[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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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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