The Black Country flag. Black Country English has undergone the processes of language change just as any other variety has.

Language Change – Up Close and Personal

The constant churn of language change is an ever-present backdrop for every speaker and learner of a language. Sounds change, words come and go, phraseology shifts. What was common parlance a century ago can be a complete archaism today.

But the classic textbook examples – napron, methinks, thou art and such like – can often seem  a bit dry, distant and theoretical on the page. It’s rarely that we see it up close and personal, not just in our first languages, but in our particular varieties of them. We’re used to thinking of traditional dialects as timeless, apart from Standard English; somehow they were always just so.

It made a nice change, then, to notice real-time language change in my own family vernacular of late. I’ve been conducting a piece of research into Black Country dialect, which has turned up all sorts of fascinating texts. And some of the forms in there had me boggling at how our local speech has altered in the last 150 years or so.

Vocabulary items, as you’d expect, drop in and out regularly over the course time. That doesn’t stop them being surprising when they pop up, though. My searches turned up things I’ve never heard a West Midlander say in my life. But there they are, in black and white, as examples of typical Black Country speech in newspaper articles both pillorying and honouring the dialect over time.

Welly Enough

My first ooh – I’ve never come across that before!  is the word welly for nearly. Take this lovely example from the story “How Leyvi Crafts Got Rid O’ The Mice“, which appeared in an edition of the popular “Tom Brown’s Black Country annual” in 1889. The narrator, bemoaning the stench from a bottle of poison, exclaims:

“The smell on it’s welly enough to kill a christian, let aloon a mouse!”

And then there’s the sign-off from a humorous letter to the editor in dialect, from the 1890s. After speaking his piece, the writer rounds off:

“well mr Editer i’n sed welly all as i wanted”

So what became of the welly? I’ve asked our resident Black Country expert (aka John, my stepdad), and he hasn’t a clue either.

Bear in mind that sometimes the word remains, but its form is different. Who knew, for example, that Black Country had an Old English -en plural for fleas, just like oxen? As one commentator in 1892 writes:

“…the Black Country mother may be heard to declare that ‘her babby has been peffled all o’er wi’ fleen.'”

I know. Not a nice image.

Better Nor That…

And then there are constructions that have changed a fair bit, too. I grew up around some very broad and proud speakers of Black Country English, who nonetheless formed comparisons as in Standard English: “better than that“, for example. Switch that out for nor, and you end up with the kind of phrase you’d more likely hear in the early 20th Century:

“…yow oughten to ha’ known better nor that…”

One of the most unusual lost phrases I’ve come across yet is the use of without as unless. It was nestling in a local yarn published in 1906:

“I dow know, without yow goo to Dr. Brown’s…”

Again, it’s lost on my family when I press them (no doubt ever nearing their limits of patience) for clarification. A hundred years can do a lot to a language.

How has your local speech changed in the last century or so? Let us know in the comments!

Pop linguistics books

Pop Linguistics Books for Prep or Pleasure

I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).

That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.

Dying Words

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge. 

To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.

But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.

The Unfolding of Language

Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher - one of my top recommended linguistics books

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!

In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.

If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.

The First Word

Christine Kenneally

Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.

Books for Prep or Pleasure

So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!

None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Just for the sake of completion: my (now very battered) copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

 

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?

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Wiktionary Trails : Tracing Cognates

One of the greatest things about Wiktionary, the crowd-sourced, multilingual lexicon, is the wealth of etymological information included in its entries. If you’ve ever wondered where does that word come from? then Wiktionary is a good place to start.

I’m a fiend for digging into my vocab’s provenance. It’s a natural curiosity and desire to join the dots up. Once I start pondering on a word, I have to follow it right down the rabbit hole.

Let’s play Wiktionary

This week, it was the Greek παίζω (paízo – I play) that I randomly chanced to cogitate upon. If you have a bit of Greek yourself, you might well recognise the connection with παιδί (paidhí – child). That’s a self-explanatory etymology, since playing is something children are especially fond of. And from παιδί, you can see a host of other connections thanks to Greek’s generous donations of words to science and medicine: paediatrics, pedagogy and so on. 

