30 January 2007


On an almost-daily basis, I talk to people with five or six different native languages, none of which are English. So, since I don't speak Finnish and German and Spanish and Swedish and Dutch, and my Icelandic is a bit weak, it's usually my native language that we all end up speaking. I've realized that I have altered the way I use my own language- I enunciate more and select different words. Given the mixed influences on my accent already, I hadn't noticed it myself, but it's enough that a sharp-eared friend from my Boston days noted it a few months ago.

One of the things I love about speaking with people who may not have all the words they want to describe things is all the other ways to get the point across, from miming, to using the words in their own language (context and a little linguistic knowledge makes decent guesses often possible) to poetic, and sometimes roundabout ways of describing what they mean. Some of these frills are so lovely that I want to always use them now. For example, wouldn't you rather have a "movement package" when moving flats than just a regular old box? On some occasions, even brand-new words surface.

The ultimate goal of language is to communicate and these people all do so admirably, but the twist of unexpected input has added new flavor to the way I think about the world and the way I use and perceive my own words. Each one of these other languages have their own rules and spelling that spills over into the use of English- v's and w's are exchanged, pre-aspiration floats into words like "not" (this is the little breathy exhale that happens when pronouncing double-consonants in Icelandic and exists in very few languages worldwide), and the Germans and the Icelanders both have the same sprightly way of saying "I think.." Dutch people always sound far too enthusiastic early in the morning with the rising tones at the end of words like "hoiiiii!!" (a Dutchman saying "hi"), and there is definitely something similar about how the pronuciation of Finns and Icelanders appear in English.

This feast of phonemes has been a real treat, showing in real-time just how related the languages are. I studied linguistics in college but it's nothing like actually hearing these words in a way that lays the connections so bare. I'm always scurrying to the dictionary to inspect the roots of an English word, comparing notes with these other languages for where the usages diverged. For example, a few weeks ago I had a very involved discussion about the Icelandic word lóð (pronounced like "loathe"), which means a weight or a building lot. The trail wound through loathe and load and lode and lot and lade, proving unresolved in the end, but left me feeling moreso than ever that we're all not so different after all. Aren't we practically speaking the same language?


frychip67 said...

Did you get my reply to your e-mail? The first time I sent it it bounced, so I tried again.

cK said...

I adore the way language gets pressed about between regions, in translation, even within a single family.

ECS said...

frychip- got your email and I've answered. I'm in!

ck- I absolutely agree- these are called "speech communities" in linguistic-talk, and come in all sizes. This was part of why I studied linguistics!

Sir said...

So, seing how easy it is to learn new languages, why do you think it is that most Americans say they can't learn another language. That always baffles me.
I love languages myself, it's fascinating to see how they all link in.
One thing you may find interesting too, is looking into words that have come into Icelandic from other languages.

Such as the word Peysa or sweater. Ask people around you if they know how it came into Icelandic.

Also, there are some words that have lingered since the Danes were our rulers, some that fortunately have disappeared. There was a time, when the 'posh' people in Iceland spoke Danish even though they were born Icelandic. My grandma was one of them. The word fortó is for instance no longer used, but you would hear it frequently amongst the old people.

ECS said...

dear sir: are you new here? I don't recall seeing your handle before this week. At any rate, welcome to comments!

I have heard the peysa story, and another word that my mom thought was really interesting is "bacalao" (the salt fish that is popular here as well as Portugal and Brazil).

As for the American issue, I don't think it is so baffling actually. Here and over on the continent, you are much more exposed to different languages on a daily basis. Pick up your average shampoo bottle here, it's going to have four or five languages, so you can learn the Finnish word for "lather" while you wash up. In the States you might get French if you're buying fancy stuff. Turn on the TV here or in Holland, and the programs will be in a plethora of languages on a daily basis. In the States, you might get some Spanish but for the most part it's all in English It's not that people in the States are on average a less curious bunch, it's just that they don't have the same exposure.

Sarah said...

...and in the United States, it isn't mandatory that we learn another language in school, either, so by the time most of us decide on our own that we'd like to start to learn another language, we've missed the window of opportunity when learning a language was relatively easy. This is not an excuse, just one reason. I'm american and I greatly dislike the fact that we don't learn other languages in school... I had a 6 week course in Spanish in Junior high and then 3 years of French in High School, but let me tell you that the curriculum was sub-par, and I learned more French by spending 2 weeks in Paris than in 3 years in High School. Very sad.

-Sarah :O)

Hulles said...

I also love language and languages, and enjoyed your thoughtful post a lot. It was fun to read, which is a really flat sentence in any language but about all I'm up for after an "event-filled" day.

But thanks for the blog entry; it's nice sometimes to know kindred spirits are out there.

ECS said...

Sarah- I thought it WAS mandatory to take a language... at least in my schools it was. But, I agree with you that a few weeks in a foreign country is far more useful than years and years of classroom time.

Hulles- I just read your entry about vanilla, so I can see that you're equally interested in languages! There's actually lots of us out there.

Sarah said...

I should clarify - it IS mandatory, but only in High School (in California at least). I'm bemoaning the fact that it's not mandatory in grade school like it is in many other countries. and that's the best time to learn a foreign language, or so they say...

-Sarah :O)

eric said...

I went to Iceland for the first time about 2 months ago, the least I could say is that I absolutely fell in love with the place and the people.
I have been noticing the same thing about the similarities of languages, that sense of understanding bits and pieces here and there. It is just one more proof that we are all connected beyond what we think.
I love your blog, it brings me back 11 years when I took off to America from France. Now I am actually getting ready to do the same thing again, and Iceland attracts me much. I am going back this spring with the idea of staying for some times. Anyhow I am heading back to Europe.
Keep writing !!

ECS said...

Sarah: That sounds more like I expected. I had foreign language requirements in all three levels of schooling, but it still wasn't the same as BEING there.

Eric: Come join the party in Reykjavík! The photography opportunities are great here (I checked your site out). I'll keep writing as long as Iceland keeps entertaining me.

paulynn said...

Wow so glad to see Eric on the Blog! Speaking of languages, we are trying to use the Icelandic Online language prorgam, and wondering if you found a way to see the translation in English while you were learning it. We are unable to find a way to see what (in English) the lessons are teaching. Well, if you have any tips, let us know ;o)

Hope all is lovely in Reykjavic.


paulynn said...

oopps "Reykjavik" with a "k" not "c"

ECS said...

paulynn: I didn't realize you and Eric were a pair! Anyway, the Icelandic class was designed to be usable regardless of your native language, so it's counting on context and pictures to explain. What are you trying to understand specifically?

As for the Reykjavik spelling, you're not the only one to have done that. Someone else spelled it with a c in the comments section a few months ago and now I get hits all the time from others who spell it that way!