Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tower of Babel, Cacophony, or Multilingualism on Testosterone?

So this morning I Skyped with my family in Holland (actually, it was morning for me, evening for them).

My mother Ata lives in Holland. She will turn 104 in a few months. This week, my sister Madeleine, her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson were all visiting Ata. They are all from America, but my sister Madeleine is an immigrant, like me.

In addition, there were a couple of Dutch ladies there, wonderful women who volunteer to provide my mother with immense assistance. Altogether, there were more than half a dozen people in my mother’s Dutch flat while I was skyping with her from Sacramento.

So this skyping event was exceptionally international, which is not unusual in my family.

We were all born in Hungary. I was seven when we left that country, and my twin sisters were six. The three of us soon forgot Hungarian, but it has always remained our mother’s primary tongue.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On Phobias, Philias and other Etymologies

Like most people, I have some phobias, as well as a number of philias: This means that there are things which I like, and things which I dislike. Duh.

Etymologically, the words we use for people’s (pathological) likes and dislikes (or fears), usually contain the postfixes “-phobia” and “-philia,” or the prefix “mis-.”

These are derived from Greek:
Phobos: Fear
Philia: (Brotherly) Love
Misos: Hatred

For example: Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love:
Philos = Friend
Adelphos = Brother

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Brief Message to our French Friends

Here is an e-mail I sent to my friends and relatives in Paris and in France:

Ca fait une semaine que cette horreur est arrivée. Nous pensons sans cesse a vous, et a Paris, la ville d’ou jaillis toujours l’espoire et l’illumination pour le reste du monde...

Sachez donc que meme ici, de l’autre cote de la terre, la grande majorite des gens pensent a vous, du matin au soir. C’est bien, quand-meme: Que meme les petits provinciaux qui n’ont jamais quitte leurs petites villes et leurs campagnes si loin de chez vous, realisent que quelque-chose d’horrible et mondialement important s’est passe a Paris.

Quand on heurte Paris, la terre entiere le sent, et en souffre. Notre coeur appartient a Paris. Nous sommes tous des Parisiens.(translation next)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Fanboys

I am a fan of the Fanboys. Were it not for them, life would be short, nasty and brutish. 'Fanboys' is an acronym for what grammarians call 'conjunctions', those little things that function as superglue between parts of sentences, and consequently our thoughts.

Without the Fanboys, we couldn't 'like cats but not dogs', 'eat raisins and nuts', 'wear skirts or pants', 'work hard yet enjoy ourselves', and 'wear glasses so we could see'.

You guessed it, each letter in 'Fanboys' stands for one of those conjunctions: For, And, Neither, But, Or, Yet and So.

Can you imagine if we didn't have the Fanboys as a shield against those uppity independent clauses? So full of themselves, thinking they are always right and everybody else is wrong? The Fanboys are there to put them in their place, cut them down to size and make some room for compromise. 'My twin sister is very pretty' sounds ok, but 'My twin sister is very pretty, but I am prettier' sounds a lot better. Read more...

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Ode to the Letter A

It has come to my attention of late, that we, as writers, don't give enough credit to one of the most undervalued letters in the English alphabet: the letter A.

Let's face it, we misuse, abuse and overuse many letters, but the A is like the Angus of letters. For one thing, it has various pronunciations, sometimes it sounds like 'ey', sometimes like 'uh', sometimes like 'aw'. It is like a chameleon. It changes from 'mat' to 'mate', from 'glass' to 'glaze' and from 'hat' to 'hate', depending on which vowel it keeps company with. It even has to do the work of other letters when people become lazy in their pronunciation, like in 'whateva' or 'seeya'.

It is as selfless as Mother Theresa, coming to the rescue when a person is not sure what to say: 'aaah… let me see'. Or when someone has an epiphany: 'aaha', an orgasm: 'aaaah', feels sorry for someone: 'aaw', or just pretends to understand something complicated: 'ah (yes)'.

