16 September 2014

False Cognates and False Friends

There´s a guy in Michael´s Spanish classes who is entirely too enthusiastic about participating in class.  I´m hesitant to say he´s enthusiastic about learning Spanish--because maybe he´d be smarter about his choices??

He seems to blurt out everything that comes into his head, no matter how incredibly wrong and illogical it may be.  I absolutely love hearing stories about him.

They use different scenarios in their textbooks to learn grammar and vocabulary.  For example, in one unit they´re doing charity work in a South American country, and, having used all their tools and construction vocabulary, they´re finished building a house.  Then, they go to a furniture store to furnish the house.

The sentence is: No se adonde empezar.  Adonde esta el mostrador de servicio?
He translates: I don´t know where to begin.  Where is THE SERVICE MONSTER?

I die when I hear this story.
Mostrador de servicio means service counter.

A new favorite hit from this kid:

The sentence is:  Quiero una boda pequeña.  Que solo estemos nosotros dos, y dos testigos.
He translates:  I want a small wedding.  Just us two, AND TWO TESTICLES.

I can´t even.

I can´t.

Testigos means witnesses.  I´m sure it has the same root at testify!  Idiot.

I mean, come on.  Sure, those words *might* sound alike (they don´t really), but wouldn´t your head do a double check??  A small wedding, just us two and two ___.  Even without a word of reference to fill in the blank, wouldn´t your mind automatically hope for "witnesses" or "guests" or something wedding-related?!

I´d say he´s fallen into the trap of false cognates, or "falsos amigos" as the Spanish teacher calls it--but it turns out false cognates and false friends are two different things.

  • Plain-old cognates are words that come from the same root--that is, they´re etymologically related.  
  • False cognates are when words sound similar but actually have different roots, and end up having similar meanings.  I didn´t know this!  For example, in French, butterfly is papillon and in Nahuatl papalotl.*  Or in Chuvash nĕrtte meaning "awkward, inept" and English nerdy.  Wiki has a wonderful list of examples here.
  • False friends are when words sound similar, used to have the same root a long time ago, but have since diverged in meaning.  The most common example we hear is embarazado and embarrassed.  Embarazado in Spanish actually means "pregnant"--but it comes from the same etymological root as embarrassed!**  Another example I stumbled upon in my life is the English word preservative and the French and German préservatif and Präservativ, respectively.  In English preservative is something that preserves, in French and German these words mean birth control or condom!  They´re etymologically related--they´re false friends!***
There are tons of examples of false friends, but this is one of my favorites:
The sign (in Dutch) really says,
"Mommy, (I want) that one, that one, that one. Please."

So it turns out this idiot guy in class is neither a victim of false cognates nor of false friends.  Mostrador and monster have never been etymologically related, nor do they have similar meanings.  Same goes for testigos and testicles.  He´s just an idiot.

*I had written about Spanish words of Nahuatl origin before but I had missed this one, it seems! I just realized papalotl is where the Spanish word for kite comes from, papalote.  So if that´s a Nahuatl word, WHAT did the Spaniards call kites before they came to the new world?
Turns out there were no toy kites before 1660, really.  I guess they didn´t have kites before they came to the Americas.  What a sad world.

**From OED and the Spanish Royal Academy:
Embarrass.  1670s, "perplex, throw into doubt," from French embarrasser (16c.), literally "to block," from Italian imbarrazzo, from imbarrare "to bar," from assimilated form of in- "into, upon" + Vulgar Latin *barra "bar".  Meaning "to hamper, hinder" is from 1680s. Meaning "make (someone) feel awkward" first recorded 1828. Original sense preserved in embarras de richesse (1751), from French (1726): the condition of having more wealth than one knows what to do with.
The French word was derived from the Spanish embarazar, whose first recorded usage was in 1460 in Cancionero de Stúñiga (Songbook of Stúñiga) by Álvaro de Luna. The Spanish word likely comes from the Portuguese embaraçar, which probably is a combination of the prefix em- (from Latin in- for "in-") with baraça "a noose", or "rope", which makes sense with the synonym encinta ("on noose, on rope" because of the old usage of women to wear a strap of cloth on their dresses when pregnant). The Royal Spanish Academy theorizes that embaraçar originated from Celtic because its root palabra existed before the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula.

***From the OED:
preservative comes from late 14c., from Old French preservatif and directly from Medieval Latin praeservativus, from stem of praeservare (see preserve (v.)). The noun is from early 15c., "a preservative medication;" sense of "chemical added to foods to keep them from rotting" is from 1875.

09 September 2014

A tribute to Andw

In honor of having passed my five year blogging anniversary, I want to pay a small tribute to one of my dearest friends and most avid linguistic contributors.  Andw´s written some really great comments on my posts--my favorites are about loveme, the Oxford comma, diminuitive forms, preposition use, the past tense, and being descriptivist.

