1001 Words: Niagara Flaws

Niagara Falls

Little Micky is singing a muffled Jingle Bells through her scarf as we finally pull off the highway in Niagara Falls, Ontario (pop: 78,000) after three hours of inky darkness. Then she changes the lyrics to Dunkin’ Donuts. Micky is adorably cute.

“Thanks to God, we make it in good time,” says Mr Chang from the front, blessing himself quickly.

“Michaela,” says his wife, snaking rosary beads through her twice-gloved fingers, “Why you not sing something nice about the baby Jesus?”

“Mom! Look! McDonald’s!” says young Tom, pressing his face to the cold glass.

“Niagara not far, ah?” says Mr Chang, turning to me and my boyfriend. “We blessed to live so close.”

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This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

He and she signs

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

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A Word a Day keeps the cobwebs away: our weird and wonderful “Words of the Day”

Cobweb

Who knew?

Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.

On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.

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