Category Archives: Languages

Irish at me

Weird sentence, isn’t it? But that’s how you say ‘knowing the Irish language’ in said language. Tá Gaeilge agam: “Irish is at me.”

Very many years ago, I studied Irish with a druid group led by my longtime friend Domi O’Brien. She has been studying and teaching Irish for what appears to be most of her adult life. While I never attained much proficiency, I wasn’t her worst student in a very challenging language.

More often than you might suppose, people ask me why Irish is so difficult. Since I’m up to my ears in brush-up, so that Irish may be at me when I visit the country itself (in which only about 25% of the population speaks any, and in which first-language immersion exists only in enclaves out west), let me go ahead and run with it. Here’s why Arabic and Russian, which use different alphabets, never rattled me as much as does Irish.

Before we go further, let’s talk ‘Irish’ vs. ‘Gaelic’ as the proper term. While Gaelic sounds really, really cool and I myself would rather it were the right term, it isn’t. The Celtic language family numbers six, neatly split into the three each of the Brythonic and Goidelic branches. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. The Goidelic family comprises Irish, Scots, and Manx. Yes, ‘Goidelic’ relates to ‘Gaelic.’ Thus, ‘Gaelic’ could describe any of those three, and that might be ideal: Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic. But the owners of a language rightly retain the sovereign power to confer its name, and the Irish people refer to Irish just so. I’m supposing that, to them, that it is a Gaelic language is perhaps so obvious it need not be repeated on each mention. Thus if you really, really, really would love to call it ‘Gaelic,’ great–see if you can get the actual native speakers to go along with you. Let me know how it went.

In my not terribly educated opinion, the Latin characters are an odd fit for the Irish language. It would make the most sense for Irish to have its own indigenous alphabet, in my view, but it does not (at least not now). Takeaway: you can not trust a letter in an Irish word to have the expected phonetic value based on English-speaking assumptions. One must learn a whole new set of sometimes counter-intuitive phonics. Fh is silent. A leading Gc is G. Mh is a V or W, depending. Ch is what I call a ‘chutzpah H,’ the throaty hock version in a somewhat lighter Irish way. Bhf is usually W, sometimes V. That is a minority sampling. So, welcome aboard: here’s not a brand new alphabet, but much more challenging–a redefinition of your existing alphabet.

Irish does not have the words ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Ever hear an Irish person answer something like ‘Were you visiting’ with ‘I was’? One answers in the affirmative or negative with a sentence. Are you home? I am not. Was the trip difficult? It was. Would you like some tea? I would. Does the car run? It runs. One cannot just learn to get by with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, because the words do not exist.

Irish has what I believe is called a vocative particle, which you might think of as an ‘O…’ word. You might render it as ‘oh,’ ‘hey,’ or even ‘yo,’ but it is not optional in Irish. Cara is friend. My emails to Domi begin with A chara, literally ‘O friend.’ If she addressed me by name (Seán, in Irish), she would render the greeting as A Sheáin. And it would be pronounced ‘ah HYAWN.’ I am not making this up.

Why the extra h? asks the observant reader. Because of aspiration, also called lenition (I’m told the latter is the more precise term). All those Hs you see littering Irish? Most are the equivalent of diacritical marks that modify the sound of the preceding letter. They matter, but they are not pronounced as English Hs in most cases. The vocative mentioned above is only one situation in which aspiration is obligatory–but only for those dozen-odd letters which experience aspiration. Thus, A Nóra (O Nora), but A Mháire (O Mary). To say ‘good morning’ to our B&B lady in Tralee, Mrs. O’Neill, I said: “Dia duit, a Bhean ui Niall.” (“God to you, Woman O’Neill.” This gave her evident delight, as it delights so many Irish speakers to hear a foreigner say a single intelligible sentence in the language. That I’m not Christian is of no consequence to the propriety of the greeting.)

That sensation in your brain is your head beginning to explode. This is normal. This is the point at which most of you will say ‘hell with this, I’m out.’ I understand, but if you do, you’ll miss out on the parts where we really wallow in pain. We haven’t even conjugated any verbs yet! (Let’s don’t and say we did, as my father used to say. The fact that the positive and negative forms can conjugate differently might be a grammar too far.)

The other form of initial mutation in Irish is called eclipsis. About a dozen letters may be eclipsed in certain circumstances, mostly the same dozen as may be aspirated (in different circumstances, naturally). One eclipses a starting letter by prefacing it with a consonant and pronouncing that letter rather than the eclipsed one. For example, C is eclipsed by G. Thus: A chara, ‘O friend;’ this is also how you say ‘his friend.’ But: a gcara, ‘their friend.’ The first is said ‘ah HAH-rah;’ the second, ‘ah GAH-rah.’ Ever seen the Irish version of Donegal, Dun na nGall? ‘DOON na NALL.’ G is eclipsed by N, and in this case eclipsis is obligatory.

Now imagine looking words up in a dictionary. Unless you know about the initial mutations, you won’t even know where to go. You’ll go to look up mbord and it would not be under M. You can’t even progress much in Irish without understanding these, you see.

Oh, it gets more fun. Irish is hyperdependent upon prepositions, some of which do not have direct, precise English correspondences. If you have ever studied a single foreign language, you know that the translation of prepositions rarely breaks along the same lines from tongue to tongue. In Irish, this is true but more so: Irish doesn’t use a verb ‘to have.’ Everything is on one, at one, with one, etc. Now you understand why I titled this post so. To know Irish, in Irish, is for Irish to be ‘at’ one. As earlier, ‘I know Irish’ is Tá Gaeilge agam, ‘there is Irish at me.’ Ag is mostly ‘at’ and here you see its declension (declension is like conjugation, but for non-verbs) to mean ‘at me.’ When I want to say I am joyful, I say Tá áthas orm–‘joy is on me.’ A similar construction is used to tell you if I am cold, ill, and so on–but the proper prepositions vary a bit.

