Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

A Portuguese-native-speaker friend posted this message this morning (thanks Tony).

I have to memorize this.

The loose translation is:

When friendships fall apart, the truth tends to come out…..

which of course sounds much more poetic in Portuguese.

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I came across this post from 2014 and I was struck by its message again:

I am an Illiterate Polyglot

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Sein Kampf

The German magazine Stern put Trump on the cover with the headline:

Sein Kampf – Neonazis, Ku-Klux-Klan, Rassismus: Wie Donald Trump den Hass in Amerika schürt.

His Struggle – Neonazis, Ku-Klux-Klan, Racism: How Donald Trump stokes hate in America.

Of course, the “Sein Kampf” is a pun on Hitler’s popular book “Mein Kampf.”

The word “Kampf” will mostly be translated into “struggle” in English. But that is not quite the right nuance. “My Struggle” as an English title to a book does not have the same implications as Mein Kampf has in German. Mein Kampf would better be translated as:

The relentless mission and quest of my life.

There you have the meaning. Now you can understand the implications of Stern Magazine’s “Sein Kampf.”

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A few weeks ago I posted about Sigmund Freud’s conclusions after a visit to America.

My friend and French and Latin teacher Pit (PG) corrected some of my thoughts from a grammatical and etymological perspective and I reported on that here. He is correct in all his statements and his language lesson about the origin of you and the fact that you is actually plural from an etymological point of view.

Here is what I said that led to his challenge:

They have trouble, at first, calling everyone “you” in the familiar form. In the English language, we address each other with you, no matter what the relationship is. We talk the same way to our doctors, our supervisors at work, the president of the country, teachers, relatives, parents, students, playmates, buddies and our dogs. Not so in German, French, Spanish, or Japanese, to name just a few major languages which differentiate the common address based on relationship and status.

While Pit is correct, the fact is that modern Americans have no idea that “you” is plural, and even less that “you” is therefore an ancient formal address.

In our world today, “you” certainly seems singular and very familiar, and we are used to addressing everyone the same way.

In German, there is almost a ceremony when you transition from the formal “Sie” address, which is originally plural, per Pit’s discussion, to the familiar “Du.” It does not happen automatically, and generally the elder or higher-ranking in the relationship will propose that the new address henceforth shall be “Du.” And the relationship changes.

Another representation of egalitarianism is the use of first names to address almost everyone in America. We do not use Mr. SoAndSo in our general interactions. We use our first names. There are some exceptions, like when writing business correspondence with people we have never met, in student teacher relationships (but even there not universally) and when initially addressing customers in business situations. However, 99% of the time we call each other by our first names, and that is not something the average German would be used to.

For Germans first arriving in America, and using “you” and the first name to address everyone, is at first disorienting. It takes some getting used to. The inverse is also true. Once used to the linguistic egalitarianism in America, I have run into many a German tourist, and when speaking German with him, I have unthinkingly used the “Du” form simply because it flows out naturally and it goes well with the first name.

Why am I telling you all this? As Thou Thinkest, Thus Thou Feelest!

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There are two words in American English that are commonly misused in the plural forms.

One is “alumni.” The Latin word for “student” is “alumnus.” Its plural form is “alumni.” One alumnus, many alumni. Ironically, the misuse is often even propagated by university alumni organizations which refer to its members as alumni (correctly) but also sell bumper stickers and other paraphernalia with labels like “Alumni of SoAndSo University.” You are actually an alumnus of SoAndSo University.

Another is “octopuses.” The word comes from Greek, and the plural form is “octopodes.” The Latin word for “octopus” is actually “polypus.” There is no “i” in any from of octopus.

And that’s my language lesson for the day.

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Here is a good one for all of us Americans. Most Americans speak only one language, and some only half a one.

One of my good childhood friends, who is a German, but teaches Latin and French (note there is no English in that list) recently gave me an English lesson. I pride myself on my strong English and large vocabulary, but his comments have given me pause.

He read my post about Freud and America and noticed that I talked about egalitarianism and how it is built into our language. He promptly challenged me about the use of “you” to address everyone, formal and informal. His lesson is so profound, I decided to repeat it here:

As a Latin and French teacher I am per se interested in language history. When I read Norbert’s commentary on Freud’s attitude to the USA, I remembered learning a long time ago that the English word you is actually a plural: you “are”. But I had forgotten the details. Here is what I found:

You and ye used to be the plural forms of the second person pronoun.
You was the accusative form, and ye was the nominative form.

Because of this, you still conjugates verbs in the plural form even when it is singular; that is, you are is correct even if you is only referring to one person.
Thee and thou used to be the singular forms.
Thou was the nominative form, and thee was the accusative form.

You is the plural.
Thou is the singular form of you.