Even though he might not blog for himself, his Facebook is full of gems.  I went back through the last five years of his posts, and have compiled my favorites of his linguistics gems for myself.

In no particular order.

Love you Andw.

03 September 2014

Brazilian Portuguese and Translating

Dr. Hall is the sweetest.  At the end of his raucous laughter-inducing response to yesterday´s post, he wrote:

As always, thank you, Chela, for sharing your verbal musings about verbal matters.  Are you taking any more language/linguistics courses these days?

Well, it´s probably no surprise to you that the answer is yes.  I have two projects to report!

1.  I´m learning Portuguese--specifically, the Brazilian kind.  

You avid readers might recall (from this post here) that I´ve tried once before to study a language in a non-traditional setting.  It didn´t work.  The problem then was that the teacher was my mom (I didn´t tell you that back then because I wanted you to take me seriously).  Now don´t get me wrong--she used to be an Italian teacher officially--her skills were not the problem.  The problem was that my mom and I love spending time together, and when we´d get together with the intention of having Italian lesson time, we invariably got sidetracked and ended up doing something else entirely.  I take full responsibility.  We weren´t disciplined about it.

Well, that was five years ago and neither my brain nor my heart can turn off this passion for languages, and I was aching for something new.  I recently went to China to visit Khya (he lives in Shanghai) and I was completely impressed by his massive Mandarin and Shanghainese skills.*  I know he studied Chinese in college, but I also know that was a slow-moving process.  When he learned he was probably moving to China just over three years ago, he started doing the Mandarin Rosetta Stone.  He was completely dedicated and would sit at his desk for at least an hour each night repeating and repeating the lessons.  Well, I know three years have passed, but I would think for the average person it´d take more time than that to be as good as he is at Chinese.  Let me tell you, he´s good.

And so while there I was inspired to pick up a Rosetta Stone course.  I seriously considered starting Mandarin--but who are we kidding?  By the time I´m ready to use it conversationally, Khya probably will have moved somewhere else.  I´m trying to stay ahead of the curve, here.  Word on the street is that he might move to Brazil.  I´d definitely visit him there.  Portuguese it is.

This also makes me more marketable in my job search.  I saw this job listing here and thought, "yeah!  This is the perfect job for me--and I´m the perfect candidate for this job!"--except for the Portuguese part.  I mean, I´ve accidentally read Portuguese countless times.  Being fluent in Spanish and French allows me to read Portuguese, no problem.  But, man!  Whenever I hear it spoken, I don´t understand a thing!  I applied for the job anyway.  Haven´t heard back.

So Michael got me the Rosetta Stone for Brazilian Portuguese, and I´m trying my best at working on it regularly.  It´s been a week or so, and most days I´ve gotten my full hour in.  But let me tell you, learning a language this way is WEIRD.  

Before this, I´ve only ever learned languages in the traditional classroom setting.  I started learning French in second grade, and speaking Spanish at home made that one a breeze.  I started learning German at LSMSA, and the teacher there had a methodology pretty opposite to Rosetta Stone.  We learned German grammar to it´s fullest and most complex extent in two years, but along the way forgot about vocabulary and oral practice** almost completely.  And so when I went to college intending to double major in German, I took the placement test and only tested out of the first semester of the first level.  I was really mad about this!  But I knew they were right in placing me there.  I only knew the most basic vocabulary.  But Dr. Olsen had drilled charts upon charts of grammar into our heads.  I knew it backward and forward.  Now don´t get me wrong--I loved it at the time.  I´m a mathematical, analytical person at heart, and this approach was just fine by me.  Anyway.  No use in crying over spilt milk.  I continued studying both French and German throughout college, and studied abroad a few times, in France and Germany respectively--at language academies***--which were wonderful.  I now consider myself fluent in French and highly proficient in German.

But Rosetta Stone has no charts.  No grammar.  No rules.  No tests.  I guess most people would like that, but it stresses me out.  It´s unbelievably repetitive.  This annoys me.  I just want to say, "yes, yes, I know all this, we´ve done it a thousand times, skip this, let´s learn something new!"  But I can´t.  Due to the "no charts and no tests" approach, I guess they´re hoping it´ll all just stick due to the "brute force of repetition" approach.  I guess it´s working.  I know a lot of basic words and phrases already.  And in my mind I´m making conjugation charts.

2.  My second announcement is that in January I´m starting this translation certification program at Loyola (provided I pass the interview and placement test in December--I´ll let you know).  It´s called a Certificate in Translation and Interpreting.  I could choose the Legal track or the Healthcare track, or both and well--yeah, I´m doing both.  It´ll only be three semesters.  I´ve told myself this´ll be useful in the job hunt, too.  The truth is, I´ve always considered translating one of my dream jobs.  More specifically, I´ve dreamed of translating novels, poetry, plays--but I guess starting in the healthcare or legal industries won´t hurt.  Plus, good ol´ Verizon is footing the bill so... yeah.  I´m obviously really happy about this.  

