Collecting Languages as if They Were Butterflies

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Within my limited budget (something decreasing as the number of my years wane), I collect languages.  Herewith, I explain, with a dosage of personal rants.

How does one collect a language?

In the best of cases, by learning them, in which case, as will be seen further below, the learner is akin to a mathematician.

However, because of the costs involved, shortcuts are available.

I can buy books to learn the rudiments of a language, which, depending on the source, may vary from 800 to 3000 words, maybe even 10,000.  My vocabulary in Spanish, for example, is more than sufficient for daily use, which would exclude terms from the sciences and trades, though enough of these are known to allow me to read newspapers without needing to consult a dictionary. The perusal of a weighty bilingual dictionary this morning revealed, that of pages chosen at random, unknown words on the page – not exceeding two – were not native to the lands which speak Spanish.

Eight hundred words will not get anyone very far, but, it’s a start.

I have at least one book on “all” the languages of the world, which is of course, false.  There are so many!  Because of the profuse quantity, the expressway to successfully collecting languages is to take them by families, such as the Germanic, the Romance, and the Slavic, by which I do not wish to denigrate Semitic, Indic, Sino-Tibetan, or any other group. I start with the continent where I was born, (and later educated), and then move on to some shore separating my language group from another. Broadly speaking, after going through the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic, I must move on to the Semitic.  No politics must be involved in this process, for, if one allows the colour of one’s thinking to darken his or her mind, then that mind is impervious to learning.  I once had, as a student, a professional who, for reasons unknown, stated, “I hate the British.”  This attitude did not help him to learn English.

Now, it has happened, in historical times, that someone was so fanatic, that in order to infiltrate the thought of his enemies (we say “his”, because we are unaware of any women, unless Tokyo Rose was an exception), and who nurtured such hatred within his breast, that it kindled a consummate desire to learn the idiom of the foe.  Sometimes, though, the other side harboured the flip-side of such a sentiment: the hope that his foe would struggle at learning the language necessary for successful espionage.

It may be argued, that, from the point of view of a good collection, these are very few groups, but there are several things which must be remembered.  First: one’s budget, second, the time required for the “mounting”; and if we go on to a third point, we might suggest ease.  These are not always categories which allow a facile categorization.  For example, I would rather learn Chinese than Polish, even though Polish is an Indo-European language, and thus related – however distantly – to the English and German which I both knew since I was six, and the Spanish and Russian to which I was first exposed at around sixteen, (though on a more serious level, when in my thirties). I make this statement on the basis of having books in all the languages just cited, and by being aware of the difficulties each of these present.

The Germans have an expression, Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache, meaning that the German language is difficult. But even they know that Russian is more difficult still.  However, other books will tell us that all languages are equally difficult, because the children born into any culture will learn the language of their parents without any difficulty whatsoever.  As I hardly believe that anyone can prove that assertion as false, we have a tremendous argument in favour of inclusion – though not necessarily in the manner expected by most fiats.  Hypothetically, person A, though imperfectly bilingual or multilingual (as may be required) can be included on the team of person B, of less linguistic capabilities; because the difficulty in learning one another’s language is equal.  (I am not saying that people of diverse languages should be working together, rather, the member of one culture cannot be criticized by the other, if the latter would not make the same effort at language acquisition.  Indeed, a stressful integration, if neutrally judged by a third party, would not only point out this fact about the language as just mentioned here, but the integration might be between a “national” language and mathematical language, or the language of some other science.  This is to say, a mathematician has no right to look down on the translator, nor the translator on the chemist, etc.   For the uninitiated, we could take the German expression at the beginning of this paragraph, and say – the meaning will be obvious – Matematische Sprache, schwere Sprache! If we consider that the original idea of “math”, as understood by the Greeks, was about learning, or being a student (hence, the word, polymath), we see that, if applied to our present times, no learner is superior to another in his or her respective discipline. Understanding this would be a true achievement for diversity, a word bandied about, not for the respect of the knowledge cultures might provide us with, but for customs such as potentially decried by Seneca, Ō tempora! Ō mōrēs!

