Celtic designs on a stone sphere, evoking Old Irish culture. Image from FreeImages.com

Sengoidelc : Old Irish (and More Besides)

I stumbled across a rather special book this week. It’s David Stifter’s very thorough introduction to Old Irish, Sengoidelc, pleasingly still in print, and approaching its 20th birthday.

I sought it out first and foremost as a language-learning gap-filling exercise. I’ve spent some time with Scottish Gaelic, and a bit (well, a lot) less with Irish. Exploring Old Irish seemed like a good way to get to know their common history, especially given how helpful etymological pathfinding can be with multiple language projects. I’ve also come across satisfying snippets of Old Irish writing, like the brilliantly feline Pangur Bán, and hoped it might open the door to similar treats.

Old Irish – and the Rest

What I didn’t expect from an Old Irish primer was the wealth of detail about Proto-Indo-European. It makes sense, of course; for linguists studying PIE, Old Irish is an important source of evidence from a relatively less well-known ancient descendant – at least compared to, say, Greek and Latin. But it’s positively packed with background info on PIE parts of speech, and their development into the Celtic branch. All in all, it’s a fantastically erudite book written in a disarmingly friendly tone, helped along by some very cute cartoons of sheep.

The author even provides plenty of comparative examples in German. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given his connection to the University of Vienna. But the additional language gives a further handle on potentially difficult concepts for those who know a little. It’s the ultimate in triangulation (and you know I love that).

If your language interests intersect in the same way, Sengoidelc is heartily recommended. I’m just annoyed I didn’t find it sooner!

Learning Places : Banff and Macduff Bay

Learning Places

Do you ever find yourself learning the same things in the same places? Not intentionally, but somehow drifting into the same languages, the same subjects, according to where you are?

I’ve been on a well overdue parental visit on the north-east coast again this week after a hectic few months. And I’ve noticed that something of a pattern has emerged. Despite having a gloriously diverse language library to pick and choose from, and well-made general dabbling intentions, I always go for a Gaelic book while I’m staying here.

Ambient Inspiration

Maybe it’s seeing the mountains of East Sutherland far across the water, near which Nancy Dorian researched the sadly moribund local dialects of Gaelic, that prompts me. Or perhaps it’s just that quintessentially Scottish coastal mix of sea, sky and moorland that gets me in the mood. Whatever it is, I’m more likely to settle down with Gaelic here than in any of my other favourite reading places.

Places for learning: Banff and Macduff Bay

Banff and Macduff Bay, across from which the hills of Sutherland can just be made out

There’s a potential downside to that, according to some educational psychologists. Research into context-dependent memory suggests that material learnt exclusively in one environment may be harder to recall in others.

But the flip-side of that is the use of wider memories as triggers for learnt material. In my case, think of home, remember your Gaelic.

The choice of book says a lot, too. As if to match the homely nostalgia, on each trip home I’ve been working my way further into Roderick Mackinnon’s original Teach Yourself Gaelic, 1971 (1992 reissue). A treasure of an old language book, if ever there was one.

Learning places : A copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in front of a seaside view

An unashamedly posed shot of Teach Yourself Gaelic

 

What languages, books and places go together for you? Do you have a preferred nook or corner of the world to settle down to some study in? Let us know!

A sign for the internet. TikTok, this way! Image from FreeImages.com

Have a Break? Have a TikTok!

I’m always looking for five-minute language learning boosters here and there. If you’ve missed the hundred and one other times I’ve been saying it (I blame the excitement), I’ve been a bit busy of late. And it’s at our busiest moments that we need a bit of that quick fix magic.

Cue…. TikTok. Those who still resist, I hear your groans. I must admit that I was a bit late to TikTok myself, a reluctant infinity-scroller. I’m probably a little off its target demographic, too, although the great and mystic algorithm tends to take care of that, and pen you in with like-minded folk.

But once that (granted, a little unsettling) read-your-mind hocus pocus had happened, my For You tab was filled with a stream of mini language lessons. Some decidedly better than others, of course; TikTok’s a very mixed bag. But some content creators are churning out admirably witty and thoughtful learning snippets you won’t find in the textbooks.

Many of these are just clear, plain facts, delivered with welcome simplicity. But the best are done with a dash of humour, and since that gets the likes, there are more and more of them popping up. It’s the self-motivated, individual creators, rather than the big, organisational accounts, that are best at this, and subsequently the most personable and fun to fill your feed with.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourite TikTok lingua-creators!

