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.

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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?