Singers use it to practice their voice, without even considering paying the A a decent living wage. Doctors diagnose throat conditions, again at no extra cost to them, knowing that the A has no collective bargaining power. Can you imagine if the A went on strike? The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. I couldn't finish this essey without committing orthogrephic mistekes. The Spanish language would particularly be in trouble, with their feminine endings and the poor Hawaiians wouldn't be able to talk at all, since most of the consonants in their language fell overboard when they came to Hawaii in their canoes. Besides, everybody would get lost on the islands, since all the streets have names like Kal'ia'iou'amaa'aaa'eiou. Read more...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Dutch Obsession with Diminutives

The Dutch are statistically the tallest people on earth. Not only are they tall, but every time I travel to Holland, they seem to have grown taller. Whatever feeling of confidence and superiority my above-average height might give me in the US, it evaporates the moment I arrive at Schiphol airport, and start to navigate my way through a sea of giants. It's hard to get used to feeling 'short', even if it's just for a week or so.

You would expect this propensity for height to spill over in the way the Dutch speak, with bombastic, aggrandizing words and phrases. But it's just the opposite. The Dutch are extremely fond of diminutives. They add the suffix '-je' or '-tje' to practically any part of speech. When I visit my friend Edith in Baarn, we often go for a 'fiets tochtje', a little bike ride (even though they might take up to three hours). We'll stop on the way for a 'kopje coffee met een gebakje', a little cup of coffee with a little desert. On our way back, we'll go into town and buy a 'jurkje', a little dress or hunt for a 'koopje', a little bargain. It's all little this and little that in Holland. Read more...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is Ambivalence Good or Bad? I am not sure...

"I love my man, I'm a liar if I say I don't.
But I'll quit my man, I'm a liar if I say I won't."
Billie Holiday, 'My Man,' Billie's Blues (1936) 

The official definition of ambivalence is ‘having conflicting feelings toward something or someone.’ It means "sitting on the fence", not knowing which side to choose. It usually has a negative connotation but in my opinion, ambivalence has gotten a bad rap over the course of human history. It has become the whipping boy in the arsenal of our emotions. I am not sure why, because ambivalence has a lot going for it. In a fair fight, it would win over certainty any time. After all, it has to fight on two fronts in an argument. Like an immigrant worker, it toils away; doing the dirty work that certainty feels too superior to take on.

Here comes certainty strolling down the street, briefcase in hand, stuffed with opinions whose ink is barely dry, immune to all the ugly stares from opposing views, so full of itself, so overconfident. That’s what I hate about it, it’s just too damn sure of itself.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Troublesome Trio: Articles in the English Language

The word ‘the’ is the most commonly used word in the English language. We don’t give it a second thought; it’s there, like the air we breathe or the water we drink. Actually, it’s not really a word like ‘butter’ or ‘table’, since it can not even stand on its own two feet. If a ‘the’ walked through the door, you wouldn’t know what you were dealing with. At least with a ‘table’ or a ‘chair’, you know where you stand, but a ‘the’? You’d be waiting for the rest of the retinue to appear before you could make sense of the visitor.

The ‘the’, together with the ‘a’ and the ‘an’ make up the articles of the English language. Even though they are useless on their own, these little ‘function words’ pretty much ‘determine’ what people are talking about. If my husband came in and said ‘A guy just hit a car’ it might elicit a slight shoulder shrug, but if he said: ‘A guy just hit the car’, I would drop whatever I was doing and run outside to assess the damage.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Evil use of Language: On ‘Animal Equality'

"What you speak with your tongue,
You speak with your heart.
Say not the untrue thing."

If you ever doubted the power of language, I recommend you read 'Animal Equality: Language and Liberation' by Joan Dunayer. With lucidity, courage and brute honesty, the author shows us that the way we speak about animals is inseparable from the way we treat them.

