Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Broken Linseed, breakfast and etymology

I enjoy a bit of broken linseed on my muesli of a morning.

This morning I idly looked over the packet of linseed and thanks to the handy way packaging (and road signs) in Brussels often has instant translations into French and Dutch I was able to see that in Dutch it's gebroken lijnzaad.

No big secrets here I think. In fact here we can see the proof that English is a Germanic language and the etymology of both backs this up (Old English: līn sǣd. Interestingly it seems that this time, it's the Dutch which has deviated more from the old root word as PIE for flax is also līn).

But that's not what caught my eye. What caught my eye was the absence of 'ge-' in the English version. I knew that English, as a Germanic language, also used 'ge-' as a prefix to indicate a completed action but why doesn't it anymore? After all, it has a PIE root in 'ga-'.

It seems laziness may have played a part....

On further reading I find that the 'ge-' prefix in English was pronounced 'y-'. Sounds weird but you hear a difference between German with a hard 'ge-' sound, and in Dutch a softer 'ge-' prefix and further in the Dutch spoken in Flanders, it's even softer. Why not shift it softer still in Old English?

And we can imagine why this very soft 'y-' sound easily faded out. Try it! It's a pain to say... ymarried, yfallen, yknow....! So, ever the pragmatist, the English language simply let this appendage shrivel up and drop off.

But not altogether. It remains alive in words such as handiwork (y- seems to have [eventuallly] been pronounced -i-) (Handiwork comes from hand + gewoerc.

And all that from ybroken linseed!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Pronunciation tip in Dutch: oo and oe

Something tickled me the other day when a Dutch-speaking colleague wrote to me (in a friendly way, in English), the word "Noop".

It took me a moment and a quick check of the context to realise this was meant to be read as 'Nope', which got me thinking about pronunciation.

Voorzichtig English speakers!
English shares many similar sounds with Dutch but of course when language was written down a long time ago there was no international writing conventions and so sounds were captured differently from country to country (or region to region). Which brings us to our little oo issue.

*OO* in Dutch is pronounced in a different way than in English.
See the example of telephone or telefoon. This 'phone' sounds almost the same as 'foon' in Dutch (especially with my accent). Which is why my colleague wrote phonetically what she heard: 'noop'.

So does Dutch have an 'ooooo' sound like in the English 'toot'?

Yes it does but this is written 'oe'. See for example 'oefening' (pronounced like 'oofening').

Dutch OO is English O*E (telefoon -> telephone)
Dutch OE is English OO (toeten -> toot)

Check out this page for a summary of sounds in Dutch:

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Teaching English in different cultures

As someone who has taught English as a foreign language I appreciate that one of the things you must take into account is the student's own culture values. It's important to know how these might affect their learning experience so you can tailor your classes accordingly.

Despite me knowing that this is something I needed to consider it really wasn't high up on the list of my priorities. I taught Belgians, Italians, French, Germans who, although different nationalities, all share a common European culture. National attitudes towards learning may be different but the educational differences between these countries don't throw up any major barriers in my experience.

Imagine, then if you had to teach English (or any language) to people who had completely different values to you. Imagine teaching to natives of a dictatorship where free thought and analytical expression are simply not allowed. That's just what Suki Kim did when she ventured from her home in Seoul, South Korea to teach young adults English in Pyongyang.

In the link to an extract from her book, she talks about how she struggled to introduce the idea of an analytical 'essay' to her students and how and why this made them so stressed.

Check it out here:

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Brit Who Won't Quit...

This blog post is taken from a guest post I wrote for the Linguistadores' website. Linguistadores is a free online learning resource tailored to your level while presenting you with articles, music and videos in your target language.

The Brit Who Won't Quit...