What I didn’t know was how much deeper the interlanguage connections of παιδί go. At first glance, paidí (paidí) doesn’t look much like other Indo-European words for child, save perhaps the Irish páiste, which may itself be a borrowing from Greek via Latin. I’d assumed it might be a loanword from a neighbouring, non-Indo-European language. But the truth lies closer to home; the Wiktionary entry throws light on some hidden family resemblances.

Setting off on a Wiktionary track and trace, it turns out that παιδί goes back to a diminutive form of Ancient Greek παῖς (pais – child). That, in turn, has been traced back to a reconstructed Indo-European form *peh2w-, denoting smallness or few in number. The Greek, then, seems ultimately to have arisen from the notion of a small person.

The relevance of that might not ring any bells. That is, until you check out the Wiktionary page and peruse the raft of guises this root has been cast to across other languages. These are just a few:

  • Latin: puer (boy), puella (girl); paucus (few)
  • Spanish: poco (few)
  • Italian: pocco (few)
  • Norwegian: fá (few)
  • English: few
  • Russian: пти́ца (ptíca – bird)
  • Polish: ptak (bird)

It’s the idea of smallness that links all these. Suddenly, παιδί (paidí) doesn’t seem such an outlier after all.

Wherever the trail may lead…

You might wonder what all the point of this meandering is, of course. Well, I find it helps to create a bird’s eye view of related languages you study, especially if you’re a regular dabbler. If you know the wider terrain, and make connections between linguistic territories, there are more connections for your brain to secure those words and phrases in memory.

And that can only be a good thing!

A bird's feather: the result of exaptation? Image from freeimages.com

Exaptation : Extreme Language Change

In 1990, linguist Roger Lass transplanted an idea from evolutionary biology to historical linguistics: exaptation.

Exaptation is the repurposing of existing elements for brand new functions. In biology, the classic example is birds’ feathers: originally believed to have developed as heat-retaining insulation, they provided a convenient basis for flight. A lucky accident, if you will. And there are plenty of instances that fit that bill in language change.

Lass’ classic example involves the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. PIE had a system of alternating vowels (called ablaut) to mark aspect in verb stems. For instance, a present stem might show -e-, while -o- signified perfect and -ø- (zero, or no vowel) was the marker for aorist. Ancient Greek actually preserved that pattern quite well, and Lass gives the examples:

  • Present: lpo (I leave)
  • Perfect: léloipa (I have left)
  • Aorist: élipon (I left)

However, Proto-Germanic did something quite odd. Instead of using it to indicate aspect, it repurposes it to show number in the preterite tense. Look at these examples from Gothic:

  • Present: beitan (to bite)
  • Preterite 1ps: bait
  • Preterite 1pp: bitum

Considering that -a- is the Germanic reflex for PIE -o-, here, we have the same alternation – -e-, -o-, -ø- – but representing something else entirely.

An Idea with Wings?

Cross-discipline metaphors rarely fit exactly like a glove, and it’s clear this isn’t quite like feathers being exapted for flight. For a start, feathers still fulfil both functions: a cosy coat as well as flying apparatus. In general, with exaptation, we’re talking about wholesale transformation of something that had ceased (or was about to cease) to be meaningful any more. Lass called this morphological ‘junk’ initially, but this has been a source of disagreement. Just what is ‘junk’ in a language?

Still, it’s a compelling metaphor, chiefly because it gets the imagination churning. How can things change so drastically in such a short time? What does language look like while it’s changing like this? Does it happen a lot? Can we see it happening now? Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that spawn more questions.

Exaptation hasn’t gained universal acceptance as a theory just yet, some three decades on from Lass’ initial paper. Some say it just boils down to reanalysis, like many similar changes. Others maintain that it’s a very particular direction of reanalysis, so it is unique and worth a place of its own in the textbooks.

Whatever its status, it does throw up some absolutely fascinating examples of extreme change.

You can access Lass’ original 1990 article at this link!

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion : Lessons from the Medics

It was a long time coming, but I finally did it: I started using Anki for something other than foreign language vocabulary. Anki is steadily creeping into the rest of my life.

I know. What is the world coming to?

