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Project Hebrew

September 23, 2010

It is an amazing fact that the word ‘excited’ has no Russian equivalent. It seems to be such a common feeling that it’s unbelievable how Russian manages without it. Translators translate it into Russian as either ‘glad’ or ‘aroused’ or something similar to ‘pleasantly agitated’ – which sounds awkward even in Russian. So I can’t say ‘I’m excited!’ in my native language and I’m saying it in English. I’m excited because tomorrow I am going to my first class of a new language. In recent days, I have toyed with the idea of studying several different languages and I shared my feelings about Finnish in an earlier post. However, I have since sobered up (figuratively, of course) and realized that there is little chance I will summon enough motivation to study the language without a tutor. With my hectic schedule I do need someone to report to at least once a week, otherwise I’ll always find an excuse not to study. And I do need someone to practice speaking with.

So walking past the synagogue the other day, I decided to drop in and ran straight into a bearded guy who happened to be a teacher of Hebrew, so I immediately arranged private classes with him beginning this Friday. Now I’m not going to write a long essay on why I chose Hebrew but there seems to be a nice mix of practical and sentimental reasons: I’m half-Jewish, I’ve got family in Israel and, even though they can all speak Russian, I have found myself in situations in Israel where being able to speak Hebrew would have made things more convenient and would have made me feel less like a fool. And the fact that it’s an ancient culture and a beautiful county which I love add to the sentimental feeling.

Hebrew, or Ivr’it, as it is called both in Hebrew and in Russian, is a Semitic language and as such a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is the most famous example of a dead language having been resurrected and being now alive and well.

According to some Jewish traditions, Hebrew was the language of creation and it was the language spoken before things got messed up at the Tower of Babel.

Israeli guides claim that the Hebrew alphabet was the first writing system with letters corresponding to sounds (instead of hieroglyphs, syllable writing, etc), however sources suggest that it developed along with other scripts used in the region during the late second and first millennia BC.

Eventually, Hebrew was displaced as the everyday spoken language of most Jews, and its chief successor in the Middle East was the closely related Aramaic language. It is being debated whether it happened during the Hellenistic period (in the 4th century BC) or at the end of the Roman period (about 200 AD).

For centuries afterwards it remained a language of prayer, studies and religious texts, the language of the Torah and the Talmud.

Then it was revived in its modern version. Hebrew’s revival was initiated in the late 19th century by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who immigrated to Palestine in 1881. The language was reconstructed as a spoken language, retaining its Semitic vocabulary and written appearance but taking on European phonology. It also borrowed a number of idioms and literal translations from Yiddish, which was the first language of many European Jews (Ashkenazi) settling in Palestine.

So tomorrow 9 a.m. is my first class. Anybody who knows Hebrew or has attempted to study it before, I would love to hear from you. What are your impressions from learning the language? What is the fun part and what are the stumbling blocks?


Language education in Europe and Russia: Teach more or teach better?

September 20, 2010

In my previous post I suggested that knowing one foreign language was enough if you knew it well. A mankind of polyglots would be fantastic, but if everyone succeeded in immersing him/herself into at least one foreign culture, it would already make this world a better place.

If you think about Europe, however, the demands are higher. With the borders open and with 27 nations sharing the same political and economic space while trying to preserve their linguistic and cultural identities, I believe knowing more than one foreign language must be a requirement for everyone from primary school onwards. Because of the closeness and the ease of communication between the countries, Europeans can hugely benefit from learning several languages of their neighbors and, through the languages, learning their neighbors’ cultures.

So what is the situation like today? I have glanced through some facts about language education in Europe, and it is not the same across the Union.

In nearly all European countries, according to the 2008 report, “Key data on teaching languages at school in Europe,” students are expected to begin foreign language instruction in primary school, which is a great thing. Students in Belgium and Spain are often provided such instruction at the pre-primary level. In Luxembourg, Norway, Italy and Malta the first foreign language starts at age six.

