or first-person narration, in which case the narrator is indeed crass. But fuck is still part of the crass register as well.

  118. Concerning mutual intelligibility between Polish, Czech and Slovak, especially in the border regions, there’s an interesting anecdotal account in Tomasz Kamusella’s Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium (the author’s family is from Silesia):

    “In the desperate 1980s of permanent shortages, rationing cards, austerity measures and shop lines, Father gave up on Polish television and tuned to Czechoslovak TV broadcast from nearby Ostrava. We could not visit the city until the early 1990s, on account of the near-sealed frontier between the two fraternal ‘people’s democracies.’ My Father, Brother and I enjoyed Czech- and Slovak-language cartoons and children’s films.”

  119. David Marjanović says:

    Czech- and Slovak-language cartoons and children’s films

    Krtek was featured in Die Sendung mit der Maus for years, so two generations of West Germans and Austrians have grown up with it, too. Admittedly, that’s cheating: “Since its inception, the cartoon won itself an enormous popularity in many Central European countries, as well as India, China, Kazakhstan, Croatia, Russia, Iraq and Japan, due its distinct lack of dialogue.”

  120. I just read a paper at academia.edu on the mutual intelligibility of Slavic languages. I’m not sure what its provenance is: there’s a lot of amateurism (like calling a dialect “mixed X and Y” when what is meant is “X with a lot of Y vocabulary” or vice versa), and it takes the the SIL notion of “X is 39% intelligible to Y speakers” much too seriously, so just skip the 3-4 pages of such statistics near the beginning. But it has lots of details about practically every Slavic variety known to human kind: it not only talks about Kashubian, for example, but also North, South, and (semi-artificial) Central Kashubian and their respective mutual intelligibility with each other, with Polish, and with other languages.

    The downloaded version of the file is not PDF but Microsoft Word format: those without Word can read it in LibreOffice or OpenOffice.org, or Windows Wordpad. I was able to print it 2-up and double-sided (four pages per physical sheet) without killing too many trees or rendering it illegible.

  121. Robert Lindsay is a guy who a while back re-classified German on the basis of mutual intelligibility of its dialects and predictably found out that German is not one language or even twenty languages as Ethnologue claimed – it’s actually whopping 137 mutually unintelligible languages!

    So whatever claims he makes about mutual intelligibility of Slavic languages should be greeted with healthy doze of scepticism and incredulity…

  122. David Marjanović says:

    Whopping indeed! I can’t find it on academia.edu, though this compilation claims only 50 % intelligibility between “Central Austrian Bavarian” and Viennese Bavarian, which is complete nonsense no matter where “Central Austria” is supposed to lie (probably it’s some uninhabited granite mountain). All Bavarian dialects I have encountered, from the eastern fringe (Burgenland) all the way to South Tyrol (on the Italian side)*, are mutually intelligible to the extent that fluent conversations where everyone speaks their own dialect are unremarkable. Among those I have not encountered, a few Tyrolean idioms spoken particularly high up in the Alps are reportedly not mutually intelligible with anything; what little there is on Wikipedia** indicates that this isn’t completely absurd, but it may still be exaggerated. The Lechtal dialect, transitional between Bavarian and Alemannic, is probably not mutually intelligible with Bavarian (…or Alemannic, I guess).

    Classical Viennese does have a lot of vocabulary that isn’t understood elsewhere or indeed to some extent by the following generation of Viennese dialect speakers (somewhere on Youtube there’s a sketch featuring this as one of many gags). But this doesn’t concern common words or concepts. (In the sketch in question it’s a euphemism for death.)

    * These do throw curveballs, like when “that stuff” isn’t [d̥esˈt͡sɛɪ̯g̊] but [sɛɫˈt͡sui̯g̊], with a demonstrative pronoun that comes out of nowhere (…it looks vaguely Romance) and a very unexpected development of eu. But there aren’t many of those.

    ** Unconditional fronting of /o/ in the Ötztal: “Cöca Cöla”.

  123. David Marjanović says:

    (…The “it” I can’t find is the claim of 137 German languages.)

  124. Czech šukát was explained to me** as not even meaning “fuck”, but being coarser still, like “bang” or “boink”.

    “Boink” is not coarse at all, it is jocular. It is the sort of word bad sitcom writers love. “Bang”, depending on context, can be rude, but is rarely considered obscene.

    For most native American English speakers “fuck” is still a very coarse and often offensive word. I have noticed that native German speakers often don’t understand this, probably because “fuck” has now become an everyday German expletive. In Austria you even see “fuck” used in advertising, which I am sure has offended an American tourist or two. Like this recent political poster, which angered my 8 year old:

    http://www.wiener-wahl.at/bild/parteien/NEOS-Wien-Wahl-2015-Plakat.JPG

  125. Language learning for entertainment should not be underestimated.

    Definitely not. I just met a Romanian who told me he learned Bulgarian when he was a child from watching Bulgarian TV back in the Ceaucescu era, when the entertainment value of Bulgarian TV significantly exceeded the 3 or 4 hours of Ceaucescu hagiography available on the Romanian stations.

  126. -I can’t find is the claim of 137 German languages

    Here it is!

    https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/a-reworking-of-german-language-classification/

    I guess he updated his work, because now he says:

    “So far, this classification expands German from 20 separate languages to 142 separate languages.”

  127. I wonder how many Englishes are there by his method….

  128. He’ll end up by deciding every human speaks a language mutually unintelligible with every other.

  129. Which of course is a philosophically respectable position.

  130. If Wittgenstein were to speak, we could not understand him.

  131. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t follow you …

  132. David Eddyshaw says:

    Lions, on the other hand, always make themselves very clear, I find. (Even without recursion.)
    Derrida too.

    Lindsay has evidently proven by science that nobody could understand Wittgenstein except other Viennese, at least so long as he was speaking German. Come to think of it, he may be right …

  133. David Marjanović says:

    Like this recent political poster, which angered my 8 year old:

    That’s a deliberate allusion to an anarchist slogan, because that party’s target demographic is young people with at least some university exposure. (It’s a liberal party, liberal both on social issues and on the economy, and mostly consists of the offspring of conservatives.) Offending everyone else is just the cost of business.

    “So far, this classification expands German from 20 separate languages to 142 separate languages.”

    …based on a lot of unsourced assertions and a lot of assertions that can only be traced to an unsourced assertion on some Internet forum. I’m happy to accept the intelligibility figures with Standard German at face value, but for the rest I’ll pass.

    Various other details don’t inspire confidence either. For instance, it’s an oversimplification to say that Standard German belongs to Central German: its sound system is Upper German (and the actual sounds always come from a regional substrate).

  134. Re Lindsay, sure, the tighter your mutual intelligibility percentage, the more languages you’re going to have. The relation between the German dialects are well understood, I believe, whether or not you call them separate languages.
    Looking at Lindsay’s research page I found a few other enlightening articles. The title of one of them, Secular Rise in Black IQ and Head Size: Evidence For a Eugenic Effect, made me lose interest in his endeavors.

  135. Yup, I think we can safely write him off.

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