Archive for the ‘language’ Category

multi-lingual code cracking

June 10th, 2012

Spending time in our native language, where everything for the most part is clear, understood an unambiguous, gives us a skewed perception of what language really is like. Understanding quite effortlessly is something we get used to, and that's what makes our encounters with so-called foreign languages uncomfortable.

A language you know intimately is the exception. A great deal of language happens between individuals who communicate effectively despite their linguistic shortcomings. That to me is the real magic of language.

Dealing with a foreign language is always a matter of partial knowledge.

poster_afficheTake this poster and the word "affiche".

To begin with, Dutch has many French loan words and this is obviously one. "affiche" must be a noun, thus the corresponding verb is likely to be "afficher" or perhaps "ficher a" (to "ficher" at something or onto something).

In Polish "afisz" is a sign or a notice and it's simply a straight import from French.

In Spain recently I noticed it is very commonplace to write "prohibido fijar carteles" on all kinds of surfaces to discourage people from putting up posters. When you see that sentence on a wall that clearly has seen lots of posters torn down with remains of adhesive and dirt, the context is so clear that it's hard to misunderstand. "fijar" and "ficher" thus occur in a similar context.

Meanwhile, in Portuguese there is a very common word in "ficar" which is used in practically every context that has to do with entering a state of mind, eg. "eu fiquei feliz". This is very close to the Italian way of saying "sono rimasto deluso", where the verb to remain is used instead of, as in English, to become.

These three verbs are not exactly the same, but they have a strong common base of intention. "afficher" is the verb that corresponds to "fijar", ie. to fix or fasten something. Meanwhile, "ficher" has the metaphorical meaning of "ficar", namely to enter a state of mind.

il faut bien falloir de plus

May 2nd, 2012

C'est bizarre que "faut/faute" signifie soit avoir besoin de quelque chose soit commetre un acte injuste.

- Il me faut un stylo.
- C'est ma faute.

Ici encore:
- Falta de Morientes. (Morientes a commis une faute.)
- No me falta eso. (Je n'ai pas besoin de ça.)

Qu'en pensez-vous?

in 30 months of independent language study

February 18th, 2012

I got started on Italian in 2009 with an intensive 6 months to learn the basics. In the latter part of that period I had started to read my first book, which was really challenging, and took me about 3 months to complete. It was probably the single biggest breakthrough for me in Italian. The second book took 23 days.

A couple of months later I was out of books and ready to order more. As a complete joke I also ordered books by Umberto Eco (from 1980), Niccolò Machiavelli (1513) and Dante Alighieri (1304), thinking "there's no way I'll actually be able to read those". But I was curious as to how hard it would be.

Within 18 months I had read Eco, within 24 I had read Machiavelli and only Dante was left.

He's a tough nut to crack, but I've cracked it. I mostly understand him now linguistically, and I know that with more work I could get almost all the way there. It's not very rewarding reading, because even once you follow the language you still have to understand the countless references to historical persons and other works. And it's poetry (which I don't care for and never read), where every word is far more crucial than in prose. I'm satisfied, I'm not going to be a Dante scholar.

This is good news for us language students. At some point I was starting to doubt whether I could do it. Obviously not that it could be done, but that I could get there with my ability to motivate myself and do it within the limit of things that seem worth doing.

I think it's pretty mind blowing that in 2.5 years you can start from zero and cover the entire 700 year history of a language to be able to read anything in that period. When I compare that to my 3 years of high school French having achieved maybe A2 I feel very silly.

It's a clear demonstration of the difference between thinking for yourself and someone thinking for you. When you study on your own you don't know where to start and you get stuck sometimes. While this doesn't seem like a good thing, it is. Because you learn to overcome these obstacles by the power of your own cognitive skills. You try different approaches, you ask for advice. It's up to you - there is no program you can just follow blindly. And as you learn, you grow.

Some highlights

  • August 2009: Inception. Didn't have much faith in this project, but I felt inspired to try after a vacation in Italy/France.
  • 2009: Intensive language study with a textbook, doing tons of exercises and working to crack the grammar.
  • Early 2010: Took various online tests to measure my level. Tested B2/C1 across the various categories. Progress and expectation on different planets.
  • 2010: Made reading my main learning method.
  • Summer of 2010: a 3 week tour of southern Italy to many areas where people simply don't speak English. You either speak Italian or you have to rely on hand gestures. No safety net.
  • 2011: Wrote an Italian course for beginners exactly the way that I would have wished a course to be. It was huge fun putting this together. It was also a good exercise, because to explain something well you first have to understand it clearly.
  • Early 2012: Completed my Italian 20th century reading project. Read 15,000 pages of Italian up to this point.
  • Early 2012: Started a writing regimen where I try to post a daily entry. Stats so far:
    - 11 in Italian
    - 4 in Dutch
    - 1 in French
    - 1 in Spanish

italian 20th century reading project

January 18th, 2012

I was able to reach an intermediate level in Italian after 6 months of study, which was very satisfying. But then the question was what to do next and I didn't have much of a plan. I had read a couple of books by then and enjoyed the experience, but they were spy novels, because that was easy for me to read.

20th century track

It was around this time I was in the library one day and I stumbled upon Introduction to Twentieth Century Italian Literature by Robert Gordon. It hadn't been my goal in learning Italian to use it for literature, but here was a very practical guide that gives you a great overview of the most important works. I recommend the book; it has a thematic presentation so if you want to read about war, there's a chapter on books about that, if you want gender issues there's one for that etc.