Since ‘to be’ is handled so differently from tongue to tongue, you would expect Irish to handle it in some weird way unlike anything else you had ever seen. Irish, like many languages, has two verbs ‘to be.’ Except that–this being Irish–the second is, strictly speaking, not a verb but rather what we call a copula. It has nothing to do with sex, except perhaps to help one realize that one is truly screwed. In some situations calling for a form of ‘to be’ (for starters but not exhaustively, those conveying identification or definition, such as ‘I am an editor’) one must use the copula form rather than the existing functional conjugable verb ‘to be.’ So there’s that. This isn’t quite the same as the Spanish method of having two different ‘to be’ verbs, but the concept is not far away.

It doesn’t have as many tenses as, say, Spanish, but Irish does have the usual load including moods: present, past, future, and imperfect (‘was doing X’) in the indicative; the conditional (‘would do’), and the usual imperative (command; “Do!”), past participle (‘had done’), and verbal noun (‘doing’ as in “it’s in the doing”). A dozen or so of the commonest, most necessary verbs are irregular and require memorization in all forms; true of very many languages. To make verbs even more fun, some forms change depending on whether the question or statement is positive or negative. “Was it…?” is asked differently than “Was it not…?” To make this much more entertaining, often the difference is that one form requires eclipsis or aspiration; the other either does not require any mutation at all, or requires the other form of mutation. Just have to learn them.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to lately, twice daily, twenty minutes at a pop. Anchoring important words to the active vocabulary surface of the vocabulary log pond lest they sink back to the inactive bottom, usually through repetition aloud: “I dtaobh; ‘about.'” If you can enforce the association on your mind, you will at least begin to recognize the word when you see it, giving context a fighting chance to prompt you.

This would be the point at which those who kept reading might think, “This would drive one insane, and I’m not joking.”


The labyrinthine fen that is Irish grammar would be enough to drive one to madness, to drink, to write like James Joyce.

If you not only understand that, but think it’s kind of neat, you should definitely take up the study of Irish. The few, the proud.


There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

Happy New Year from the ‘Lancer

This is a good time to thank you all for your readership in the past, present and future. I hope every one of you has a fantastic 2017. For those of you who use other calendars, well, please save up this post and read it again when it applies.

Let’s talk about calendars. Cool facts: in the C.E. calendar, there is no Year Zero. We go from 1 B.C.E. to 1 C.E. Not sure why, but I think this is because zero as a counting concept had yet to be invented. I think Arab mathematicians came up with it centuries after the establishment of the C.E. calendar. Also, we get “calendar” from the Latin “calends,” which referred to the first day of the Roman month. EIDVS, the “ides,” were the 13th or the 15th; every month had an eidvs. Many days were nefastus, which meant “inauspicious for the conduct of public business.” Back when I was in college, I made a Roman monthly calendar for our staff office. I received some heckling and a few queries. My boss at the time also had a background in Roman history at least as good as mine. One of my colleagues asked him: “For example, what the hell does this mean?” Steve looked up, then answered: “That means it’s a good day to cut up a goat and examine its entrails.”

The Western world mostly uses what I call the Christian Era calendar, C.E. I get a lot of flak for calling it that. I am lectured that I should be calling it the Common Era. The lecturers find it baffling that of all people, a rather stridently non-Christian person with a degree in history should adopt what they consider a grossly westerncentric term, then dare to defend it even when the speech police show up with warrants (“conform, or we will call you naughty names, jump to conclusions about your politics, and not consider you a member in good standing”). Well:

“Common Era” says nothing of use. Not one thing. It sounds dopey. Common? how so? Was the era before it the “Uncommon Era?” Can eras be said to be common or uncommon? How often does one find this era laying around, relative to that one? Should we go looking for rare eras? The reality is that we’ve used the Gregorian calendar for centuries (in Russia’s case, just one century right about now), and it was always “Before Christ” then “anno Domini” (‘year of the Lord’). Then one day we woke up and decided that not everyone in the Western world was a Christian; reasonable enough on its face. So we renamed it; however, the reality stared us in the face. Whatever we renamed the dating system, it was still based on the nominal assumed timeframe of a key religious figure of legitimately disputed provenance. Starting a new calendar, which would get us a truly secular dating system, would be difficult and icky and hard to obtain the necessary related consensus. Thus, we tried doing it the half-assed way, renaming it without changing its basis. Everyone with a claim to secularism was advised to obey the new usage or be lectured and shamed, as the goal posts moved again.

I’ve never been good about taking orders from those I do not consider my just authorities. Not very many people fall into that category. I have been described as immune to peer pressure, and it’s something of an understatement, because I am proud of this and seek to become more so, not less, which fits well with aging.

But hey, if we are going to adopt a secularist calendar, then let us do so. I’m down. When will we begin it? Should be fun trying to get agreement on that. In the meantime, this particular calendar’s period happens to coincide with the rise of Christianity. Just because I do not share this religion does not mean its rise is not one of the great shaping events of the last two millennia in the Western world. In fact, it is the only shaping event coincidental with that particular timeframe. Those of us who live in the Western world are perfectly entitled to choose and use a Western-centric calendar. Other cultures use their own calendars and dating systems, and we seem to accept that without whining. But if we want to reject a religious calendar, let’s do so by devising a new one, as did the French. In the meantime, let’s stop lying to ourselves with a silly feelgood solution that radiates hypocrisy. Go lecture the Saudis on why their hijri calendar is theocratic, if you want, and see how they react to that. Unless, of course, you hold them to a lower standard. Do you? Or you could write to the King of Thailand about his country’s calendar. I doubt you’ll get any traction with His Majesty, though you can try. (Just be careful how you word it, because lese majesté is a felony in Thailand even if committed off Thai soil, and if you show up there one day and they perceive that you were disrespectful, you could be arrested.)