French

The epitome of short and snappy, @Madame_angol’s videos feature all sorts of vocab and grammar tidbits. On the other hand, if it’s a bit of Québecois you’re after, @french.canadian.nicolas exudes francophone cool from every pore.

German

You can tell the dedicated from the dabbling content creators straight away, and @germanwithniklas is firmly in the former camp. He has loads of fun content, and post reassuringly regularly. Similarly, for a dash of German everyday life and language, @liamcarps is worth a gander.

Spanish

A language teacher that just gets 30-second humour, @patry.ruiz stands head and shoulders above most of the Spanish content creators on TikTok. Another favourite, covering loads of mainstream classroom topics, is @learnspanishathome. Solid, but plenty of laughs too!

Best of the Rest

I’d be here all day if I could cover everything in a short post like this. But other favourites include @caldamac, who features a mix of Gaelic and wholesome outdoorsy content. Then there’s @seamboyseam, who could put together a whole comedy show with his material on the Irish language. Seriously worth a look even if you have a passing interest in the language.

TikTok Back Control

Of course, the quick fix element is a moot point if you don’t control the beast. Pruning and honing your social media is a vital skill to avoid scrollsome insanity. But if you hold the reins, and carefully fashion the TikTok behemoth to your own needs, it can really help bridge those busy weeks.

What are your go-to micro-lesson accounts? Let us know in the comments!

Incidentally, feel free to follow @richardwestsoley! I’m no master TikTokker myself, but it would be lovely to spot some of you there.

A diagram showing lots of connections between coloured dots, representing a network. Image from FreeImages.com

Everything In Order : Fascinating Correspondences

When you have a finger in many pies – as those of us who love gorging on languages tend to – you start to realise that the flavour of those pies, the individual ingredients, turn up again and again. And sometimes, those repeated recipes surprise the palate. A hint of savoury in a sweet dish; a dash of sweetness in the salty. Unexpected culinary correspondences are always a delectable treat.

OK, enough with the fodder metaphors. Here, we use our tongues for speaking, not tasting. (Well, both, if we’re totally honest.) But one unexpected correspondence popped up for me this week, which linked together two of my languages that I thought were otherwise fairly distant from each other otherwise: Gaelic and German.

Order, Order

German is famously particular about its word order. Its hallmark is the verb-final phrase, where we get sentences like:

Ich will eine Banane essen. (I want a banana to-eat.)
Ich habe versucht, die Banane zu essen. (I have tried, the banana to eat.)
Ich habe eine Banane gegessen. (I have a banana eaten.)

I know, more food. Can’t help myself, can I?

But foody or not, this kind of sentence is something that becomes instinctive after a while learning and speaking the language. It is so quintessentially German, that I was surprised to see the same kind of thing crop up in Gaelic.

Where verb phrases are governed by a matrix element containing modal expressions like ‘is urrainn’ (can) or ‘feumaidh’ (must), we see verb-object inversion, leaving the verb at the end of the phrase. And the word order of the subordinate verb phrase is curiously like the German:

Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach (Must I food to buy)
Ich muß Essen kaufen (I must food to-buy)

What’s afoot here?

Explaining Correspondences

Now, it could all be chance, of course (recalling Dawkins’ independently developing eyes). Or does it point towards some distant echo of Proto-Indo-European word order? The latter makes me happy, like an archaeologist unearthing a fossil that connects two distantly related prehistoric creatures. In fact, many believe that, as far as PIE had a ‘default’ word order, it was probably verb-final. Perhaps Gaelic and German both preserved this in their lexical amber.

On the other hand, maybe it’s all down to language contact. Proto-Celtic and German occupied the same kind of geographical space once upon a time. Maybe bilingual speakers of one influenced the word order of the other.

Fascinating questions. It all makes me wish I were an historical syntactician.

In any case, I love spotting language correspondences like these, especially if I haven’t read about them specifically before. And the more you dabble, the more they pop up.

Are there any joy-inspiring crossovers that you’ve spotted in your languages recently?

A wee book treat to myself: Colloquial Scottish Gaelic (Routledge)

A Book in the Hand (Is Worth Two in the Kindle Library)

Sometimes I forget how much I love to hold a real book in my hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of Kindle titles and other e-formats. Only the other week I was singing the praises of the Teach Yourself enhanced versions. A whole course – text and audio – in a single place (and it adds 0kg to my backpack weight). I still think they’re fantastic.

