I’m Back Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

I can’t bring myself to leave a lesson only half finished when I’ve been so lax lately already, so here’s part two of Teach Yourself Gaelic Lesson 1, in which I tackle exercise two, which is pretty much the same thing as exercise one, except in reverse. Which I’m afraid doesn’t make it terribly interesting as far as linguistic analysis is concerned. N o new information. I did however have a lot of snarky things to say about the semantic choices made by the textbook’s authors, so that’s fun. The people who write these things really do come up with the strangest sentences to have you translate. If I ever write a language textbook, I cross my heart anything I ask the students to translate will be stolen directly from Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes or something. Quirky stuff, so once they figure out what it means you’ll get a room full of startled laughter. Anyways, enough of my rambling. Just see it for yourself.

The Prodigal Linguist Returns

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s kinda been a bit. I promise I haven’t forgotten about this blog or given up on learning Scottish Gaelic. i just got super busy there for a minute. I work in a restaurant, and my employer took a good 70% of the crew off to Vegas on vacation. I was not part of that 70%. Instead, I stayed behind and covered everyone else. So yeah, busy busy busy.

It doesn’t help that I got really frustrated with CSG. I was putting a ton of work in, but I didn’t feel like I was learning the language at all. I could sputter off some basic phrases when prompted, sure, but I barely knew what I was saying. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

So I’ve switched to Teach Yourself Gaelic. It doesn’t have an audio file with it, which makes me sad, but the written pronunciations are included with each word, and I can supplement it with the thousand audio files and flashcard programs I have. And I like the format sooooo much better. By the end of the first lesson I’m already translating some pretty complicated sentences, and I really feel like I understand how they’re formulated. I know what I’m saying, and I’ve already memorized the vocabulary list for this section. I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

I think that is hugely important in second language learning, that sense of accomplishment as you begin to grasp the words or sounds or grammars you’re trying to learn. I know a lot of people are down on the old-fashioned style of teaching language, where you memorized lists of words and then had someone teach you grammar. Contemporary teachers are adopting more conversational models. But I find that there’s a sense of comprehension the old system has that I miss in the new one, a feeling similar to that of putting puzzle pieces together and beginning to see the underlying picture. While the conversational method might, in the long run, increase fluency and shorten learning time, it can only do that if people stick with it. And the lack of immediate and obvious improvement can be really frustrating.

I think maybe we would be better combining the two, so that students can feel like they’re getting somewhere and learning something while still being taught to converse and think in the right way.

Anyway- here’s the video of the first half of Teach Yourself Gaelic Lesson 1.

This lesson focuses mainly on grammar and introducing some vocabulary, and there are some really interesting things about the Scottish language to learn here. For one thing, most of the world’s languages use a word order that is subject-initial, but SG is one of only 120 languages using a verb-initial structure. (You can look at the charts of which languages use which orders over here. Additionally, SG is one of only 98 languages to have a definite article but no indefinite (thanks to WALS again, you can see the list here). I’m really curious if there’s any sort of connection between those features. I didn’t see anything that stood out immediately, but a closer look might show some correlation. There’s a few other things I noticed just about the structure of the language and possible patterns, but I’ll save those for Lesson 1 Pt 2, which I plan on having up by the end of the day.

Language change is weird, man

My SG book is teaching me the paradigm for the verb ‘to be’ today, and I was noticing the personal pronouns, which are as follows:
I- mi
you- thu
he/she- e/si
we- sinn
y’all- sibh
they- iad
you(f)- sibh
I though it was funny that the singular pronouns are so very similar to their English equivalents, but the plurals are way off base, and I was curious if English plural pronouns somehow got changed from Germanic roots to Romance roots. So I compared other Indo-European pronouns. And this is where it gets really strange. Observe:
German French Italian Spanish Danish
Ich je io yo jeg
du tu tu tu du
er/sie il/elle egli/elle el/ella han/hur
wir nous noi nosotras vi
sie ils essi ellos de
ihr vous voi vosotras I
Sie illes lei ellos de

You might notice that you singular is very similar all the way across the board. Makes sense, they’re all from the same family. But everything else goes crazy.

