[For the Oxford Words Blog:] Loving Latin

Puno dancers

Have you ever wondered just how far your language GCSE will get you in the wild? I set out to road-test my dusty Spanish qualification last year by travelling through Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, sometimes alone and sometimes with fellow English speakers, with a short stop-off as a classroom assistant in darkest Peru.

My (lack of) knowledge of Spanish soon became más claro on the tarmac at Madrid, when I shuffled down the transatlantic plane and asked the man sitting in my row whether this was indeed seat J21.

Jota veintiuno,” he repeated, clearly and slowly.

íSí – jota veintiuno!” I said back to him joyfully.

No, no – jjjjjjjjjjjjjota,” he repeated with an elaborate flourish of a hand gesture. “Con jjjjj. Jjjjjjjota veintiuno.

Jjjjjjjota veintiuno,” I said carefully, and his face lit up in delight. At this point I realized that I was holding up an entire Airbus A340 due to my impromptu Spanish lesson, but this didn’t seem to matter to the hundreds of passengers waiting in line behind me, who just smiled con mucha paciencia (with patience being an essential quality, I found, for life in Latin America).

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn?

Krakow perspective

How ethical is it to start working in a country where you don’t speak the local language?

Before I started teaching English in Poland, this question didn’t trouble me in the slightest. When I taught in Sardinia, I spoke enough Italian to get by; and nobody in Cambodia expected foreign teachers to speak any Khmer at all. But Polish is inna para kaloszy (a different pair of shoes) for me as a British English speaker. On the one hand, it almost sounds vaguely familiar (Polish is now the second most widely-spoken language in England) and at first glance, looks deceptively approachable (unlike Russian, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet). On the other hand, its sibilant shushes shimmer past my ears without me being able to understand a single word. And when it comes to speaking, even common everyday words look like a collection of leftover Scrabble tiles: where do I start with wszystko (all), jeszcze (yet), or even cześć (hi)?

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Why learn Italian?

Cala Gonone

“Marjorie!”

Sighing with relief, I looked around the rows of old-fashioned single desks, wondering who the unfortunate Marjorie was. Our fierce and flame-haired Italian professoressa was picking on lone students to perform grammatical acrobatics. It was eight o’clock on a dark December morning and my Introduzione all’italiano module was not going well.

Marjorie!” – poor girl – “dico a te! The third person plural imperfect subjunctive of redimere, now! In a complete sentence!”

That’s when I realized that everyone, including the professoressa, was looking straight at…me. I was (apparently) “Marjorie”. At that moment, impaled on the imperfect, I did indeed ask myself why I had chosen to learn Italian on my year abroad (as well as realizing that introduzione might not translate culturally quite as expected). And yet there were dozens of us in that optional class, tackling the trapassato remoto. Italian remains the fifth most widely-taught language in the world. So why are we all in love with la bella lingua? To find out, I asked some friends who have all studied Italian at some point to tell me why they chose this language in particular.

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Indebted to…Italy

Terrace in Sardinia

Try this experiment: think of a word, any word, that we use regularly in English which has clear Italian origins before reading on.

Ready? It’s more than likely you’ve come up with a gastronomic term – a snap poll I took last week placed pizza, spaghetti, and cappuccino as front runners (along with ciao, which incidentally was originally a way of politely declaring ‘I am your slave’. You might want to think about that before saying it in the future.). There’s no doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the country’s most successful exports. For example, while you probably didn’t know that today is reportedly National Lasagna Day in America, there’s a good chance that you know and love the Italian dish itself, since lasagna (or lasagne in its more authentic spelling) has also well and truly earned its place on the list of Britain’s favourite dishes. Before we tuck into today’s layered lunch, however, it might be worth paying tribute for a moment to the various ways in which the Italian language has influenced English over the centuries.

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Paris in the spring?

