Glossolalia

One of the distinctives of my blog will, I think, be how multi-lingual it is. I love foreign languages and generally think in some combination of all the ones I am familiar with. Spanish and English dominate, of course, but French also makes its way in now and then. When I was at an Italian language conversation/cocktails night recently I got stuck on a word because all I could think of was the German equivalent. So, really, the different languages battle for supremacy as much as their respective nations did in 19th Century Europe. (I’m listening to a podcast about the 2nd German Reich, at the moment and learning about how the French, English, Prussians, etc. battled for territory throughout the early 1800’s.)

So, like I was saying, I really love foreign languages.

Part of what I like is figuring out their inner workings — what makes them tick. For instance, many languages make a distinction between grammatical genders but I have no idea why. Many Americans are familiar with the grammatical genders used in the most common Romance languages (i.e. masculine, feminine and sometimes neuter.) But those are by no means the extent of grammatical gender. Dutch, for example, has common and neuter rather than masculine and feminine. Swahili has 18 noun classes while Zande has masculine, feminine, animate and inanimate. English, for one, has no grammatical genders. We use gender-neutral definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a/an” respectively.) As far as I can tell, grammatical gender adds no content to the meaning communicated by a given sentence or word. This is especially true because there is rarely any discernible logic behind the grammatical genders associated with words (excepting, of course, words with an obvious physical gender like “la madre” o “il fratello.”) A famous example is that of das mädchen (the young woman in German.) Although the word obviously refers to a female entity, German grammar requires that it take the neuter article due to the diminuitive chen ending. There is, really, no relationship between grammatical and actual gender — so what’s the point?

I’m also listening to a podcast right now about linguistic geography from Stanford. The professor mentioned that, counter-intuitively, those cultures which we in the West might identify as being less-developed, or more primitive, often have languages which are tremendously grammatically complex whereas the imperial, colonial, entrepreneurial nations (England, China, Rome) have had their languages simplified by centuries of divulgation and use as a non-native language. So, languages of small tribes in Papua New Guinea, for example, are more likely to have a complex system of grammatical gender than any Indo-European language, simply by dint of being spoken by a very limited group of people. While listening to a woman who worked as a missionary/Bible translator with a tribe on a remote Indonesian island for 21 years I learned that it takes about three times as long to recite John 3:16 in the Berik language as it does in English — another instance of an obscure language being tremendously complex. English is renowned for its flexibility and adaptability, attributes which lead to even more simplified languages like Singlish, Chinglish, and Spanglish. Esperanto has never had much success or populartiy, but with the way things are going English might end up as a de facto Esperanto with about as much complexity.

Another thing I like about languages is that they are conquer-able (speaking of English’s flexibility!). I haven’t spoken Italian regularly for five years, now, since the Spring of 2005. Yet, when I sat down at the table to chat with people in Italian, I was able to search for and retrieve obscure vocabulary as well as remember and put into use some of the finer points of Italian grammar, like the fact that articles aren’t used with family members and that the past participle of perdere is irregular. I don’t know why, exactly, but being able to properly wield all the slippery pieces of a foreign language is something that gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. I just really like foreign languages.

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