Linguistica (articles on languages)

This blog is a humble attempt to build bridges between cultures and languages through sharing my discoveries on languages while hoping to spark “bouncy” thoughts. Curiosity drives me to write today to share my love of words with other curious minds. 1st thought: French has two words langues and langage, when English only has one, languages. In French we differentiate between the different languages such as Turkish or Swahili, the langues, and the concept of language as a mean of communication, the langage.

Last articles:

  • Stress FM – speaking in a foreign language
    We need to make a detour through Japanese to put words on the complex one feels when speaking a foreign language. Yet, we know how the French doubt their abilities to speak in another language: fear of sounding ridiculous, fear not to be good enough, fear of pronounciation, intonation or agreement errors. This stress is called yoko meshi that is to say “eating a meal sideways”, unpractical indeed! In order to speak a foreign language, one must accept to become someone else, as pointed out by Haruki Murakami. The voice is altered and the vocabulary (at least at the beginning) …
  • The missing words
    In the cinema dialect, we often talk about the “missing picture” to give credit to an artistic project aiming at showing on big screens minorities until then invisible or not visible enough. A lot of books thrive on bookstores’ shelves to unveal words that we would be missing. I tend to think that those nonexistent words were not produced because a given culture did not need them, there was no use for those. The concepts behind those words did not recquire them to be imported or invented. Yet languages naturally import lots of words each year that lexicographers later add …
  • You are what you speak – Robert Lane Greene
    The author tries and alters the set imagination we have about languages. We have crafted a whole system of language frontiers. First, there is the nation-state language divides whereby there is a sole language per nation that thus needs surrounding borders. We can imagine a clear line where on one side people speak German and on the other French for instance. Then there is the clear cut between the correct way of speaking and the derived dialects. The guards of that frontier usually meet in an Académie, in France for example, to decide on the rules one should follow if …
  • The words that easily cross borders
    They are the first words a pupil on exchange will learn: swear words! No matter the language, it will be the first topic of discussion with the following justifications: being cool when back in the playground of the school or to understand when insulted, “just in case”. French and English swear words are all linked, directly or indirectly, to sexuality or scatology. Renewing them is just a matter of threading them like beads, one after the other, as Captain Haddock would. People from Quebec thus seem very exotic with their swear words derived from the Catholic rite. To this day, …
  • Guess the meaning of these words
    The following words are in Swahili, a language that adopted many English words. This language doesn’t like having 2 consonants following one another and words always end with a vowel even if it didn’t in the original word! Here is an example: skirt > s-i-k-e-t-i. An “i” to separate the “s” and the “k”, the sound “ir” is replaced by the “e” and a last “i” to finish the word with a vowel. bia coti picha shati tishati gitaa chipsi Here are the answers: bia > beer coti > coat picha > picture shati > shirt tishati > tshirt gitaa …
  • To have or to be with, that is the question
    The choice of words give away a whole culture, and in particular the way verbes are built. A concept such as owning something is translated in most European languages the same way: to have, avoir, tener, … A European possesses things, the thing is owned. Conversely, other cultures focus rather on the relationship between two elements, that is to say the languages express the existence of a person/object and then link it with the “owner”. One does not say “I have a cat”, but “a cat is with me”. Here are a few examples from a few langauges I cam …
  • Neither yes nor no
    I used to think all languages had opted for a similar way to accept or decline, to confirm or deny. 2 little words, short to be as efficient as possible. yes – nooui – non sí – noja – neinда / da – нет / niet The first language to alter my viewpoint was the Turkish language, which uses longer words: evet (yes) et hayır (no). Depending on where a Swahili speaker lives, one will either say the words ndio (yes) or hapana (litteraly “there isn’t”), or a sound and a nod. Thus a long “eeeeh” with raised eyebrows will …
  • Numbers – when you next cross the BNF metro station
    Little brass signs set in every step of the staircase, a guessing game for the line-14 commuter. I am talking about the 19 steps leading outside the BNF metro station written in 19 languages. Here are a few illustrators of the languages chosen by the architect Antoine Grumbach: When you next cross the station, look at your feet and count in the language of your chosing even if it is only till 19.
  • The storyteller species* – Nancy Huston
    We oppose in vain reality and fiction, this is what I will remember from Nancy Huston’s book. Any human group invents stories that imply actions from that given group. We are driven by stories, social background, country, religion, family story and so on. Stories have an effectiveness in our reality as they push people to action and structure our identities, to this end stories are very much real. Some of us tend to “embellish facts” like the inhabitants of Marseilles as goes the French cliché of the South. They start from a fact and add what they experienced, thus making …
  • 4 words for a space traveller