Admittedly, the new subject wasn’t a huge leap. I’ve started creating flashcards to drill terms and concepts from linguistics. That said, it does represent quite a departure from the way I usually create drill lists in the app.

The chief difference is the complexity of each chunk of learning material. Rather than one-to-one word and phrase combinations, we have terms with much more complex, interlinking definitions. And however brief, the information is a lot trickier to condense than simple vocabulary. Some of my flashcards were looking decidedly clunky.

If only there were some way to make it all a bit more concise and economical.

Anki-nspiration

So where to look for flashcard inspiration? Well, as it happens, language learners haven’t completely monopolised the Anki world. In fact, the app has quite the double life as a tool for medical students learning, amongst other things, terms and complex definitions!

It certainly pays to see how a diverse bunch of people use the same tool. We can learn a lot from users in other fields. And, nestling amongst the sprawling web of Reddits, there is a ton of general advice on optimising your cards.

Perhaps the cleverest trick of medical Anki users is the use of imagery for testing. Now I’m not talking about simple, one-to-one picture-word correspondences. Ohhhhh no. Medical students take it to another level, condensing lots of information into a single tableau. But to do that, they need to enlist some extra help.

Image Occlusion for Anki

The Image Occlusion Add-On for Anki allows for some quite sophisticated multi-field labelling questions. Obviously, these are ideal for drilling parts of the brain or major arterial pathways. But they lend themselves to pretty much any topic. If you can cover it up, you can turn it into an image occlusion activity.

For instance, you might think that linguistics is a rather text-heavy subject. Difficult to find too many diagrams to label, perhaps. But with a bit of creativity, you can adapt anything to fit the mould. Here’s an image occlusion activity I put together to drill the IPA consonants table and manner / place of articulation features:

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Table-based data is actually perfect for these kinds of activity. And if you remember things quite visually, as I do, then making image activities out of them can yield some great memory results.

Fortunately, the Image Occlusion Add-On creators have provided a raft of training videos to learn how to use this incredibly useful tool. And – I’m very relieved to say – it’s not particularly difficult to get to grips with at all.

It is easy to forget that the Anki universe is quite massive. There is a huge amount of inspiration out there beyond our little bubble. Thanks, medical students, for pointing out this particular path!

A picture of a mouth articulating. Accurate phonetics gets us close to sound native. Image from freeimages.com

Phonetics Mismatch – Why We Mispronounce Foreign Languages (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

This week, I had the great news of an offer to study towards an MSc in Linguistics. And, keen on preparing well for a good start, I started working through a couple of the set texts. First up: phonetics and phonology.

As language learners, all of us have probably touched this strange world of symbols and tables. Many materials will use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an adapted version of it to describe how to make the sounds of a foreign language. Some grammars for intermediate learners, like the Routledge Comprensive series, often include whole sections on the phonology (sound rules) of the language.

Phonologists use precise scientific methods to map out all of these sounds and their interactions, a process that can take years. The thing is, as learners, we rarely approach the ‘everyday phonology’ of a foreign language scientifically. Most beginners will not see /a/, and think open front unrounded vowel. Instead, we listen to a model, and make an approximation towards the sound through mimicry.

It really is just an approximation, though. And diving into some phonological descriptions of languages I know (like this technical summary of Norwegian), I got a sinking feeling. I realised just how approximate some of my pronunciation was. How was I getting it wrong for so long? And why did nobody tell me?

The lesson in this is how often even very proficient speakers of a foreign language articulate words differently from native speakers. But how do we get so close – close enough to operate fully and comfortably in the language – without quite hitting the mark?

Best-match phonetics

It is all to do with what articulation tricks are most readily available to us – chiefly the sounds we learnt as children in our first language. They give us a shortcut to make a comparable sound via a slightly different route. And they are so ingrained, that we are often swimming against muscle memory when we attempt to learn a brand new means of producing similar sounds.

The trouble is, our native languages often lack an exact equivalent in the target language, so we draft in the nearest match, often without conscious awareness of it. For example, speakers of English learning Spanish (and vice versa), are a case in point when it comes to the phonemes /d/ and /t/. Most varieties of English realise these as alveolar stops – that is, with the tongue touching the ridge just behind the teeth. In Spanish, on the other hand they are usually dental, with the tongue further forward, touching the teeth.

