Singing in languages

Last weekend one of the choirs I sing in presented a concert which had been delayed and disrupted by COVID and reduced in numbers by choristers travelling. Alongside works in English, liturgical Greek and Latin, we sang works in Church Slavonic (a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) and Latvian (a new work by a local composer of Latvian birth or heritage). 

Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Indo-European languages, so I was on the lookout for any words which are obviously related to other IE languages I know about. But the only words I could discern are loan words into those languages just as into English: kheruvímy (cherubim) in the former and fenikss (phoenix) and oranži (orange) in the latter (all heavily influenced by the pronunciation and spelling of those languages). There is also trisvętúju in the former, which is guessable as trinity

Even though all these languages are Indo-European, they are obviously very different. Even though Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Balto-Slavic, they are obviously very different. Among other things, Church Slavonic is Slavic and Latvian is Baltic. Also, the texts we sang are liturgical dating to perhaps the 9th century and a 19th century secular poem. 

Linguists started by comparing closely related languages, such as Church Slavonic, Bulgarian and Macedonian, and Latvian and Lithuanian, then work their way back from there, eventually linking Polish, Czech and Slovak, the Balkan languages, the Russian-related languages and others into Slavic and thence with Latvian and Lithuanian into Balto-Slavic and then Indo-European. (Some people have attempted to reconstruct further back than than that, but their efforts are speculative and inconclusive at best.)

PS The Latvian poem is Putns ar uguns spārniem (which I can’t find anywhere online) by Aspazija. The title translates as Bird with wings of fire. I wondered if putns is related to a certain Russian surname, but no, the certain Russian surname apparently comes from put (path or way) + in (belonging to) and probably means something like ‘one who travels on a path’. (I couldn’t find any authoritative source and am relying on several user-submitted websites.)


Resurrection Day

Last year I posted about my firm belief that yesterday and today are Easter Eve and Easter Day respectively. I drafted most of the following post, then actually re-read last year’s post and found that I said most of this in last year’s post. But I’ll post this anyway.

I have long pondered the use in English of the pagan-derived Easter instead of anything actually Christian. After researching this, I found that this is an issue in only two languages: English, which uses Easter, and German, which uses Ostern. Even the closely related Dutch and Danish use Pasen and påske respectively. These, as well as the equivalent words in most other European languages, are derived from New Testament Greek Πάσχα pascha, Aramaic, פסחא paskha and Hebrew פֶּסַח pesaḥ (most often transliterated as pesach), or passover. But using pascha, pesach or passover is going to cause more problems that it solves.

English-speaking Christians in particular can’t complain that Easter has become a secular, commercial food-and-drink-fest when we deliberately and habitually call it by the name of a pagan fertility goddess. I was flipping through a 172-page supermarket magazine and saw one full-page ad headed Celebrate Easter. It doesn’t mention Jesus’s resurrection; it was for a cheese company and featured an undoubtedly sumptuous cheese, fruit and chocolate platter. 

A few European languages unrelated words: Wikipedia lists (Indo-European Slavic) Czech Veliknoce (Great Night), Bulgarian Великден (Velikden) and Macedonian Велигден Veligden (Great Day) and (non-Indo-European Hungarian, húsvét (taking the meat, that is, the end of the Lenten fast) and Finnish language Pääsiäinen, “which implies ‘release’ or ‘liberation’”.

If I can trust Google Translate, many non-European languages use either a transliteration of Easter (Japanese  イースター Īsutā), pascha (Amharic ፋሲካ fasīka (I presume directly, given the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia) and (?) Malagasy Paka (I presume borrowed from French, given the colonial history and prevalence of Christianity there)) or their own words for resurrection  + day (Chinese  復活節 (trad) 复活节 (simp) fùhuó jié and Korean 부활절 buhwaljeol (I assume that Korean borrowed the word from Chinese in the same way that English takes most of its specialised vocabulary from Latin and Greek)). There are also a number of languages where the meaning is not immediately discernible. They are possibly related to resurrection.

I asked my wife if 부활 is used only in the religious sense and she said yes. I then said that in English resurrection is sometimes used about an actor or singer who was very popular, then not popular, then is beginning to be popular again, and she said that it’s used like that, too.

[PS A niece who is an English-speaking member of an Orthodox church and second-language speaker of Scottish Gaelic linked to a Twitter thread of speakers of various Great British languages or varieties discussing various words and phrases they use based on Pasch, Pascha or Pace, so it does happen. Wikipedia mentions the Pace egg play, and see also the Egg dance. The Pace eggs found in Sydney supermarkets are named after the (?Maltese) family-run company which produces them.]

