Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Another act of self-expiation

Speech came first; alphabets provided the toolbox – the technology – by which speech became visible. And a rare old hash we made of it. We’re all aware of English negligence (enough, cough, bough, through, for starters) but the French are just as bad. Take feuille (leaf); could there be a more complicated way of spelling a syllable and a half. As for Finnish – why all the umlauts? Since the double dots modify vowels why not pick more precise vowels in the first place?

Two cheers at least for German, then. I know just enough to recognise Germans worked harder at relating the alphabet to speech and in maintaining consistency thereafter. I particularly like the iron-clad rule that ie spells ee, and ei spells aye and it curled my teeth in America to hear Steinberg rendered wilfully as Steenberg. Yes I know Germans use (possibly invented) umlauts but somehow they don’t seem as prodigal as the Finns.

Learn the basic pronunciatory rules in German and you’re more or less home and dry.

Seid umschlungen, Millionen
Diese Küss für ganze Welt.

(Be embraced (oh ye) millions,
This kiss for the whole world)

It’s a crime to offer it unsung, and without the tenors pushed so far up the scale they’re almost trebles, but I do so knowing that a few days’ familiarity will be enough for the average Yorkshireman (Is there any other kind?) to communicate those words.

Why am I doing this? In self-expiation. The few Brits attracted to other languages tend to get swoony about French. And I’m more guilty than most. Pax vobiscum. Oh, what a smartyboots.


marja-leena said...

Ooh, you are challenging me on this one, aren't you, BB!? I think we had a discussion on the Finnish language and its umlauts before. Why so many, you ask. Because there aren't enough vowels to make the variety of sounds, for the Finnish language uses a lot of vowels sounds, at least compared to the German. Hence it sounds more musical, you'd really have to hear it. Though Italian is even more musical.

As you know, Fred is German but also knows some Finnish, at least to read it. He says Finnish is much easier to read and pronounce for there are no exceptions. That's why their literacy rate is almost 100%. German grammar also sounds more difficult than Finnish, which admittedly is also difficult though rather like Latin.

For English speaking people, German is obviously easier because they are of the same language family and have many common words. I find the guttural sounds very difficult though. French and English have all these weird silent letters and such in common. I agree that the English language is a mess for one has to learn each word individually - that's tough for immigrants, let me tell you!

Something that bugs us both is how many American English words have crept into both German and Finnish due to TV, movie, popular music and computer programming. The French are being strict in trying to prevent that.

Pardon the long comment... you asked for it, BB! :-)

Rouchswalwe said...

I read somewhere (wish I were able to remember the exact source) that when it comes to teaching a child to read his or her native language, the Italians do it in a mere two years, whereas the Japanese require six years of schooling. The rest of us fall between these two extremes. Linguists describe languages such as Italian as ones with good grapheme-phoneme correspondence (as are Bulgarian, Spanish, Turkish, and ~ wait for it ~ Finnish). But you are right, BB, when you point out that the Germans work hard at keeping standard German graphemes close to the phonemes. For years, the fact that the letters e and ä stood for the same phoneme bothered some Germans enough for the Rechtschreibreform of 1996 to be pushed through. They even talked about taking away my beloved ß! After more than a decade of arguing, the schools and publishers and newswires are still not einig. I haven't been home to Frankfurt since 1995, so I'm not the best person to ask. I can only imagine that all this has caused quite some consternation. I still write my letters to family in Germany using my pre-96 spelling skills. And I must admit that I like a bit of messiness at times ~ keeps me on my toes and lets me play with the words.

marja-leena said...

Wow, R, you are a linguist methinks! I only speak from experience and just a few things I've read. I've never heard of 'grapheme-phoneme correspondence'. Is there an easy to understand site about this that you could recommend? I think I'd like to learn more...

Barrett Bonden said...