But sometimes you get a reminder of how satisfying old school is. I had one this week when I finally plumped for a long yearned-for hard copy of Colloquial Scottish Gaelic.

Why had I put it off for so long?

Well, there’s the price of the hard copy, for a start. £35 is a hefty commitment for a book. Especially so, considering that I had access to the electronic version for free through my university library. Not only that, but like many publishing platforms making audio content free, Routledge has put all the audio online. I could access all of the content already!

But for all that, I just wasn’t bothering to use the materials at all. Why? screams the spendthrift inside me.

Fast forward, my Amazon credit spent, and the book proudly on my shelf. I’m picking it up at every opportunity, having a quick nose here and there when I notice it, sitting down for half an hour’s mooch through the pages. I’m even listening to those audio materials and reading along, finally.

So what is so different?

It’s hard to put your finger on just what is so special about a real book. There’s the joy of the tangible ownership of it, perhaps. I made an investment in a thing – now I want to make the most of that thing. It’s almost like you can feel the weight of the knowledge you’ve paid for right in there.

And there’s nothing like using money (or vouchers) to feel the value of a physical object. I admit I get a bit of that as I curate a Kindle library. It’s lovely seeing the digital books line up neatly on those shelves.

But there’s  something simply cosy (or hyggelig, or gemütlich etc.) about holding a real book in your hands, isn’t there?

And sometimes it takes a wee treat to yourself to remind you of that.

Waves crash against rocks. Over time, contact creates change. Image by FreeImages.com

That’ll Leave A Mark! Language Contact and Change

When languages brush up against each other, they tend to leave a mark. With tongues jostling for existence within the same space, language contact situations serve up some fascinating examples of cross-pollenation.

It’s something that you keep spotting as a Gaelic learner, for example. With clockwork regularity, you come across word-for-word calques, or loan translations, lifted straight from English. You cuir air an telebhisean (put on the television). You cuir dheth co-dhùnadh (put off a decision). And I’ve even seen how you can cuir suas le cudeigein (put up with someone).

Wrapped up in Gaelic lexemes, look indigenous enough. But those prepositions air (on) and dheth (off) are behaving in ways that they might not have done, say, in Classical Gaelic, which might constrain their use more tightly. In effect, English has imported its own phrasal verb construction, which is now becoming an increasingly acceptable category in contemporary Gaelic, too. There’s syntactic change afoot.

It’s gone the other way often enough in the past, of course. The origins of the English progressive (to be -ing) may well lie with the partical + verbal noun structure of Celtic. And contemporary Hiberno-English has a past tense construction to be after doing, roughly equivalent to the perfect tense, which it appears to have nabbed from Irish.

(Un)mutual Contact

But as you might expect, language change through contact isn’t usually happening equally at any one point in time. Many factors, not least social dominance of one language over the other, can make the  transference very lop-sided.

Contact linguist Myers-Scotton makes sense of this by asking where two languages meet, fundamentally: in the minds of speakers who have to use them both. Locating the process within bilingual speakers, and how they switch between languages, is a neat way to expose the front line of contact induced change. For a start, it allows us to evaluate the status of the two parties squaring off. The ‘base’ tongue is the matrix language, forming the main sentence frames of speech. Into that, embedded language – the outside influence – inserts itself to varying degrees, in the middle of it all.

Sometimes this insertion can come in the form of a single word. Myers-Scotton gives one example from Nairobi Swahili speakers: “ku-appreciate hiyo” (to appreciate it). English, the embedded language, contributes the verb appreciate. But it’s the matrix language, Swahili, giving it a regular infinitival marker ku-.

Elsewhere, larger, deeper syntactic structures can be recruited from the embedded language. The results can drastically alter a language’s syntax; the Balkan Sprachbund is a region where neighbouring languages – from completely separate branches of Indo-European: Albanian, Greek and Slavic – have gradually come to resemble one another grammatically. The most likely driver, again, was the bumping together of different peoples, and the necessary cross-linguistic skills and code-switching that required.

The End of the Road?

For some, this kind of change is the thin end of a wedge that leads to total replacement of the less socially secure language. At some point, the matrix and embedded languages will flip. Social pressure might privilege the outside language for a new generation of speakers, who might start slotting just the odd heritage language word in, here and there, as a cultural nod. A generation on, perhaps even that will peter out.