Malta is a veritable nation of polyglots. Beginning from primary school the children learn several languages. Watch this report from France 24:

In Luxembourg, French and German are taught from the primary level, and almost 100% of the adult population are trilingual (the third being their native Luxembourgish). Of course, many of them know English as well. Here is more info about Luxembourg:

In Belgium’s Flemish community at least two foreign languages are taught in secondary school.

On the other hand, Ireland remains the only country where foreign language education is not compulsory. The Irish and English languages are taught but they are both official languages of the country.

In the UK, students have recently been allowed to opt out of studying foreign languages as early as at the age of 14. They have eagerly grasped the opportunity. They obviously believe that everyone in the rest of the world speaks English anyway. Employers say this will damage British students on the international jobs market. More about it here:

And how are things in Russia, which is geographically part of Europe but is really in its own category? One foreign language is compulsory here from second grade of primary school, and some elite schools offer two or more foreign languages. But thinking about Russia makes one think that quality matters at least as much as, or even more than numbers. I studied English in the USSR from age 11 to age 17 and I could hardly speak any of it when I was leaving school. I could write some sentences and read them, I could translate the texts written in Rusglish from the appalling textbooks we were using with the help of the mini-dictionary provided at the end of the same book, I knew a bit of grammar theory by heart and I always had ‘A’s (‘5’s in our system). Today, things have changed little apart from the fact that kids study English from age 8 and still can’t speak it by age 17. True, in this generation a lot more students actually end up speaking English by the end of their school life, but that is solely due to traveling, the internet and the self-education, and more often than not it happens despite school. Most teachers of English, who work for meager salaries from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, are elderly women who can’t speak the language well enough themselves (and some of them can hardly speak it at all – believe me, I’ve checked).

What is the conclusion? It’s very simple: There should be a balance between quality and quantity. Since the quality of teaching foreign languages appears to be generally higher in Europe, it’s increasing the quantity of languages taught in schools that tops the agenda there. For Russia it is definitely increasing the quality.

An Ode to Finnish, some thoughts on being a polyglot, and memories of the USSR

September 16, 2010

It’s not my goal to be a polyglot. A sports commentator doesn’t have to be a good footballer, car racer, weight-lifter, tennis player and ski jumper, all at the same time, in order to understand the sports and give thoughtful commentary. However, dabbling in a few of the sports will make one less of a theorist and add to one’s credibility. Likewise, I can’t ever hope to be fluent in many languages. I won’t have time to learn them and then constantly practice them to keep them alive. Not meaning to offend anybody, I also believe that learning languages simply for the sake of learning languages is pure self-indulgence. It’s enjoyable, it’s addictive, but unless you actually do something with your knowledge to help mankind, you’re just engaged in a non-stop self-pleasing exercise. It’s fine if you are a linguist studying the languages to analyze the ways they work and make global conclusions. It’s fine if you are a permanent traveler and use your skills interacting with people across the globe. Other than that, I don’t think the numbers matter. Knowing one foreign language well is sometimes more worthy of respect than knowing a dozen languages poorly, in my very humble opinion.

As for me, I’m a bit of a linguist and a bit of a traveler, and in this blog I am trying to be a sort of ‘linguistic commentator’. So I thought it would be great to learn a couple of tongues different from those I had known from birth or had studied before (i.e. Russian, English, French, Spanish and a bit of Italian).

So the other day I decided to study Finnish. Why? Lingustically, because it’s from another language family and, consequently, is unlike all the other languages I know. When I speak Spanish I sometimes get confused and insert French or Italian words. With Finnish, words as basic as ‘yes’ (‘kyllä’) and ‘no’ (‘ei’) are so different that there’s no risk of confusing them. Also, it would be intriguing to see how agglutination works where enormous words are created by joining morphemes together. It would be interesting to study a language with a complex system of inflection of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs.