English and German use similar first person singular pronouns (ich and I), while SG randomly uses what sounds like the English and German first person accusative. French, Italian, and Spanish are quite similar, as you’d expect. But Danish (a Germanic language) uses something very close to theirs. Where did that come from?

And third person all seems totally normal; with Eng, Ger, and SG all very similar while Fr, It, and Sp are grouping up with a totally different set of sounds. And then Danish plays the wild card, pulling out the third person accusative for it’s nominative case.

For first person plural there’s we/wir/wi for Eng/Ger/Dan and nous/noi/nosotras for Fr/It/Sp. The Spanish is a little strange, but not too bad, all in all it’s about what you’s expect. But SG has sinn, which comes out of nowhere. That’s not even similar to another case, it’s just completely new.

Second person plural has everybody just about back to normal (English doesn’t count, since we don’t really have one, and Danish is a bit strange, but I can see where it might have come from). But English gets to be the odd one out in he third person, they doesn’t sound anything like the others.

And then you plural happens, and everyone across the board just borrows their plural you except Italian, which seems to be using some variant of second person singular.

I’m really curious why it is that every single pronoun group has one member of the language family that just does something seemingly completely random, except second person singular. What is it about that particular pronoun that keeps it so regular? And why a different oddball in every case? Why isn’t it Danish that’s just always a little weird? I imagine my sample size is just too small, but it makes for a very strange pattern. Anybody know what’s going on?

A brief review of Byki

So, while I do enjoy my Colloquial Scottish Gaelic textbook, the audio files are (as previously mentioned) not entirely helpful. And it’s difficult to really study the materials without assignments and someone to grade you. So I decided I needed some supplementary materials if I was going to actually retain anything. Thus, I have downloaded BYKI and all the Scottish lists they have to offer.

I’m shocked to announce, I actually find them really useful. The flashcard style and very clear audio are perfect for figuring out pronunciation. I can practice words I’ve heard in context from the textbook without getting jumbled up in surrounding phonemes, so when I find it in a different context later I won’t be confused that it added or took away a sound. And the hold up a card and I’ll tell you what it means method is good for getting it to stick. I certainly don’t think it’ll teach you a language on it’s own, but as a supplement it’s really nice. If you’re interested, check it out here. They have a bunch of other languages available too.

ETA- Another great supplement, which will also help you recognize new words in context without translation, can be found here at the Am Bhaile website. This particular collection is a group of popular nursery rhymes and songs sung in Scottish. There are tons of other videos and mp3s over there though.

Colloquial Scottish Gaelic Chapter 1 Part 1

I learned some very interesting things today. unfortunately, only one of them was about the Gaelic language. The others are about how not to make audio software for a language textbook. The audio files that came with the book can be really useful, they’re really helping with the whole pronunciation thing. But only because I’m unbelievably persistent. The narrator is exhausting. He sounds bored. Like, really really bored. Not a great way to keep a student’s attention. But he’s not the worst part. The worst part is Dialogue Two, in which a woman tries to buy a bus ticket from a bus driver I suspect may be an avox who immigrated from Panem. Seriously, who picks an actor with no observable skills in projection or annunciation to teach people foreign languages? Not the brightest plan.

There’s also the small matter of whoever gets paid for writing these dialogues. I’ve always had difficulty with the little conversations printed in language texts. I’m pretty good at languages, I tend to pick up the rules quick-like. But those silly dialogues confound me. And I think I finally realize why. It’s the conversation itself. No one talks like that. I don’t care what language you’re speaking, you address someone in the same style and tone that they address you. If a stranger greets you formally, you don’t get all pal-sy with them. It’s simply not done. Unless you’re the girl in CSG dialogue one, I guess. Now, I know why they’re doing it, they want to teach you about the politeness distinction, introduce the pattern, let you hear the difference. But it makes the conversation so stilted. It just doesn’t flow right. I really think these dialogues should be written the way actual people would talk in an actual conversation.

