Saturday, July 10, 2010

Languages: a pastime

Yes, I am serious. I am fascinated by languages, in all their variations, and really always have been. The variations even between English as it is spoken in the United States versus in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, and New Zealand (to name countries where I know English is spoken and has significant variation, with no disrespect to anywhere I've missed) are endlessly entertaining. A guy who's gone by "Randy" in Chicago had best be prepared to call himself "Randall" when he goes to London, or be ready for a great deal of tittering every time he introduces himself.

While a friend of mine continually asserts that we don't speak English, we speak American, I point out that British English and American English are still mutually intelligible. English and French, for example, are not. But, interestingly, English, while being a Germanic language, is also descended from French (and through French, from Latin), thank you William the Conqueror. Hence, while the slang may vary, English is English, wherever it is spoken.

In any event, I could spend hours going on about the medieval origins of various tongues, but the thing that really fascinates me are the ways in which culture influences language. Now, what I mean here is that sometimes a phrase as we translate it into English doesn't mean quite the same thing if it were translated literally, component-by-component, rather than as a unit. For example, let's look at a few phrases for, "please":

French: s'il vous plait is literally "if it pleases you"
Spanish: por favor is "for/as a favor"
Irish Gaelic: le do thoil is "with your will"
Welsh: os gwelwch yn dda is "if you see (it) well"
Of course, the French influence is visible, as the English phrase used to be "if you please" and eventually just dropped the "if you" for the sake of succinctness.

And the obvious follow up, "thank you":

French: merci is "mercy"
Spanish: gracias is "graces"
Irish: go raibh maith agat is "(it) was good of/to you"
Welsh: diolch actually doesn't seem to have any meaning other than thanks, though it's the basis for the word for grateful, and for gratitude

So, as you've gathered, this fascination has led to me "collecting" a number of languages that interest me.  I took Spanish in high school, mostly because it was the only language available in my tiny tiny school.  Then, when my cousin finished her French class in college, she discovered that the book they were using that semester was not to be used in the next, so she was stuck with it.  Knowing I was a giant nerd and obsessed with language by that point, she gave me her French book.  Between the book, another provided by my grandmother, a dictionary, and a couple of Céline Dion albums, I have a moderate, if basic, understanding of French, and my accent isn't horrible.  (It's not great, either, but that's beside the point.)

I have a tiny bit of Italian, can count to ten and say good morning and good evening in Greek and Albanian, and can say, "stop being a shit," in Arabic.  My family having some ties to Ireland several generations back in the bloodline, I opted to begin learning Irish Gaelic, and while I'm also interested in Welsh, you'll note that the majority of my linguistic smatterings are from Western Europe.  I decided to sit down and really think out which languages in the world interest me the most, and why, with a goal of mastering (or at least getting to kindergarten-level capability in) each of them.  The four contenders are:

  • Irish Gaelic (aka Gaelige) both due to my heritage, the fact that I've already learned a small chunk, and the fact that it's a language rife with poetic and cultural reference.  Pronunciation and spelling are painfully complex, but I like a challenge.  The grammar is actually not extremely different from English, at least when compared to a language like Spanish.
  • Japanese recently grabbed my attention (after years of swearing I'd never attempt an East Asian language in this lifetime) thanks to a couple of my friends getting me hooked on Anime shows.  (Nana and Revolutionary Girl Utena, in case you're wondering.)  Seems like a silly reason to take an interest in a language, right?  Well, the sillier reason is that it's just...pretty.  The tricky part is that, in terms of cultural context, Japanese takes the cake.  There are some words that just do not make sense if you don't have some background in the culture, which means learning the language gives you a great deal of insight into the Japanese mind.  In addition, the mixture of writing systems (kanji, hiragana, and katakana) is curious, and is one of the few vaguely artistic things I seem to be able to manage...
  • Latin swings back into Europe, and back in time as the grandpappy of several of my favorite languages (Spanish and Italian being foremost here) and of one of my least favorite, English.  Familiar-ish vocabulary, extremely structured grammar, and extreme historical significance?  Don't mind if I do.
  • Arabic interests me mostly as the language spoken by my husband's boss, a native of Palestine, but it's another window into a culture very different from my own.  It's also a really gorgeous language, and another one with a really beautiful writing system.
So, it may make my brain explode, but those are the languages I'm planning to study, in that order, after I've completed each one.  Just for fun, when my Gaelige gets better, I may actually write a few posts in it...  I'll need a new computer again before I can attempt the same with Japanese, but we shall see.

Also, since I'm sure someone has wondered about this: Kieran Roy is a play on Ciarán Ruadh.  Ciarán is one of my absolute favorite Irish names, and Ruadh means "red-haired."  Since there's a sort of tradition of appending a nickname to someone based on a physical feature, Ciarán Ruadh is Red-haired Kieran.  Hence, my blog address: ciaranrr (I'll explain the second "r" some other time...maybe).