Evil, in any form, has the nasty habit of gathering euphemisms around itself, until it grows to unmanageable proportions. ‘The final solution’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other expressions are a prime example. But the way we use our language as it relates to nonhuman animals deserves a special medal for self-deception and evil.

In her book, Dunayer opens our eyes onto the world of hunting and fishing, zoo keeping and aquariums, vivisection and animal agriculture. Each branch has its own ‘language’, which is designed to justify the immense cruelty, suffering and pain that are inflicted on nonhuman animals. Through what Dunayer calls 'speciesism', similar to sexism or racism, we lie to ourselves. Read more...

Friday, July 12, 2013


The recent public lynching of Paula Deen over her one-time use of the N-word has motivated me to do some research on euphemisms. As a non-native speaker, I fully appreciate how much spice and color they add to the English language. I absolutely adore them. This is ironic, since the function of euphemisms is to avoid saying something unpleasant, offensive or taboo. So not saying something makes a language richer?

In the case of the N-word, the original word is still around, so we at least know what it means. But some other words have not been that lucky; the euphemism has completely obliterated the original word, killed it outright, knocked it off, rubbed it out, terminated it with extreme prejudice. The word 'bear', for instance is a euphemism for a taboo word denoting a large, dangerous, hairy killer. The original word has been lost forever. Read more...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Language and Colors: Now you see Them, Now you Don't

by Madeleine Kando

Not too long ago, people believed that the ability to see colors was a trait that was inherited over generations. Even as recently as 1858, the British statesman William Gladstone theorized that Homer must have been color-blind because his texts don’t mention the colors blue or green. He concluded that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans at that time. Read more...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What is my Name?

By Tom Kando

Yesterday, I went to pick up a prescription drug which my doctor had faxed to the local pharmacy. The pharmacy clerk asked me for my name, and I gave it to her - Tom Kando - adding that the prescription had been faxed in the previous day by Dr. Pollock. She couldn’t find it, so I suggested that she also look under “Cando,” with a C.

It’s happened more than once that when I give my name to someone in an office or on the phone, their brain goes on auto-pilot before I get a chance to spell my name, and I am forever entered as Cando. This can cause a lot of aggravation later, when dealing with the IRS, insurance companies, banks, airlines, etc. So I have learned, whenever asked for my name by some clerk, to reply as follows:
“My name is spelled K - A - N - D - O,” and then I say the word - “Kando.”

And sure enough: yesterday, as soon as the pharmacy clerk looked under “Cando,” she found my medication. She gave it to me and said, somewhat irritated:

“You should have given me the proper name in the first place. It would have made things a lot easier.”

I apologized for the inconvenience, but added that the proper name is, in fact “Kando.”

“I am sorry sir,” she insisted, “That is not your name. The prescription order form says that your name is ‘Cando’. ”
“My name is ‘Cando’?” I inquired, somewhat surprised...
“Yes, that is your name. Surely your doctor knows your name, doesn’t he?”
“You are absolutely right,” I said, trying to sooth her feelings, “my physician does know my correct name...”
“Then why didn’t you give me your true name to begin with? The one on the medical record. We can’t just go by all sorts of different names, you know...”
“True,” I admitted, “one can’t just go by all sorts of different names...”

Then, as an afterthought, I asked:

“By the way, can you show me the fax the doctor sent you, just to see how my name is spelled?”
“No sir, we are not allowed to do that, sir. The Federal privacy law.”
“I understand,” I replied, “privacy is important.”

I went home. It was a total defeat. I have to hand it to the clerk. She was a pro. She had me checkmated - on all fronts. leave comment here

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The curse of the 'R'

by Madeleine Kando

If you want my opinion, the most difficult letter to pronounce in any language is the letter ‘R’. You can spend a life-time perfecting a language which is not your own, but the ‘R’ will always give you away.

Take me, for example. I had to learn French, Dutch, German, English and Spanish and it would have been a cynch for me to masquerade as a native had it not been for the cursed ‘R’.

