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.

Foreign accents

As a language, English is relatively accent-free, although that wasn’t always the case. Until fairly recently, we still used diaresis in words like cöordinate and naïve, although that has fallen out of fashion and my spellchecker is insisting that the first word is wrong. The only English word I can think of off the top of my head to use any sort of marking is façade — but we borrowed that one as-is from French.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you may occasionally see advisory accent marks in the text for very good reason: Pronunciation has changed since the Bard invented modern English. In his time, the last syllable of past participles was pronounced, so that the word “pronounced” would have actually been three-syllables — “pronoun-sed.” Nowadays, that –ed ending generally comes across as sounding like a single “d” or “t” is stuck on the end of the word. In Shapespeare’s day, “looked” would sound like “luke-id.” Now, it sounds like “lookt.”

So if you’re reading Shakespeare and see a word rendered like lovéd, it means to pronounce that last syllable as its own. Conversely, if the text isn’t marked like that but you occasionally see “lov’d,” then it means the syllable is pronounced by default and elided when marked with an apostrophe.

The lack of accents in English can be problematic because where we place emphasis in words almost seems arbitrary and, in fact, someone who otherwise sounds like they’re from the U.S. can give themselves away as Canadian by putting the emphásis in a place where we don’t normally hear it, and vice versa. A classic U.S. vs. UK example is the word “laboratory,” where the U.S. stresses the first syllable and the UK stresses the second, although at least the accents overall are a bigger giveaway of someone’s origin.

This is one of those areas where languages that use accents have a big advantage, especially if they have simple and consistent rules for where emphasis belongs. For example, in Spanish there’s what English speakers call the NOSE rule. If a word ends in N, S, or any vowel, than the natural emphasis is on the next-to-last syllable. If it ends in any other consonant, then the emphasis is on the last syllable. The accent marks are there to indicate deviations.

For example, the word for English is inglés. Without that accent, the stress would be on the first syllable because it’s the penultimate one and the word ends in S. Likewise, corazón, “heart,” has that accent there because otherwise the emphasis would be on the A. Unlike French, you can only have one accent mark per Spanish word, although you can have other markings, such as the tilde and diaresis along with accents. The Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s last name is a perfect example of this.

As for diaresis, it’s rare in Spanish but it does happen, and one of my favorite examples is the word for penguin, pingüino. Without that mark over the U, the word would be pronounced “pin-GHEE-no,” with the second syllable the same as the gui in guitar. With it, it’s pronounced “pin-goo-EE-no.” It’s a subtle distinction, but important. This accent only appears over the letter U in Spanish.

Finally, there’s the tilde, that little squiggle above the letter N — and only above the N. In fact, Ñ and ñ are still considered separate letters from N and n in Spanish. This is the last holdout after revisions made in the 90s. Before that, Ch, Ll, and Rr were also considered letters on their own, but have since been removed, reducing the alphabet from 30 to 27 letters. (If you happen to have a Spanish dictionary or grammar that does include all 30 letters in the alphabet, you might want to toss it and get something more up-to-date.)

As for other languages, German is famous for its umlauts, which is the same thing visually as diaresis, and you can find them over the letters A, O, and U. The effect is basically like trying to pronounce the base vowel while shaping your lips into the form they’d make saying the letter E. Oddly enough, the end effect is more like you’re blending the vowel into the letter R. A famous example is the beer brand Löwenbräu, which sounds more like “Lervenbrye” because of those marks.

The other famous German letter, though not an accent, is the Eszett, or ß which, despite its appearance, is not pronounced as the letter B. Rather, it represents a double S sound, and it’s often replaced with those letters when German words are rendered in English documents, so that a word like “heiße,” which means hot, becomes “heisse,” which is technically wrong. Then again, so is writing “senor” instead of “señor,” but since most English keyboards don’t accommodate these characters easily, it’s hard to avoid.