To learn a language I also have to like the culture. For some reason I have only positive associations with Finnish culture.

It makes me think of The Snow Queen by Andersen, one of my favorite childhood books, where the Lapp woman and the Finn woman helped Gerda in her quest of Kai.

It makes me think about polar nights, Aurora Borealis, forests, lakes, reindeer, Santa Claus…

I’ve always supported the Finnish ice-hockey team (of course unless they played against Russians), I don’t really know why. Maybe because I want them to match the Swedish team’s record. They always seem to have been a little behind. Maybe I just like their colors.

I prefer Finnish butter. It’s the best you can buy here. Finnish tiles are good. Finnish copying paper is good. Both my son and I have Nokia phones, and they are good.

The Finns’ proverbial liking of vodka should have struck a chord with me as a representative of the vodka nation, however the only two ways I use vodka is to disinfect the injection spot when my wife shoots some prescribed stuff into my buttocks and to please my father-in-law when he comes over for a visit. I don’t drink it.

I traveled to Finland as a foetus. My mother was pregnant with me when her trade union (the organization responsible for distributing tours in the USSR) granted her and my father a much desired tour to a capitalist country. It was not terribly easy to get a tour even to a socialist country in 1971. But Finland had friendly relationships with the Soviet Union, so my parents were allowed to go. Of course, they were first grilled in the local Communist Party office about the political situation in the world, the advantages of the Soviet way of living, etc. They were not allowed to wander away from the group while in Finland or mix with locals. One member of the group was a KGB agent, as it always happened at that time, and my father says it was pretty easy to figure out who it was. Anyway, they enjoyed the visit and were even able to take a few snapshots of half-naked models on posters in window shops, something you couldn’t see in the Soviet Union. So I have something Finnish in my blood because my mother breathed Finnish air and ate Finnish food even as some of my vitally important organs were formed.

After I thus justified my choice of the language to immerse myself into, I needed to find someone to help me learn how to speak it. That’s where the snag was. In the city of Perm, with its one million population, located in the Urals, where the pro-Uralic language originated, with the Komi and Komi-Permyak languages (relatives of Finnish) spoken in nearby regions, there doesn’t seem to be a single Finnish speaker, let alone teacher. I’ve phoned all language centers, asked friends, searched on the internet. No use.

I know it’s possible to learn a language all by yourself if you have plenty of motivation. Maybe you can even find someone to communicate with via skype. But for me, that takes away all the fun of learning languages. I need to have a living person next to me with whom I can speak the language.

Now I’ve got the dilemma: should I go out of my way and try to learn Finnish without a teacher? Or should I settle for a language available in Perm, such as Czech, Portuguese, Turkish, Hebrew or Arabic, all of which are wonderful and intriguing each in its own way? There are quite a few of them taught here – you can even learn spoken Sanskrit but not Finnish!

Something to think about in the next few days…

Mom, Mummy, Mama, Maman, Maminka…

September 13, 2010

I was thinking about language universals. Something that all languages share. Not advanced linguistic stuff like recursion but something very simple. Then I had a hypothesis:

Assuming that babies begin to speak by producing the same sounds in any ethnic group. Assuming that the first distinct syllables they utter are of a biological rather than linguistic nature. Assuming that ‘ma’ is the first syllable most babies pronounce more or less distinctly and, as they do, the person who is most likely to be around and be the first to hear it is their mom. And she is most likely to interpret it as a word and attribute it to herself, delighted that her baby has talked to her – ‘ma’, ‘mama’. So my hypothesis was that what is written as ‘Mom(my)’ in US English and ‘Mum(my)’ in UK English would be pronounced in the same or similar way in any human language. Not even ‘Mother’ but the childish form of the word.