But enough ranting, random trivia time! When the British want to say they really like something, they often call it “smashing”. Which is kinda weird, why would you smash something you like? There’s something funny going on there. The strangeness, it turns out, is because “smashing” has nothing to do with the word “smash.” It (probably) traces it’s origins back to English landowners with Scottish servants. In SG “‘S math sin” means ‘that’s good’ or ‘that’s very nice’. It’s pronounced suh-mah-sheen. Which is pretty darn close to ‘smashing’. It’s possible that the Englishmen, using ‘funny’ Gaelic words to impress their friends, and started saying awesome things were ‘smashing’, and the phrase stuck.

Now, to wrap up this rather ridiculously long post, I present you with… more gratuitous me! Here’s a video of my pretty horrendous attempts to read through the first two dialogues from CSG. Yay!

Is politeness a cultural advance?

At least, syntactically encoded politeness.

So, I was working on the first section of my Colloquial Scottish textbook, and one of the first lessons involves learning how and when to use formal cases as opposed to informal ones. For instance, if you are speaking to a close friend, you would ask about their health by saying “Ciamar a tha thu?” (How are you?) But if you’re speaking to your professor, you say “Ciamar a tha sibh?” They mean the same thing, one’s just more formal. And a number of words and phrases have a formal and informal version. “Tapadh leibh” and “tapadh leat” both mean thank you, the former is simply more polite.

But that’s nothing new, I speak a bit of German, and the distinction exists there too. “Wie gehen sind Sie?” is the formal version of “Wie gehst du?” (How are you?) And Japanese has formal and informal ways of saying just about everything (though they use suffixes like -san (f) or -chan (i) attached to names rather than pronouns). What struck me as funny was that English doesn’t. So I got curious about how many languages lacked the distinction, it seemed to me it must be pretty rare. Except, according to the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) it isn’t rare at all. 136 Languages have no distinction at all, only 49 make a binary distinction, and a teeny tiny 22 use more distinctions or an entirely different system to differentiate.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. Of those 136 languages lacking a formality case, I recognized maybe nine. English is in there (probably because of our utter abandonment of cases after the Great Vowel Shift) and so is Irish Gaelic. The only other major language that makes the list is Hebrew, the rest are tribal languages and creoles. Things like Lakota, Hawaiian, Zulu, Maori, Egyptian. And the languages that do make a distinction? 90% of them are easily recognized. I could point to the geographic region they’re spoken in, unlike the formal-less group. They all come from well-populated and culturally advanced regions. Not just Indo-European either. Persian and Mandarin and Panjabi make the list. (The lists, by the way, are here if you’re interested. Now you can spot unlikely patterns in statistical data too!)

Now, I’m not saying that politeness develops with sociological advancement. I don’t know that the one causes the other, or vice versa. Probably not. It’s likely that the willingness and ability to bother with special phrasing in order to be nice is a side effect of more leisure time and less energy spent worrying about simply survival. And possibly a necessity as people began speaking to strangers on a more regular basis as cities expanded. But the correlation is really really interesting.

A Video, Oh Noes

So, I know it’s been a bit, but I promise I haven’t forgotten about this blog.  Finals week slowed my progress down a bit, but I’m still working.  I’ll be posting something about the last half of Chapter 1 tomorrow.  Tonight, however, I have a special treat.  Here’s a video of me mangling the pronunciation of some “useful phrases” I found on the interwebs.  If any Scottish Gaelic speakers out there want to tell me how I’m doing on actually saying this stuff aloud, I’d really appreciate it.  I know my accent’s atrocious, but there just aren’t a lot of examples out there to base it on.  The people in the learn Gaelic videos all sound so stilted.  So I’d really love some tips from native speakers, or just people who’ve been learning longer than me.  Anyway, here’s the video, laugh away.