That evil-doer always gave me away. It doesn’t help that we are all deaf to our own voice. Yes, deaf. If you want to hear your own voice the way others hear it, you have to record it first. Either that or travel to the Grand Canyon and shout something, to hear it echoed back. Even then, you might think: 'Wow, that person sounds weird. I am glad I don't sound like that.' Yes, if non-native English speakers knew what they really sounded like, they would stop talking altogether.

But to get back to my eternal enemy, the notorious ‘R’. I have to admit that things could have been worse. Had I been born in China or Japan my battle with the ‘R’ would have been lost the day I was born. I would have been doomed to order 'flied lice' for dinner for the rest of my life.

The thing is, the ‘R’ is a mischievous little bugger. It knows that it is a consonant, but the sneaky bastard enjoys getting a free ride on the back of the poor vowel that precedes it.

Take the word ‘part’, for example. In many languages the ‘R’ has the decency of standing on its own, so that a Frenchman will correctly say: ‘parrr’, pronouncing the ‘R’ as a third, distinct, sound in that word. The ‘R’ in English, (especially British English) however, often will ride piggyback on the vowel in front of it.

If you live in Boston, the 'R' becomes particularly lazy and the word is pronounced ‘paht’. But it isn't satisfied by just riding piggyback; it also changes the sound of the 'a' in front of it, and the way the word is pronounced by native Bostonians brings shivers down the spine of any 'normal-English' speaking person. It is pronounced: 'paaaht'. See what I mean?

So what’s a foreigner to do? Well, it depends on which language you speak originally. The expression ‘you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’ surely applies here. If you are from Spain or France, there is no way you will loose the habit of pronouncing ‘R’s like rolling marbles in your mouth. That's what 'R's are meant to do, or they wouldn't be called 'R', don't you agree?

You are supposed to say: 'Bears are usually barred from bringing beer to bars before breakfast.' You don't say: 'beahs are usually bahed from bringing beeh to bahs befoh breakfast.' (Unless you have the misfortune of being Bostonian or a New Yawker.)

So, if Americans cannot agree on how to pronounce their own 'R', how do they expect foreigners to learn the correct pronunciation?

My advice to you is to not even try. Just lay it on thick with your foreign accent. Usually it will charm at least a certain percentage of the people around you and the rest? Well, you can please some people some of the time but you cannot please all the people all the time. So there!  leave comment here

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Speak Therefore I Am

by Madeleine Kando

I am fascinated with language. When I was little girl, I liked to play language games in my head. If I heard a new word, which was quite often since I had to learn three languages consecutively, I immediately deconstructed it. In Holland this tendency of mine was very useful. The Dutch like to string words together to make up new ones (arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering, which means disability insurance) and trying to find the roots of a word helped me learn Dutch.

So here I am, reading yet another book by Steven Pinker, the all-time expert on language. This one is called ‘The Stuff of Thought’. This has stimulated me to play another game in my head.

It is generally assumed that, other than ‘onomatopoeia’, the sounds of words are arbitrary: a train might as well be called a ‘tsorp’, it would not make any difference in its meaning.

But Pinker points out that some phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves. Take the sound ‘sn’ for instance. Many words with that sound in it have to do with the nose. Snout, snooze, snot, sneeze… you get the idea?

So, if I throw out another sound, let’s say ‘gl’? what does that conjure up in your mind? Glance? Gloat? Glean? Obviously the ‘gl’ sound has to do with vision. What about the sound ‘cl’? clan, clot, club, cluster? This sound probably has to do with people banding together…

Boy, language is funny. It makes you think about thinking, doesn’t it? It can keep you busy for days, speculating on the endless intricacies of this incredible tool we have developed to communicate with each other.