Is that the fate befalling Gaelic, gradually taking on anglicisms to the point of transformation? Actually, I don’t think that’s the foregone conclusion here. Syntactic convergence doesn’t necessarily spell the end for a language. It can be seen as a strategy to support continued bilingualism, for example; if languages share structures, it’s cognitively less costly to maintain more than one at a time. For sure, borrowed syntax is also a crutch that helps the army of new speakers (thanks to Duolingo et al.) feel a little less lost when getting to grips with Gaelic.

No, death isn’t always the end. Contact outcomes are many, and include paths that lead to sometimes surprising, but very much un-dead extremes. Living proof of that, Media Lengua (literally something like ‘between language’), is the outcome of indigenous Kichwa crashing up against Spanish in Colombia and Eduador. The resulting mixed language preserves Kichwa grammar, but has been almost entirely re-lexified with Spanish vocabulary. Deep breaths, purists: Gaelic is a long way off from that.

Oceans Collide

As with all things linguistic, bilingual speakers are just one part of a complex picture of contact change. But running through the countless evidence as above – anecdotal and otherwise – it’s easy to appreciate why they are a particularly active site. Bilingual speakers are the point at which two tides crash up against each other and the waters mix. A sort of linguistic Grenen, Skagen where oceans collide.

It’s also pause for thought for polyglots. What features do we carry over from one language to another? And if we embed into our target language cultures, do we become agents for change?

Scotland's Census 2022 - now including Gaelic as a separate question.

Operationalising Gaelic : Census Questions As A Political Leg-Up

It’s census time in Scotland! Letter are dropping through letterboxes across the land, inviting citizens to submit their details for the national record. And there’s bit of a buzz about a certain question. Gaelic learners are chomping at the bit to answer it.

All respondents will be self-reporting their knowledge of the language across the four skills. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, admittedly, leaving aside issues of level and competence. But its inclusion carries a lot of significance for the community of speakers and learners. So much so, that there’s been a concerted Tick the Box! drive to encourage skills reporting.

Scotland's Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

Scotland’s Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

So what is so encouraging about a simple language skills question?

Well, a census is never simply a neutral fact-finding mission. The very act of asking a question about some thing has a power beyond simple information-gathering. It lends political shape and weight to the item under study. Defining something as worthy of counting – and, by extension, of governance – affords it a life of its own, out of the shadows. There’s a Foucauldian underside to that, of course. Shadier concerns have used census-taking to carve up the world better to divide and subjugate it. But, turned on its head, mindful question design can be a tool to shine a light on groups that need support.

Canvassing Gaelic as a special, separate skill anchors it to the ‘set of things that are relevant to Scottishness’ in the public mind, as well as respecting the existence of speakers and learners in Scottish society. As language planners try to shore up and reverse the retreat of Gaelic from public life in Scotland, operationalising the language like this, so publicly, helps to pull it back into general consciousness.

And importantly, this plays out amongst census respondents who might otherwise never notice the presence of the language in everyday discourse.

Shoring Up Gaelic Support

Otherwise, how the census question plays out positively on a wider scale is tied to the eventual number-crunching. For a start, self-reporting second-language speakers add to the numbers of existing native Gaels. After disappointing numbers in 2011, this, we all hope, will give a much sturdier picture of a language in revival (fingers crossed). Whatever part this plays in the debate on native versus neo-Gaelic, a growing community must surely be a good sign.

And numbers matter. They are why, amongst other things, it is far from futile to add to Duolingo’s Ukrainian learner tally right now. Large numbers signify support. And as cynical a view of governance as it may seem, pressure from a supportive public garners actions and resources from power.

A sufficient groundswell can trigger political initiatives such as a recent call for more Gaelic at the Scottish Parliament, for example. Likewise, it can get a ball rolling in terms of everyday, out-and-about visibility. Tesco’s recent promotion of the language to star position on Stornoway store signs is a great example. None of this happens without the prompting of public interest, or the proof that stats provide for it.

In that spirit, I very proudly self-reported my Gàidhlig skills this week. And I hope many thousands of others will be doing the same.

As scaffold builds a building, sentence frames help build your foreign language competency. Image from freeimages.com

Sentence Frames – A Home to Hang Your Words

Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.

Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.

To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:

Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.

At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.

