My very last lesson as an English language teacher provided an interesting insight into languages … twice. I was using the Schoolhouse Rock and Grammaropolis songs to illustrate the main points of English grammar. My students on that day were from South Korea, Colombia and Nepal, so along the way I commented briefly about similarities and differences between English and Korean (eg, basic word order of subject-object-verb), and English and Spanish (eg, basic word order of noun-adjective). I could say absolutely nothing about Nepali. The only two things I know about Nepali are that it’s Indo-European and most closely related to Hindi and Urdu. So towards the end of the lesson, I went to the Wikipedia page on Nepali in the hope of gleaning something of interest. One of the example sentences is My name is Bryan Butler, which is given in Nepali script as मेराे नाम ब्रायन बट्लर हाे । and then transliterated as mero nām brayan batlar ho.
mero nām – Indo-European much?
The Spanish student provided me with mi nombre and I know the Korean 내 이름 (nae i-reum) (usual/natural) and 제 이름 (je i-reum) (polite). Clearly, Korean is not an Indo-European language.
After the break, I showed them the first episode of the English TV series Mind your language, which is set in an English language class in the late 1970s. From 6.08 the teacher goes round the class asking for names, nationalities and occupations. The first three students have no problem with the questions, but most of the answers are played for laughs. The fourth student (8.02) is Indian, and replies in voluble Hindi – hang on, did she say nam (or something like that)? In all the times I’ve watched this, I haven’t been able to pick out any individual words, but obviously this time I’ve been primed. A quick check of Google Translate shows that the Hindi word for name is, indeed, naam, and my name is mera naam.
After the fifth, sixth and seventh students, the eighth student (13.13) draws a complete blank, even though he speaks an Indo-European language and has seen the teacher ask the same questions to those other students. The teacher asks ‘What is your name? Your name? What is your name?’ before the Italian student helpfully says ‘Nome’. The Spanish student brightens and says ‘Ah, nombre, sí’. So he can understand the Italian nome, but not the English name. (In this pilot episode, the Indian and Spanish students have very limited English. In the later episodes, their English gets much better (if highly idiosyncratic) very quickly.)
At some point the Colombian student in my class mentioned that he’s had conversations with Portuguese speakers. I said I’d seen a Colombian and Brazilian student conversing, and also a Pakistani and a Nepalese.
After the class, I played briefly with Google Translate, and found that it is broadly possible to discern which languages are Indo-European, and even to at least tentatively group those into sub-families. (Of course, knowing already which languages are Indo-European, and which are in sub-families certainly helps.) I thought about including some here, but decided to let you play with it too. Or you can just read the Wikipedia articles on Indo-European languages and/or IE vocabulary (my and name are both listed, but not together).
The same issue is played for drama in the Australian movie Breaker Morant. A squad of Australian soldiers captures a Boer soldier. They ask him ‘What is your name?’. When he doesn’t reply, they say to the interpreter ‘Ask him his name’. The interpreter then asks ‘Wat is jou naam?’. A minute or so later, they shoot him. That is not a spoiler. The synopsis of the movie says: “The film concerns the 1902 court martial of Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton – one of the first war crime prosecutions in British military history. Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lts. Morant, Handcock, and Witton stood accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian in the Northern Transvaal.”
[PS my surname is Indo-European, but my given name is from Hebrew, which is a Semitic language.]