So, how is the collection of such a limited (as our lifetimes will probably not permit otherwise) a harvest of languages be like cases full of pinned butterflies?

Truth be told, I care not whether it be butterflies, stamps, or what have you.  The collector will always be limited to, for example, a certain geographical area.  Sure, in the case of globetrotters, that area will be larger, but the fundamental equation does not change. It’s like the algebraic expression of distance over time – the traveller covers more distance in the same time as the individual stranded within a limited territory, but the equation never changes. One may collect more butterflies, more stamps, more different beer cans, but in the end, the mechanism is always dependent upon time. (Did I just improve my understanding of the mathematical expression, y is a function of x?)

We may be forced to introduce some unfamiliar terms here, but let us start with something easy.  Assume, as for the Chinese, (if I am not mistaken), butterflies and moths are categorized under one word.  These “butterflies”, which, even if we were to call them moths, have the following in common: wings, antenna, feet, head, thorax, abdomen.  It must then be defined (not here!), why the queen bee, ant, wasp, or what have you, are not included in this analysis.  Basically, of course, it is because of the wings. True, the average moth is boring, but if you have ever seen a Cecropia moth, you would see something rivalling the Monarch Butterfly.  Colours are similar, bodies, antennae, and wing shape differ – but are much more closely matched than to those of the insects which we have previously mentioned as being excluded.

Based on the preceding, I can claim that I collect, when three or four Romance languages are incorporated into my treasury (whether that be that my mind, or my library), the equivalent of comparisons of one bodily part, be that the antenna, thorax, wing, or whatever. English, whether or not we know it, contains vestigial remnants of things called declensions and conjugations. The latter is common to most, if not all European and Semitic languages, while the former remains important in Germany, and those countries which are roughly to its East, while it has been simplified in Hebrew and Arabic.  The differences in such elements become components of a collection.  To take an example with a verb plus preposition, we consider the expression “to fall in love with”, which is, in German “sich verlieben in” – if extremely literally translated – “love oneself in”; and in Spanish, “enamorarse de”. This latter, again, stated in exaggerated terms, is “fall oneself in love of”.  This is an example of why expressions should never be literally rendered into another language, but doing so at times, may provide a certain amusement.  On a more serious level, it may aid in confronting entirely different patterns of grammar in the targetted language.

We would not be so ridiculous to say that some animals reverse the position of their head and tail, but in matters of language, one puts it verb at the beginning of the sentence (the Semitic group), another at the end (German compound tenses), and another, directly following the subject (English – and of course, we are simplifying). Some languages put the adjective before the noun, others after, and sometimes, depending on the meaning, either before or after. In Latin, the adjective can even be split from the noun by a preposition, as, for example, the university degree, summa cum laude, where cum means “with”, summa is “the highest (possible)” and laude means “praise”.  To our Anglo-Saxon minds (whether of that race or not – my meaning is in reference to our thinking in this language), this is, weird, man, weird!  All wrong!

Some languages, like the English, in spite of feminist complaints, are basically neutral as regards to masculine and feminine.  A language such as Spanish has both of these.  Russian and German have masculine, feminine, and neuter, and even in German, people can easily be “neutered”.  I have shocked a “Latino” by saying that a baby, in English, may be referred to by the word “it”.  In German, all diminutives, all terms of affection, are neuter.  I would say, shouldn’t a fourth category be created here, which is neither masculine, feminine, nor neuter? Why?  Because it goes above everything; and I’m not sure whether to emphasize “above” or “everything”.  Let us not say that it should be done to please proponents of diversity, now, because then we would have so many categories of nominal and adjectival forms to learn, that language acquisition would become impossible.  The only solution, then, is sign language, and pictographs – but even these would have the required neutrality with the greatest of difficulty, and other cultures would in effect be subject to an authoritarian proclamation that they, too, must understand and use the new terminology when communicating with or for the demanding culture.  But no fear, the new language too, can be collected, alongside the original versions of the language in question.

