January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve always been fascinated by languages. One of my favourite series of children’s books (The Chalet School) was set in a boarding school in Austria and the pupils, who were from all over Europe, had to speak English one day, French the next, and German the next. I wished that it was a real school.
When I was 17 or 18 and thinking about university applications, I knew I wanted to study languages. I’d done seven years of French, five of German, four of Latin and one of Spanish. I was keen on doing something a little more out of the way. Icelandic was my top choice, followed by Dutch. Unfortunately for me, my class tutor advised me not to go for something so obscure because it wouldn’t be useful. Having no idea about the world, I didn’t realise that he meant this in a very narrow sense that bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to do with my life. I now understand that careers advisors saw languages as an added extra to offer in your career as a business person or in the civil service; I already knew I never wanted to work in an office, an opinion that later temp experiences confirmed.
So I stuck with French. During my degree I lived in France for a year. The expat community I ended up with was mostly Swedish (the other anglophones were housed on campus) with a sprinkling of Dutch. I soon realised I preferred Swedish to Dutch, and was quickly able to understand quite a lot of it (to my surprise, German + English helped a lot more with spoken Swedish than with spoken Dutch). Apparently, after a few glasses of vin rouge, I was even pretty good at speaking it, although in cold hard daylight I was always too embarrassed to be my friends’ performing seal (they thought it was hilarious because I sounded like the Swedish queen).
That was a long time ago now, but ever since then I have been telling myself that I would learn Swedish properly. And now, finally, I am. 2015 is my year of Swedish. I’m doing a combination of DuoLingo, Language Trainer and podcasts at the moment. Why bother? Well, for no reason other than I love learning languages.
One of the most fascinating things is when words for the same object are far apart. I was thinking recently about the word “toy.” In French it’s jouet, in Spanish juguete. The link in the Latin languages is clear (although intriguingly, the actual Latin word for toy seems to be the rather ungainly crepundia). German is Spielzeug (literally, plaything), and Swedish is leksak (leka and spela both mean “to play”). So I assumed “toy” must come from the second half of Spielzeug, but the OED tells me that the word is Middle English and of uncertain origin. There is a Middle Dutch word toy, and the later speeltuig. Wiktionary traces the word back through Old Dutch and Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European: dewk, which means to pull or lead (like the Latin–and Italian–ducere).
Isn’t language brilliant? Icelandic next year.
[And there might be no photos on this blog until WordPress cooperates with my Mac…]