Believe it or not, the Eszett sort of has a relative in English in the form of a lost letter known as the Long S. If you’ve ever looked at handwritten documents from the 18th Century and earlier, then you’ve probably seen it. It is eʃsentially a replacement for the initial lowercase S in a pair or a solo S in the middle of a word, but can easily be mistaken for a lowercase F. Other languages have similar variants in letters. For example, Arabic has different versions of letters depending on whether they’re at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and Greek specifically has two different versions of its S, Sigma, one of which is only used at the end of a word. The Long S was basically killed off in the 1790s as foundries started to design new typefaces that favored what was originally called the Round S.

And this brings us around to the curious concept of Upper and Lower Case letters, in case (pun intended) you’ve ever wondered where those terms came from. Once upon a time, in the dark ages before digital layout, before photosetting, and before linotype, anything printed on a press was laid out by hand, and it was done with letters cast in lead. Generally, it was one letter per one piece of type, called a sort, although ligatures were common. These were combinations of letters frequently used together cast as one piece — ff, fi, fl, ffi, and ij were very common ligatures in English.

All of that type had to go somewhere to make it easy to pick and place quickly, so type cases were invented. These were literal wooden boxes with compartments in which the letters were sorted in a specific, though non-alphabetic order, although those orders varied from place to place. On top of that sorting, capital letters were kept in a separate case from miniscule letters, and the former was generally stored above the latter.

And there you go. The capital, or majuscule, type was kept in the upper case, and the miniscule letters were kept in the lower, and although physical typesetting like this has long since gone by the wayside, the terminology — like the legacy accent marks in English — linger on as an echo of history.

Never stop learning

I think that the last time I was physically in a classroom was about fifteen years ago, although it happened pretty randomly. At the time, I was a member of a theatre company that was renting space from a group called Deaf West, since that company was on tour at the time and not using their space. As part of this arrangement, those of us who chose to studied ASL with one of the company members who wasn’t on tour.

It was a great experience both in terms of learning about a new culture and bonding with each other until our teacher landed a dream job as liaison for the community. That was the good news. The bad news was that it meant he had to move a few hundred miles away. However, there were continuing education classes available nearby at a school in Burbank, so a few of us dropped in one evening.

We started with the beginner’s class, but the teacher soon realized that we were already too advanced for it, so she led us down the hall to an intermediate class, where we soon realized that it was too advanced for us. After that one experience, the dream of learning ASL fizzled, which was a shame. But just because we’ve left the classroom behind doesn’t mean that it’s time to stop learning.

When were you last in a classroom? Some of you probably still are, while some of you may not have been in one for years, outside of the inevitable parents’ night for your own kids.

Next question: When did you last learn something new that was not related to your job? And by “learn something new” I don’t mean picked up a new fun fact on the internet or heard some juicy gossip. I mean actually studied a skill or subject in an effort to master it.

If the answer to the second question is a longer time than the answer to your first, then I have some advice for you. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, and you shouldn’t stop learning new things just because you’re no longer in school.

Now, I know the excuses a lot of people probably have. Number one: “Learning new things is hard!” Number two: “Learning new things is expensive!”

As for number one, it’s really not that hard at all. The only block is the thing you stick in your own way that says, “No, I can’t!” Now you might think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy but it’s not, because you need two people for that — a self-fulfilling prophecy means that one person’s preconceptions color their perception of another person, no matter what the reality is.

So you’re off the hook in that regard. Your negative thoughts will only stop you from learning if you put them there and then let them. If you want to learn a thing, the only obstacle in this age is not a lack of resources, it’s the lack of you trying.

Imagine if you’d had that “No, I can’t!” response to learning to walk or talk. You’d still be stuck in the corner babbling incoherently and relying on your parents to carry you everywhere. Short of actual physical impediments to learning — e.g., a blind person is probably not going to become a photographer or race car driver — the only impediment is the defeatism between your own ears.

In addition to not telling yourself “No,” there’s one other very important part of learning: You have to be willing to let yourself fail and then learn from that. Nobody is perfect at anything on their first try. Even if they have beginner’s luck, like someone landing a hole-in-one on their first ever tee-shot on a golf course, that success is not going to repeat without practice.