Happy New Year, January 1, 2017 C.E. (Christian Era).

Other people have done and do calendars differently.

During the French Revolution, they decided that the event was so monumental it deserved a new dating system. Imagine if we had begun a new calendar on July 2, 1776 C.E. (when the Continental Congress voted to secede, and which John Adams assumed would be celebrated each year; it was ratified on July 4). They wanted a secular non-royalist calendar, so they began the French Republican Calendar or French Revolutionary Calendar (the initials are the same in French as well; CRF). Implemented in 1793 and lasting into the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, this calendar had twelve new months. Ever hear of Lobster thermidor? The month of Thermidor was late July and the first 2/3 of August, which are hot. All eleven other months were named similarly for natural or social phenomena normal in France at the given times, such as the grape harvest or frost. French revolutionary coins read, for example, “L’an 5” (Year Five of the French Republic), which was 1796-97. During the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted ten days, the communards brought this system back. No one should be surprised that it didn’t take this time either.

I’m not sure whether the Haitians got the idea from the French, against whom the Haitians revolted and won their own independence in a war dozens of times bloodier than the War of American Independence, but they did win it. They began a new dating system, though they did not use it exclusively. 1804 C.E. became “L’an 1” of Haitian independence. While Haiti has also long made reference to the C.E. calendar, government paperwork still makes reference to the year of independence (I think we are now in Year 213).

Many countries in the Islamic world use the Islamic calendar, called by them the Hijri, and by the West “anno Hegirae.” As a general rule, the more religious the country, the more exclusively it uses the AH calendar, which begins in C.E. 622 when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina. Ramadan (yes, the fasting month), for example, is the ninth month of this calendar. Interesting datum: for two non-consecutive months of this calendar, fighting in any form is not allowed. AH is a lunar calendar and we currently are in AH 1438.

Iran and Afghanistan use the SH (solar Hijri) or Jalali calendar, which has the same start point as AH but is solar rather than lunar. In 1976, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran made one of the many secularist decisions that generated the discontent that would depose him: he decided to move the calendar’s starting point back to the start of the reign of Cyrus. What had been SH 1355 was now SH 2535. Take a guess how quickly the mullahs reversed this change once the Shah was out. Today, we are in SH 1395.

Starting in 1840 CE, the Ottomans used a solar calendar that included elements of the SH calendar and the Julian, which they called the Rumi (Roman) calendar. If the Ottomans were around today, they would be very offended that today their name means a footstool in English. It’s very offensive in Turkey to show someone the soles of your feet. So don’t do it to the Jandarma, Turkey’s national military police, unless you’re in the market for a pretty bad day.

While Japan uses the Gregorian calendar, it denotes the year based upon the Imperial reign. Each emperor’s era has a name; emperors used to change the era name now and then, but since the Meiji era, Japanese emperors have stuck with the same name throughout. Nowadays they tend to live a very long time, long enough that there have been only four eras since 1867: Meiji, Taisho, Showa (Hirohito) and Heisei (Akihito). Today begins Heisei Year 29 (though as you know, it began yesterday in Japan relative to us).

Several Southeast Asian countries, notably Thailand, use the Buddhist Era (BE) dating. Monthly systems vary, but Thailand uses the Gregorian calendar with BE annual dating. The Buddhist Era begins when the Buddha achieved parinirvana (nirvana after death; in other words, died). The Thais date this from 543 B.C.E. as we would reckon it, making this 2560 BE.

In India, they use the Saka Era calendar for official purposes. Saka Year 0 was C.E. 78, making this Saka 1938. However, many ignore this, and use Vikram Samvat dating, as is done in Nepal. Right now it is still 2073 VS, as this calendar begins 56.7 years before the Gregorian C.E. calendar. I question the prevalency of either in government reference, considering that a trip to the Indian government website tells me today is January 1, 2017, and I didn’t click a button for English. Unsurprising, considering that there are more English speakers in India than there are in the United States.

Just about all the people living on the North American Pacific coast, and a lot of people inland of us, know that the Chinese New Year tends to happen in January C.E. or shortly after. They are told to say things like “gong hay fat choy.” Well, if I were you (and I base this on two years working for a Chinese-owned company where about a third of the employees spoke Mandarin or Cantonese in addition to English), I wouldn’t try to say anything in Cantonese or Mandarin or any other dialect of Chinese until I had memorized its pronunciation with the approval of a native speaker. This is because meaning is inflected in tones, thus the same word can mean multiple things depending on how you articulate it. I was taught to say, rough transliteration, “goon ji fa dthai,” but without the correct tonals, it would be wrong.

Of course, Chinese speakers living in the Western world understand the intent of even a butchered New Year’s wish, and in a spirit of goodwill and gratitude, are likely to restrain their hilarity until you are gone. The official Chinese (People’s Republic) calendar dates from Year 1 of Han Emperor Ping, which very conveniently corresponds to 1 C.E. If you have a favorite Chinese restaurant, go to an Asian grocery store and get some red ‘lucky money’ sleeves. Break up some $20 bills into tens, and stuff a few tens into these sleeves. Go to your favorite restaurant, and with both hands and a “Happy New Year” (in English, unless you know the tonals) give an envelope to each person you deal with. Odds are the manager will make up an envelope giving you back the same rough amount of money, which you must accept just as the employees accepted your gift. That way, everyone gets their ‘lucky money.’ If you are Caucasian (thus not expected to know about this), they will never forget you thereafter, as you will probably be the only Caucasian who ever did it.

I hope you all have a wonderful year of love and light. If this isn’t the start of your own new year, you are wished love and light anyway until that time comes.

Guerrilla tactics in foreign language learning

Doubt anyone’s going to be too shocked if I say this: I love language and languages. Because of this, and a natural aptitude, I’ve studied a lot of languages. I speak none fluently but English, but enough of enough of them that I am rarely at a complete loss.