Thou has now disappeared from common use and is used only to address God. The process resulting in the use of the singular pronoun to express intimacy and the plural pronoun to mark respect or social distance is termed
T-V_distinction, after the Latin tu and vos and is found is many languages, especially of the Proto Indo European family tree.

See for instance, in addition to the Latin form above:

French: tu => vous
German: du => ihr (2nd person plural) or sie (3rd person plural)

Even some languages that seem not to comply exactly (because they don’t seem to use the 2nd-person plural) actually hide a form a compliance.
Spanish: tu => vos (vos is still used in Argentina instead of tú, and used to be a more formal form of tú)

Italian used to use voi (2nd person plural).
Italian now uses “Lei” (3rd feminine person, singular) as a courtesy form. “Voi” (2nd plural) sounds now archaic and, when used, expresses even more social distance than “Lei”. (that is, you’d use it for a king, pretty much nothing less). Why lei, who is the third person singularly feminine?

The use of Lei (lit.: She) as a form of respect goes back to the XVII-XVIII century, when it was common not to address somebody important directly, but to use abstract forms such as la Signoria Vostra. E.g. “Cosa pensa la Signoria Vostra di quest’opera?” that is: “What does Your Lordship think of this opera?” or “La Signoria Vostra desidera un caffè?” that is: “Would Your Lordship like a coffee?”.
As you can see from these examples, the sentence is constructed in the third person singular, and because titles like signoria (lordship), maestà (majesty), altezza (highness), etc. are all feminine, this explains the use of the feminine pronoun Lei (she). There are some wonderful examples of the usage of these titles in the comedies written by Carlo Goldoni, the famous Venetian play writer.

All in all, English has pushed T-V distinction so far that thou is not used anymore in common speak.

Puzzled, I then asked what the singular form for “your” was and he promptly replied:

before a noun beginning with a consonant:
thy goodness and mercy
before an initial vowel:
the first rule of warfare: know thine enemy

And there it is: This English speaker (and snob at it) just got an English lesson from a German Latin and French teacher.

But my Japanese is better than yours — na na na na na na!

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Freud is known for the following statement:

“America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.”

— Sigmund Freud

In his youth, we was reportedly enamored with all things America. He had the Declaration of Independence hung on a wall in his room. He had memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and often recited it. But all that changed when he came to America one time. He never returned after his first visit.

He regarded Americans as poorly educated, uncultured, and backward, and he resented the fact that he had to take on more and more of them as patients in Vienna. He disliked the American system of consumption, and he didn’t respect American wealth and rich people.

He also had trouble with the egalitarianism we practice at America. People of all walks of life called him Sigmund, rather than Herr Dr. Freud or Dr. Freud. Most German speakers have a difficult time in America at first with the apparent familiarity and egalitarian social structure. They like their ranks and class distance as it is built into the language. They have trouble, at first, calling everyone “you” in the familiar form. In the English language, we address each other with you, no matter what the relationship is. We talk the same way to our doctors, our supervisors at work, the president of the country, teachers, relatives, parents, students, playmates, buddies and our dogs. Not so in German, French, Spanish, or Japanese, to name just a few major languages which differentiate the common address based on relationship and status.

Dr. Freud didn’t like the American way.

Is what we commonly call here “the greatest country in the world” really a mistake?

Let’s not ask Freud.

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Reviewing and compiling a list of books I have read, I got to thinking about the first books read in each language. I have read books in four different languages. And here they are:

My first German book was Die Smaragdenstadt, a story about a group of children traveling to an Emerald City. It was the first “chapter book” I read when I was probably six years old. I remember how proud I was when I had finished it. Of course, I remember nothing about the substance, but I suspect it was the story of The Wizard of Oz translated to German. In my childhood, The Wizard of Oz didn’t mean anything, but I remember I loved the book.

My first French book was Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This, of course, was a classic in many languages, and we read it as an assignment in my German high school in French class when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.

My first English book was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I was eighteen, a foreign exchange student in an American high school, and I don’t know why I picked that book of all books to be my first. It was about Charles Manson’s life of crimes. It kept me reading, I kept turning the pages, and I looked up words incessantly in my German-English dictionary. As I looked up the words, I wrote them down and reviewed them nightly, committing them to memory and building my fledgling English vocabulary.

My first Spanish book was Once Minutos by Paulo Coelho. It’s a paperback of 242 pages. I bought it in the beginning of December 2009 on a trip to Oakland, and it took me a number of weeks, much longer than I thought it would. I didn’t like it much, rated it with only one star.

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Beginner’s Hawaiian, by Zelie Duvauchelle Sherwood, is prominently displayed on the bookshelf behind my desk. It is there not for frequent studying of the language, but to provide me with constant and daily reminders of my love of the Hawaiian language, its sound and its music. Right behind is War and Peace, next to Savage Harvest. If you are interested, click on the links for my respective reviews. My copy of Savage Harvest is originally dedicated and signed by the author, but I digress.

