Tag Archives: Language

Spell it out for me!

More history of more languages you’ll never learn…

A fancy word that’s relatively easy to spell? Masochism. I guess you know what it means. And yet, here you are, ready for a second serving of random facts on language history, politics and orthography. You have (presumably) had a look at, maybe even finished, an article entitled “Playwright, conscience … fish?” in eMAG #34. Amazing details about Korean writing and the evolution of Modern Greek have been revealed to you. What’s next, you ask? More irrelevant facts! And prepare for puns, as well.

Hanoi’ing spelling habits? Thank the French.

Remember how Koreans had to use Chinese characters before they developed their own alphabet? How, just to write down the most basic things, they were forced to learn the writing system of a completely unrelated language (I know they’re geographically close, but no relation between Korean and the Chinese languages has been proven so far)? Vietnamese speakers, whose language is equally unrelated to Chinese, and whose country is equally close to China, had similar problems. Unlike the Koreans, the Vietnamese had some success in adapting Chinese characters to Vietnamese, to a point where they were illegible even for Chinese speakers. This script, Chữ Nôm, was the first real Vietnamese writing system. It was used for administrative purposes at first, but later on, even poetry would be written in Chữ Nôm. But that doesn’t solve the problem that Chinese characters, a very reduced form of writing, can’t illustrate grammatically important changes within a word.

The most modern form of Vietnamese writing came from a complete outsider, the Jesuit monk and missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. De Rhodes, who came from the French-speaking region of Avignon, created an adapted version of the Latin alphabet that could reflect the pronunciation of Vietnamese words better than Chinese characters could. He did take over a few rather inefficient French spelling habits, e.g. <ph> to express the f-sound, so the system still contains some traces of other languages. In general, however, it is a neat writing system that has survived since the 16th century, throughout all kinds of political regimes, occupations and the division of the country. For this reason, despite his colonialist background, the Vietnamese still look somewhat fondly at de Rhodes.

There’s Norway around spelling rules.

Why don’t we have a look at Norwegian next? We’ll see a language whose main writing system, Bokmål (book tongue), is essentially Danish with slight changes. Danish and Norwegian are very closely related and can be intercomprehensible, depending on what dialect speakers use. The language similarities and parallels in writing come in handy today, but they stem from the long Danish domination of Norway. The two states were seen as one country well into the 19th century. For this reason, Bokmål still is the dominant writing system, although Nynorsk (New Norse, ironically the older writing system), fits Norwegian pronunciation patterns better. The further you move west (away from Denmark), the more popular Nynorsk gets.

Both varieties are officially recognised by the Norwegian state, taught in the same schools and used in public to various extents. Members of the administration are expected to reply to mail in the same variety that was used in the request and no province is allowed to use one variety to more than 75% in official areas. Since Danish and Swedish are also allowed in official written correspondence, the system can appear quite chaotic. And we’re not even counting in the more antiquated varieties Riksmål (national language) and Høgnorsk (High Norse). These former writing standards (with  Riksmål being even closer to Danish and  Høgnorsk being even further from it) have thankfully become rare, but there are people and organisations willing to invest a lot of time, just to keep them somewhat alive. Is that a lot to take in? It gets even weirder when you take into account that less than six million people speak Norwegian at all.

In the area of writing, Norway hasn’t distanced itself from Denmark as much as Korea or Vietnam have from China. That’s because Danish rule over Norway ended very late, both languages were related to begin with and the relations between both nations are friendly today. The outcome, however, is kind of problematic: people need to be fluent in both systems and people artificially switch between two idioms just to fulfil a legal quota. However, no one is discriminated against based on how they write, and that’s still a nice thing.

I Afri-can’t spell that!

No list of inefficient writing systems could be complete without the African continent. Most African languages simply weren’t used in writing before European colonisation. When writing systems were created, they were based on European languages, mostly English and French. They also weren’t made up by linguists, but usually by missionaries trying to translate the bible (who would just work with what they were used to). Now, English and French are both kind of inefficient in their writing, since both preserve a spelling that is out of sync with modern pronunciation. Just think of fish = ghoti or the French city of Bordeaux using four letters to express one o-sound. French uses <ou> (two letters) for a simple u-sound, and the more efficient, single letter <u> for the somewhat fancy u-Umlaut (<ü> in German or Turkish) – a sound few languages use at all. English, on the other hand, simply doesn’t have a long e-sound. And of course, these inefficiencies were taken over into new languages by means of their spelling.

Using the Latin alphabet for African languages can only work out when it is a neutral form where the pronunciation of certain letters is not tied to their pronunciation in one specific Western language. On top of that, additional sounds should be expressed through accents or additional characters, rather than ever-longer combination of letters. For this reason, the German Ethnologist Diedrich Westermann developed the Africa Alphabet and presented it (to colonialists, not Africans) in London in 1928. The alphabet has been adjusted to the linguistic situation in (Western) Africa several times and now has close to sixty letters. That may sound like a lot, but since you wouldn’t need all of these in every language, learning the alphabet wouldn’t even be such a big deal.

The real problem is that Africans aren’t using this alphabet to the extent that linguists have been hoping for. That’s because many native African languages are used in more private, oral settings. And when private communication is in written form, e.g. when people are chatting, most African languages aren’t available (e.g. as auto-correct on cellphones or as spell-checks on a PC). The ones that are available, like isiZulu or Somaali, don’t use the Africa Alphabet as a starting point. And even in handwriting, few people are aware of its existence, since most African states don’t do a lot to promote a standardized use of native languages – there are just too many, and most governments have different priorities. Still, the alphabet is around and offers a good starting point to any attempt of standardisation. Although it was established through colonisation, it can be a means of self-empowerment that makes local African languages and cultures more independent, giving them a stable, written foundation.

