Talky Tuesday: If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.
Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.
To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.
On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.
And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”
We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.
Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.
Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.
This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.
I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.
It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.
I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.
I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.
That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.
On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.
Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.
I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.
Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams‘s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.
It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.
But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.
Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.
Good times!
I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.
Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.
Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via mohamed Hassan from Pixaby.

Christmas Countdown, Monday #4

Day 25

Feliz lunes, y otra navidad española, esta vez con Natalia Jiménez. She is one of the first singers whose songs I started to learn to sing, both as a solo artist and with her group La Quinta Estación (or La 5ª estación, if we’re doing it properly), and she’s pretty amazing.

In case you’re wondering, my favorites of hers are Creo en mi and El sol no regresa, which also is one of those amazing one-shot videos. Here, she performs the old classic Blanca Navidad, or White Christmas, and this is a pretty amazing example of how to translate the idea of lyrics while keeping the rhythm and not relying on being absolutely literal.

Watch the previous video or see the next.

Talky Tuesday: Trying trilingualism

As I’ve mentioned here before, I took four levels of Spanish over five years in school middle and high school, so I ran out of classes at the end of my junior year. Being a total language nerd, I then took one year of high school German, followed by a semester of University German.

I swear that in the first week in Uni we learned more than I had in the first semester in high school.

I didn’t pursue either language in college because I focused on other areas, with a Major and double minors. Consequently, I forgot a lot of both.

Of course, it didn’t help that our Spanish 4 teacher pulled a fast one on us. She asked the class to vote on whether we wanted to study language (i.e., grammar, spelling, etc.) or literature. The vote was unanimous for language, but she taught literature anyway, figuring we’d learn the language that way.

Narrator’s voice: “We didn’t.”

We didn’t exactly start with the Spanish-language equivalent of Dr. Seuss, which didn’t help. Imagine taking a recent immigrant who’s only studied English for a couple of years and then tossing them Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

They’d do what we did, which was go to the local library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), which we had access to use because we were public school students in California, although we couldn’t check out any books.

What we could do, though, was make copies of them, so we would go down there, find the English translation of the latest work, and either read it there or copy it so we could sound like we knew what we were talking about.

It was really a total waste of a year.

But then I started learning Spanish again as an adult about seven or eight years ago, starting with Duolingo as a refresher, and then using immersion via radio, magazines, TV, and so on. Listening to Spanish language stations in the car on my commute actually turned out to be the breakthrough for me.

And so, on my own, in about the same time I’d studied in high school, I achieved the level of fluency that I never did back then. I also got hooked on the unbroken streak on Duolingo — mine is currently six years, seven months, and about three weeks, although I was on Duo for a while before I started the streak.

But the thing is, Duolingo is pretty basic, and I’ve pretty much shot past anything they can teach me now, including all of the stories. So, recently, I decided to try something different.

I’d use Duolingo to learn German, but I would do it from Spanish. In technical terms, this would be learning my L3 in my L2. It’s actually working, because it forces me to not think in English at all, but there are some interesting collisions that happen between all three languages, because they have some words that are close and some that aren’t, and some that mean completely different things on two or all three of the languages.

A big one that constantly screws me up is “es.” In Spanish, “es” is the third person singular form of one of the two verbs for “to be.” In German, it is the third person neutral pronoun “it,” while the third person singular of the verb “to be” is “ist.”

In Spanish, you don’t have to use the pronouns because the verb endings imply them. In German, you always have to use the pronouns, the same as in English. (Well, proper English. We can omit them slangily.)

So the sentence “It is good” in Spanish could just be “Es bueno.” In German, it would be “Es ist gut.”

I can’t tell you how many times in a lesson I’ve started with that es and my brain shifts to Spanish right there, so I’ll enter “es gut” and get it wrong.

The other big difference is that German has three genders, while Spanish only has two — well, technically, but I won’t get into that here. The thing is, just as with Spanish, German grammatical genders bear no relationship to human gender.

That’s why a young boy is masculine while a young girl is neuter, and animal genders seem to have been assigned more on psychology than anything else. Bears and dogs are masculine, while cats and ducks are feminine, and horses are neuter.

I know a lot of English speakers who struggle with learning Spanish articles, but they’re really a lot simpler than German. For definite articles (aka “the”), Spanish has masculine and feminine singular (el, la) and their plural counterparts (los, las).

The only sneaky one is the combination that adds “to” before the masculine pronoun. To avoid having an “a” sound before an “e,” a + el becomes al.

Fun fact: this is the Arabic word for “the,” and wound up in a lot of words borrowed into Spanish and also English. Whenever you see one, realize that the original word was “the (something),” q.v. algebra, Alhambra, alcohol, etc.

Anyway, that gives us just five options in Spanish: el, al, la, los, las.

German starts out with three definite articles, masculine, feminine, and neuter: der, die, das. But the plural versions are not as straight-forward. In order, they are die, die, die. (By the way, that’s pronounced “dee,” and not the way it looks like it would be in English.)