So I went to the Google Translator and did quick research. I translated the Russian Мама into every language available. A few such as Hebrew didn’t give me a Latin transcription, and I didn’t know how to read them. But apart from those few, my hypothesis was generally supported. Languages as diverse and distant from one another as Bulgarian, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili and even Basque, belonging to different language families, had variations on the Мама theme. The syllable ‘Mo’ or ‘Ma’ was in all of them, and very often it was just ‘mama’.

Not with a handful of other languages.

My brilliant theory of a universal biological origin of the word Мама, which was going to shake the foundations of linguistic science, was challenged by a couple of Ugro-Finnic languages, namely Finnish and Hungarian, as well as Turkish. The Hungarian for ‘Mom’ is ‘Anya’ (which was nice to learn as it is actually my own mother’s name!) Having discovered that, I decided that anyway there was a voiced consonant which made it similar to all the ‘ma’ words. Turkish seemed to confirm it with ‘Anne’. But then Finnish challenged even that theory with ‘Äiti’ (unless ‘t’ is actually voiced in the language, because I don’t know how to read Finnish).

Then a couple of languages of the former Soviet republics really threw me for a loop. The Azeri ‘Cici’ didn’t even remotely resemble the ‘prototype’, and the Georgian ‘Deda’ sounded like the Russian baby talk for ‘Granddad’. Then I remembered watching one of my favorite films Mimino. It’s a classic Soviet comedy directed by a Georgian, Georgi Danelia. The first 20 minutes or so is set in a small village in the mountains of Georgia where the hero is from. Everyone speaks Georgian during that part. There’s Russian voice-over but you can hear the original too. I remember once wondering if I misheard it, but I thought I could hear someone saying ‘mama’ and the translator saying ‘отец’ (Father). So I decided to check, and yes – the Georgian for ‘father’ is Latinized as ‘mama’.

Mystified by my discovery, I hypothesized that maybe in Georgian culture it was the father who traditionally spent lots of time with the baby so the first word it uttered was attributed to him. I googled for Georgian culture and traditions and found out that, on the contrary, the mother’s role has always been central in the household and in caring for babies.

So I have both proved my hypothesis and disproved it. There is definitely some universality here but there are also exceptions. Making any generalizations is not an easy business when it comes to human languages. What can I say? Mothers love their babies. Babies love their mothers. That’s one universal you can’t disprove.

Pirahã – a primitive language?

September 10, 2010

We like to put labels on everything. We talk about the Western Civilization. We talk about primitive societies living in the jungle away from the Civilization. Their cultures are primitive and so are their languages.

Pirahã is a tribe living in the jungles of the Amazon. Considering a few basic facts about their language it is easy to jump to conclusions. It is easy to label them ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ and to take pride in our own superiority.

Just imagine:

–        The Pirahã language has no concept of numbers. Contrary to claims that the ability to count is an innate property of human brain, those people cannot count. They have hói for “small quantity” and hoí for “larger quantity”. No typo here: the sounds are the same but the tone is different (it’s a tonal language). These two concepts are relative, i.e. the Pirahã can apply either of the two to, say, 6 objects, depending on how many objects they have been shown earlier.

–        The Pirahã language has no colors, just words for ‘light’ and ‘dark’. Again, both are only distinguished by the tone.

–        Although this is still being debated, the Pirahã language seems to have no recursion, i.e. it is impossible to form sentences within sentences, such as ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ Recursion has been thought to be an innate feature of any human language.

–        Along with Rotokas (New Guinea) and Hawaiian, Pirahã has the fewest phonemes of any of the world’s languages – 11. (When spoken by women, Pirahã has one less phoneme – 10. Isn’t it amazing that one sound is reserved only for men!)

–        There is no grammatical distinction between singular and plural even in pronouns.

–        They don’t have the concepts of ‘left’ or ‘right’.

–        They don’t have the concepts of ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. They don’t talk about distant past or distant future.

Does it mean they are primitive or retarded? Well, it’s always worth hearing the other half of the story.