Pinker is a proponent of the ‘language as instinct’ theory, which means that humans are born with an ability for language, as instinctive as walking or breathing. Others say that people are born a blank slate and that everything has to be learnt, including language. I’ll leave it up to the the experts to fight it out. For me, it’s enough of a miracle that we are able to enjoy language, enjoy it almost as much as a sunset on a beautiful Hawaiian beach.

Words are being created all the time. But who are these Einsteins of language? I’d like to know. I suspect that language is so dynamic that it is being invented by people like you and me. Not by anyone ‘special’. New words come into a language mostly by necessity (texting, emailing, browsing etc). Other words enter our language because of major historical events, like ‘Ground zero’ or ‘wmd’s’.

Some words can be made up very easily. I just read the word: ‘preheritance’, (that is when parents give money to their children during their lifetime.) So why cannot we talk about going ‘pre-shopping’ for a wedding gown? (I guess that would mean going window-shopping), or say ‘I went on a pre-vacation to Hawaii?’ (I didn’t like it so I went to Bali instead.) It might generate an entire new industry or virtual experiences.

Language in itself is so mysterious. We take it totally for granted because we can all speak, but if you really think about it, it is one of the most incredible feats of the human mind. I would like to go on record by correcting what Descartes said so long ago (‘I think, therefore I am’) and change it to: ‘I SPEAK, THEREFORE I AM’. leave comment here

Monday, March 9, 2009

Linguistic Observations: Happy?

By Juliette Kando

One nice day, in the car, I began to sing and say silly things as you do, like: ‘I’m happy, oh so very happy’.

I uttered these feelings in different languages while mimicking the enunciation of the words. The English way of saying and feeling exhilaratingly happy sounded like a cockerel exuding his morning tunes. Whereas in French the same words: ‘Je suis tellement heureuse’ sounded much more poetic, gentle.I tried to say the same words of happiness in German: ‘Ich bin so glücklich’ but here the words were ugly and seemed too serious, too determined. Then I cried out loud the same words in Dutch: ‘I voel me zo lekker, ik ben zo gelukkig’ and I noticed that in the Dutch language, the tone and mood of the words sounded the most childlike and genuinely enthusiastic of the four languages.
Interesting, I thought. Would this be a valid linguistic phenomenon or my own personal interpretation of those four languages, meaning I must have been happiest when I lived in Holland? Probably a bit of both.

The other interesting point is that in German and Dutch the words for happiness: Glücklich and Gelukkig both contain the word ‘luck’. In other words, in Germany and in Holland you are lucky when you are happy. Or one could say that you are happy when you are lucky. Not so in French and English. In French: Bonheur (happiness) is “Good Hour”, implying that you can only be happy some of the time. How negative!
I concluded that only the English words for Happy, and Happiness are truly independent words, conveying the emotion, of feeling very well, and very good by their sheer happy sound.

Anyway I am enchanted to have made the previous, to me, interesting observations.
Again, if you look at the word Enchanted, Enchanté/e in French, are they related to Chanter / to Sing? In Spanish, the same: Encantado/a, Cantar (to sing). So the Latinos sing with joy when they meet you whereas the English are merely Delighted to meet you - they receive light?

Another thing: it appears that the English always adopt French when they want to be Bon Vivants, have a Laisser Faire attitude, just had a Déja Vu or merely enjoy an Entrecote (an animal’s bit between the ribs – côte = rib) with good Etiquette.

The unlucky animal that has been slaughtered for an English dinner table suddenly acquires a French name. Beef comes from Boeuf, a French ox. Mutton comes from the French animal Mouton who was an English sheep when still grazing in the field. And pork is just a pig. Also, the English never kill animals En Masse, no, they prefer to Cull them.
They say the English language has the largest vocabulary, yet can express itself with the fewest words. That is perhaps why it is becoming increasingly popular?

Sorry, I’ll stop now, as multi-linguistic observations tend to lead one into a never-ending labyrinth of interesting discoveries. But hey, aren’t we lucky to be able to divulge them on the European American Blog?
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