So that one is simple, but there’s a catch. Unlike Spanish, German articles change as grammatical case does. That is, it depends on whether a noun is the subject of a sentence, or whether it’s the direct or indirect object, or has a relationship to another noun in the sentence — usually possession, but it can be descriptive as well.

That gives sixteen possible definite articles and, while some of the words repeat — like “die” taking up to spots above — you have to remember which ones go where.

Of course, language isn’t all difficulty, and some of the fun comes in when a sentence in one language  sounds like something filthy in another when it’s not.

For example, “Die Mädchen haben Hüte.“  Knowing that Mädchen means girl or girls (das or die is the only clue), this could easily sound like a reference to the restaurant Hooters, but it’s not.

It simply means “The girls have hats.”

Another, which sounds even filthier, is “Der Junge isst Nudeln.” If you’re an English speaker, you can be forgiven for thinking this means “The young man is nude.” Nope. It’s just a boy eating pasta.

In German, “bald” is not hairless (“calvo” in Spanish) but “soon.” And at the party last night, you might have seen Brunhilde rockin’ her Rock, which is a reference neither to stones nor to music, but the German word for skirt. (Also, pronounced with a long O, so “roke,” not “raak.”)

No, I have no idea why a German skirt is a Rock. The Spanish word makes so much more sense, really: “falda.” It just sounds more comfortable.

How the structure of questions differs between the three languages is interesting, too. In English and German, generally speaking, questions are in “VSO” order, meaning verb, subject, object: “Is Walter from Indiana?” or “Ist Walter aus Indiana.”

In Spanish, you have the option to do either, but it’s far more common to leave it as SVO and let inflection do the rest: “¿Walter es de Indiana?”, although “¿Es Walter de Indiana?” would be just as valid.

The key, again, is the inflection, with the rising tone giving away that it’s a question and not a statement, and this is why Spanish alone among the three has the upside-down punctuation at the beginning of the phrase. That’s so a reader will know when they see subject-verb that they are not reading a statement.

Finally, being the mongrel that it is, English goes both ways. The most normal way is VSO, but we can also use SVO to express surprise and, again, it’s all a matter of inflection. “Walter is from Indiana?” (Roll eyes, clutch pearls.)

In German, that construction would only ever be a statement of fact.

One other interesting thing about German, although I’ve seen it kind of fade away. They capitalize their nouns. Er, sorry… The German People capitalize all the Nouns!

We used to do this in English, and you can see it if you go back and read documents written by the Founders around the time the U.S. was born, the phrase “We, the People” being one of the more famous examples.

But even then, it was fading out as a standard and the capitalization was mostly used to highlight Principles that were Important and Abstract… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness and the like. And note that in that sentence, pursuit, although it is a noun, is not capitalized.

The funny thing is that this seemed to have developed in German in the opposite way from how it vanished from English. They started out by only capitalizing the nouns referring to important concepts or people (like König, or King), but then started doing it all of them. It started in the 16th century and became official in the 17th, about a hundred years before English moved in the opposite direction.

And Spanish took an even more opposite extreme: A lot of what are capitalized as proper nouns in English are not in Spanish, like days of the week or names of months. It’s the same with titles of movies, plays, and books. Only the first word and any proper nouns are capitalized. Otherwise, nope.

For example, La guerra de las galaxias aka Star Wars: A New Hope.

I suppose it’s time to leave you with a joke that my University German professor, the late, great Frau Schulz-Bischof, told us.

A Spaniard, an American, and a German are talking about language.

The American says, “English is the most beautiful language in the world. Just look. We have the word ‘butterfly.’”

“It’s nothing,” the Spaniard replies. “Spanish is the most beautiful. In my language, your butterfly is ‘una mariposa.’”

There’s a long pause, and then the two turn to look at the German, who finally just blurts out, “And what is wrong with ‘Schmetterling?’”

She was from Hamburg, by the way, so she gets to tell that joke. Or got to.

Image source: Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: Gone and went

Every language has its very irregular verbs, and three of the ones that seem to be irregular in a ton of languages are also three that are very, very common: to be, to make/do, and to go.

Aside from the bit after the colon in the above paragraph, for example, I used three forms of one of them in only 30 words: “to be” once, and “are” twice.

And when irregular verbs go irregular, they go all out. The Spanish verbs for the same thing: ser and estar (that’s two to bes), hacer, and ir are also very irregular.

For example, we’ll look at the Spanish verb “ser” and the English verb to be, and the first person conjugations are these:

Yo soy (I am), tú eres (you are), él/ella/lo es (he/she/it is), nosotros somos (we are), Ustedes son (all y’all are) and ellos/ellas son (they are). All right, if you insist, vosotros soís, but only in Spain, which uses Ustedes as the formal form.

In the Spanish version, parts of the conjugations sort of follow the overall pattern, which is basically that verbs in the present, in the same order as above, will end in –o, -s, no ending except the vowel before the r in the infinitive, -mos, -n, and –n.

What makes a verb irregular are the parts that come before. If “ser” were conjugated like a regular very, then it would be the very weird-sounding (to a speaker) seo, ses, se, semos, sen, sen.

