On Learning Languages (2)


On Learning Languages (2) – Norwegian, Vietnamese, and Arabic?

About a week ago, the technical theatre society in Oxford held a training day at a college theatre with a couple of lighting and sound workshops. The preferred pub happened to be full at lunchtime, so we ended up at a nearby pizza place – all of which would have absolutely no relevance at all to (another) post about languages, except for a very minor if amusing query that came up at the table: what exactly was one of the languages on the bottle of San Pellegrino? I posited Vietnamese; some discussion ensued; it was Googled; it was Vietnamese.

Uncomplicated, and perhaps also uninteresting. Except for the bit where I was asked to explain the train of thought that led to “Vietnamese” … because, first, I don’t speak Vietnamese, have never studied it, have never studied anything closely related to it, and had absolutely no clue what the text on the bottle said. Secondly, explaining how my brain works when it comes to languages is one of those things that could take … a rather long time. I did, very briefly, touch on ‘deciphering languages I don’t actually know’ in my last post on the topic, but didn’t go into any particular detail.

So let’s start with a different, somewhat easier example: Norwegian. I’ve never visited Norway, don’t have any friends who speak the language, and have never formally studied it. It is distantly related to Old Norse – in about the same way that Old English is related to Modern English but they’re not the same language (see this post if that’s confusing).

However, one of my supervisor’s colleagues recently invited me to visit Bergen for a (funded!) conference and study trip in April. Cue the decision that I should probably acquire some Norwegian in the near future. But this is not nearly as hard as it might seem – for illustration purposes, let’s look at the lyrics of (what I think is) a fairly well-known Norwegian song, by Sissel Kyrkjebø. (I don’t know her music, but a Google search for “best Norwegian singers” turned up her name, so here goes)

Å Vestland, Vestland når eg ser deg slik

Med fagre fjell og fjord og tronge vik.

Det stig i all sin venleik stort og vilt

Og atter møter meg so mjukt og mildt.

Og gleda strøymer i meg still og stor

med glans av bjørkeli og blåe fjord

Og i meg sjølv eg kjenner dypter av

den stille skogen og det store hav.

Min lette båt ein solblank kveld eg ror,

sjå fjell og himmel sym på stille fjord

og djupe dalen med sitt grøne fang,

som skin av lauv og blom frå li og vang.

Sjå skuggane som kliv dei kvasse fjell

lik dagsens timar tøyer seg mot kveld

Det sveiper seg om tind og tronge dal

eit draumeslør av sommarnatti sval.

It might seem a startling claim, but I don’t need to have studied any Norwegian to be able to read this. Why? Well, look at the cognates: (obligatory disclaimer: any errors are mine; I have not double-checked the following with a dictionary; that would a) take forever and b) entirely defeat the point of the exercise, which is writing down what immediately comes to mind)

Vestland = West-land (straightforward Old English/modern English; w <=> v are well-known to be interchangeable in related languages; Swedish and Danish only recently introduced “w” into their alphabets; “vestur” = west in modern Icelandic; “vest” in Danish; vestr in Old Norse.)

når = Well, what it immediately reminds me of the Quenya verb for to be (infinitive na / plural nar; there’s also Sindarin naur, which is fire …), but this is not likely to be terribly helpful! So let’s leave it and come back.

eg = I (ek = I in Old Norse; ic in Old English; ik in Gothic; ih in Old High German; ich in Modern German; ég in modern Icelandic; jeg in modern Danish; jag in Swedish)

ser = presumably first person singular form of the verb to see; in Old Norse, the infinitive form of the verb is “sja” (which also appears later in the song), which when conjugated is also “sér”. Danish: “ser”; modern Icelandic: “sé”.

med = with; again, every Germanic/Nordic language ever has a cognate. Earlier ones are with final eth or thorn instead of d – because Verner’s law. The voiced dental fricative then became plosive in most if not quite all Germanic languages. Closest form is actually Old Norse and modern Icelandic með, with. Compare Gothic miþ. The Proto-Germanic form is likely *midi, if I remember correctly, and is distantly related to Ancient Greek μετά (meta), meaning ‘between’ or ‘with’ (metamorphosis, metaphor, metastasis, etc.). English “mid” (midterm, midway, etc.) is our version; German mit (because d => t in a later stage of the Old High German consonant shift). For a word with a similar history of final sound changes, compare Old Norse góðr/modern Icelandic góður, which is English good (final d), and German gut (final t).