When one seriously wants to study a new language, it will involve “looking at the butterfly” in ways hitherto unconsidered.  Let us compare the patterns of the wings, the type of mouth, or legs, the antennae, thorax and abdominal markings. In language, we may find vowel harmony (Turkish), aspect (especially important in Slavic languages), conjugations (practically all European languages except English), deponent verbs (Latin), different ways of translating a simple English verb, “to be”, in two different ways (Spansh, “ser”,  “estar”)  Something called the subjunctive, little used in English, becomes another problem.

We have agglutinating languages such as German and Greek, languages with a few letters of the alphabet required for their transcription (12 in Hawaiian) or many (Russian), or thousands of pictographs (Chinese, Japanese).  We have languages written from left to right, and others from right to left, or from top left downwards.  We have not yet been challenged with a language that starts dead center of a line or page, could that be done, it would challenge the code-breakers.  There are languages which need work-arounds for superlatives and adverbs, special treatment for abstract nouns.  There are perfective and imperfective verbs, which should not be confused with our ideas of perfect and imperfect, as they are not equivalent. There is the aorist, which is neither of the preceding. Minority tongues of Finnish, Basque, and Hungarian defy a precise categorization into a larger grouping. Certain peoples do not use articles with nouns. What shall we do with Chukchi, where men and women do not pronounce some of the sounds in the same way (Languages of the World, Kenneth Katzner, London:Routledge, 1986), p. 154, gives the word “walrus”.  Why would the sexes pronounce the same consonant cluster completely differently – “rk” is what it looks like for what has traditionally been called the logical group of thinkers, while it is “tsts” for the “gentler” side.  No need to fear, as the statistics show that this language, with 12 thousand speakers 30 years or so ago, this Siberian tongue will only be a memory. There are linguistic families with clicking sounds. Vowels can be pronounced as written in one language, or sometimes skimmed over, in another. Final letters may be silent, or incorporated into the pronunciation of the following word.  Apparently, an illiterate member of the Cherokee tribe, Sequoyah, invented the written from of his language, which according to Katzner (supra), is now done only by highly-trained linguists. From the explanation given, this, indeed, is a useful written language for those who would write in a manner incomprehensible to the code-busters.

Languages then can be collected for their grammar, for their alphabet, syllabary, or ideographs, for accents and tonal quality, for their rarity.  Rules exist about which letters are allowed to follow another, for example, in Japanese, two consonants cannot be placed together, and the only final consonant is “n”.  One language may pronounce a sound in the back of the mouth, another makes a similar sound in the front.  Sometimes, what to the Western mind is just one letter may be 3 different letters in a certain Indic language, because of nasals, palatals, and retroflexes. Where one language modifies meaning with prefixes and suffixes, another has infixes – something stuck into the middle of a word to change the meaning – but with fixed rules, of course!

Knowledge of such features such as those described in the preceding two paragraphs helps one to understand why the person from a foreign country has difficulty speaking our language correctly.

As a bonus, when using bilingual dictionaries, one will often find translations into our present language, and not know the meaning.  This obliges us to increase our vocabulary.  Sometimes we know the word, but not its meaning in context.  This happened to me with a meaning of the word “shot” as applied to fabrics.  Had I not been reading about the Spanish emperor, Charles V, – in Spanish – would not know this.  Through a Latin text written for those who speak the previously cited language, I see words such as ferax, and cértior, which my neighbours do not know.  By deduction, I correctly concluded that if feraz exists, then feracidad must.  My only disappointment was in having incorrectly concluded that the word was a misspelt feroz, (fierce).