Inspired, I read Gordon's guide making a note of every book that seemed interesting. It was clear that it was going to take quite a while to read all those books, but I wasn't in a hurry. And I thought what better way to learn about the Italian identity while simultaneously expanding my knowledge of the language.

It turned out to be a worthwhile pursuit, both culturally and linguistically. These books basically cover the 20th century canon (if it isn't too early to use a big word like that). I've added a couple of my own, but for the most part they are from the guide.

1904 Il fu Mattia Pascal ~ Luigi Pirandello
1913 La persuasione e la rettorica ~ Carlo Michelstaedter
1922 Enrico IV ~ Luigi Pirandello
1923 La coscienza di Zeno ~ Italo Svevo
1929 Gli indifferenti ~ Alberto Moravia
1933 Fontamara ~ Ignazio Silone
1940 Il deserto dei Tartari ~ Dino Buzzati
1941 Conversazione in Sicilia ~ Elio Vittorini
1945 Cristo si è fermato a Eboli ~ Carlo Levi
1947 Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno ~ Italo Calvino
1947 Se questo è un uomo ~ Primo Levi
1948 La casa in collina ~ Cesare Pavese
1951 Il conformista ~ Alberto Moravia
1953 Il mare non bagna Napoli ~ Anna Maria Ortese
1957 Il barone rampante ~ Italo Calvino
1958 Il Gattopardo ~ Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
1961 Il giorno della civetta ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1963 Lessico famigliare ~ Natalia Ginzburg
1963 Il consiglio d'Egitto ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1963 La speculazione edilizia ~ Italo Calvino
1964 Apocalittici e integrati ~ Umberto Eco
1964 Morte dell'inquisitore ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1965 Le cosmicomiche ~ Italo Calvino
1965 Lettera a una professoressa ~ Lorenzo Milani
1968 L'avventura di un povero cristiano ~ Ignazio Silone
1971 Il contesto ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1972 Le città invisibili ~ Italo Calvino
1974 Todo modo ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1975 Il sistema periodico ~ Primo Levi
1975 Lettera a un bambino mai nato ~ Oriana Fallaci
1978 L'affaire Moro ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1979 Centuria ~ Giorgio Manganelli
1979 Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore ~ Italo Calvino
1980 Il nome della rosa ~ Umberto Eco
1987 Gli invisibili ~ Nanni Balestrini
1989 Due di due ~ Andrea De Carlo
1989 Una storia semplice ~ Leonardo Sciascia
1991 Cose di Cosa Nostra ~ Giovanni Falcone
1993 Oceano Mare ~ Alessandro Baricco
1996 Seta ~ Alessandro Baricco
2001 Io non ho paura ~ Niccolò Ammaniti
2002 Montedidio ~ Erri De Luca

Reading all these books is well and good, but how would I know if it's "working"? Well, for one thing, reading books by many different authors, on various topics, and from different periods, ought to make it plain that I have certain blind spots if I have them.

Historical track

But I wanted to raise the bar and read some older works too, going right back to Dante, basically the gold standard of Italian literature. This would truly validate my strategy and answer the question of whether the 20th century reading was teaching me enough. It would also make my reading more well rounded.

1293 Vita Nuova ~ Dante Alighieri
1304 Divina Commedia ~ Dante Alighieri
1513 Il principe ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
1531 Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
1827 I promessi sposi ~ Alessandro Manzoni
1881 I Malavoglia ~ Giovanni Verga
1881 Le avventure di Pinocchio ~ Carlo Collodi
1889 Il piacere ~ Gabriele d'Annunzio
1894 I viceré ~ Federico De Roberto

My selection here is less deliberate, because I didn't research the topic as much. I suppose I could do the same here, starting with the well known Storia della letteratura italiana by Francesco De Sanctis to get an overview of what there is to read and then make a selection. But since I'm more motivated by language than literature I was more curious to see how far back in time I could go and still read the books and I'm fairly satisfied with what I've covered. Besides, much of the influential early literature in Italian is poetry (eg. Petrarca), and I don't particularly care for that.


So there you have it, a successful strategy and a nice way to spend the time. It took me about two years and while not every book was a hit, doing a broad survey like this put me onto many authors I would otherwise have dismissed because they didn't seem like my thing. And if you are picking from a guide like this, even blindly, you can be reasonably confident that a certain amount of effort went into producing it, so you're unlikely to encounter complete garbage.

the Germanic languages

November 23rd, 2011

When you study languages you really do begin to see them far more in terms of language families. I really enjoyed Alexander Arguelles's five part series about the Germanic language family. Below I have made a simplified version of the chart he presents, focusing on the major modern languages and their roots.


These languages are also known as the Teutonic languages, as is the case in Frederick Bodmer's excellent book on the history of languages, "The Loom of Language".

The earliest language that we have any substantial written texts from is Gothic, from around the 4th century. Everything before that is an extrapolation based on the comparative study of later languages (leading up to the hypothetical Indo-European language that is supposed to be the common ancestor of Gothic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and so forth).

The symbolic end point of the chart is around the 18th century, where the languages are similar enough to their current form to be called the modern version of the language. So you can read books dating back to that period with relative ease.

As far as studying them, my starting point was Norwegian and English, and later I added Dutch, so it made sense that I would try all of them out sooner or later (it's hard to find books in Afrikaans but I did find one). The only one I haven't touched is German, but who knows if the mood might strike me one day.

If you're wondering how you might jump across from one of these languages to another, check out my Norwegian-to-Dutch reference card.