deg = you (singular, accusative?). The only trick to this one is to entertain the possibility that Norwegian still has inflected pronouns. “du” / accusative form “dig” is the equivalent in Danish. Also du / dig in Swedish. German du / dich. þu / þec in Old English; þú / þik in Old Norse. (The thorn/eth/d shifts are quite normal – see med, above. The precise form of said letters (and whether certain words are spelled with an eth, a thorn, or a d) is often helpful when trying to date medieval Icelandic manuscripts.)

slik = such, so (slíkr in Old Norse)

fagre = fair, beautiful (Old Norse: fagr; Icelandic fagur – this changing around of the “r” ending is quite normal: “-r” was the masculine singular nominative ending in Old Norse, which has universally become “-ur” in modern Icelandic, since roughly the 14th century, so “-ur” is actually the commonest spelling in many of the riddarasögur for instance)

fjell = mountain(s) – English fell; Danish fjeld; Icelandic fjall; Swedish fjäll (as in the lyrics of the national anthem – “Du fjällhöga nord”). Also part of the name of that Icelandic volcano that none of the reporters could pronounce.

og = and: ok in Old Norse; og in modern Icelandic; Proto-Germanic *auk; thus Old English eac; Old Saxon ok. Old Gutnish oc. Og in Faroese. Modern Swedish och; German auch.

fjord = fjord(s). We’ve got the same word in English; enough said.

og = see above.

tronge = Closest thing I can think of is Old Norse þrǫngr, meaning narrow, which in context of the next word makes sense.

vík = inlet(s), small bay. Old Norse vík (as in Reykjavík and vikingur aka vikings – etymology of the term ‘vikings’ is a matter some debate but the most prevalent explanation is from this word.) vík in modern Icelandic; vík in Faroese (where it can also mean creek, I think); the related Old English word is wīc, meaning camp or dwelling place.

So we have:

O Westland, Westland, (when? given the context) I see you so,

With beautiful mountains and fjords and narrow inlets …

Writing all of that out (and I’m going to stop now, because the idea is hopefully clear) is an excessively, excessively long way of describing what my brain does in fractions of a second, instinctively and automatically, upon reading a text in a language I don’t know, or don’t know very well: try to match words with their counterparts in related languages, using known sound changes and various principles of historical linguistics to help with the process. It doesn’t, in fact, particularly matter what the language in question is – trying to decipher a Portuguese newspaper, for instance, is a similar process, except that instead of constantly referencing English/German/Old English/Old Norse/Icelandic, I’m referencing French/Spanish/Latin/Italian. And when I visited Denmark this past March, I did so never having studied any Danish whatsoever (this situation has clearly improved somewhat – but at the time, I hadn’t even looked up “Thank you” or “Do you speak English” or “Can you give me directions to the Canadian consulate” before getting on the plane.) This was not a problem: like Norwegian, much of Danish is cognate with Icelandic/Old Norse/Old English/German. Cue a virtually identical process of deciphering instructions for getting bus tickets, reading maps and street signs, and making sense of displays at museums.

This, of course, is not an infallible method – “false friends” (as they’re known – words that look similar but have different meanings/etymologies) can easily result in misreadings or misinterpretations. But these tend to be fairly few and far between, and often identifiable by context.

This does make learning vocabulary in a new language much easier. And it can help with the really annoying problem of having to memorize all the genders of various nouns in languages that have grammatical gender – while this doesn’t really work for French and German, say, it does work for more closely related languages, like Swedish/Icelandic – if a word is declined as feminine in Icelandic, it’s more likely to be feminine in Swedish as well. Particularly if it was also feminine in Old Norse.