Languages of Nepal

(Note: I am not an expert on the languages Nepal. The following has been gleaned from teaching Nepalese students, especially recently, and Wikipedia.)

I have mentioned that Nepali is an Indo-European language (here and here), and therefore has some words which are cognate (or might be) with English. Yesterday a Nepalese student said that he and another Nepalese student speak different first languages (alongside standard Nepali as a second language), but don’t understand the other’s language. I caught what one said his language is, made easier by the fact that he uses the ethnic group/language name as his surname. For privacy I won’t tell you which one. I looked at Wikipedia’s list of languages of Nepal and found that that language is actually Sino-Tibetan, and thus more closely related to the languages of China.

Today I asked the other what his first language is, and it is the name of his his ethnic group, but he doesn’t use it as his surname. It is Sino-Tibetan as well, but saying that two Nepalese languages are both Sino-Tibetan says as much about their mutual intelligibility as saying that Romanian and Bulgarian are both Indo-European does (they are from different branches of Indo-European – Romance and Slavic respectively). There is comparatively less information about Sino-Tibetan languages on the internet, and what there is is dominated by Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese, being three national-level languages. (Possibly the two students’ languages are from the same branch (Wikipedia’s article on Sino-Tibetan languages colour-codes them as ‘other’), which might make them as mutually intelligible as Norwegian and Swedish, or Serbian and Croatian, but this seems not to be the case.)

So, three of my current students (an Indian student in another class), speak an ethnic or regional language, their national language (Hindi and Nepali) and their current level of English. And I speak approximately 1.1 languages. Luckily, people want to learn my language, otherwise I’d be out of a job.

Wikipedia’s article on the languages of Nepal states that the 2011 census lists 123 languages spoken in Nepal, but some of those are Indian and others are completely foreign (for example, 8 speakers of Arabic, 16 of Spanish and 34 of French). Slightly fewer than half are Indo-European, but they have larger numbers of speakers each, including the top four, accounting for over 66% of Nepalese between them (adding second language speakers of Nepali totals more than 100%, because many speakers of languages 2-4 also speak Nepalese as a second language (it is a compulsory subject at school, and the medium of instruction in most)). Slightly more than half are Sino-Tibetan, but they have fewer speakers each, under 10,000 in most cases and under 100 in some others. Wikipedia’s article on the demographics of Nepal lists 26 ethnic groups with more than 100,000 members, then combines the rest as ‘more than 100 caste/ethnic groups’, so in effect each caste/ethnic group has its own language.

Indo-European clothes

In 2015, many of my students were from Pakistan. Some of them wore traditional Pakistani clothes, especially on Fridays, when they went from class to prayers at a mosque. I asked them what those clothes were called, and they said “Shalwar kameez”. The shalwar is the trousers and the kameez the top. It’s a long way from Pakistani men to the chemise and camisole, but the garments and the words are related. 

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When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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hearten and encourage

An article I edited during the week quoted a person connected to a certain organisation saying that a recent event was “heartening and encouraging”.

Hearten and encourage are, basically, ‘the same word’. Courage is derived from French cour/coeur, which in turn is derived from Latin cor, heart which is related to Italian cuore, Spanish corazón, and Portuguese coração. Heart is related to Dutch hart, German Herz, Danish and Norwegian hjerte and Swedish hjärta. Both words have the morpheme en, on the end of hearten and the beginning of encourage.

In fact, the further back in history you go, the more literally ‘the same word’ heart etc and cor etc are. The Proto-Indo-European word was *k̂erd. In some languages, the /k/ remained as /k/ (Greek καρδιά kardia, Latin cor and its Romance derivatives). In others, it became /h/ (English heart and its Germanic cognates) and in some it became /s/ (Polish serce, Russian сердце serdtse). These changes are not random, and can be seen in a number of other words such as Latin cornu and centum (originally and still classically pronounced with a /k/) and English horn and hundred. Experiment a bit, and you will hear and feel how similar /k/ and /h/ are – a matter of a few millimetres at the back of the throat. /k/ and /s/ might seem further away, but consider electric and electricity. These changes have happened many, many times, which is how scholars have been able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European from the evidence of modern and documented historic languages.

My name is Indo-European

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. Continue reading