More updates to come!

*Andw can relate a story from when he went to visit Khya last year and they met some guys who were surprised to see a white guy speaking Mandarin.  Then Khya switched to their native Japanese, then the local dialect, Shanghainese--all with ease.  They were understandably astounded.

**For listening practice, we mainly just watched movies in German.  The selection was excellent, but my favorite was watching Mozart´s The Magic Flute.  Dr. Olsen teaches German and Russian, but his degrees are in Fine Art, and I love that he found reason for us to watch an opera in German class.  Well, the singing was in German, so of course this would help in our pursuit of German fluency...

***In France I went to L´Institut de Touraine; in Germany I attended the Sprachinstitut Tübingen.  Both were quite excellent.

02 September 2014

I just want to shout, "WHO?!"

I know I´ve touched before on words that aren´t words becoming words.  This post here was over four years ago!  I was young and foolish then.  "If it acts like a word we might as well let it be one," I said.  I guess I´ve become more of a prescriptivist in my old age.  I´m aware of this now because Michael asks me about once a week if I consider myself more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist.  I always tend toward prescriptivist but, I of course know that language isn´t unchanging or frozen.  I just like rules, and grammar, and knowing how to speak correctly.  I know that modern English isn´t what it was 500 years ago and language is always evolving, but come on!  We can´t lean too far descriptivist, either.  We can´t just take a jumble of sounds and say, this is what this means now.  And quite frankly, sometimes I really just say "huh?"--I sincerely didn´t understand what that jumble of sounds that you just made was supposed to mean and I refuse to start using said jumble in the way that you say, on a stupid whim!  "Turn down for what" doesn´t mean anything.  It makes no sense!  It´s not even a clever reference to anything.  I´m not doing it.*

I know I lean prescriptivist now because when people speak or write incorrectly IT MAKES ME ANGRY.  I understand the difference between stylistic choices and just plain wrong.  I do.  "Supposably" is never a stylistic choice.  Capitalizing the first letter of random words in a sentence "for emphasis" is not stylistic.  It´s not fancy.  It´s just plain wrong.

When I was younger, I liked cultural and geographical linguistic anomalies--I liked how they marked a person to be from a certain place--how they implied a history and a culture.  I still do.  I used to really, really wish I had a typical New Orleans accent.  I wish my accent gave me away as a New Orleanian.  I wish it were so plainly stamped on my forehead.  I love this city and with pride would wear that stamp.  But I don´t have it.  I try to use some New Orleanian phrases sometimes, but I do so very intentionally--despite it sounding wrong in my head.  "I´ll go by her house tonight."  "Yeah, you right."  These have a history.  They´re cultural--stylistic, even.  It´s different.

I remember moving to Natchitoches when I was 15, and never having heard anyone ever before use "could" so liberally as they did.  "I might could do that."  "She might could´ve come."  "I used to could play the piano."  I hated it.  Hated it hated it.  It was like nails on chalkboard for me to hear "could" thrown about this way, and yet I was forced to hear it daily.  But you know, they wore me down, in time, all those country-talking kids.  When I would go home to New Orleans my friends started to say I sounded country, and I kind of liked sounding different, and I started using "could" in the way I had hated.  I thought it was funny.  Like my own personal secret joke.

Fortunately, it´s fallen out of my vernacular, but when I hear someone else say it (which is rare in New Orleans), I smile fondly at the memory of my time in small-town Louisiana.

I live in New Orleans again, but this time as a conscientious adult.  I pick and choose very carefully the local-speak I let into my diction.  I´m in an environment that is flooded with incorrect English, I try to just let the mistakes wash over me and I try to let it go--but I have to tell you.  My latest pet peeve that I cannot let go is "they have" or "they got" instead of "there is" or "there are."  For example, instead of "There are a lot of cars on the highway today," I too often hear "They got a lot of cars on the highway today."  I just want to shout WHO?!  WHO has a lot of cars on the highway today?!  All day long I shout in my head WHO?! and the only reason I don´t correct people is--not because I think that´s a jerk thing to do--oh no--it´s because I don´t even think they know they´re making this mistake.  They wouldn´t understand my question.  It wouldn´t be a simple fix.  It would take time and explanation, but I´m on the edge.  I´m on the verge of verbalizing my internal WHO a thousand times a day.  I feel it coming.  They´re not going to win me over on this one.  I hate it.

*I tried to understand it.  I really did.  I even listened to this song in its entirety in hopes that hearing more lyrics would clarify the meaning.  THERE ARE NO OTHER LYRICS.  It just says "turn down for what" over and over again.  I´m not doing it.