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
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
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.
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?