Loanwords: Good or Bad?

In many languages, words from other languages are frequently borrowed to supply words for meanings that either don’t already exist or the words that do exist are not sufficient. Other times, they borrow them for convenience or no real reason at all. In this post, I’m going to talk about the place of loanwords in languages.

English speakers, you may not realize it, but English has tons of words borrowed from other languages. The majority of our technical and specialized vocabulary is borrowed from Latin and Greek. Take the word “logic”, from the Greek logos (reason). Or “regal”, related to the Latin regis (king). There are other words that we are less aware of, due to their normalized pronunciations or common use. A common mistake is that loanwords are typically used only in specialized or very proper versions of a language. In English, the word for the meat of a cow, “beef” is from Norman French, bœuf, which was adopted to distinguish it from the animal in Old English, cu (cow). Less obvious borrowings include jungle” from Hindi जंगली (jangli), meaning “forest”, or “algebra”, from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr), meaning “the reunion of broken parts”.

These words have become very normal for English speakers to say, and we hardly think about it anymore, since the origin of a word almost never has any consequence on social dynamics in English. However, in other languages, loanwords have a very consciously felt function and can be sensitive depending on how they are used.

An easy example that I’ve brought up before is Hindi-Urdu. The two main dialects of this language, Hindi and Urdu, are distinguished primarily by how much people use Perso-Arabic loanwords. Urdu in India is regarded as a poetic form of Hindi, and is heavily associated with Muslims, which can range from being good to bad, depending on the politics and sensibilities of a particular person. Urdu uses a lot of words borrowed from Farsi and Arabic. In Hindi, there are comparatively fewer, and borrows primarily from Sanskrit and English. For example, both Hindi and Urdu speakers will say gāḍi for “car”. (I’m using IAST since the scripts are different for Hindi and Urdu.) However, when saying “welcome”, Hindi speakers will say svāgat, whereas Urdu speakers will say ḥuś āmdīd. The use of Urdu versus Hindi has generated great controversy as to whether they’re different languages and questions over the social dynamic with respect to what kind of Hindi-Urdu they use.

Another dichotomy of loanwords that exists in nearly all subcontinental languages is the use of English loanwords. This usually happens in expat communities, among the children of expats who may not speak the language as well as their parents. As a Kannada speaker who lives in America, I don’t use the proper Kannada words for some thing because I either don’t know them or they’re really long and clunky to use. For example, I’m more likely to say “statistics” in English with an Indian accent (yes very stereotypical I know), but the proper word is ಸಂಖ್ಯಾಸಂಗ್ರಹಣ (sankhyāsangrahaṇa). My grandparents often advocate the use of pure Kannada because they think it’s more important to preserve the language in its original form than “corrupt” it with foreign words. But even Kannada borrows from Farsi and Arabic, so it’s questionable as to why those words are more acceptable than English. In many Indian expat communities, the use of English loanwords can be seen as a mark of not knowing the mother tongue as well (which very well may be true). To be honest, this is usually the opinion of the older generation, especially in India.

It’s unclear whether using loanwords is good or bad, especially when we don’t have words for things. I think that ideally, we should use the pure version of a language, but as is often the case, we don’t know the language that well. It would be better to teach the pure version, but as for practice of the language, we should let it take its course.

I hope you found this article informative and interesting! Please feel free to comment or share this article.

Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Impact on Language by the Syrian Refugee Crisis

With the massive influx of Syrian migrants fleeing the violence in their homeland, Europe is presented a not so uncommon problem. A good portion of the migrants do not speak any of the multiple local languages of European countries. An article from The Guardian reports that volunteers are helping the refugees by teaching them the local language (read it here), which will help them better function in the new society. I’m guessing that it will be unlikely that Syrian refugees are going to be able to return to Syria any time in the next five years or so, possibly more. As such, this is a situation where I believe one needs to learn the language of a country they migrate to, simply as a matter of being pragmatic. However, I don’t support assimilation, and am not suggesting that Syrians completely abandon their homeland and their culture as a result of their situation in the countries of Europe. They have a right to that, wherever life may take them.