As a native English-speaker, people are often surprised to hear that I can speak another language fluently. English speakers have a reputation for being lazy at learning other languages, but this isn’t exactly true. Living in our English speaking environment we see no need to learn another language. We’re not lazy at language learning, we just don’t see the need.
Of course, there are lots of arguments for learning other languages all of which have been much talked about already. And yes, I get it! I love the challenge of learning a language and the fact that it opens a door into another culture. It gives you a deeper understanding of other people that translation or subtitles just can’t give. It’s also an excellent way of building bridges culturally, socially and commercially. This is why I learnt or rather am learning yet another language.
If at first you don’t succeed…your next language could be easier! I was surprised to find it a lot easier than the first time around. Certainly the two languages I learnt are from different families: French is of course a Romance language while Dutch is a West Germanic tongue. I found that along with my North Eastern English accent and a knowledge of some German, Dutch came a lot quicker but I would venture further to say I think the more languages you learn, the easier the process. I base this assumption not on natural facilities that your own language gives you but rather shortcuts that you have acquired in the first learning process.
Make use of shortcuts I hear a lot of people say they simply are too scared to speak to others in the language they are learning because they can’t remember the formulas. For example, “I would like a coffee please.” can be made simpler by saying, “A coffee, please.” Seems obvious? Believe me, I spent years worrying about finding the right formula before realising that in my own language we make these shortcuts and that they can be applied to other languages.
Of course I’m not advocating that you need to forget the grammar, not at all! In fact the same sort of shortcutting can be used when learning new grammar. The more languages you learn, the easier it is to recognise concepts of grammar and grasp why we need things such as cases, conjugations, declensions and so on.
The brain streamlines language learning and implements these shortcuts more naturally. It can give you a feeling for how the blocks of a language fit together. To give a concrete example, think of the pronoun ‘this’. This idea, this tram. In English, the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ doesn’t change depending on the noun it precedes, since our words aren’t gender-specific. In French we learn that nouns do have a gender and therefore the word ‘idée’ in French is a ‘la’ word and so ‘this idea’ becomes, ‘cette idée’. The tram is a ‘le’ word and so ‘this tram’ becomes ‘ce tram’ (not cette tram). When we move to another language we have already grasped this concept and so can accept this grammar point quicker. In Dutch the ‘Het’ word becomes ‘Dit idee’ (this idea), while the ‘De’ word’s demonstrative pronoun turns into ‘Deze tram’.
I’m not the only one to find the idea of streamlining useful throughout the whole learning process: Boffins at the University of Haifa set out to see what benefits bilinguals had in gaining a third language. Professor Abu-Rabia explains, “Our study has…shown that applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to go through the learning process successfully” (ScienceDaily). There you have it.
Bonus benefits Being bilingual and learning a third language has also had a further and unexpected effect on me. It has helped me appreciate my own mother tongue much more in terms of grammar and syntax but also in the cultural heritage we find therein.
Learning languages for me is a lifelong process and I don’t think will ever stop. We can always learn more about languages, even our own mother tongue, so if you embark on a voyage of language learning be prepared to work hard. But it pays off and the more you learn the better and easier it gets. I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park. It does require dedication and courage but the simple conclusion I present to you from this short article is: don’t stop because it is worth it.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Es ist ein Kind

I watched a neat Sci-Fi film last night called Cargo. It's a German film and was just what I needed: not too deep, a bit hackneyed but overall well-made.

As it was in German I had to use subtitles (in French on this occasion given the constraints of Netflix!) and I was struck at one point by the proclamation by a protagonist of, "Es ist ein Kind!". What I thought of immediately of course was the similarity with Dutch: "Het is een kind".

I was initially tempted to read a link with English when you think that sometimes for 'k' in Dutch (or German) we can read with a 'ch' in English.

You can see this in words like cheese or church (Käse, Kaas / kerk, kirche) so I thought I saw a similar link with child->kind.

But no! Upon further investigation we see that child comes from the Proto-Germanic root of *kiltham meaning newly born, foetus or infant (also cognate with the Danish kuld meaning 'litter' or 'brood').

So what of 'kind' (as child) and its relation to children in English? Well, it seems we do retain some feel of this in English through kin (related to the family) or indeed kind (as in a sort or type of things). These stem from the Old English 'cynde' which originally meant the natural order of things and from which by extension we can see a link both with children and kin and 'a sort, type of something'.

Es ist ein Kind
Het is een kind
It is a child.

Unsurprisingly 'it' is very closely related to 'het' in Dutch. In fact in Old Frisian it was 'hit'. points out the h in Old English was dropped due to it being in an unemphasised position.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Woord van de dag : eenvoudig

I've had today's word of the day rolling and lolling around my head for some time. It just seems so pleasant to say! Unfortunately it's not as simple to say as its meaning….

Eenvoudig (niet ingewikkeld)
means simple, straightforward (not complicated).

And if you are learning Dutch then here's a place you can go for 'eenvoudig Nederlands',

"TAALBLAD.BE is een e-zine met dagelijkse actualiteit, geschreven in het Nederlands, maar voor anderstaligen (that's me)".

Can't quite work out from the etymology if this word is made up of een (one), voud (fold) ig (y). Any ideas, please comment!