To continue the golf metaphor, when you’re starting out you’re going to get far more bogeys than pars; you’ll miss the target more often than get near it. But the more you keep trying, the closer you’ll keep getting until you find yourself consistently golfing at par or below.

If you’re learning a new language, you will forget or mix up words, and you will mess up the grammar. If you’re learning how to play baseball, you will strike out, and you will drop the ball — at first. And that’s okay. It’s how humans work and how we figure things out. If we never make mistakes, or never admit that we have, then we have no room to grow into.

So there go those hurdles. What about the other one — learning is too expensive?

Well, that reason used to be valid. But even then, not really. There were and still are things called libraries, where anyone can have access to books and other materials (including audio and video) on any subject for free. And for the last 25 or so years, we’ve had this thing called the internet, which is the world’s biggest, vastest library. If you have access to that — and if you have a smart phone or computer, or if you’re reading this, then  you do — then all of the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips, and resources for what you want to learn are just as far away as a simple search.

Sure, some things cost money, but a lot don’t. Funny thing about humans — some of us who acquire knowledge love sharing it for the sake of passing it on. And if you’re already paying money for a streaming or music service, then you probably have access to videos and podcasts on your subject via those, so it’s really a free bonus included in an amount you’re already willing to fork over.

To get you started, Business Insider has compiled a list of ten free learning sources for everything from general knowledge through coding and SEO. Although it’s a couple of years old, all of the sources listed are still available, although the Microsoft Virtual Academy appears to be scheduled to shut down in 2019.

Speaking from personal experience about that list, a few years back I discovered Duolingo, a language-learning website and app, and have been using it ever since. It alone won’t make you fluent in a new language, but it will get you to a point where you’ll be comfortable enough to fill in the gaps with other online resources.

As for learning things way after school, I have some personal experience. For example, once I graduated college and no longer had professional IT people to help with computer issues, I basically learned how to be my own a PC mechanic, and have installed, built, rebuilt, repaired, rehabbed, recovered, and re-everythinged a ton of computers in my day. It was education by necessity, since there was no way I could have afforded a professional back in those days.

One of my proudest moments was when I figured out — without any manuals or guidance — how to internally rewire a keyboard that was designed for one system to be compatible with another. Of course, I don’t have any official certifications for any of this and, unfortunately, it’s one of those fields, like being a doctor or lawyer, where you really can’t just walk in and say “Hey, I can do that” without a piece of paper that says you can and get a job. Oh, if it were, though…

But life and learning goes on, and here are two recent examples, long past the day they handed me my degree. As I mentioned above, I’ve been relearning Spanish after having learned it and forgotten it in high school, and my only expense has been voluntary costs for Spanish language magazines and books I bought to study with or read, many of them gotten cheaply at a local used book store.

In addition to Duolingo, I’ve also relied on Spanish-language radio and YouTube channels to improv my listening skills, and my car has pretty much become a language immersion zone. Bonus points: I’ve become very familiar with a lot of Latin pop and rock spanning the last few decades, and could karaoke my way through a handful of songs.

Another really helpful way to learn your target language? Set your phone and computer to them. If you’re really ambitious, do the same for your social media. You’ll pick up all kinds of vocabulary very quickly,

I’m also currently working my way through my first novel in Spanish and, although it’s a translation of the English book Ready Player One, I’m really following it easily. I’m not cheating, either because I’m waiting to finish the book before I watch the movie. And yes, it’s a YA novel, but that’s probably my Spanish level at the moment anyway. Cool how that works out, right?

The other example is improv, which I’ve also discussed here on this blog. While I’ve always loved to watch it, I didn’t start to study it until about two years ago. I had never done it because the mere idea terrified me. What — go on stage without a script and just make stuff up? Yes, I’m a writer and an actor but writers take time with their words and actors get scripts and rehearsal. Throw both out and go there and… whaaaat? No. I thought I could never, ever do that. But the chance came up, so I took it. (Note: This part was not free, but the minimal cost has been worth it. Don’t negate my thesis over that, please.)

