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[personal profile] cjwatson
[personal profile] angelofthenorth asked me to write about languages. I've already written about programming languages this month, so while I do believe that natural languages and programming languages have important common properties and that it's worthwhile for PL designers to think about concepts from natural linguistics, I'll stick to natural languages here.

My native language is English, subtype Mid-Ulster English. When I moved to Cambridge I spent roughly the first year saying everything twice and the second time a bit slower, so I got fed up with that and consciously modified my accent to be closer to how people talk around here. I was never able to get some of the vowels quite right - saying "eight" like an English person remains beyond me, and for that matter it's only very recently that I managed to produce a credible version of the English pronunciation of "vowel" - and now I can't really quite do a Belfast accent any more either unless I have quite a bit of a run-up, so my accent remains stranded somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea and just confuses everyone. Oh well. Dialect-wise I think I manage fairly standard British English nowadays except for the odd phrase that pops out and surprises people, although I've recently been trying to say "youse" more often in speech after decades of considering it outright ungrammatical because honestly it's just annoying that English doesn't have a standard easily-distinguished second-person plural pronoun and this is as good as any.

At school I learned French and German. I took French up to GCSE (age 16), and while I started German later I kept on with it up to A-level (age 18), and apparently had the second-top German A-level mark in Northern Ireland, so I must have done OK. At the point when I went on an exchange trip to Türingen (we never actually managed the other half of that exchange), my exchange partner was rather less confident in English than I was in German, so as a result we spent most of the time speaking German, which did absolute wonders for my fluency. By the end of that trip I was literally dreaming in non-trivial grammatically-correct German, because apparently I have a significant auditory track in my dreams when my brain is busy processing major language acquisition work. Neither my French nor my German has remained at anything like the level I had at school, since I haven't used them much, but I can still manage to be a pretty competent tourist in either (Swiss German is pretty tricky, though!), and if I have a while to practice and nobody's talking too quickly then I can manage basic conversational German. I'd love to have the time and brain-space to practice these more.

Otherwise: I'm a bit of a dilettante with languages, and I absolutely love picking up little bits and pieces when I travel places. I went to Hungary for a competition when I was 17, and had the time then to teach myself some minimal Hungarian before I left, though goodness me it's totally unfamiliar. I'm pretty sure that a language that uses "öt" to mean "five" is just trying to troll speakers of anything Latin-derived, and its use of vowel harmony was totally unfamiliar at the time. I picked up some Swedish a few years later during a brief relationship with a Swedish speaker, which I found rather easier due to correspondences with German though of course it's not quite the same language family and a lot of little details differ. Learning karate taught me some very minimal Japanese along the way, although I rather suspect that Japanese-as-used-in-an-English-dojo is not really the same as proper Japanese. [livejournal.com profile] ghoti was working on learning Norwegian at one point and I had a go at following along, helped considerably by it not being very much different from Swedish. When I went to Prague for work I stopped into the cathedral for Mass on Sunday, and if you're a Catholic then Mass makes an excellent Rosetta Stone for a core subset of the language because the basic liturgy is pretty much the same everywhere; ditto Bosnian when we were in Banja Luka. So I can at least recognise all of those and make a stab at translating very simple things out of them, but I've never gone to the effort of learning them properly.

More recently I've been making an effort to learn Irish, mostly out of pure academic interest although y'know one of my passports is written in Irish and it kind of seems like the sort of thing that culturally I ought to have some familiarity with. It's a fascinating language: western European in some very obvious ways (you can spot the Latin influences in things right down to the numbers: quattuor → ceathair isn't much of a leap), and yet syntactically totally different. To start with the word order is verb-subject-object, which is pretty rare (9% of languages, apparently). Many verbal forms that have their own verbs in all the other languages I'm familiar with are expressed using compound forms in Irish (e.g. "I have a bike" → "tá rothar agam", "it is a bike at me"). Combine those two things and practically every sentence in fiction winds up beginning with "bhí", "it was", which feels pretty strange at first. Verb conjugations are a mix of analytic (using separate words to convey the conjugation) and synthetic (using different endings), depending not only on number and person but also on dialect; lots of stuff about Irish has to talk about how things are different in Ulster, Munster, and Connacht Irish, and sometimes the Standard has selected a compromise. Speaking of endings, inflection doesn't always just involve changing the end of a word, but often the beginning too; for example, "a house" → "teach" (pronounced roughly "tyuch", with "ch" as in "loch"), "my house" → "mo theach", "in a house" → "i dteach", so even looking up words in a dictionary often requires having learned enough of the basic syntax to be able to work out what the first couple of letters of the stem are going to be.

I've stalled at Irish a little bit, but not so badly that I shouldn't be able to pick it up again now that I'm not ridiculously overworked, so I hope to work on it some more in the new year and maybe be able to post some more curiosities. I spent so much of growing up learning languages, and might easily have ended up being a linguist if things had gone a bit differently, that learning languages feels like an important part of who I am and I really want to do more of it.

What languages do you lot know, and what's interesting about them?

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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