Thumbing through Beginner’s Hawaiian reminded me of my post about the Hawaiian Language and E ku’u Morning Dew, which contains one of my favorite Hawaiian songs. Enjoy.

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New Words – Take Two

Some time ago I listed a number of new words brought into the common vocabulary directly or indirectly by our highly educated and articulate president. Now I am pleased to add a new one:

Dotard – a person in a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness

This was the word the Korean dictator used to describe the U.S. president in a recent exchange of barbs. I always considered my own English vocabulary fairly large, but I must admit that I didn’t know the word dotard until a Korean brought it to my attention. I am adding it to my list of new words.

  • Dotard
  • Gaslighting
  • Narcissism
  • Bigly
  • Emoluments
  • Terrific
  • Nepotism
  • Alternative Facts
  • Breitbart
  • Deplorable

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Dulce est desipere in loco.

— Horace, Odes Book IV, Poem 12, Line 28

Wolfgang in German: Süß ist es, sich der Torheit zu überlassen (leichtsinnig zu sein, sich kindisch aufzuführen, zu blödeln …) am rechten Ort (also dann, wenn es am Platz ist, wenn es paßt).

Norbert in English: It’s fun to goof off when appropriate.

I might note that, after all, the Latin form is the shortest. Even succinct, colloquial English doesn’t beat it.

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Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam / maiorumque fames.

— Horace, Odes Book III, poem 16, line 17

Wolfgang in German: Dem anwachsenden Geldschatz folgt die Sorge / und der Hunger nach mehr …

Norbert in English: Growing wealth is followed by worry / and hunger for more …

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The above post is about an organized bike ride in the communities surrounding the little town of then 200 souls deep in Bavaria where I grew up. For those of you that don’t know about the German language and its “sublanguages” there is this: Bavaria has its down derivative language, where some words and expressions are almost unrecognizable for other Germans. It’s a very strong modification of the language, way beyond the scope of English accents. Entire words change. There is no written form of Bavarian, but poets, musicians, comedians and, of course, Facebook posters, occasionally write down phonetic approximations of the spoken Bavarian and achieve hilarious results.

Even as a Bavarian, we can’t really “read” such approximations without sounding them out loud, and then they make sense. The words themselves just don’t look right.

So here is the sentence in question (red arrow above):

Bissl a Gaudi muss a sei

I could have also said:

A bisserl a Gaudi muas a sai

It would have been just as correct. Not a single word of either sentence above can be found in a German dictionary, except for possibly “muss” in the first variation. For instance, the first “a” stands for the German word “eine” which is a form of the German indefinite article “ein” or the English equivalent of “a” or “an.”

The second “a” in the sentence stands for “auch” meaning “also” in English or possibly just an affirmation word to give the statement weight.

There is no written form of Bavarian, no grammar and no spelling rules. Incidentally, the same is true for Swiss German, a flavor of the language that I, a native Bavarian German, cannot understand, save a few words here and there.

But now to the translation (green arrow above):

A little fun is a must

This is the best literal translation that I could possibly come up with for “bissl a Gaudi muss a sei” and I have no idea how the automatic translator could possibly have come up with this. Is there a Bavarian dictionary with spelling variations that it used? How did it even know it was a branch of German from these six words alone?

I am astonished about the fact that an automated translation engine handled this.

If any readers have examples of such feats in German or other languages, I’d be interested in seeing them.

I thought I knew how translation engines worked. Perhaps I did at one time. I obviously no longer do.

I am mystified.

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My Latin friends are starting to feed me with Latin poetry and wisdom, and it is stirring very old childhood memories in me, a Latin reawakening. My friend and German professor, Wolfgang Illauer, sent me a list of famous quotes, translated as literally as possible from Latin to German. In this series, I will introduce them one by one, first in Latin, then in Wolfgang’s German, and then in my English. Let’s hope we are able to preserve the beauty and elegance of the original phrases, all by Horace (23 BC) in his famous work Odes.

Carpe diem quam minime credula postero.

— Horace, Odes Book I, Poem 11, Line 8

In the English speaking world, in educated circles, we have all heard Carpe Diem, and we know it means Seize the Day.

Wolfgang in German: Pflücke (= genieße nach und nach) den (gegenwärtigen) Tag, möglichst gar nicht vertrauend dem kommenden Tag!

Norbert in English, literally: Pluck (= enjoy piece by piece) the (current) day, possibly not trusting in the following day!

Norbert in English, freeform: Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.

And here you have it. Now you know where Carpe Diem comes from!



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Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

Octopuses can also learn to use tools and solve complex problems. Here is an example of an octopus opening a jar into which it has been placed.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

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