It may be supposed, that in his own way, the author of the book cited in this text was collecting languages.  There are copies of what appear to be pages of works written in those tongues, such as the text of the Koran, and the Hebrew Bible, Tolstoy’s War and Peace; as well as citations from Hans Christian Andersen and Cicero, among others.  I only ask, how the publisher of the book can claim, or in what sense it is claimed, that no part can be copied in any form without permission, when parts are in the public domain.  I do not argue that this applies to Thomas Mann or Anne Frank, but strangely, no credits are given to the texts cited.

Tolstoy claimed to have learnt many languages by reading the Bible from different countries.  The method has been criticized as giving a relatively small vocabulary, but as has been shown in the paragraph above the preceding one, cross-checking can lead to new insights.  I do not know if Tolstoy had dictionaries for his purpose – they would not have been strictly necessary.  He was fortunate, in that during his time, Bibles were still, in the opinion of their re-writers, literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek.  Nowadays, many translators find innovative ways of saying what was expressed in a more or less uniform way in the past.  We have “inclusive” works, which do not want to offend feminists.  But even, given that I live in Latin American, where I have the opportunity to see such works, I see that there is a proliferation of Roman-Catholic Bibles, which do not even seem to agree on basic Spanish grammar (probably the less correct is the most faithful to the Hebrew).  Where one says, In the beginning, God created heavens and earth, another puts the singular, another puts the definite article, and so on.  One version claims to have a Spanish which does not contain words which might be considered offensive in other regions, which if applied to Pedro Antonio de Alarcon’s Three-Corned Hat, would force the original title to be changed into something he had not written.  One of the Popes was upset by the different versions of the Spanish Mass from country to country, so uniformity was imposed.  Gone are the Thee’s and Thou’s of our traditional King James or Douay Bibles in this modern Spanish.

But back to Tolstoy.  We do not have the information on which version he read in English.  I have not done research into the authoritative version of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Based upon the fact that there was, and remains, tension between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, I suspect Tolstoy read the Bible of Martin Luther.  This was translated into Spanish by Reina Valera, and these two versions probably served as the source for many other translations.

Based on what I have seen, it would appear that “Spare the rod, and spoil the child” is an idiomatic expression.  No rod exists in the Spanish translations.  The parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins (but the same is true in English), is now a deflowered text.

When those translations exist among a certain language family, in this case, Slavic, it could have happened that where a word of the original Hebrew or Greek was similar in both Russian and the other Slavic language, the similar or same word was not used in the translation – it may have been a synonym unique to that language.  Thus, Tolstoy would have learned that a certain Russian word “X”, translatable by “X”, also exists as “Y” in the other language.  The process also works in reverse.

I can give an easier example from my own experience.  The “correct” translation, as imposed in my time, for sidewalk, in German, is Bürgerstieg.  I use Trottoir, which allowed me to know the French tranlation without further ado, when I came that far in my studies.  At the same time, by German vocabulary increased.  The same is true for wallet, where I say Portmonnaie, another French import, one of the possible translations is Brieftasche.  Sadly, most of the French borrowings have now been considered obsolete.  It is not that I care for a linguistic imperialism, but the fact is that there is a reasonably large body of literature with French borrowings.  Furthermore, I take it as a Prussian interference into the Franconian way of speaking.  I do not take kindly to being told not to employ words which had their sacred place within a language, just as the reader-employed vocabulary might be to my distaste.  Let’s call a truce on these questions, but the most guilty are the language academies of certain countries, where, after all, its members must create a need for their “club” to continue existing at taxpayer’s expense (should that be so).

The biggest obstacle I have is not of money, or acquisition of materials.  It is a question of having electricity as a dependable service in the Third World.  I have no idea of how many times lack of power prevented me from reading, writing, or at least ordering my books.  It was well to say, at the beginning of terrestrial time, Fiat lux.

August 25, 2018.  Slightly edited, June 2, 2019.

© 2018, Paul Karl Moeller


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