Anyway… trying to do improv scared me through all of those early classes and even after I’d actually started doing it weekly onstage. But then a funny thing happened. I let go of the fear and started having fun and, suddenly, improv became enjoyable, and the more I learned how to do it, the more I learned how to be myself; I was hitting fewer bogeys and even landing some eagles.

Ironically, the big secret was learning how to shut up my writer brain and let my body take charge. And this tapped into another skill I had avoided learning for way too long only to find out that I enjoyed it: Dancing. But that’s a whole other story.

The same thing happened with Spanish. The more I forgot about the little grammar Nazi in my head and just strung words together with abandon, the easier it got to speak, and letting people know that they could correct me if I got it wrong and agreeing to not take it personally just helped with the learning. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And probably the key point in learning a new thing is to never take correction personally. This is the flipside of allowing yourself to fail. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are bad at giving correction without making it personal (like every math teacher I ever had, who loved to fling insults). But the best teachers give correction by suggestion or question. “That was great, but have you considered…?” “Amazing, but now let’s try it this way…”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to learn a language or improv, but what I am saying is this: No matter how old you are or how incompetent you think you might be (you’re not) pick a thing you would like to learn, and go take a shot at it. If you can’t afford lessons from the pros, don’t worry. You’ve probably got a local library and can find tons of instructional books. You can probably also find groups of willing volunteers who do the same thing and want to help. That thing can be… whatever. Quilting. Scrapbooking. Trainspotting. D&D. Gaming. Activism. Sports. Fanfic. Cosplay. Improv. Please let it be improv… or playwriting. Yeah, I’m a theatre nerd at heart.

But I love all kinds of nerds. And, full circle. The common thread, I think, about us nerds, is this: We never stop learning about whatever interests us. We need to spread the word to the muggles, and it’s this: Never stop learning, ever. Period. Full stop. Learning to humans should be like swimming to sharks: To stop is to die. Unfortunately, way too many people chose to die when, instead, they could really enjoy living.

The French shooter

Sometimes, the differences in word origins between two languages is very telling. For example, what we call “a sniper” in English is referred to in other languages, particularly Spanish, Danish, and Swiss, as a “French shooter.” In Spanish, this is quite literal: un francotirador, with the “franco” part quite obviously meaning French, attached to the word “tirador,” which means shooter, derived from the verb “tirar,” to throw, the implication being that a shooter “throws” bullets.

So how did we wind up with such different and unrelated words between the continent and the British Isles? Simple: War and hunting.

Basically, French soldiers were very good at shooting things from very far away, and wound up using these skills to help other countries. Perhaps the earliest example comes from the Northern Seven Years’ War between Denmark and Sweden from 1563 to 1570, although interestingly enough they each had two words for it: friskytte/friskytt or snaphane/snaphan. Although neither is in the modern form of the language, the connections to “French shooter” and “sniper” should be obvious.

Francotirador landed in Spanish via the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, during which the Prussians referred to the French soldiers picking them off from a distance as franc-tireurs and, other than the spelling and punctuation, it should be pretty obvious that this is pretty much the same thing as “French shooter.” From there, and especially in modern times, this old term has come to be used in Spanish-language media to refer to any kind of sniper.

And, as for the word snipe, it comes from Old English of the 13th or 14th century, and originally referred to people who were good at shooting down snipes, which were very fast-moving birds. And the word snipe itself comes from Old Norse — thank you Vikings! — meaning that the connection to the Danish and Swedish words is pretty much explicit.

All of this just puts a highlight on one unfortunate aspect of human history and linguistics: so many of the old words we still use can ultimately be traced back to war or hunting. Although, for some reason, the English language has also borrowed “French” as a descriptor for a lot of things, most of them involving sex: you’ve probably heard “French kiss” and “French tickler,” but there’s also “French letter” which, once upon a time, was a euphemism for condom, and “French postcards,” which were the kind of porn your great grandfathers used to look at.

You want French fries with that?