The state of foreign language instruction in our K-12 education system is lamentable. I believe this because of the large number of camera-like young minds who, having taken two years of Whateverish, can barely speak two sentences after they graduate. It was true of my generation and I’ve been hearing it from every graduating generation since. So often I hear: “I want to learn a foreign language.”

Okay. If you mean it, I’m on your side. If you are ready to put your time and energy there, I will tell you all the dirty tricks I know and use.

First, assess your basic aptitudes. If you don’t really grasp even your native grammar at all–which is to say that you cannot tell a noun from a verb from an adjective, consider ‘conjugation’ a method for prison inmates to see their spouses, and think of ‘declension’ as what’s likely to happen in your fifties and sixties, look those things up. You do not need to become a grammarian, but you do need to absorb what the basic terms mean, because they aren’t going away.

Another aptitude to consider is your ability to mimic sounds. Our palates form in early youth to our native languages, so you will probably never pass for a native speaker in any language you learn in adulthood. Doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter how good or bad a mimic you are; it just matters that you assess yourself and accept it. I know people who will never, ever be able to make certain foreign sounds not found in English. You have heard people with forty years’ residence in your country who probably will never manage to utter certain English sounds. Doesn’t matter. All that matters: if you aren’t a natural at this, don’t let that be your downer. You will simply have a profound accent, so be at peace with it. Even if you can never make a perfect rolled Spanish rr (I have a rough time with that one in flowing speech myself), anyone trying to understand you, will. Anyone trying not to, will not. That’s why it doesn’t matter.

To get an idea of difficulty relative to you, see what family it’s in. It works like this: the languages in a family have much in common. If it’s in a language family in which you’ve never studied a single language, there will be more concepts to learn. Be prepared.

If I hear one more person assign a language an absolute difficulty level, I may start using all the curse words I’ve picked up (including the ghastly phrase in Hungarian my friends taught me). Language difficulty is relative to what you already know. Examples:

Swedish was so easy for me that I still don’t think native English speakers deserve foreign language credit for learning it. One can see where it broke away from the common hybrid ancestor that pathed out into English. In learning terms, this means a native English speaker will immediately understand some words and concepts that the tongues have in common. Thus, for a native speaker of English, Swedish is very easy. For a native Korean speaker, it might not be as hard as English, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. German is in the same family, and is harder for me than Swedish, but I could not speak for our Korean friend because I am not equipped to judge the difficulty from any beginning perspective other than my own. Neither is much of anyone.

Hebrew was a bit of a challenge, because I had no background in it and spoke no Semitic languages. These past few months, I’ve been studying Arabic. In essence, on vocabulary and some grammatical concepts, Hebrew lets me cheat. Since I know how to say ‘hour’ in Hebrew, and the Arabic word sounds pretty similar, I will pick it up. Same for the concept of a dual number; Hebrew speakers are used to this, but someone new to Semitic languages has to wrap his or her head around a grammatical number besides singular and plural.

Because I speak Spanish and French, Italian is very accessible to me, and if I set out to learn it, I’d have a tremendous leg up over anyone who had never studied a Romance language. Is Italian easy? That depends on what you bring with you. It would be easier for me than for a native speaker of Russian with no background in Romance languages, I think, but harder for me than for a native Spanish speaker.

Is Irish difficult? It sure was for me, because it was my first Goidelic language (and only three exist). But having learned some Irish, Scots would be much easier. In fact, I can pick out a good many words in Scots, since it is so similar. In Welsh, which is in the other branch of Celtic languages? I have no idea, but it could not possibly be easier for me than Scots. If I already spoke another Brythonic language, for example Cornish, I’d have a leg up in Welsh.

Never let the difficulty of a language (relative to you) intimidate you. That just means it’ll take longer, and require you to get someone to explain some concepts. You can find that information, I’m sure.

Where to start: at least one class in the basics. Best would be a community college class, but if that is impractical, look for a community ed class run through the local school district. Failing that (or in addition), get Rosetta Stone or some other tool. I haven’t used many of them, but any would be better than nothing. The key is to get yourself to a basic sense of the grammar, so you can begin screwing the language up on your own.

Alphabet. If it has an alphabet you don’t know, learn it. However, even if you know the basic alphabet, not all letters are pronounced the same across tongues. Embrace its alphabet. Without this, you can only learn audially, which will stunt the process. Someone once asked my wife if I were also bi-literate in Spanish; I found the question shocking. I’d never considered the possibility one could fail to learn to read as one learned to speak. You shouldn’t even dream of just reading, or just speaking, unless it’s a dead language, for example Gothic or Ugaritic, that can’t be practiced aloud with hardly anyone. Learn the writing system. If it’s got symbols rather than an alphabet, you are better off knowing only five symbols well than none at all.

Your next resource: get to know a friendly native speaker. That is defined as someone who a) will answer your questions, and b) will not be offended when you say something stupid, tactless, or otherwise unintended in his or her native language. Don’t ask him or her the swear words; some people take real offense to that, as they consider it presenting the worst of a language they love. Anyway, this person is your resource. S/he is your source of pronunciation to imitate, encouragement, and so on. S/he may not actually know the grammar precisely, having grown up with it; whatever.

Do bear in mind that a native speaker’s willingness to correct you (or not) may have a cultural foundation. Most native Spanish speakers will praise your Spanish even if it’s lousy, because in many Hispanic cultures, to speak poorly is embarrassing. It might be hard to get them to nitpick you; most tend to think it is more important to help you save face. A German will not only volunteer the corrections most of the time, but will help you repeat them over and over until your articulation is flawless. By their lights, both are being kind and helpful. The Mexican would rather slit her wrists than (as she sees it) embarrass you; the German can not imagine someone not wanting to say it perfectly, and will coach you to do so. Each is showing the best possible manners by the standards of his or her culture, and you will just have to adjust and work with it. You’ll have to figure out what each culture’s weak spot is. For example, it took me a long time to realize that even though most French speakers were delighted to help me pronounce the language correctly, few native French speakers have any ability to slow their speech, which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers. They aren’t trying to make it tough on you; it’s just hard for them. Since you are the newcomer, it is you who adjusts and accepts.

