Some interesting moments with languages

Here are a few interesting moments I have had involving language.

Trip to Zadar:

About 1972, while living in Jülich, Germany, we took a holiday trip down to Zadar in Croatia, by car. Sandy was navigating. As we passed Trieste, we knew that the first town in Yugoslavia we would come to was Rijeka, so we looked for signs with that name. We came to a fork in the road, the left one signed with something I don't remember, the right one saying "Fiume". I asked my navigator "which one?". She got flustered, "I don't know! I don't know!". We were getting close to where we had to decide. Then I remembered, the Russian word for River is река (rieka), and in Italian it's fiume; so I took the right road. I always marvelled that my brain dug up those facts just when I needed them.

In Croatia, I used what Russian I knew, knowing that it is fairly close to Hrvatski (Croatian). People smiled and told me how I should have said it in Hrvatski and a good time was had by all. In fact, I learned a fair amount in those two weeks. One day we took a trip down to Split, where there was said to be a beautiful park. We got there, close to where I thought it should be, but I couldn't see where we were to go to see this park. There was a small hut, and out of it came a young woman. I asked in Russian "gde parkje?" (where is the park?) and she answered, "Izvinitje, ja tolko govoryu po russki!", i.e. "Excuse me, I only speak Russian!". Hmm. I didn't pursue the matter.

The Finnugrist

About 1996 I attended an electrochemical symposium in Cluj Napoca, Romania. To get there, I took a plane to Budapest and a train from there to a city called Alba Iulia, which is fairly close to Cluj. Landing in Budapest, a shuttle bus took me into town from the airport, and I wanted to get off near the railway station, but the bus driver only spoke Hungarian, of which I know only a single useless word. A nice lady helped me, who spoke the language. and I got off at the right place. After the symposium, I came back to Budapest and to the airport, and there was the nice lady again. We got talking. She had (if I remember this) a Portuguese mother and a French father. She was going to Copenhagen, as I was, but from there on to Tallin, Estonia. She seemed to speak a fair few languages. We sat in different parts of the plane on the way to Copenhagen, and I mused a bit. She isn't Hungarian but speaks the language, works in Estonia, is clearly an academic... Hmm. As we got off the plane, just as we headed off in different directions, I asked her "Are you a Finnugrist?" She smiled brightly and said "Yes!" and we parted. Interesting people, Funnugrists, strange family of languages, different from all others. I once had some conversations with a Finnugrist, a German. I often wonder how people pick their professions, and I asked him about his. He told me that when he was 11, he picked up the book "Teach Yourself Finnish", and he found it so fascinating that that was it from there on.


Shortly after moving to Denmark in 1978, I attended the Scandinavian Trace Element Analysis conference, held at Vejle. There were delegates from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and an Icelander (who spoke very British English). Talks were given in Danish and Swedish and a few in English, and a lot of people were unhappy. Although Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are closely related, not everyone can understand the others easily. So there was a suggestion that for the next conference, the language should be English. This ruffled a few feathers. One man got up and said passionately "Surely we can all speak Scandinavian!". This is a mythical construct supposed to be intelligible by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. but in practice Danes just change their words for numbers (some of which take getting used to), and Swedes and Norwegians keep talking their own language. Icelandic is so remote from these three that it's totally foreign, and Finnish is of course even more so, being a Finnugric language, not related at all to the others. Arguments went back and forth, until a Finn politely asked for attention. "I remind you", he said, "that the next conference will be held in Helsinki!". This clinched the matter and English it was to be from then on.

A train trip

A nasty streak came out in me on a train trip from Aarhus to Copenhagen. Sitting opposite me was an elderly couple. The lady was unhappy about something and intermittently beleaguered the bloke with a barrage of excited words. I couldn't understand her but I could hear that she was speaking Hrvatski. Now and then hubby tried to calm her down, saying "Mama, draga Mama..." (Mama, dear Mama). and this went on for the whole trip. As we got out of the train I turned around to them and said "Do svidenije!" (good bye) (should have been "do videnije" but they would have understood me), and walked off. I admit to feeling a little bit evil.

Learning Danish

When we got to Denmark in 1978, we both started, of course, learning the language. It is to a large extent similar to English and especially German, with some quite different words as well. It was fairly easy for me to learn to speak it (with an accent of course, which I haven't eradicated yet after 30+ years) and I was giving lectures in Danish after a few months. What was hard, however, was to learn to understand Danes speaking to each other (they kindly spoke more slowly and clearly to me). Now this process had taken me three months in Italy, after which I could understand them; Italian is pronounced very clearly. Later, while in Brazil for a total of six weeks, I was just before making the breakthrough (Portuguese being similar to Italian). After almost eight months in Denmark, I was still struggling to understand the language, and was getting a bit down about it. I gloomily thought that maybe I was too old to do it again as in Italy (I was 39 at the time). But at about eight months, from one day to the other, something gelled in my brain, and I understood everything. I used to go to the cafeteria for afternoon coffee, and I sat there with a happy smile just listening. The fact is that properly pronounced Danish is very unclear and at first the words seem to all run together, and a lot is left out.

The similarity to German was sometimes a trap. I did fair amount of guessing, and it sometimes went quite wrong. At a Christmas party (the [in]famous "julefrokost") I asked for "butter" (the u pronounced as the oo in "foot"), which caused gleeful laughter "He said butter, har har har!". It is smør, and how was I to guess that?