On the other end of the relationship, the refugee crisis brings up an interesting array of possible effects on the political-linguistic environment of Europe. European nationals teach the refugees their language, but at the same time, there will most likely be demand and need to learn their language, Syrian Arabic, as well. Syrian Arabic is a dialect of Levantine Arabic, which itself is a version of the Arabic language. Arabic’s standard form, also known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is mostly used in official documents and news to the entire Arabic-speaking world. While most, if not all, Arabic speakers understand MSA, it is not spoken widely outside of official situations and news stations, where, even then, the local variety may predominate. The influx of Syrian refugees into Europe will give reason for the countries of Europe to make Levantine, if not specifically Syrian, Arabic an official minority language that it uses to communicate with the refugee communities, while the local language is still not fully integrated into their societies. However, given the strong linguistic identities already within European countries, such as those of Catalan, Occitan, Romansh, and other minority languages may conflict with the pragmatic need to establish a medium of communication with the Syrian community. The increased

If the conflict in Syria escalates or is otherwise perpetuated, these refugee communities may become permanent in Europe, which sets the stage for linguistic changes. For example, extended contact with Syrian Arabic may result in loan words being borrowed by local languages, which is not entirely out of the question. Spanish, due to the Moorish occupation, adopted a whole slew of words from Arabic, such as ajedrez (chess), arroz (rice), and ojalá (God permit/willing…). Another a possibility is the creation of a Romance-Arabic creole in the Syrian refugee communities. I’m not sure what the long-term significance of this would be, but it is still entirely possible. Contact with Syrian Arabic may also induce sound changes, though that is difficult to predict, especially considering the relatively small scale at which the local languages may come into contact with the language.

I hope this piece makes you think a little bit about the long-term effects of the Syrian refugee crisis, and please don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

“Italian Dialects” by fearlessinger

This piece was not written by me, but by a Tumblr user, whose express permission I have obtained to share this on my blog.

I was hoping to finish this in time for the celebration of the International Mother Language Day, but ended up being late. Well, here I go anyway.

So, I already talked at length about the fact that, contrary to popular belief, all of the Italian dialects are not, in fact, dialects of the Italian language (those also exist, they are more or less regional variations of Standard Italian), but fully realized languages that evolved from Latin of their own accord, each with their own peculiar history and literature.

Despite having lost a lot of ground to Italian over the course of the last century, the Italian dialects all survive to this day, some struggling, some thriving and still counting several millions of speakers (yes, you read that right, check it out).

The Italian dialects can be as different from one another (and from Italian) as French is from Spanish, and they are often not mutually intelligible.

Here’s a map, courtesy of Wikipedia, that shows more or less all of them:

Here’s another map:

If you are in one of the colored areas and are fluent in at least one of the dialects pertaining to that area, you might be able to more or less understand what’s going on when people speak dialect at you. Or not.

Probably not.

In truth, a couple hundred km are enough to screw you up. Prepare for worst case scenario, is what I’m saying (and I’ll be honest, even in a best case scenario, you’ll probably end up wearing a space suit at a toga party).

Now, it occurs to me that, to the English speakers visiting or planning to visit our country, the above might sound a bit daunting.
Don’t worry, international friends! The Game of Dialects is played only by Italians against other Italians. You’re safe! People will actually make the effort to communicate with you! If all else fails, we will mime the words for you! In fact, you might eventually find yourself wishing that you could just shut us up!

Besides, not many people realize this, but a good number of Italian dialects have a surprisingly large amount of words in common with the English language.

Skeptic? I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you’re in the Langhe, touring a lovely farmers’ market, and you see some sweet, sweet artichokes that look like they’re just begging to be put in a risotto. Well, how would you say artichoke in Piedmontese?

That’s right, it’s the exact same word! You’re basically already speaking Piedmontese! Isn’t it neat?
Of course, it’s not always that easy. You see, while the words may be the same, the meanings don’t always align perfectly.

Let’s go back to that lovely farmers’ market in the Langhe. As beautiful as those artichokes are, you may think that the price is a bit much. You may then comment in a deceptively disinterested tone: “soon car, sea artichoke.” * There’s a 95% probability that the vendor, moved to tears by the sound of his own mother language, will give you a generous discount. You may then take the adorable baby artichokes into your arms and start caressing them, soothingly murmuring “soon may. May, may.” **  in a slightly Gollum-like voice.

* “these artichokes are expensive”
** “they’re mine. Mine, mine.”

To those of you who don’t like artichokes, first of all: WHAT THE HELL?
And secondly, since I’m an extremely open minded person, here’s a totally plausible situation I made up just for you. Let’s say you’re buying milk, or delicious piedmontese ravioli, in the middle of a very crowded, very loud area of the market, and you need to signal to the seller that you want more than what he’s giving you. You may do so by enthusiastically shouting: “pee light!” *, “pee a new lot!” ** in their general direction.

* “more milk!”
** “more piedmontese ravioli!”

And that concludes your very first Piedmontese lesson. I think we all need time to process what I just wrote.

If my fellow Italian tumblr users would be so kind as to offer their collaboration, I’d like to end this with a little challenge!

How about we all translate the infamous Game of Thrones quote into our respective dialects? It might be fun to compare. I’d suggest using the standard Italian spelling (if possible) so that we can all more or less figure out the sound of what we’re reading.

I’ll go first:

ENGLISH –  “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

ITALIAN – “Quando giochi al gioco del trono, o vinci o muori.”

PIEDMONTESE – “Quanch at’gieughi al gieugh adl tron, o t’gagni o t’meuiri.”

When and Why Grammar (Is/Can Be) Important

As a something of proponent of grammar-based learning, I should admit that I’m biased when it comes to whether grammar is important or not. When my peers and I learned English in elementary school (which ironically is called grammar school everywhere else, for a reason), we were told that good grammar was important because it showed that you were educated. But when I’m at school, there are still some people who speak with minor grammar infractions. But why is that? It could be that grammar in speech is not enforced as much as it is in writing. We see this in a lot of places; while the sign of a business may be written in good English, the people running the establishment may have less-than-perfect speaking skills.

But you may be wondering what this has to do with foreign language. There are numerous people who give up on foreign language because they have trouble grasping the grammar. But this is not their fault; it’s not a question of studying enough. Some people simply don’t learn that way. Many respected linguists and teachers of foreign languages have said that grammar shouldn’t be stressed as much as it is in most classes. And that is true; grammar can be overwhelming if you’re not interested in it. However, this is not to say that grammar shouldn’t be taught at all. Now, I’m going to discuss reasons for whether grammar is a necessity.

Better Reading and Writing

This is a bit of a given. The written form of almost any language is expected to be flawless for the majority of the speaking populace. Again: grammar-wise. The actual written content and the mechanics of the language used to convey it are separate. Good grammar is essential to not be only understood but also show yourself as an educated, intelligent person. I realize that there are people who may view educated writing as pretentious, but I feel that is more a product of word choice and actual content. Good grammar knowledge also enables you to understand more advanced texts, because certain meanings and nuances are conveyed by more complex grammatical structures, some of which include different moods and cases.

Enhanced Understanding of Nuances

As I said before, a good grammatical understanding allows you to get certain nuances of the language. This is especially relevant when the language that you’re learning is not at all connected with your own, meaning that you have no foundation to work up from. When Romance language speakers use the subjunctive, certain uses suggest a notion of uncertainty, doubt, hypothetical conditions, etc., in a way that English doesn’t. When Korean speakers shift between the “modes” of formality and politeness, this provides certain undertones to the speech. Memorizing phrases and substituting words is no better than memorizing lists upon lists of vocabulary and rules. I think it’s important to encourage synthesis, rather than mechanical/robotic repetition.

Stress Undermines Motivation and Appreciation

As you’re probably very aware, an overt stress of grammar is detrimental to learning. It creates the impression that language is just grammar rules and words. This is not only hugely demoralizing, but also a huge underestimation of the power of language to convey the human experience. Each language is unique in its capacity to express the history, emotions, and experiences of a people.

Narrowed Understanding of the Language as a Whole

Not everyone says the same thing the same way. This is a fact of life. As much as knowing the grammar lets you make your own sentences independently, it also limits your ability to understand other dialects and expressions. Whatever you’re taught in a class or grammar book is the standardized version of the language, which not everyone speaks on a daily basis. Sometimes, the standardized version of the language is seen as pretentious, arrogant, uptight, or downright unnatural. Granted, the remedy to this requires that you go to various regions where the language is spoken, so that you can get exposed.

I hope you got something out of reading this! Please share this with your friends and feel free to leave any comments!

A Video on Spanish Accents

I found a video from 2009 on dialectical and regional differences in Spanish that can be quite helpful for people who are at the level where they’re looking at what accent to emulate. Even if you’re not, it’s kind of interesting anyway. The user is Professor Jason, and he has a series of other Spanish educational videos, if you’re interested. Start at 5:54, because the first part is just kind of a disclaimer and brief explanation of the video.

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.