Now arrange to like some music. Yeah. Find some music that you like, with lyrics in the language you’re trying to learn. Look however hard you have to, but it has to be something you enjoy. Once you’ve heard it a number of times, start looking up the lyrics and finding out what they mean. We tend to remember lyrics, so you’ll have some vocabulary and grammar from that without really doing any work. It is also something you can do while driving to the leather bar, waiting at the DMV, or smoking dope–no extra effort needed.

Think of your favorite short book. Ideally, it would be one whose original is in the language you want to learn, but doesn’t have to be. It’s the book you’ve read over and over for years, and can remember passages by heart. It is probably popular enough to be available in translation. Get the translation and start reading it. Feed words you do not understand to an online translator. You already know what to expect it to say, so the cues are already in your mind. If you really want to work at this, read it aloud. This you probably can’t do at the leather bar or DMV, but could do while smoking dope.

If you know of a book in that language that you want to read, but can’t get in English, you have a perfect motivator to start feeding it to a translation website para by para. You’ll absorb a lot. Get it in e-book version, or something from which you can copy and paste.

Speaking of smoking dope: or light drinking, if you indulge (I myself am a light drinker, don’t like weed; not that I advocate either, but I condemn neither), feel free to do so while reading or listening. A relaxed mind absorbs this stuff better. If you find that the relaxant trips your beer-thirty trigger and gets in the way of absorbing, of course, use common sense.

Grab a newspaper or magazine in the language. If it’s Spanish, many American cities have little weekly or monthly Spanish-language newsletters. Try to read it, looking up any word that really has you stuck. A magazine is best, because there are usually lots of pictures that will give you cues and context, but whatever medium you can find. Not only will you see the world as its speakers might see it, but you’ll pick up a metric crapton of vocabulary (this is equal to two English craptons). Just labor through the article so that you get the gist.

If you get cable or satellite TV, or otherwise have access to foreign movies, watch some. Subtitles aren’t necessary; I would recommend some with, some without. All the visual cues are there for you: if the French woman says in annoyance, “Elle me fait chier,” you may not get that this literally means “she causes me to shit,” but you will see that it was said in irritation, and will probably have an idea about whom she was talking. Through watching Mundos Perdidos on HITN, I picked up a lot of Spanish environmental terms without any effort at all, including great stuff like ‘manglar’ (mangrove swamp), ‘alimentación’ (nourishment), and ‘la caza’ (the hunt). In fact, half the time I was reading a book in English, just listening to the background vocals and peering up at the screen now and then.

Laugh at yourself. You are doing it wrong if you are afraid to embarrass yourself. Now and then it’s okay to make a funny mistake on purpose; it breaks the ice. A very nice young Mexican lady who spoke no English was helping me to recite the Spanish alphabet. The letter J, jota, in Spanish is pronounced ‘HO-ta.’ However, joto is Spanish slang for ‘gay.’ (I think it’s only pejorative if you mean it that way. I learned it from a Mexican who was speaking of a brother he loved very much.) When I got to J, I blurted “HO-toe.” She didn’t correct me, but she laughed.

Jokes don’t always translate, but when it’s safe, give it a try. I was explaining to a Spanish-speaking waitress that Deb spoke a little but was embarrassed to try, whereas I had no shame. To describe myself as ‘shameless,’ I used a cultural code word: sinvergüenza. In Spanish, that means “having no moral scruples of any kind,” and would be a terrible insult if I said it of anyone but myself. She knew I knew what I’d said, and what I meant in English, and in context it was comical. Have some fun.

All exposure is helpful. Reading, listening, speaking, writing; if you are doing anything involving the language, you’re making progress whether you feel like it or not.

You will never be perfect. Neither are they. Do we speak perfect English at all times? I do not, and the English language is my line of work. As I often tell people who keep apologizing to me for grammar or spelling, I’m off work; to get me to pick on your English, I get paid for that. Being understood, and understanding, are more attainable goals. Learning any language is like golfing: good days and bad days, good shots and bad shots, gradual improvement through regular application and self-examination.

Not that you shouldn’t strive for perfection, but if perfectionism becomes the excuse to beat yourself up, or be afraid to try, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.

Buena suerte, bonne chance/merde alors, etc.

Your news services suck at Arabic

So do most transliterators for public consumption. One side effect of taking an Arabic community ed class is that it refreshes all my thirty-years-gone memories of just how bad the media are at this. Of course, thirty years ago I didn’t have a handy reference to look up the Arabic spellings of words. We’ll work with place and people names you’ve heard a lot of from those news entertainment cretins at CNN.

Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia): it’s actually ‘the Riyadh,’ but I’m going to leave off the definite article ‘el’ (and yes, that’s where it got into Spanish). The final ‘dh’ is actually the Arabic deep D. It should just be ‘Ri-YAD,’ since there is no English phonetic for deep letters. If you want to try and get it right, pronounce the D with your tongue pulled back.

Dhahran (coastal city in Saudi Arabia): again the ‘dh’ is misused. That first consonant is actually a deep and hard TH (as in ‘that’ but with tongue pulled back). DTHAH-ran is fine, though in the Gulf dialect it’s actually a deep Z sound: ZAH-ran.

Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates): has the same letter and the same issue. AH-bu DTHAH-bee, but locally they speak the Gulf dialect: AH-bu ZAH-bee.