Doing Your Lines

The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.

The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.

They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.

Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)

Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:

‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.

Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:

Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.

Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.

Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.

 

 

The Road to Suppletion

An interesting question popped up in our Gaelic class this week. We’ve been looking at comparatives and superlatives of adjectives lately, and just like good, better, best, Gaelic has a few that don’t conform to the regular paradigm. The word for small is one of them: we have beag (small) and lugha (smaller). A canny classmate asked: where does that mismatched lugha come from? In short: suppletion.

Suppletion is when parts of word patterns get replaced by bits from completely different places. The term derives from Latin supplere, supply, and that’s quite apt – one pattern is supplying another with its own bits and pieces. 

For a look at the irregular havoc suppletion can wreak, just see what happened to good in the Germanic languages. Instead of gooder and goodest we have better and best, which don’t bear the Good family resemblance one bit. So where did adoptive better and best come from, then? Well, there seem to have been two synonymous words for good in Proto-Germanic: *gōdaz and *bataz – and for whatever reason, they became mushed together, with the *bataz bits filling in for the comparative and superlative of *gōdaz.

The Road to Suppletion

As with many odd irregularities, it’s the kind of thing that happens to paradigms that are in frequent use. For instance, super-frequent good-better-best has irregular comparatives in the Romance languages too (French bonmieux), as does badworse-worst (Spanish malopeor). The patterns for large and small often get grafted onto too, although that fate hasn’t befallen the English versions (yet). Not so for Gaelic (or Irish, for that matter) with that beag – lugha mix.

The origins of lugha aren’t that obscure, as it turns out, as lugha appears to be cognate with the English word light (as in as a feather). In terms of meaning, it’s pretty close; you can imagine speakers conflating small and light, especially referring to food or other goods. The result is that small – smaller somehow became small – lighter, beag – lugha.

So much for small, then. But what happened to light, if beag had pinched its superlative for itself?

As is often the case, it seems to have simply faded away, just as the non-comparative grade of *bataz has left the Germanic languages. The words for light in Gaelic and Irish are now remodelled versions of ‘un-heavy’aotrom and éadrom respectively (from tromheavy).

The Etymological Rabbit Hole

All in all, tracing the winding etymological of suppletive paradigms paints a fascinating picture of one type of language change. Following up on these hybrid etymologies via resources like Wiktionary can provide some real insight into both how your target language evolved over time, and how it is related to other languages.

The remnants of many a forgotten root lie along the road to suppletion.

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Going Old School with Language Learning Flash Cards

You might have noticed that I’m partial to a cheat sheet in my language comings and goings. There’s only so much you can hold in short-term memory before a speaking class, and having a scaffold to hand – even gamifying it, where possible – can be a boon. Crib notes, cheat sheets, flash cards – they’re par for the course in language learning. And everyone seems to have their own favourite label for them.

Now, my first thought when making these things is: which app is best for this? But to be honest, I’ve been a little apped out of late. Sometimes, the tech can take the focus while the language takes a back seat, and that defeats the whole object. Too often I’ve spent time faffing with note settings and layout before getting down to the main event.

Flash Cards on Cue

As if on cue, our evening class Gaelic tutor recently prompted the group to dispense with the tech and go old school. Our homework task was simply to create paper crib notes for the material we were finding trickiest, and set them in prominent places around the home. She calls them ‘bingo cards‘, by the way, proving that everybody in the world does seem to have a different term for these linguistic comfort blankets.

So, out came the colouring pens. I’m a fiend for new stationery – a predilection I’ve noticed is shared by a lot of us bookish linguaphiles. I had a fresh pack of Staedtlers just begging to feel useful. I knew it – they weren’t just an impulse buy, after all.

The Magic in the Doing

As with all these things, the magic is in the doing, as much as the result. Investing a bit of time and creative energy into your resources doesn’t half help you cosy up to your language. I was pretty loved up in my index card creations and their technicolour irregular verb decorations on one side, and English prompts on the other:

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Homemade Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

I must admit, I didn’t overthink (or even plan) them. Rather than faff, I just had fun. The colours don’t have any special significance apart from separating tenses from each other. But it doesn’t matter – they say little things please little minds, but I was quite content to keep my mind little and my thinking nice and simple with them.

The verdict? They’ve already helped me in Gaelic convo starters – a lot.

Sometimes old school really is the best school – especially when it provides an excuse to buy more stationery.