–        As hunters-gatherers they don’t need numbers. Such knowledge is completely redundant in their society, so their language is free from such redundancy. The Pirahã who have had to move to the ‘big world’ have demonstrated a good mathematical ability.

–        They don’t have special words for colors like we do but they use compounds like bi³i¹sai, “blood-like”, which is a no less legitimate way to describe the appearance of an object, isn’t it?

–        They may have no recursion but… who the hell needs is anyway? They say ‘This is the house. Jack built the house.’ Makes sense? It does to me!

–        The ability to form a great number of words from fewer phonemes may well be the sign of a brilliant mind. And their language is musical. All of a sudden their speech turns into singing but it turns out they are still speaking, it just sounds like singing to our ears. Pirahã can be not only spoken but whistled or hummed, and it has a unique kind of trilling sound.

–        No grammatical singular or plural – but who cares? Other languages do without it, as it can be expressed lexically or through context (not sure which way it is with Pirahã). Hey, English has no distinction between the second person singular and plural and nobody seems to care.

–        No words for ‘left’ and ‘right’, but aren’t these the most confusing words we use, because when you stand in front of me and you say to me ‘turn right’ you are actually (most likely) telling me to turn to your left because your left is my right? Now what the Pirahã do use is a system of absolute directions, similar to our North, South, etc. They say, ‘Turn upriver’ or ‘Turn downriver’. Now how do they know where the nearest river is? They have a map of their area in their heads.

–        No concepts of yesterday or tomorrow? They have the concept of ‘today’ and ‘other day’. They have a concentric vision of time. Yesterday and tomorrow are equally removed from the present so they are both called ‘other day’.

–        What I also found interesting is that they have a very complex system of verbs with 60 verb forms, and each verb has the source of evidence mentioned in it, i.e. in ‘Jack built the house’, ‘built’ will take a different form depending on whether you saw it, heard about it or deduced it.

Now to me these characteristics define a language that is very different from the kind I am used to (pardon the recursion :-)) , but is not any more ‘primitive’ than English or Russian; in fact at times it strikes me as incredibly ingenious and elaborate.

They don’t call themselves Pirahã, by the way. They refer to themselves as xapaitíiso, which meansstraight head’. And what do they call foreigners? Right, ‘crooked heads’. ‘Don’t speak another language’ is ‘Don’t speak with a crooked head’. Should we take this as kind advice to have our heads checked?

I learned many of these fascinating facts about Pirahã from this amazing talk by Professor Daniel Everett, who lived with the tribe and studied their language.

Watch it, highly recommended!

If you want to take a look at a real Pirahã man, check this out;

Notice that the guy smiles all the time. They say the Pirahã smile a lot. Happy people.  They don’t have the concept of distant future…

Can we save dying languages?

September 7, 2010

There are currently about 6,900 languages in the world according to Ethnologue  These are the languages that have living native speakers. Most of them are spoken by a handful of people. It is estimated that about 90% of these 6,900 languages will have become extinct by the year 2050. The whole language system of the world is in crisis. Small tribes no longer exist in isolation. Children learn the dominant language of the country they are in. Globalization and development contribute to the expansion of English as a global language. Spanish, French and Chinese are also used widely in international trade. Tiny local languages stand little chance of surviving next to these giants.

On the one hand, we are having a global catastrophe here as the world is about to lose 90% of its ethnic diversity. On the other hand, we have to admit that it’s a natural process and there are economic reasons for it: If we are to survive as a civilization and face global challenges together we need to understand one another better, and in order to do that, we need to form larger linguistic groups. So how to balance the need for global understanding and the need for diversity? Can we stop the tidal wave that is about to wash away most of the world’s languages, can we rescue the languages that are disappearing or about to disappear? Obviously we can’t reverse the trend on the global scale. However, groups of enthusiasts can do a lot to protect some languages facing extinction and even revive languages that have become extinct.

