After reading Konstantia’s post a few months ago about how many of our everyday words come from Greek, I started to think about where some of our other words came from. You might think that we are the ones influencing everyone else (words such as wifi in French, surfear for surfing the net in Spanish, and a lot of business jargon in German – downloaden, ein Workshop, ein Meeting and so on…), and of course that’s true. Most new inventions (the Internet, computers and related tech such as wifi) are named by Americans, and therefore the English word is often passed along to other cultures and absorbed into their languages. You’ll also find many non-English speakers throwing in English phrases amidst their native tongue. Any other Borgen fans will probably have noticed the way that characters casually use phrases such as ‘on a need to know basis’ whilst otherwise conversing in Danish. Clearly our language, especially in the business, IT and entertainment domains, has a huge global influence.
However, if you look a little further back, you’ll find us doing exactly the same thing. It might seem incredibly cool to Europeans now to use English or merely ‘English-sounding’ words day to day, but we’re just as guilty of language-envy or just pure laziness with French, especially. How to describe that annoying feeling of being sure you’ve already seen or done something? Déjà vu, of course. Not to mention dozens of other words and phrases we all use on a daily or regular basis: laissez faire, enfant terrible, a la carte, a la mode, arte nouveau, en route, faux pas… I could go on for pages. You’d probably struggle to go through a day without using at least one or two obviously French words. It’s almost as if we simply couldn’t be bothered to think of our own words for some of these things, although I also suspect it has a lot to do with our associations with French as chic (another one!) and sexy. This is especially true in the beauty industry, which explains the proliferation of products labelled visage or with names like touche eclat remaining in their original alluring French guise.
French is the best example, as they are our nearest geographical neighbours, and historically one of our closest political connections, which explains the huge interconnection of our languages. However, as soon as you think about it, there are hundreds of other words that have crept into our parlance from other languages. Words like Zeitgeist and one of my favourites Schadenfreude have come over from German, whilst our food vocabulary owes a lot to Spanish (salsa, jalapeno, tortilla, nacho, paella…) We’re also becoming ever more familiar with words and especially foods from China and Japan. Sushi, sake, kimono, karate, karaoke and so on are everyday words to us, whilst we happily order bok choy, chop suey and chow mein without even thinking about it, not to mention concepts like yen, zen and feng shui. Taekwondo has made its way over from Korea, whilst we’ve taken words like bamboo and paddy from Malay.
This is just a quick look at some of the more obvious ways that our language has spread globally, and how many words we have absorbed from nearby European countries, but also from more distant Asian cultures. We’re such a global country, and it’s strongly reflected in our language. We’d love to hear more examples of English words creeping into other languages or other foreign words you’ve noticed in English, so feel free to leave a comment below!
Cristina Mateos is our Catalan intern here at EuroTalk, working on translating and recording our maths apps. In her blog post she explores a reason for learning languages that is often forgotten.
Utility versus Beauty.
Utility: Hammers, zips, kettles, light bulbs, electricity, mobile phones.
Beauty: Handwritten postcards, dawns, coffee smell, lovers looking into each others’ eyes, handknitted scarves.
The world where I live stores useful belongings in closed wardrobes and turns on the radio so as not to listen to the silence around. As a Spanish teacher, I sell my courses by reminding these ‘utility users’ of the fact that 500 million people speak Spanish around the world. It is therefore extremely practical to be able to communicate in this language and to display that knowledge (especially if it comes with an official certificate) on one’s résumé. And I really believe that… and I am more than pleased with zips and light bulbs. But I feel sorry for the dawns. I feel sorry for the dawns and for language learners turning into language users. I would like my students to be able to ask for directions in Sevilla, complete a business deal with a big enterprise in Buenos Aires or get a train ticket in any Spanish train station, but I also want them to be fascinated by the beauty of my language.