Notice that beyond the first-person conjugations in English, though, the irregularity vanishes — sort of. Am, are, and is are all very different than the infinitive, but when you get to second person, every one of them uses the second person singular form: are.

If you were to conjugate “to be” regularly, then you’d get I be, you be, he/she/it bes, we be, all y’all be, they be. And there are valid versions of English that use exactly this construction, with the exception of third person singular also being be instead of bes.

You’ve probably heard someone say something like, “Dude, you be trippin’,” and while it isn’t standard, it isn’t wrong in the context of the vernacular it comes from.

Go beyond present tense, and irregular verbs get even weirder. Here are ser and to be in the preterite:

Yo fuí, tú fuiste, él/ella/lo fue, nosotros fuimos, Ustedes fueron, ellos/ellas fueron. And all right, dammit, vosotros fuisteis. English: I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were, they were.

In both cases, this form of the verb bears no resemblance to the infinitive. At least English only makes people learn two words instead of five. And Spanish further complicates it in that the preterite conjugation of ser is identical to the same conjugation of the verb to go, ir.

No, that never made any sense to me, either.

An example of a regular verb in English is “to want.” In the present, every person uses want except for third person singular (he/she/it), which gets wants. In the preterite, it’s wanted all around.

Complex tenses use either want or wanted with auxiliary verbs, and the gerund form can either be used as a noun/adjective (the wanting is the hardest part; that wanting feeling), or as a verb, again with helpers, “he’s wanting to go,” “I’ve been wanting to move,” etc.

Nice, simple and easy. But irregular verbs don’t play that, and one in English that I hear tripping up a lot of people is “to go.” In the present, it pretends to be a regular verb: I/you/we/they/y’all go; he/she/it goes. The only irregularity there is adding the e before adding the s, but that’s a pretty standard feature of English, too.

Any other tense, though, and “to go” decides to go batshit crazy.

For one thing, the preterite conjugation of the word bears absolutely no apparent relationship to the infinitive or present. It becomes “went.” Sure, it’s went for every person, but it’s still completely different than its root.

Now, this is where it trips people up. With a regular verb in English, you just use the preterite with the helping verb “to have” to complete the past perfect — an action that you had been wanting to do in the past, but stopped wanting to in the past.

Here’s a regular example: “I had wanted to talk to Bill about it.” Present perfect is the same: “I have wanted to talk to Bill about it,” the difference being that it’s an action you started in the past but are still doing now. And yes, wanting is an action.

And to make it even simpler, the form of “to have” has only one change. Regardless of number or person, it’s have or had all the way down, except for the present perfect third person singular, which would be he/she/it has wanted…

But throw in an irregular verb like “to go,” and that messes with the whole thing, and yet I hear the wrong version all the time.

If we followed the rules above, then past perfect would be something like “I had went with Bill,” and present perfect would be “I have went with Bill.” And, in fact, I know otherwise well-educated adults who do this all the time — and it makes me cringe every damn time I hear it.

See, irregulars like this have an extra layer of dark magic in them: Two past participles. One can be used with auxiliary verbs, and one cannot.

In this case, “went” can only stand alone. If any other verb comes before it, then the word is “gone.” “I had gone with Bill.” “I have gone with Bill.” Contrast “he went away” and “he is gone.” Same idea, but that extra verb makes all the difference. Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say something as heinous as “he is went.”

Some other sneaky verbs that to this: “to run,” which gives you either “he ran in the marathon” or “he has run in marathons”; “she gave it her all” or “she had given it her all”; “we already ate,” or “we have eaten already”  — and note the change in position of the adverb there. Since it modifies the verb, it comes before a simple one and after a complex one.

Okay, technically, you could say “we ate already” and it would be fine, but “we already have eaten” would sound a little weird.

Then there’s a classic that I hear Brits use all the time — and we’re talking professional presenters on the BBC even, and that is “to sit.” The preterite tense of that is sat — I sat, you sat, etc. In complex tenses, well, it gets complex because it depends on the verb.

Properly, you would say I was seated, you have been seated, etc., but I had sat, you have sat, etc. What I hear, particularly in British English, is the abominable “he was sat,” and similar violence done to the language.

Never, never, never, never, never, to quote Shakespeare.

The trigger on this one is “to be.” Stick it in front of “to sit,” and the verb must be seated. It has only sat when being seated cannot be.

One other really weird irregular one in English happened because… who knows? But the verb “to hang” has a different preterite depending on the circumstances.

In every normal usage, the past tense of “to hang” is hung — “I hung out at the mall last week,” although “I used to hang out at the mall” would also be correct.

The exception is if someone was executed by hanging, in which case the preterite is hanged. And in that weird confluence of slang and proper English, if you’re referring to an executed criminal and you say, “He was hanged this morning,” you’re reporting on the execution.

But if you say, “He was hung,” then you’re just bragging about the size of his genitalia. And that’s why proper word usage is so important.

Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.

 

Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?

Ma.

Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.