Try and make both of the alternative /t/ sounds yourself with the word tin. Difficult to tell, isn’t it? So much so, that we barely do tell the difference when we first encounter the foreign language. Instead, we produce the sound using our native inventory, substituting the sound from our first language knowledge without even realising it.

Subtle things like this, of course, are what give us our foreign accent when speaking other languages. And of course, although we can strive to minimise a non-native accent, it is nothing to be ashamed of (quite the opposite, in fact!).

Native issues

Take comfort from the fact that the same substitutions happen in our native languages too. For much of my childhood, I struggled to say the /θ/ in words like thimble and think. In the end, I decided that /f/ sounded close enough (and nobody seemed to mind at first). I stuck with that approximation a lot longer than my peers, until it was finally picked up by a teacher at primary school and normatively squeezed out of me.

However many extra years of give and take, though, the process of initial language acquisition is a fantastic feat of the mind. Children rapidly discover phonetics inventories and the phonological rules that can take academics years to map out – and foreign language learners years to assimilate.

With that in mind, cherish your approximations. They draw upon all the cumulated skills of those early miracle years of language acquisition. And even if the fit isn’t quite perfect, the act of repurposing them in second language learning is still a wonder of brain gymnastics.

Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.

Blinkist offers condensed summaries of hundreds of books.

Blinkist : one-stop knowledge shop with some language-learning gems

If you use any social media platform, you can’t have missed them lately; those bold and brash ads, featuring ever-so-slightly smug millennials stating “I read four books a day” and similar. Yes, Blinkist has been on a marketing offensive in recent weeks.

I must admit that a bit of academic snobbery held me back for a bit. The smiling professionals in the ads haven’t really read the books, of course, but read and/or listened to synopses, or ‘blinks’ in the terminology of the service.

You see, Blinkist is, in essence, a library of hundreds and hundreds of Cliff Notes on best-selling non-fiction books. Part of me screams “but that’s cheating!” at the cheek of it. But there’s still something enticing about getting a regular, easy-to-digest snapshot of the latest knowledge and trends, so I gave it a go.

Blinkist for linguists

First off, I wasn’t joining with my linguist head on, but rather as a wannabe polymath. I have a strong interest in society topics – I did a social sciences degree in my free time a couple of years back with the excellent Open University – and I was looking forward to trawling through Blinkist’s catalogue of politics, pop psych and sociology first and foremost.

But surprise – there are actually quite a few titles of interest to linguists there. They go beyond general linguistics topics, too, including hands-on titles like Benny Lewis’ “Fluent In Three Months” and Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”, both pretty much essentials in the polyglot community.

If you like learning about language as well as how to learn them, particularly how language develops and changes, Blinkist doesn’t disappoint. For instance, I love Guy Deutscher’s writing on language. I was more than chuffed to note that the platform includes his Through The Language Glass. It’s great to get a second shot at that in summarised, audiobook format.

Blinkist: enhances, rather than replaces reading

So, do I feel like I’ve ‘read’ the books I’ve listened to so far? Well, not really. I think a service like this inevitably skips the detail and nuance that make book-reading such a joy. But I do feel like I have a good overview of the main points. And it’s a nice way to ‘dip in’ to a book you might buy the full version of later on.

Also, there are a few texts on there that I’ve already read. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct was a set text on my language degree syllabus at Oxford back in 1995. The Blinkist summary is a brilliant way to revisit it, lighting up all those pathways and connections that I formed long ago on my first reading of it.

And that’s the strength of the platform. As a way in, or a way back, it’s a wonderful resource to work with non-fiction texts. And, if you like podcasts as much as I do, the similarity of the format will fit right into your routine. It’s also a very likeable format. The titles are read in a fairly neutral American accent, with a mix of male and female narrators. It feels like the team have taken care to make them as pleasant to listen to as they are quick and easy.

While it will never replace reading full books, Blinkist is one more tool in the arsenal of sites and services to keep you well-informed. And as a linguist, there’s lots to get your teeth into. With a free seven-day trial, it’s well worth a nose!