M-L: Aha! I tried raising this subject months and months ago but you wouldn't bite. Fobbed me off on to Wikipedia or some such. Thanks anyway for giving me an insight into Finnish which I know nothing about. Talk about difficulty pronouncing gutterals - how about Rouchswalwe? Those four consonants in the middle are a real throat-breaker. Hence zu schwer. But we need something less cumbersome.

RW (zS): Ah, they took away your beta thingy. I bleed for you. I did script back at school and got lots of harmless amusement from things like Meffe - as in Hanover. I thinks it's a genuine mark of civilisation that the Germans have considered making the written form more accessible. The French wouldn't because they see their language as embattled; the Brits and the Yanks wouldn't because they're too lazy.

marja-leena said...

BB, me, I fob you off? I thought I was repeating myself here... I like R's defense of my native language :-)

Rouchswalwe said...

Ah, linguistics was one of those subjects in school I loved, but alas, wasn't good enough to continue seriously. A good book that starts easy and then gets down 'n' dirty is Jean Aitchison's 'Teach Yourself Linguistics.'

Yep, my beta thingy ~ ß ~ is a lot of fun. But what a nifty way to write two s's, don't you think? And how else to distinguish between das and daß? I would be lost without it.

Another thought that crossed my mind about the "messiness" factor, is that a language such as Esperanto, which is clear, logical, and poifect, lacks a certain something for me. I am not moved to learn it, even though it has been around since the late 1800's.

Barrett Bonden said...

What a huge subject this is turning out to be. Language is an inextricable part of culture and if one is drawn to a language it's likely one will be drawn to the people who speak it. I've concentrated over the last thirty years on French and neglected German. RW (sZ) popped up and suddenly all sorts of German resonances started occurring. One rewarding result emerged from a comment I made on RW (sZ)'s blog in which I cited the prisoner's chorus from Fidelio as one of the most moving combinations of words and music I know of. A German-speaker picked this up and briefly I experienced the sort of joy (I assume) known only to midwives. Language plus culture plus the web. Are we living in a golden era?

Spadoman said...

Interesting you mention language. I just returned from Seattle. The language of the Duwamish Tribe, the one Chief Seattle belonged to, had some words inscribed on a signboard at a display in a park dedicated to the heritage of this Chief of the region. The word , I cannot pronounce, had four "i's" in a row. Makes bough, trough, though and the like look tame. I mean, who made up the alphabet anyway? Upside down question marks, dipthongs, (did I spell that right?) and characters foreign to English read as English. Confuses the hell out of me for sure.


Hattie said...

For sheer sounding nice, I think Finnish is the #1 language, even more than French. To my ears, at any rate. It's that lilt.
I do have a problem with enjoying the sound of Cantonese, though I'm sure it is perfectly mellifluous to those who speak it.
Some refer to Swiss German as a throat disease, but I would never say such a thing, especially since my daughter speaks Swiss fluently and loves the untranslatable turns of phrase and witticisms.

Barrett Bonden said...

Spado: Upside down question marks at the beginning of the sentence - that's Spanish isn't it? Can't help you with four consecutive is; sounds like stammering.

Hattie: Schwyzer Doutch (dunno how to spell the latter) speakers are able to carry on conversations that Germans cannot follow. Italian was created specifically for operatic arias.

Avus said...

In my school days we still read German in Gothic lettering (which initially added to the confusion). Since I found that I enjoyed such things I also taught myself "pre-war" German handwriting (which only the German master could decipher - he soon told me to revert!)

I subsequently found the easiest language to learn to speak was Mandarin Chinese, which is not inflected, so logical and the word order does not always matter. Fortunately I enjoyed learning the Chinese characters, but they are a real stumbling block to actually writing the language, since each needs to be learnt as a whole. (To give some comparison 750 characters will get you through a tabloid newpaper, but some 3,000 are needed to even start reading Confucius).

Barrett Bonden said...

Avus: Although I too did German script at school, my competitiveness ends there. I seem to be surrounded by multi-linguists and am humbled.