Los rinocerontes no pueden leer. This is probably the most pointless sentence ever, unless you meet a woman crying in disappointment because a rhino isn’t answering her love letters, and you find it necessary to clarify for her that rhinos cannot read. But the sentence itself: its sonority, the combination of the ‘e’ letters together, the way grammar is used in it, the choice of the masculine gender instead of the feminine… it moves language away from usefulness and places it closer to poetry. Don’t you find it amazing how it’s possible to play with a language and build nonsense sentences? Making up words – and this is something, as language learners, that we constantly do when trying to refer to concepts we don’t know the name for – just by using common lexical rules? (Like The mugness of a morning, or This dog is so killable when it starts barking in the middle of the night.) Have you ever fallen in love with a word in your own language just because of the way it sounds, as if it were a piece of music with no meaning at all apart from the feelings it causes for you? If not, I can suggest one in English that I love: wibble. And I can provide one in Spanish too… barítono. Beautiful as a handknitted scarf.
Let me come back to the point. As a Catalan speaker, I feel also sorry for my second first language. Catalan has been left apart so many times in the name of utility that too often I need to make a real effort to keep on using it. I have been told that Spanish is more practical. More and more parents in non-English speaking countries choose a school for their children taking into account nothing but the number of hours their children are going to be taught English, because English (and now probably also Chinese?) is the Future.
Then, in Utility’s name… we can close small shops and open more and more supermarkets. We can burn poetry books and publish more instruction manuals. We can forget about nice roasts and pies and cheesecakes, and ingest vitamins and protein pills every morning.
But if, like me, you feel sorry for the dawns, then learn another language.
Learning a new language is a great experience: familiarising yourself with a new culture, discovering a new way to express yourself, and hopefully enabling yourself to order a beer in one more country. However, as a language-learner, you also need to be aware of the pitfalls that await you. The dreaded ‘false friends’ that lurk within every language, waiting to trip up the unsuspecting learner.
So what, you may ask, is a ‘false friend’? Well, would any non-Spanish speakers care to hazard a guess as to what decepción means? Bizarro? An éxito? Or even the verb pretender?
Ok, I’ll admit, one of the great things about learning Spanish is how often you can put an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ on an English word and get a Spanish one – dentista, artista, famoso, precioso… However, unfortunately for us English speakers, it doesn’t always work.
Rather than meaning deception, decepción is actually a disappointment; bizarro is not bizarre, but brave; un éxito is a success, not an exit; and pretender does not mean to pretend, but to try. It may be quite embarrassing to make a mistake like this, but resist the urge to describe yourself as embarazada – it actually means you’re pregnant!
German is just as bad. The Chef doesn’t cook (they’re the boss), someone brav may well be a coward (brav actually means nice/good), and, as many Brits have found out the hard way, asking for the Menü won’t get the waiter to bring you a list of available meals (they will probably bring you the day’s set meal). If you’re ordering food, also watch out for pepperoni – I’ve seen many a disappointed face when someone realises they’ve ordered a little green pepper instead of a salami pizza; and expect a funny look if you ask for a Rezept in a shop – this is a recipe not a receipt!
False friends, generally speaking, are words in another language that sound deceptively like a word in your language. Many a learner has found themself hazarding an (incorrect) guess as to the meaning of a word on the basis of its seeming familiarity, and sometimes when grasping for a word you can’t quite remember, you end up with something that sounds right, but unfortunately isn’t.
If you’re thinking of learning a new language though, please don’t be put off by these examples! False friends are just one of the many interesting things about learning a new language, even if they can occasionally lead to misunderstandings. There is definitely no need to be embarrassed about making a mistake, as that is the best way to learn, and most native speakers will find it funny, rather than annoying.
If anyone else has any weird or funny examples of false friends they’ve encountered when learning another language, please share them with us!
A recent poll has found that only one in ten British travellers learn any of the language before they visit another country. Some claimed this was because English is now so widely spoken, while others blamed shyness and a fear of saying the wrong thing.