Umm Qasr (Iraqi city fought over in first Gulf War): when you see double letters in Arabic, that’s not a long/short vowel cue. That means to pronounce it twice, like the double K in ‘bookkeeping.’ OOM-M KAHSS-r, not that idiotic ‘oom ka-SAR.’ The Q is a deep K sound (represented thus because the Latin characters happen to have a second K sound letter), and the S is the deep S, so the whole second word goes back into the throat. ‘Umm Qasr’ is thus actually a fair approximation. Every time they said ‘oom ka-SAR,’ a news anchor should have been kicked in the kidneys.

Gaddafi (our old pal): probably one of the most abused names in the Arab world for more than one reason. Dialects vary, but for starters, that G is actually the Q (deep K). The double D is fine except it’s really a front hard TH as in ‘that,’ which we could render as DH except that, as you can see, that is abused. The short version is that the news have no idea what the hell any of it means and think you neither know nor care. It’s doubled, so you’d render it kadth-DTHAF-ee, hauling that K back in the throat.

Benghazi (winner of the Libyan ‘most popular city in dumbass US news shows’ award): they are actually close here, but what you should know is that the Arabic GH is a gargled G. As in, you should sound as if you have a throat issue. bin-GHAH-zee.

Baghdad (it used to sound so mystical and romantic, didn’t it, not so long ago): again, they’re not so far off, just lazy. In Arabic, BAGH-dad, gargling your GH and rhyming its vowels with ‘straw pod.’

If you’ve ever heard Arabic spoken, and thought it sounded guttural, what you are hearing is those deep letters. There is a front A and a deep A, a front G/J and the deep GH, a front T and a deep T, front S and deep S, and so on. I think it affects perception, because in a masculine voice, the language can sound harsh to our ears, just as French sounds indistinct due to its intonation and many varieties in vowel pronunciation. Language can shape how we think of a culture, and the challenge is to move past that. So here are some more of the key differences:

Arabic has a ‘letter’ that is a glottal stop. This means a break in sound. When you hear it spoken, and there seem to be abrupt brief halts, sometimes that is the reason.

Arabic has a diacritical mark that doubles the letter, as we saw in a couple examples above. It’s pretty common, so when you hear a speaker, you hear an example pretty quickly. It’s in the name of God in Arabic, which is articulated ‘al-LAH.’

Does it look like a line of bean sprouts to you in writing? It still does, to me, and I can at least make out the letters. Here’s what I’m up against. First, and very important, all those dots you see above or below letters are integral parts of the letters. Second, Arabic is a Semitic language written from right to left, and all the letters in a word are connected–all Arabic is like English cursive that way. Except: six letters cannot be connected to a following letter, ever. Thus, all but six letters have four forms: initial, medial, final, and alone. The initial and medial forms tend to look very alike; the final and isolated forms are generally very similar. Those six, since they cannot connect to a following letter, do not need medial or initial forms. They are always in final form, or isolated form. So you can be looking at a word full of spaces, and it’s all one word.

In reality, there are only about half as many shapes as there are letters, since many look exactly alike except for the dots. For example, the B, front T, and front soft TH are precisely the same, except the B has one dot below, T has two above, and TH three above. The Y and N resemble them closely (two below, one above respectively) except in final form. Nearly half the abjad (alphabet) is like this; an R shape with no dot above is an R, and the same letter with one dot above is a Z, etc. Thus, it is not as hard as it looks. Fortunately.

When you see it written with the vowels, those are the little angular slashes high or low, a little loop above, or a little circle (which means no sound between consonants). The doubling mark looks like a little W. The vowels really heighten the bean sprout effect.

How come a lot of places in Arabic start with ‘El-‘ or ‘Al-‘? That’s ‘the’ in Arabic, which is where the Spaniards got it while the Moors camped out in Spain for about 750 years, building mosques and failing to teach the Spaniards to make a decent hummus. A lot of place names require the definite article in Arabic, so for example one says ‘The Iraq.’ It’s also how one does adjectival use, so ‘the big house’ reads as ‘house, the big.’ Sometimes you see a different consonant than L, such as in El-Arabiya As-Saudiya (Saudi Arabia; literally ‘the Arabia the Saudi’). That’s grammar. The actual letter is still L, but in some cases its articulation matches the start of the word it refers to.

Arabic has no P. That’s why Palestine, in Arabic, is ‘el-Falestin.’ What it does have is dialects, as you might expect of a language spoken in daily life from Morocco to Oman. Then there’s Quranic Arabic, which is not commonly spoken but is read and at least somewhat understood by many of the world’s Muslims. We are used to two grammatical numbers, singular and plural. Arabic has a third: dual.

The world’s largest Muslim populations in order are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Only about 20% of the world’s Muslims live in Arab countries. So if you want ISIL’s ass kicked, the most logical way is to have the rich Gulf oil states (who stand to lose the most) bankroll a multinational effort by those four. Of course, given how India and Pakistan get along, and that Muslims are a minority in India, probably count India out. Let Egypt and Turkey step up instead–they are populous, well-armed, closer, and can always use the money. If Turkey ever decides it’s time for ISIL to be over, ISIL will be over.

By the way, people are Muslim; objects and concepts are Islamic. ‘Muslim’ can only refer to one who follows Islam (literally, ‘one who submits’). Doesn’t attract me, but if as a country we’re going to jump to conclusions about it and go on crusades, maybe we ought to understand a bit about its followers. Oh, and the news people are screwing up ‘Taliban’ as well. That is a plural term. So, that odd dude from California who joined the Taliban, seriously limiting his career options, wasn’t an ‘American Taliban.’ That would be at least three people, since you’d use the dual for just two of them. Singular is ‘Talib’ (student).

You may now commence throwing things at your TV, cussing news anchors up and down the floor, and generally showing news entertainment the respect it merits. Make sure to flip them off with your left hand, as that’s much worse in the Islamic world.

