Saturday, February 25, 2006

French in Action

A friend mentioned wanting to learn some French in order to get around more easily when vacationing in France. Is this necessary? Doesn't everybody in Paris, at least, speak English? And what about the stereotype that the French get very huffy when they hear their language pronounced badly? If you're going to try to speak some French, at least make sure you pronounce it correctly!

The best French course I know of is French in Action. This video course tells the story of Robert (roh-BARE), a young American guy, and Mireille, a French college student, as a romantic comedy:

Maintenant, faisons le portrait moral de Mireille. Au moral, elle est vive et elle a l'esprit rapide; elle est intelligente, très raisonnable, très sociable...un peu moqueuse, peut-être, mais elle n'est pas méchante du tout; elle a très bon caractère.
...
Nous allons maintenant faire le portrait du jeune homme de l'histoire, Robert. C'est un Américain, un garçon solide...
La jeune fille va rencontrer le jeune homme... Tout est possible! Le hasard est si grand!

The videos might seem somewhat dated, since the series was produced way back in 1987. Oh-la-la - pas d'ordinateurs, pas de mobiles!? It's really a lot of fun though; students of any gender will be entertained by Robert's efforts to win the affections of Mireille, who is a total hottie.

Where to get it? FiA is an old favorite of public television; you can probably find a broadcast on one channel or another. (A quick search of the local TV listings for next week turned up 8 showings in this area). You can get audio CD's from Amazon, or DVD's from Annenberg Media, but they're rather pricey. The Annenberg page also claims to have streaming video on demand (registration required). And there's always eBay...

Here are some other French lessons on the web, but they're not half as much fun as French in Action.

Posted at 19:50 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Meaning of Chokuegambo

Does "chokuegambo" sound Japanese? I didn't think so, but a wee bit of Googling revealed the term chokueigambou, from chokueiten "brand shop, single-brand store" and gambou "desire, wish". Chokuegambo was repeated around the lingua-blogosphere after a BBC story at the end of December included it in "100 things we didn't know this time last year":

99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.

This is apparently taken from a Mainichi article from last November about funny terms used by women:

【直営願望】
高級ブランドの直営店で買い物をしたがる願望。20代に急増中。 オープン日は前夜から、道端にビニールシートを敷いて待つ徹夜組も。

which says something like "[chokueigambou] The desire to buy things at luxury brand shops. Exploding among 20-somethings. The night before opening day, they spread vinyl sheeting on the sidewalk and hold an all-night vigil." すみませんが、my Japanese isn't good enough to translate the whole article, which is chock-full of slang and cultural references. (I bet No-sword could, though!)

Posted at 14:45 PST  Link | Tags: ,

Friday, February 17, 2006

Begira! Hau Euskara da.

When I visited Reno, Nevada last week I didn't expect to find a hotbed of linguistic endeavor. But lo and behold: the University of Nevada, Reno houses the Center for Basque Studies, the only one in the United States. If you want to study Basque, check it out: they offer a minor in Basque Cultural Studies, plus online courses, and the University of Nevada Press publishes a host of works related to the Basque language and culture. Several thousand people living in the Reno area are descended from Basque immigrants of the late 1800's and early 1900's, many of whom worked as sheep herders in the mountains; their marks are still visible in the form of arborglyphs on aspen trees.

Basque is an interesting language on several fronts: it has no known relatives in the language world; its grammar is unusual - agglutinative, polysynthetic, and ergative-absolutive; and it is Yet Another minority language fighting for survival. Lastly, there is an element of mystery as to its origins. According to the Wikipedia article:

The ancestors of Basques are among the oldest inhabitants of Europe, and their origins are still unknown, as are the origins of their language itself. Most scholars see Basque as a language isolate. ...

The auxiliary verb which accompanies most main verbs agrees not only with the subject, but with the direct object and the indirect object, if present. Among European languages, this polypersonal system (multiple verb agreement) is only found in Basque and some Caucasian languages. The ergative-absolutive alignment is also unique among European languages, and rather rare worldwide. ...

A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It's been estimated that at two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms.

Yikes! For a good linguistic description of Basque, see Larry Trask's Basque Page. In spite of the fact that Basque inflections put Russian to shame, Professor Trask pooh-poohed its difficulty. According to his FAQ:

Q8. Is Basque exceedingly difficult to learn?
A8. Not at all. Today thousands of people speak Basque as a second language; among these are native speakers of Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Japanese, and other languages. In fact, Basque is a rather easy language to pick up, while mastering it is no more difficult than mastering any other language. The pronunciation is easy, the spelling is regular, there is no grammatical gender, there are no noun-classes or verb-classes, and there are no irregular nouns and hardly any irregular verbs.

Larry Trask sounds like an interesting guy (Guardian interview). A Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex, he died in 2004 of motor-neurone disease, but his web page lives on.