This process of making connections – tracing how words (and their definitions) and languages have changed and diverged over time – was the single most enjoyable part of the spelling competitions, and the keystone of my studying strategy: I didn’t need to have ever heard of the words weltschmerz or scherenschnitte in order to spell them correctly. Or foliiform, or skeuomorph, or dephlogisticate, or mahimahi. I just needed to know enough about the phonology and morphology of the relevant languages that English has borrowed from, and/or enough word roots.

That attraction hasn’t ever managed to disappear – though, ten years later, it has taken ever-more-amusing twists and turns along the way. The summer before I came to Oxford, to go on a slight tangent for a moment, I worked a slightly silly number of jobs (lifeguard, LX crew with IATSE, standardized test (SAT) course instructor, background in a series of films, filming a show for CBC …), frequently clocking 60-70 hours a week in a quest to earn money for Oxford. The first job on that list, lifeguard, was for an outdoor apartment pool in Ottawa’s south end. We had patrons who spoke a variety of languages other than English (French, Spanish, and Arabic were the most common), and once they learned that I studied languages, this led to much enthusiasm (on their part) and many opportunities to practice (on my part).

The most fascinating linguistic acquaintance I made that summer, however, was not in fact a patron, but the guy in charge of maintenance, who came in for about twenty minutes every morning to clean. He was originally from Algeria; his first language was Arabic, second French, and English a distant third. French thus became the natural lingua franca, as the language that we could both converse in comfortably.

And then he decided to start teaching me basic Arabic. Still with French as the language of communication.

This was both ridiculously fun and required much mental gymnastics on my part – Arabic was and is still the only language that I’ve tried to learn with reference to a language other than English. I would get words and phrases in Arabic … translated into French. Arabic grammar and writing were explained … in French. And while my French is not too shabby (re: pretending to be a francophone student for calculus/theatre history/etc. courses at the University of Ottawa), it was the first time I’d tried to use it in that way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Arabic is still not much better than nonexistent – limited to the sort of phrases you’d probably find on the first two pages of a ‘basics for tourists’ book. But the process of trying to learn a language without any reference to English – and building connections in my brain between languages without using English as an intermediary – that I would like to keep working on.


Back to Vietnamese and San Pellegrino bottles, with that background.

The list of languages I have dabbled in – not necessarily speak; dabbled is the operative word here; enough to at least say hello and goodbye, sing a national anthem, know some basic grammar, or count to twenty, say – is long and perpetually growing. English. French. Old French. Spanish. Italian. German. Old High German. Gothic. Old Irish. Old West Norse. Old East Norse. Old Saxon. Modern Icelandic. Welsh. Finnish. Quenya. Sindarin. Esperanto. Swedish. Danish. Russian. Arabic. Mandarin. Japanese. Korean. Latin. Classical Greek. Modern Greek. Akkadian. Maori. Old Frisian. Armenian.

There’s clearly an even longer list, though, of languages that I have not studied in and of themselves, but that I have encountered in passing, either as part of preparations for the spelling bee, or because they happen to be related to something else that I do study in a linguistically interesting way: Norwegian. Hawaiian. Cree. Wyandot. Afrikaans. Faroese. Portuguese. Maltese. Polish. Hebrew. Romanian. Swahili. Old Gutnish. Dutch. Sanskrit. Mi’kmaq.

… and at this point, it becomes obvious that – with a few notable exceptions – we’ve also managed to cover almost every major language family and almost every major region of the world.

So when I encounter a language that I don’t immediately recognize, there are a limited number of possibilities. If it’s definitely a modern language currently spoken somewhere in the world by a reasonably large number of speakers, there are also then a pretty limited number of possible locations. If it’s also not obviously related to any language I recognize, i.e. doesn’t appear to have cognates in or any of a long list of possible parallels with any of the languages I’m familiar with, that eliminates most of the world.

… and then all that is required is for me to remember reading passages in an AP World History textbook with similar (phonologically speaking) words and names (or similar words/names in a Neal Stephenson novel …), and Vietnamese – or something closely related to it – seems like the most likely option.

Simple as that.

(But not also something I could explain in sixty seconds in a pizza parlour!)


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