Foreign-related stuff people get wrong

English just might be the $2 hooker of languages. Every language you’ve heard of has done English a few times, so many that English’s Latin and Greek words don’t even stand out except to cognoscenti. That may be why its vocabulary is gargantuan. A lot of more obvious adoptions are frequently misused, mispronounced or misspelled, a thing one only learns when one studies the language of origin. I’ll help.

You are not an alumni. You are an alumnus (male) or alumna (female). Alumni are the masculine or mixed plural, so don’t say you are a Flat Rock State U. alumni unless you’re really huge. More than one alumna are alumnae. If you went to college, it’s pretty embarrassing if you do not know how to refer to that fact, but I accept that lots of people neither took Latin nor absorbed that much by osmosis. No problem; your fellow alumni are here for you.

A male betrothed is a fiancé. A bethrothed female is a fiancée. They are pronounced the same.

The problem with spelling résumé correctly in your cover letter is that in today’s Murrica, it’s likely to get your application tossed as emblematic of too much education and intelligence, both of which are out of fashion. Correct accents look snooty and suggest that you might actually speak French, which could indicate the kind of education that dares question things. Spell it down to the level you think will help you get the job–but hold the truth in your secret heart. Even if you have to get it wrong as resumé.

Scotch is a drink, not a nationality, as any Scottish lad will tell you. Another name for that drink is whisky, which is not whiskey. Don’t ask me why the Scots care so much about how English renders the Gaelic word for ‘water of life.’ They just do.

Coup de grace is not pronounced koo day GRAW. Never do this again. If you want to use it, say ‘koo duh grawss’ (last word rhymes with ‘floss’). Bonus: when you say it like my D&D groups all have, you’re actually referring to the ‘stroke of flab.’ Player: “Okay, my paladin is going to coup de gras the ogre.” DM: “How can he do that? Your paladin is totally ripped. He has no fat to hit the ogre with.”

If there are twö döts over a vowel in German, it’s an umlaut. Non-Germanic languages do not have umlauts, so please stop referring to Noël as having an umlaut. It has a trema. To think otherwise is naïf (or naïve, if the thinker is female). The trema tells you to pronounce two vowels separately, which is why we say no ELL rather than nole, and na YEEV instead of nyve or nave.

When you see an Å in a Swedish word, pronounce the little ring, not the A. It’s a long O sound. Your True Blood stud, Alexander Skarsgård, pronounces his last name SCARS gourd. The Ångström unit in atomic physics is ohng struhm. I can live with it if you get the ö wrong (kind of rhymes with ‘book’), but if you make the first part sound like ‘angst,’ I suffer pain which you could have so easily avoided.

If you know just enough Spanish to be dangerous, you have wondered why it’s Buenos días, with what looks like a masculine adjective on a feminine noun. On about your second day of Spanish class, you learn that the last letter is not 100% reliable at indicating gender in Spanish. The true marker is the article: el día, masculine, thus ‘buenos’ is correct. However, it is la tarde and la noche, thus buenas tardes and buenas noches.

French accents are pronunciation, not stress. French has no stressed syllables, and you won’t believe how difficult that is until you try adjusting to it. Live there a decade, it’s the last vestige of your native accent you defeat (if ever). Spanish accents are stress. Why bother, then, to have an accent on a one-syllable word like ? To distinguish it from si, which means ‘if.’

It’s time to stop abusing Cyrillic. Let’s start with Я, which is pronounced ‘ya’ just like German ja. When you write Яussia, we who read Cyrillic throw up in our mouths, because the country is not called Yaussia. Г is the Russian G. Н is the Russian N. П is the Russian P. Р is the Russian R. С is the Russian S. This is how USSR could be СССР on Soviet Olympic hockey jerseys: Soyuz (Union) Sovietski (Soviet) Sosyalistcheski (Socialist) Respubliki (Republics), SSSR in the Latin characters, СССР in Cyrillic.

Since French accents do not mean stress, everyone is screwing up mêlée. D&D players have been destroying it since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson started the thing (I blame them). It is not mealy nor is it ma-LEE. Say meh-lay, trying like hell to have equal stress on both syllables. There is no hope of straightening out the gamers, a highly literate but notoriously careless band, but others of you may yet be saved from barbarism.

César Chávez‘s name probably gets pronounced correctly by a non-Spanish speaker once a decade. Let this be the decade. It’s not SEE-zer sha-VEZ. Say it with me: SAY-zar CHA-vez. Yes. People botch both the consonants and the accent on his last name, even as they rename streets after the guy.

Yom Kippur is not yawm KIPP-er. That makes it sound like a pickled herring, which can be kosher food but isn’t kosher pronunciation. It rhymes with ‘home for sure.’ Rosh Hashanah is not rawsh ha SHA na, but roash ha sha NAH. (Last syllable rhymes with ‘blah.’ In fact, the last three syllables do.)

You are probably saying Qabalah wrong. Nearly everyone in the U.S. is, at least, including a fair number of people with names like Goldberg. In a spiritual practice where letters are important, it seems sloppy to butcher articulation, eh? It is kah-bah-LAH, Madonna. If you say it as CAB-uh-luh, you are being positively qlipotic, leaving the listener’s mind a shell. (Qabalah joke.) Do not say kuh BAWL uh, either. That was a hokey occult game from the 1960s. Oh, and if you play one of those console games that uses a character called Sephiroth, know that this is the gross mutilation of a word for the spheres of the Qabalah: sfirot, uttered sfeer-OAT. If you say SEFF ur ROTH in Hebrew, it means nothing at all. Ah, but you heard it from someone you just know is well learned in CAB uh luh? My sources are my collegiate professor of Hebrew and a retired Israeli colonel, native born. Either neither of them actually knows Hebrew, or they are correct. Your move.