I understand the second excuse much more than the first. Just because we can get away with speaking English doesn’t mean we should. Learning just a few words can make a huge difference, not only to those you’re speaking to but to your own holiday experience. And you don’t have to learn anything complicated. Five per cent of people surveyed said they just learnt the absolute basics, like hello, please, thank you, water and beer. Sometimes all it takes is a friendly greeting in someone’s native language, and they see you in a whole new way – as someone who respects their culture and has made an effort, however small. And that will come across in the way they treat you, making your time in the country a lot more fun. Not only that but you’ll feel pretty good about yourself – I remember several years ago on a school trip to Spain, a friend of mine ordered an ice cream in Spanish. An ice cream – it was as simple as that. But she was so proud of herself when the vendor understood her and she completed the purchase in a language not her own.
Benny Lewis, who’s known as the Irish polyglot, has spent nine years travelling in different countries, learning languages as he goes. Every few months he announces a new challenge, learns some vocabulary and then – he just goes to the country and starts talking. He doesn’t worry about making mistakes or getting his grammar slightly wrong.
Obviously we’re not all as brave as Benny. I’m certainly not. But there does come a point when you have to stop being scared and just take a risk. People are not going to point and laugh if you don’t pronounce something quite right. As a general rule they’ll be so pleased to hear you trying to speak their language that they won’t mind at all, and will probably go out of their way to help you get it right next time.
So let’s be brave! Next time you go on holiday try learning a few basics before you go, and see what a difference it makes…
‘Footballers are a bit dumb.’ This is a general assumption that has existed for as long as I can remember. It also makes it a little easier when you think about the vast sums of money that most get paid. However, what would happen if they suddenly stopped receiving these large weekly amounts? This may sound a little bit of an irrelevant question but this is exactly what happened to many footballers on the continent earlier this year. With arguments about television rights in Spain many of the smaller clubs from La Liga (Spain’s equivalent to the English Premier League) owed players over three month in wages. It would have been a stark realisation for many of these young players that it did not matter if you earned €100,000 a week or €100, rent and mortgages still need to be paid on time, whether you are a footballer or not.
In this case a players’ strike at the start of the season garnered support and action for many of the affected footballers. It got me thinking however, what other attributes do these players have to use in the ‘real’ world? Could a job in languages be a realistic goal?
If you take the Premier League for instance, there are 72 different nations represented. Now remove Britain, Ireland, America and a couple of other Commonwealth countries; that leaves representatives from 64 separate countries without English as their first language. Considering that the vast majority are now bilingual this is already an impressive item to add to their CV, but if you look at a select few they could shine in a multilingual environment:
Thierry Henry (NY Redbulls) – 4 – English, Italian, Spanish and French
Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona) – 4 – English, French, Catalan and Spanish
Zinedine Zidane (France) – 3 – English, Spanish and French.
The most I can seem to find, however, goes to our local Fulham centre back and Swiss international Philippe Senderos, who speaks six languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese), a total that many professional linguists would struggle to contend with.
In a small attempt to dispel the notions that the British are completely monolingual I would like to mention Gary Lineker (English, Japanese and Spanish), Owen Hargreaves (English and German), David James (English and Spanish) and Sol Campbell (English and French).
The variety of languages in the English League alone can lead to problems within teams and especially within management. Chelsea is a prime example where language skills have come to the forefront of the players’ regime. With a multitude of spoken languages, the first ruling of Andre Villas Boas (the current Chelsea manager) was to state that only English was to be spoken at the club, to bring a common language to the players who would otherwise separate into groups based on their mother tongue.
With Villas speaking four languages himself, it has become an integral part of his management style. New Spanish signing Juan Mata stated that understanding the instructions in English is challenging to begin with, but the squad helps out any new team mates who are struggling. With personal problems, however, Mata says that the manager would take him to one side and have any personal conversations in Spanish to allow him to fully express himself; this demonstrates the diversity an extra language can give, especially in management roles.
There is one English based Chelsea induction that the Spaniard could not escape – the tradition of Chelsea’s karaoke initiation, where a song has to be sung in English in front of the entire squad. Mata’s choice? The Macarena… It seems that although we may not be able to write off footballers as talentless off the pitch, due to the language skills that many have learned, we may be able to continue with the assumption that they have some terrible taste.