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Linguistic Geekery #2

April 16, 2009

I’ve regaled you before with my affinity for language. I have a bachelor’s in linguistics because I’m just that fascinated with the complex workings of this facility that defines us as human beings. One of the things I like being able to do is look at a language in written form and, even if I don’t understand one word of it, identify which language it is based on certain key features. Thai is pretty distinctive, vaguely reminding me of ancient Egyptian art rendered in simple lines. Korean also stands out, and I like the way they combine into syllable blocks. I can distinguish Chinese from Japanese pretty easily (Chinese uses just logograms, whereas Japanese uses a combination of Chinese logograms with syllabic letters), whereas the difference between Russian and Ukrainian is a bit more subtle (they use very similar but not identical forms of Cyrillic). My interest began some number of years ago, when I was tutoring ESL (English as a Second Language) at a local community college. It started rather simplistically, with me asking my students how they said “hello” and “thank you” in their native language. From there, I became interested in exploring relationships between similar words in different languages, and that ultimately led me to my scholarly pursuit.

Just recently, I was watching an English-language television program that had been subtitled in a language I couldn’t identify. Naturally, I was quite curious about it. Using what I did know, I was able to narrow it down to a language group and rule out a couple of particular languages right away. It used the extended Roman alphabet, which helped me tremendously in being able to simply de-code it, which in turn helped me determine that it was in fact part of the Indo-European language family. This was not an automatic guarantee, as Vietnamese (for example) is nowadays written in extended Roman, and it belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family. But de-coding is half the battle, and from there I was able to recognize various points of grammar and syntax. The words themselves gave me the feeling that it was a Slavic language, and yet it couldn’t have been Russian or Ukrainian since it wasn’t in Cyrillic. Not only that, but the syntax didn’t jibe with what I know about Russian. For one thing, the exclamation “my God!” in Russian is “Bozhe moi,” literally “God my,” with the possessive adjective coming after the noun. This language says it as “moj Bože,” pronounced roughly the same but with the possessive adjective coming before the noun.

I was able to rule out Romanian right away because, despite the heavy influence of Slavic on Romanian, it is a Romance language. The first-person pronouns “I” and “me” are “eu” in Romanian, as they are in Portuguese. This language used the same word as Russian for “I,” which is “ja.” My first tenuous guess was Polish, but that was quickly ruled out when “hi” was translated as “bok” rather than “czesc.” Even among very similar tongues, informal language and slang is likely to be very different. One of the things that set British English apart from American English is the vast difference in meaning among seemingly similar vocabulary. For example, Americans say “hood” and “trunk” when talking about the front and back of their cars while Brits say “bonnet” and “boot.”

After that, though, I was at loose ends. I knew what ballpark I was in, and I knew a few things it wasn’t, but that didn’t get me much closer to figuring out what it was. Time to use the time-honored method of informal research: posting a question in an appropriate forum. I compiled a list of words and short phrases that I had been able to translate from context, trying to get a broad enough sample to help those who might know properly identify it. I was in luck! Not long at all after I had posted my query, I got multiple responses all telling me the same thing.

My mystery language? Croatian. I now feel a rather primal glee, since now I have the means to recognize yet another language on sight.

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