    Each great space power crafted its own word to design a space traveler. It was a conscious choice, showing a geopolitical positioning. First the Americans send astronauts (1928), that is to say, star sailors. The USSR forges its own word in 1961, космонавт or cosmonauts, the universe sailor. The Europeans in 1962 are space sailors. By crafting a third word, the Europeans avoided siding with one block or the other in the midst of the Cold War. In reality, today spationauts tend to be called astronauts, a sign probably of the superiority of the American version of the space dream. …
  • Family words – episode 2
    French children are taught to say “vous“, “monsieur” or “madame” to seniors. It is a way to show respect to elderly people. One should absolutely not remind them of their age, in the Western world old age is often perceived as a weakness to run away from. On the contrary, children who speak Swahili will greet an old person with “shikamoo” but will call them “bibi” (grandmother) or “babu” (grandfather) even if they are not related to one another. White hair is recognized as a sign of wisdom. It would be intersting to shift viewpoint in France. If old men …
  • Family words – episode 1
    When I learned the languages of neighbors, close or far, from Spain to Russia or Turkey, the words referring to family members are quite similar to English. On the other hand, the relationships between family mmbers seem different when one goes south. In Swahili, the paternal uncle is referred to as the elder father (baba mkubwa) or younger father (baba mdogo) and the maternal aunt as the elder mother (mama mkubwa) or youger mother (mama mdogo). A Congolese classmate explained us how in Lingala the paternal uncle is the elder or younger brother and the maternal aunt is the elder or the younger …
  • Pastoureau – words of colours
    The little book of interviews with Michel Pastoureau is quick dive into each color through which colors appear as ever evolving social constructs linked to how they are created. I have read it again to write this article and there are too many amasing anecdotes for me to pick one over the others! I will thus let you ead it. A detour through an Eastern African language shows us very clearly where the colours come from. In Swahili, only 3 colours are adjectives (that have to agree with the rest of the sentence): red –ekundu, black –eusi and white –eupe. …
  • A matter of point of view
    A same geographic place, the Baltic sea in English, but multiple designations. The Latvian and the Lithuanian people say Baltic sea (in Latvian baltijas jūra, in Lithuanian baltijos jūra). On the other hand, the Estonian people talk about the western sea, Läänemeri, when they sea the Baltic. On the opposite bank, they say the Eastern sea: Östersjön in Sweden, Itämeri in Finland, Østersøen in Denmark or Ostsee in Germany. This difference in names still exists in our contemporary languages regarding the Baltic sea. It can be surprising when we compare the situation to the Mediterranean sea, which all bordering countries …
  • The language of horns
    A little logo on the wheels across the world. We press it without a thought. Yet each culture adopts its own klaxonish music. A new language to learn at each border crossing. In France, the horn is the last resort according to the highway code and must signal imminent danger. More often than not, impatient car drivers tend to honk hoping to green the light. As a pedestrian, my whole being jumps every time I hear it, it feels so aggressive. In Cambodia, it is a way to show sonorously that one shares the road, when rear mirors, lanes and …
  • Pronoun and gender
    3 years ago in San Francisco, I decided to gain some knowledge on non-violent conflict resolution. As I sit in a room crowded with a San Francisco diverse audience, the organizer asks that we introduce ourselves: state your name, your organization and the pronoun you wish to be addressed with. “Julia*, National Center for Lesbian Rights, she”, “Tim*, just curious, they or ze”. They or ze ? That is how I first heard the neutral pronoun as well as the first and last time I had to say “I am a she”. The whole exercise seemed a bit useless as …
  • Exercise in alphabetic empathy
    This is a thought experience. In Cambodia all or nearly all is written both in Khmer and English so that the tourists are not too lost. Let’s imagine a moment that the roles are reversed, that the Khmers have conquered the world a few centuries ago and everything is dubbed in the Khmer alphabet. How would we feel in a country that is ours, but where everything or nearly everything is also written in a language beyond understanding to us? What if the Khmer tourists understood better than us some of the signs along our roads?
  • Truth in Russian and American
    It is always revealing when a language has more than one word to describe a concept that just has one in your own. The Russian language has two to talk about truth: pravda (пра́вда) and istina (истина). Some* analysed that specificity with today’s political goggles. A Russian friend of mine explained to me that pravda, also the name of the USSR propaganda paper, was therefore tainted. Istina is in a way the next level of truth, the fundamental truth that cannot be altered. In English on the other hand, there is only one word, truth, closer to istina than pravda. For a French ear it seems that the truth is very …

Here are a few ressources on languages I discovered:

Here are a few very inspiring books:

  • Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing, Daniel Tammet
  • Les langages de l’humanité, Michel Malherbe
  • Les mots qui nous manquent, Yolande Zauberman et Paulina Mikol Spiechowicz
  • The city of words, Alberto Manguel
  • Foreign words, Vassilis Alexakis
  • Le petit livre des couleurs, Michel Pastoureau (the books about a dedicated colour are translated in English)
  • Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, Elizabeth Little
  • Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives, Daniel Tammet
  • L’aventure des mots français venus d’ailleurs, Henriette Walter

And a few books I have yet to read:

  • Eloge de la traduction, Barbara Cassin
  • You are what you speak, Robert Lane Greene
  • In the land of invented languages, Arika Okrent
  • Le français est à nous !, Maria Candea et Laélia Véron