Manx is a telling example. Its full name is Manx Gaelic, it belongs to the Celtic language family and it was the main language spoken on the Isle of Man for centuries. Then it suffered a sharp decline at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when the islanders began switching to English as a means of communication. The last native speaker of the Manx Language was Edward (Ned) Maddrell and he died in December 1974. The language became officially extinct. Then there was one man, Brian Stowell, a Manx Radio personality and author. As a student he had become fluent in the language and had recorded the last remaining native speakers. He led the revival of the language – producing articles, books and courses in Manx, translating into Manx, teaching the language and broadcasting weekly on Manx matters on the Manx radio. He is considered personally responsible for bringing the language back to life. Thousands of enthusiasts followed him, infected by his passion for the Manx language and culture. Now the Manx language, while still having the ‘critically endangered’ status on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, is spoken by more than 2% of Man’s population. Among them is a new generation of native speakers, who have learned Manx from their parents. There is a Manx primary school, and degrees in Manx are available from two colleges. So it seems that one man’s efforts, supported by a group of like-minded enthusiasts (and also supported by the local government), can be enough to revive a language.

The world will inevitably lose its former linguistic and ethnic richness as a consequence of the current changes but it can be stopped from becoming uniform. That can be done if, apart from individual efforts at reviving extinct languages and rescuing languages which are on the brink of extinction, people and governments care about supporting the national languages and cultures that are still going strong but may fall victim to the same globalization tendencies some time in the 22nd century. It’s easier to prevent than to cure.

Take any European language. Hungarian is the official language of Hungary, and majority of population speaks it, but unless people doing business with Hungary bother to learn its language, rather than rely on Hungarians learning English, the fate of Manx awaits Hungarian some day.  Unless governments, organizations and individuals actively promote the teaching and study of ‘non-mainstream’ languages, the world will become one big totalitarian society someday. I mean linguistic totalitarianism – the rule of one global language and one global culture. Someone may dream about it. I don’t.

If you are interested in learning more about Manx, here are some links: – Phil Kelly’s Site about Manx – Manx Language Society – Isle of Man Today

Why I would never study Esperanto

September 5, 2010

Not only because I am lazy. Though it could be one of the reasons. They say laziness is a natural protection mechanism of your body against performing unnecessary work. So yes, I would be lazy to even attempt to study Esperanto or any other artificial language. With all respect to the enthusiasts of such languages, and with sympathy for the noble cause the creators of such languages have pursued, I do believe that studying them is a waste of time.

And I don’t mean ancient languages like Sanskrit or Latin because they are real. Because they are the forefathers of modern languages. Because even if they no longer live and breathe, they used to live and breathe. Esperanto has never lived or breathed even if it has hoped to (and the word actually means ‘hoping’ or ‘the one who hopes’). I don’t believe a language is a living language unless it grows out of a culture.

If I want a truly international language, I already know it. It’s English. It is also one with cultural roots.

Since the end of the 19th century a number of languages have been created by enthusiastic geniuses with the aim of uniting the world. The most well-known ones include Esperanto, Volapuk and Interlingua. While browsing the web I also chanced upon this impressive effort to create a pan-Slavic language: There are communities of speakers of these languages. According to estimates, there are up to 2,000 native speakers of Esperanto in the world today, i.e. those who learned it from their parents (one of them being George Soros, interestingly enough!), and a lot more people speak it as a ‘foreign’ language.

Now I do believe that every human is free to get their kicks from any fad they choose as long as it does not represent a hazard to other humans, so I am glad those people have found their passion. I’m glad they have a reason to get together, talk in their language, sing songs in their language, write and read magazines in their language, maybe even shoot films in their language. I don’t mind if they advertise their passion in any way they choose. It’s just that I will never join their club.

If I were asked to explain very briefly why, I would put it like this: The difference between a real language and an artificial language is like that between a human and a cyborg. I would never befriend a cyborg, not matter how perfectly designed and how masterfully put together it is. There are so many humans around.