Don’t even try to pronounce a Chinese word unless you have heard a fluent speaker and emulated his or her tonal until s/he told you it was correct. Otherwise, you might accidentally confess a sexual longing for brick mortar (or something worse). True for some other Asian languages as well.

If using the word año in Spanish, do yourself a favor and make sure to articulate the Y sound produced by the virgulilla, called a tilde in English. Thus, ON yo. If you say ON oh, you just referred to the anus. To say one’s age in Spanish, one says that one ‘has’ however many years. I had great merriment in college Spanish when an attractive young lady answered the professor by declaring that she had nineteen anal openings.

Tijuana, Mexico is not pronounced TEE-a WA-nah. The nearest translation of that pronunciation is ‘Aunt Jackie.’ I have an Aunt Jaque and have been calling her this since junior high school. As for the city, it’s tee HWA nah.

Some non-Murrican English bits: Greenwich is really, truly GREN itch. Norwich works likewise, and probably all the other -wiches do too, though I’m not sure what happens if you order a ‘sanitch.’ Anything ending in -cester gets the middle mooshed up. Leicester = LESS ter. Worcester = WOOSS ter. Gloucester = GLOSS ter, etc.

The media are getting most of the Russian names wrong. It is brutal. Example: Gorbachev is actually GAR ba chyov. Ivan is ee VAWN. Just believe me that, half the time, what you hear from newsies is wrong. It’s not your imagination; they really just don’t care, because they have a low opinion of their audience and a casual relationship to accuracy anyway. It’s much worse with Arabic names, complicated by regional dialects which make the correct pronunciation a matter of valid difference. Most everyone outside the Islamic world is saying Allah wrong: it’s all LAH. Pronounce the L both times. During both Gulf Wars, our beloved newscasters made the city names look like a bombed-out area of Fallujah.

Good examples of botched Russian are czar and czarina. Tsar only takes three letters in Cyrillic, which has a letter TS. Why the serial botch? It has caesar as its root, like kaiser: the name that became Latin for ’emperor.’ It’s not too late to save the words, provided we stop appointing czars in government, and provided we learn that it is tsaritsa, not tsarina. Oh, and there actually is no N in Kreml’, Moscow’s great fortress and sometime seat of government.

And lastly: no matter how you try, you’ll never pronounce Polish correctly by looking at the letters and imagining them to relate to English. These are not the Latin characters you want. Move along.

“I have sex for money!”

No, not me.  Someone else.  Patience.

Back when I was in high school, we had an exchange student from Finland.  Her name was Paulamaria, and she was a wonderful young lady, a year or so older than me, tall, broad shouldered, blonde and (at first) terrified.  She spoke okay English at the start.  Anyone could sympathize with her plight, sent to live for a year in a tiny lumber town very far from all she knew.  In hindsight I respect her courage and sense of adventure just to do it.  She lived with us for part of the year, and with a couple of other families later.  But she got our dysfunctional household first.

The budding language junkie in the family already spoke some Spanish and Russian, but no Finnish.  Paula taught me some, and how to pronounce it, which itself is fairly challenging.  In listening to her accent, I came to understand that Finns have terrible trouble with our consonant blends.  It takes them extensive practice to articulate the sounds at all.  Finnish is a very tough language, but it’s not that hard to pronounce.  Great:  a language where you can easily be understood, but knowing what you said is not so easy.  Paula would never call herself a Finn; she would say she was a ‘Feeneess person.’  She spoke ‘Svediss’ and ‘Zerman’ in addition to ‘Eengliss’.  I am not making fun of her at all, just illustrating her pronunciation issues.  She also had guts.  When my mother, on the way home from picking her up, made the absolutely horrifying blunder of asking her if Finns were related to Russians, I saw her eyes flash fire before she had even seen her new home.  “Ve are not Russan people!” she exclaimed.  I had winced.  Good one, Mom.  They take that one real bad in Finland.

Of course, hardly anyone in town even knew where Finland was, except me (who spoke no Finnish) and a lady up the street (who remembered enough from her youth to converse a bit).  Didn’t matter.  Paula picked up English quickly enough, while teaching me how to swear (perrrrrrrrkele!), be grossed out (oooooouuuck!) and be wheedled (ollahyvää???? (please)).

Paula had some resources, enough that she could pretty much go shopping whenever she wished.  She often wished.  We helped her set up a checking account, which made that easier.  So one day my mother, my biological sister, my Finnish sister and I were all riding to town together.  Paula and I were in the back seat.  Now, our household was very religiously conservative, with my father’s interpretation of the tenets of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church and the Bible as the law.  We were self-righteous snobs about it all.  I had only somewhat begun to rebel.  Paula wanted to go shopping with some friends, and said so.  My mother, always keeping an eye out for the details, asked from the driver’s seat:  “Now, Paula, do you have enough money?”

“Oh.  I have sex for money.”

My mother’s very Lutheran head snapped around.  “You do what?”  I attempted to suppress some laughter.

“I have sex!  Oo know, sex!”

Mom spluttered, not angrily but in vast consternation:  “Paula, I have no idea what the customs are like in Finland, but they are different here, and we must have a long talk before you go anywhere.”

For her part, Paula couldn’t understand what the issue was.  Why was everyone reacting this way? Her American mom was discombobulated; her American sister was doing I’m not sure what, and her American brother was snickering like Muttley.  There followed a discussion of much confusion and some concern, but the language junkie finally figured it out.

I pulled out a checkbook.  “Checks, right, Paula?”

“Yes!  Sex!”

You may imagine my mother’s relief.  Once Paula knew she was properly understood, she too was relieved.  Time to shatter that relief, like a proper brother.  I told her what exactly she had been saying.

It’s amazing how pink a very white, Nordic face framed by a bunch of light blonde 1970s hair can get when its owner gets a little uncomfortable.  Almost magenta.