Patisserie

Whether or not ça sent le printemps [spring is in the air], where better to head for a break than Paris, the city of light itself, to soak up the café culture with a crêpe, a croissant, and a copy of L’Equipe all sous un soleil de plomb? But if your budget won’t stretch to travelling abroad despite your craving for a café crème, there’s a aperçu [taste] of France a little closer to home – just take the Circle line.

“We’ll always have South Kensington”

According to the 2011 census, London is home to more expats from France than from any other European country apart from Ireland, and many of them can be found working, if not living, in one of the most affluent and attractive areas of the capital. Stroll down the southern end of the newly-pedestrianized Exhibition Road in South Kensington and you will pass crêperie after café after croissanterie. Chairs and tables pepper the promenade, heralding the newly arrived premières tiédeurs du printemps [first warm days of spring]. Waistcoated waiters sail through the larger well-known French boulangeries-patisseries such as Paul and Le Pain Quotidien, while nearby Bute Street is bursting with independent boucheries, bistros, and brasseries. One eatery declares proudly in a window that it’s reached the finals of the competition to serve “the best cup of coffee in Europe”, a claim that cannot really be left untested at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.

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Can the Académie française stop the rise of Anglicisms in French?

Paris bridge tower

 

It’s official: binge drinking is passé in France. No bad thing, you may think; but while you may now be looking forward to a summer of slow afternoons marinating in traditional Parisian café culture, you won’t be able to sip any fair trade wine, download any emails, or get any cash back – not officially, anyway.

How so? Are the French cheesed off with modern life? Well, not quite: it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” terms themselves that have been given the cold shoulder by certain linguistic authorities in favour of carefully crafted French alternatives (see the quiz below). And if you approve of this move, then here’s a toast to a very happy journée internationale de la francophonie on 20 March. But just who are these linguistic authorities, and do French speakers really listen to them?

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Let’s just “call a cat a cat”: cat idioms in foreign languages

Cat cafe cat

Just a few weeks ago Christine Lindberg explored phrases and idioms that revealed the somewhat surprising way in which the English language describes man’s best friend. But what about that equally popular household pet – the beloved, fluffy, crazy cat? (Those three adjectives are among some of the most popular in the English language to precede the word cat, according to the Oxford English Corpus.) I decided to look at how our feline friends are portrayed in expressions and sayings – but this time I wanted to compare the way that cats are depicted in the English language with the way that they appear in other languages. So using the bilingual dictionaries available in Oxford Language Dictionaries Online (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish), I began researching whether cats are known universally for getting the cream.

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From silhouette to leotard: more everyday things named after French people (2)

France lavender

Inspired by the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, we’re looking at more everyday things which bear the name of the French person who discovered, invented, or inspired them…

A shadow of his former self

1759: France was in the grip of a financial crisis, fighting Britain in the Seven Years’ War and running up a deficit. The country’s newly-established (and rather academic) finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, decided to introduce tough new austerity measures. Partly inspired by his research trips to London, he proposed the English practice of subjecting the wealthy to taxes from which they had traditionally been exempted. He introduced the “subvention générale” (a tax on external signs of wealth, such as doors, windows, and servants) and ordered the rich to melt down their silverware, but unsurprisingly his proposals did not go down well and he was hounded out after just eight months in the job, retiring quietly to work on his chateau.

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From pralines to pasteurized milk: everyday things named after French people (1)

Nice glass of wine

On March 31 this year, Gustave Eiffel’s tower – arguably the most iconic symbol of France – celebrated its 124th birthday. Incidentally, the world’s most visited paid-for tourist attraction is the same age as other famous French creations such as the Moulin Rouge and Herminie Cadolle’s first modern bra… – anyway, with all things français in mind, let’s have a look at some other things that were named after the French people who inspired, invented, or discovered them. (You can also explore more in my second post on French eponyms.)

Snuffed out

We can trace the entire tobacco phenomenon back to a single moment in 1561: when Jean Nicot de Villemain, a young French ambassador, went to dinner at a friend’s house during his diplomatic stint in Lisbon, and was shown a garden plant from Brazil that apparently had incredible healing properties.

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