My year of learning Dutch – Consonance

Friday, August 19th, 2016

…in which I come to grips with my first challenge.

You forget what a package language is because you take your native language with your first steps.  First comes sound.  Every “new” language comes with familiar and unfamiliar sounds.  And for the English speaker, the first challenge is what the Dutch do to “g”.

One advantage of learning a language as an adult is that you can be guided by orthography.  English speakers have an advantage in learning any other language: not having to learn the eccentric spelling of English words.  Pronunciation of Dutch is predictable from the spelling, allowing for a couple of phonotactic rules, but first they must get to grips with this monster. And children learn languages so easily because they don’t have this orthographical hangup.

By the speakers in Duolingo, this sounded to anglophone ears like a rather raspy ‘h’: think Eliza Dolittle’s attempt to reinstate her dropped aitches.  So “In Hhhertford, Hhhereford, and Hhhampshire…” becomes “In Groningen en Den Haag gisteren…”.

Favourite word so far is “graag” for the reasons above.  This great word is like a politeness particle turning the abrupt Ik wil (“I want…”) into the more polite Ik wil graag (“I would like…”).

My year of learning Dutch

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

…in which we make plans for the Great Escape

So at last it’s time to go to Europe.  Or at least plan to go to Europe.  We plan to drop down in Finland and thence by land and sea to Scotland.  I reckon that means we travel through Belgium, the land of beer.  Belgium had been the holy land ever since I’d had that Verboden Vrucht late one Saturday evening.  By the time I’d graduated to the unpronounceable Gueuze, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage some day

Back in the day, I had a Linguistics lecturer who was Belgian.  She was a forthright person.  One thing she made it plain that she didn’t like, and that was being mistaken for French.  I don’t know how she felt about being thought Dutch.  And one thing that Agatha Christie taught me was that Belgium is split (neatly?) between Flemish speakers and Francophones.  I’d punished French as a schoolboy, so that was no challenge, but Flemish was a new frontier.

My Belgian lecturer had had a friendly “duel” with a German native speaker, where they compared and contrasted syntactic structures.  It was fascinating but having little knowledge of either language made it a dizzying experience.  My interest was piqued.

So armed with nothing but a love of language, a desire to impress some unknown Belgian brewer with my ability to pronounce “gueuze”, and a no doubt imperfect understanding of the relationship between textbook Dutch and the Flemish of the Belgians (see later posts), I loaded up Duolingo, held my breath, and dived right in.

The French have a word for it

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Well no they don’t. My schoolboy French informs me that not only do the French not have a word for 70, 80, or 90, and the names for 90 to 99 compound the problem. Let me back up. Of course, there is a way to express the number 80 in French (“quatre-vingt”), but that is a compound of the single words for “four” and “twenty” respectively. The rot starts with 70, which literally translates as “sixty-ten” (“soixante-dix”), and 90-99 introduces a triple word compound (“quatre-vingt-dix”). Since the upper reaches of the teens encompass compounds themselves (17 in French is “dix-sept”), some numbers between 90 and 99 comprise compounds of 5 separate words, eg. 77 = “quatre-vingt-dix-sept”.  I’m not sure how the French education system is set up, but I’m  assuming that French children would learn the names of the numbers from 1 to 100 before they learnt multiplication, so “quatre-vingt” must be perceived as a single word rather than as “4 (x) 20”.  English has “opaque” words for the early teens (“eleven” and “twelve”), but for the rest fall into a familiar pattern where the original elements of former compounds are recoverable form the modern single term (with minor variations as in “thirteen” and “fifteen”).  French differs here as well by having “translucent” rather than opaque variants in the teens: “onze”, “douze”, “treize”, “quatorze”, “quinze”, “seize”, for 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 respectively.  I call these translucent  because “dix” + “un” = “onze” is recoverable after a bit of work (well, the “un” part at least), whereas “one” is not recoverable in  “eleven”.  And when English moves into the 20s, it becomes quite regular, with the standard pattern [number] + -ty.  + [hyphen] + number.  The French cognitive load is heavier given the greater number of translucent numbers.  What does it all mean?  Given that children learn their native language at the same rate, iot is clear that while not all languages are created equal, the “hard” learning and the “easy” learning seem to sum about the same in terms of effort.

Don’t get scared now…

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Get has, well, got a lot of bad press over the years. Yet, it passes the first test of a useful word: it can say what its close synonyms cannot. “Johnny was arrested” sounds a bit pallid compared to “Johnny got arrested”, the latter carrying a little more of the speaker’s opinion of the event. “Got married” focuses on the event and the resultant state, whereas “was married” introduces a time element and suggests by focusing on the event that the state is no longer applicable. “Is married” focuses on the state and backgrounds the event.  But GET comes into its own when it’s used in phrases which have no natural-sounding equivalent: get stuffed, bent, happy, busy, better.  The word always seems to connote a directness and a sense of speaker involvement missing from prim synonyms.  And while “got married” might be the equivalent of “was married” in some contexts, the slangy substitutes, like “got hitched” don’t have that schoolmarm approved equivalent.  “Was hitched” suggests that someone tied the couple to a fence.

Poor man’s orange

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Just learning Word Press, but food for thought: a poor man’s orange shouldn’t be citrus.

Starter Nano-festo

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

This is exciting!  My first blog will be about language, but not in a “thou shall not” way, or a “I love words, me, but I’ll only talk about things that other people say that irritate me” manner.  Po-faced pedants have had their sway too long.  You won’t find them here.  Linguistics is a science, dammit, not a pulpit.  Appeals to household gods and half-remembered “grammar” lessons have nothing over research and reasoned arguments.