The pre-eminent textbook for Basque seems to be Alan R. King's The Basque Language, A Practical Introduction, published by (you guessed it) University of Nevada Press. I looked it up on Amazon and was able to LOOK INSIDE! the first chapter; hence the title of this post. It's now on my wishlist.

Posted at 18:15 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hwæt! Englisc?

While Googling for something related to Tolkien, this search result caught my eye:

Ēac þǣm mǣrum geweorcum (Se Holbytla and Se Hlāford þāra Hringa) Tolkien wrāt ymbe
... His fæder wæs Arthur Tolkien, Englisc bank manager, and his mōdor wæs ...

What the heck is that? It's tantalizingly familiar, could it be Icelandic? But no... It turns out that some language geek out there has started an Old English version of the Wikipedia:

Wilcume tō Wicipǣdian, frēo-understandennesse wīsdōmbōc þe ǣnig cann ādihtan.
In þisse Engliscan fadunge, ongunnen in Winterfylleðe 2004, wyrcaþ wē 630 gewrita.

As the Simple English Wikipedia says, "If English speakers today were to hear or read a passage in Old English, they might understand a few words, but it would be very hard for most to understand what the passage is about." It's fun to try, though!

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was the form of the language used from about 600-1100 C.E. (before the Normans took over, bringing many French words). It seems appropriate that the Old English Wikipedia has an article about J.R.R. Tolkien, since he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and English at Oxford for more than 30 years. Interesting factoid: a manuscript by Tolkien containing his translation of Beowulf was discovered in the Bodleian library at Oxford in 2002, but it has not yet been published as far as I can tell.

Posted at 19:50 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Oops, I did it again

...got carried away looking up words in the dictionary, that is. After reading this post in the Japan Diary of Culture about new Japanese words, I started looking them up, but kept finding so many interesting things that it was tough narrowing it down to a few good ones.

So here are my favorites:

  • キモイ / きもい (A contraction of 気持ち悪い) - gross; disgusting. Don't Google this unless you like seeing icky pictures.
  • ありえない - unbelievable. Probably short for 有り得ない程.
  • ぜんぜんいい - very good (like totally!)
  • やばい - Darn it! According to the WWWJDIC: (1) (sl) dangerous; risky; (2) awful (young persons' slang); terrible; crap; (3) terrific (young persons' slang); amazing; cool
The last word, やばい, is listed in the Space ALC dictionary along with a bunch of fun examples:

  • やばい間投】uh-oh〔失敗したときなどに発する〕
  • くそ。/やばい。 ;〈卑俗〉 Oh crap.
  • やばいまたやっちゃった Oops, I did it again.
  • そりゃー、やばいことになりましたね I guess you're up the creek (without a paddle).
  • やばい仕事に遅刻する! Oh dang! I think I'm late for work!
  • すごい!/素晴らしい!/なかなかいい!/やばい品物!/よくやった!/よー色男! Hot stuff!

There's an article about the etymology of yabai in the Word Origin Dictionary; it includes a long list of "related words", including ダサい, "uncool", and イケてる, "cool, smart". Hmmm, let's find Japanese words for cool:

素晴{すば}らしい、すごい、渋い格好いい、いけてる、りりしい ・ Cool, huh? いいでしょ?

やばい! One word leads to another, and another, ...

Posted at 19:15 PST  Link | Tags: , ,

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Declining Russian

Poor Russian! Nobody wants to study it anymore in the UK, according to this article:

Russian once lent an exotic air to dull school curricula, but since its heyday during the Cold War the language has been in terminal decline...

During the 1960s, a boom fuelled by the excitement of the Sputnik launch and the space race, saw many schools add Russian to their language courses and thriving university departments explore the rich wealth of Russian literature and culture.

Now everyone is switching to newly-trendy languages like Chinese and Arabic. According to the MLA's survey of Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2002, Russian was still number nine in the list of most commonly taught languages in the US, but it had the smallest increase in enrollment, a meager .5%. People are scared off by the Cyrillic alphabet; that's the least of one's problems in learning Russian! Nouns and adjectives and even numbers are declined in six cases and three genders, verbs have two aspects (3 for verbs of motion) and lots of conjugations to memorize. So you see there's no reason to fear a nice simple alphabet like Cyrillic...

It's a shame, because Russian has so much to offer in the way of great literature and other arts, such as cursing: "the ability to curse effectively has always been recognized as a form of art". (Yes, Russia is infamous for its bad language, called mat.)

At least the Slavic Department at my alma mater seems to be doing OK. They have a pretty good website, with a page full of links to all kinds of Russian resources. To paraphrase the late great Professor Zawacki, "learn it for pleasure!"

Posted at 11:59 PST  Link | Tags: ,