Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Language oddities

Did you ever see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"? A couple of the funniest scenes are where the groom-to-be says something in Greek. He thinks he's saying one thing, but in fact, thanks to obnoxious male inlaws-to-be, he's saying things like "Nice boobs" or "I have 3 testicles".

Often I work with people who speak different languages and I can't resist asking them about it or playing jokes. So often I wonder if I'm being set up like this.

For instance, I work with at least 4 Telugu speakers. I was going to needle one of them, so I asked one of the others for an expression like "Hurry up!" I wound up with something I'll transliterate as 'tonderaGAH!' Maybe it's right, but just to make sure I asked a woman for the expression to use on a man, figuring I had less potential trouble that way. Anyway, if anybody blushed I couldn't tell.

The more I learn about different languages the stranger it gets. For instance, I understand that Hindi (the official language of India) and Urdu (the official language of Pakistan) are the same spoken languages but different written languages - Urdu is even written from right to left like Arabic. This means that Indians and Pakistanis can talk but they can't read each others' newspapers.

And then there's China. The main dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is much more common and is the official language, but there are many millions of Cantonese speakers in the south such as near Hong Kong. As it turns out, Mandarin and Cantonese have the same written language but are very different spoken languages. So they can read each others' newspapers, but can't talk about them.

You'd think that if there were anything all languages would agree on, it's the sounds common domestic animals make. You would be wrong. Cats, dogs, chickens, cows, pigs, ducks, geese - the sounds they make aren't pronounced the same. We demonstrated that at work this morning when I was with a Telugu speaker in a Mandarin speaker's cubicle and we were making animal noises in the respective languages. I suppose they all have different words for "onomatopoeia" too.

Of course English is a rich source of oddities all by itself, in part because we assimilate other languages' oddities. Hanah Metchis explores some of this here. My own favorites are cases where apparent opposites like "ravel" and "unravel" actually mean the same thing.

So you think you can create a better language? You certainly aren't the first. Thus we have artificial languages like Interlingua, Esperanto and a number of others.

If you're a bit less ambitious, maybe you can create a written language like Sequoyah did for Cherokee, after which Cherokee speakers supposedly could learn to read in 2 weeks.

If this topic interests you, let me send you to Marc Miyake. He knows more about this stuff than I'll ever suspect.

UPDATE: Whatever else I was wrong about, I was right about Mr. Miyake. From the comments:
A bit of clarifcation: Mandarin and Cantonese speakers have the same written language because both groups write in Mandarin. Many literate Cantonese cannot speak the language that they write (i.e., Mandarin), unless they have learned spoken Mandarin.

There is such a thing as written Cantonese, but this is not as widely used as written Mandarin, and it barely makes sense to people who only know Mandarin, partly due to the presence of Cantonese-only words and characters not found in any Mandarin dictionary. Even simple words like the equivalents for "they" can be different: e.g., Mandarin tamen vs. Cantonese keuidei.
Oh, and while I was revising anyway I made a couple of other nickel and dime changes.

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