So yeah, the struggle with spelling is real, for a lot of people. Languages influence each other, and they don’t always copy each other’s most positive aspects. If we all looked at languages neutrally, leaving aside history, customs and patriotism (like former Yugoslvia did, for instance), we could probably create a couple of pretty logical writing systems and solve a huge lot of problems. But how likely is that?

Author and picture: Niklas Schmid

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (Part 2)

Now that the sappy part of this essay is for the most part over, apologies for my sentimental outpourings, I would like to move on. From the rather unfortunate circumstances that English found me in, to where we are today.

With not much more to do through my formative years than watching Doctor Who, Sherlock and Downtown Abbey while imitating the oh-so-charming accents I heard in these programmes, I would accumulate a rather large vocabulary, as well as a British accent. These days, when people hear me speak, in a classroom setting or elsewhere, they usually assume that my accent stems from a year abroad. And I won’t hide the fact that it does inflate my ego just a little bit every time I get to correct them and say that I am in truth self-taught (I leave out the traumatic abandonment part of the story most of the time; it simply doesn’t have as nice a ring to it, and, in my experience, tends to drag the mood down quite a bit).

The first time I did visit an English-speaking country was after secondary school. It had been my wish to visit London for years, and so finally at the age of fifteen, I travelled there by myself (a decision that my mother was surprisingly on board with). There had always been something about the city that had drawn me to it, and the night I arrived, it took no more than a single sighting of the city lights reflecting in the pitch-black Thames water for me to completely fall in love. I really believe that on that trip I left a piece of my soul in the night sky over London.

Since then I’ve visited the city three more times and still it never fails to take my breath away. So weirdly familiar, like I had always been there, or maybe meant to be there – it’s a sense of home that doesn’t need a domicile to feel real. All this accompanied by the fact that not standing out as a tourist, at least in my mind, and being able to stroll around and pretend to belong there just gives me the greatest feeling of accomplishment.

While in London with my mum last year, she let me handle all the talking (as well as the navigation on the underground, one of my guilty pleasures when in the city. What a joy it is to know which way you’re going.). She was fascinated by me chatting with a member of staff at the Camden Market tube station, mostly, she told me afterwards, because I kept using ‘slang’ or simply colloquial language (I suspect she meant I had developed a bit of a habit of using the greeting ‘hiya’ ever since I had briefly visited Huddersfield the year before). The pride in my mother’s eyes at seeing, or rather hearing, her daughter confidently communicate in a foreign language was not only the greatest reward for my efforts thus far, but also the best motivation to keep pushing myself to be better and to hopefully one day complete the perfection of my English.

Having received a certain certificate from some supposedly smart people better qualified to judge my abilities than me which says, black ink on white paper, that I am already a level C2 when it comes to English, both written and spoken, also boosts my confidence that my goal is really achievable in my life time.  English is a huge part of my life. From writing my first poetry in sixth grade to unironically reading Shakespeare plays today, it has given me more than could ever fit on two pages. It may be words, words, mere words to some, but for me it’s a matter from the heart.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (part 1)

My first contact with English must have occurred somewhere in kindergarden.  As I was only four or five at the time, my memories are admittedly hazy. But I remember a tiny children’s book, colourful and made of cardboard, telling all the toddlers in attendance that some people refer to a Katze as ‘cat’. Not that we cared much – there were sandcastles to build and a whole world to be discovered.

Growing up in a small village in the south of Germany with both my parents native speakers of German, my overall contact with other languages was limited. The only open restaurant in town was owned by a Turkish family, so I learned the word ‘merhaba’ before even being aware of the existence of ‘hello’. So it wasn’t until primary school that I started learning English formally. At that age – I was seven in first grade – I really had priorities other than acquiring a second language. There were letters to learn, trees to climb and, unfortunately, basic maths to wrestle with.

All of this was about to change, however, at secondary. Having developed a deeply-rooted hatred of mathematics and any sort of natural science, I was already drawn to languages and the humanities, but for the time being, my relationship with English still hadn’t moved past the ‘at-least-I-can-do-this-instead-of-division’ stage. But life was about to hit me, and it was about to hit me hard. And, once again, my priorities shifted. Where before there were friends to meet and fun to be had, there was now fear to be felt and a childhood to be lost.

I won’t go into the details about what happened when I was twelve, as my incredibly dramatic, sad story isn’t the subject of this piece after all. The reason I’m bringing up this stage of the journey at all is its significance for my relationship with English. You see, it was at this moment when change became inevitable and I was forced to suddenly grow up and function. When the outside world became chaotic, I, god-like, chose to create a new world, a world inside my head, a world filled with obsessions and hyper focus, just enough to keep me sane. When I turned down invitations until I was simply not invited any more, when I was alone – that’s when it found me. A language that allowed me to express through writing what I could never say out loud, a language that let me run away with the Doctor, a language that would bring me the songs that, after hours of exhausting translation, would bring me the messages I needed to hear to survive. A language that opened up an online community in which I felt a little less alone, where others felt what I was feeling and where I could once again escape it all, at least for a little while.

English found me in my darkest place and carried me through it.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp