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!

Are You Being Polite Enough? Read This and Find Out.

Formality is a feature of many languages in Europe, Asia, and other places. Curiously enough, the only language I can think of that doesn’t really have words explicitly dedicated to this is English, and technically Brazilian Portuguese. We dropped the word, “thou,” the equivalent of usted, vous, Lei, você, अाप (aap), and 당신 (dangshin) from English a long time ago. There’s actually a term for this, the tu-vous distinction.

But before we move on, let’s get something straight: “formality,” in linguistic contexts, is often a misnomer. Formality is a quality of language (written or spoken) that you use in certain situations, such as speaking with officials, discussing transactions, and other such scenarios. This consists of a different of set of vocabulary. What most language textbooks and teachers are talking about when they say, “formality,” is actually what most people would call, “politeness.” These are not the same thing, which a lot of people (in my experience), don’t immediately realize. Sure, they’re closely associated, but they can exist separately. “Politeness” describes behavior, how nicely or rudely you speak to someone, such as with your grandparents, or with your teachers at school. You can be polite without being formal, and the other way around. Every language can be formal, but not every language can be explicitly polite.

Now we have the confusion sorted out. I find that people who speak languages where there exists a separate polite pronoun for, “you,” and/or “you all,” the people have a stricter sense of what is good and bad behavior. Whether you’re being polite or not actually changes what you say in many languages. In English, politeness is often indicated by your tone of voice, and the inclusion of the word, “please.” However, in other languages, the sentence can change quite noticeably, such as in the case of Italian. Take the command, “Dammi il sale” (Give me the salt). There are a couple of more polite substitutions, such as “Mi dia il sale (still a bit rude),” “Mi dia il sale, per favore (a bit better than before)”, and “Mi darebbe Lei il sale?” (indirect, uses the conditional).

In Korean, there are four distinct, “styles,” of speaking, which consider both formality and politeness. The first style, formal high (inventive, I know), is both the most formal and most polite. This is what you use with clientele if you run a business, or in a meeting with government officials. In those situations, you do need to be both polite and formal, because you obviously wouldn’t say, “Yo, what’s up,” to the President of South Korea. In contrast, the fourth style, informal low, is used mostly with children and between very close friends. There’s no need (most of the time) to be formal or polite with a child, or with your buddy since kindergarten.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people who speak English as their first language are less polite. But there is definitely a looser sense of when you need to be polite. In English, I hear people speak to their parents informally much more often than in, say, Hindi. Hindi-speakers will never refer to their parents using, “तुम/तू, tum/tuu”, unless there is a great degree of intimacy or they’re being intentionally rude. Typically, Hindi-speakers opt for “अाप, aap”, which is the more polite way of saying, “you.” In Italian, Spanish, and other Romance languages, you actually have to request or give permission to use the informal form. It is not at all uncommon for Italian speakers, to say something like, “Potremmo usare la forma, ‘tu’?” (Could we use the “tu” form?”)

That’s my piece for today. Maybe this will give you something to think about. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments!

2 Key Differences Between Brazilian and European Portuguese

A lot of people think that they can get away with just learning Brazilian Portuguese, and assume that it’s really similar to the European version. It is, to an extent. In written contexts, that is. But, what’s more important is the speaking part, where you find out that they sound completely different. For whatever reason, Brazilian and European Portuguese sound much more different from each other than their Spanish counterparts. But I digress. Now, let’s get down to the 3 most important differences (aside from idioms and phrasing):

1. Pronunciation. Brazilian Portuguese is mostly straightforward, but nasals (-ão, –am, etc.) are very pronounced and the letters d and t become the j before weak vowels, such as i and e. The letter e is frequently pronounced as, “ee” at the end of words. Also, terminal r‘s tend to become breathy h‘s, so a word like cantar may be pronounced as, “cantah.”

European Portuguese, on the other hand, is spoken mostly as it is written, except for the fact that it likes to throw out vowels, and replace terminal s‘ with the sh sound. The word, “sabes,” (you know) might be pronounced as sabsh. The letter e is pronounced as the uh sound at the end of words or in syllables, similar to the ö in German, or dropped from the end entirely. The European accent is often referred to as, boca fechada, or, “closed mouth,” because of the way Portuguese people speak, which can often make it hard to understand for learners. However, I find it, personally, easier to understand, because it ends up sounding more like Spanish than Brazilian Portuguese does.

2. Grammar. This is relatively minor fix, because this actually doesn’t impair your understanding too much. Brazilians, for the present progressive, use estar + the gerund (-ando, -endo), whereas Europeans use estar a + infinitive. The only other real difference is that Brazilians almost never use the simple future tense (which is to say, a future tense that’s one word), using (conjugated form of ir) + infinitive except in formal writing, whereas Europeans use it more often, and use the Brazilian form only for actions that are in the near future. Europeans also still use the tu form to distinguish between informal and formal address. Brazilians only use você form.

That’s what I’ve got for today. Hopefully, Shinobhi will be posting relatively soon! Please leave any comments that you might have.

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.

Aprende o Português is now available!

You can now download my newest guide, Aprende o Português! It’s more or less constructed the same way as Scoprendo l’italiano!. There are vocabulary lists, verb explanations, and other items of importance in learning Portuguese. This guide focuses on Brazilian and European Portuguese, which are much more different than you might expect. Go to the Language Guides page to download the guide. Note that there aren’t any exercises yet, but I will add them eventually. Have fun learning Portuguese!