My first foreign books

at the end of the world

“Rein Kamm felt suddenly that it would be nice to go on a trip around the world.”

Rein Kamm tundis korraga, et tore oleks minna ümbermaailmareisile.

This is the first sentence in my first Estonian book, Maailma otsas. Pildikesi heade inimeste elust (At the End of the World. Scenes from the Lives of Good People) by a contemporary writer Andrus Kivirähk.

A friend lent it to me, when I asked her for an interesting book suitable for beginners, and it has turned out to be the perfect choice. It’s entertaining, funny, and not too difficult. Several ordinary characters go about their ordinary life, but somehow they do it in the most grotesque ways. You have a bar owner who cooks only one dish a day, closes his bar at 7 pm, and goes home to read ‘War and Peace’. You have an old bachelor living with his mother who tells him what to wear. You have a family that offer potatoes to whoever passes by.

People learn languages for various reasons: job, travel, love & friendship. All these are valid for me, but my major motivation in learning any language has always been to read books in the original.

Thus, I tried to recall my first books in all my languages. In some cases, I have not read any book yet (Hungarian and Japanese, currently on the back burner); in others, I cannot remember, even vaguely, which were books I read first (English, Latvian, Russian, Ancient Greek), thus, my list is incomplete.

In Czech, although I really like český černý humor (‘dark humour’), absurd, and grotesque, the very first book I read was Bílá nemoc (The White Disease) by Karel Čapek, a dystopia written in 1937 about a country on the brink of war, which is also attacked by an incurable disease killing older people. The novel does seem so dystopian in 2021.

In German, I started with Goethe’s Faust. Yes, I know, this is hardly a suitable choice for an absolute beginner. But hey, I was 18, German was the first language I was learning on my own, I was studying philosophy and puzzled over the meaning of live. To me then, Faust did seem a suitable choice. I did not learn much from in in the matter of German conversation, but still can recite the first lines by heart.

Habe nun ach ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;

In French, one of the first books I read were novels by Prosper Mérimée. I still own the book, a Soviet-era edition with beautiful lithographs and a bilingual commentary. I had bought it in a foreign second hand bookshop in Riga, grāmatu antikvariāts Planēta, a venerable institution.

In Spanish, I read first Platero y yo (Platero and I) by Juan Ramón Jiménez, a charming, touching story of a friendship between a man and a donkey. I got the book in the same second hand bookshop, where I was spending my scarce student stipend.

In Italian, I do not remember my first book. What I do remember vividly though, it is how I was reading Dante’s Divina commedia for the first time. It was in Italy, with a friend who was doing a PhD in Italian literature, who recommended a good old edition and taught me how to scan.

I read several chapters then, and read the whole Inferno last year.

Accidentally, 2021 is anno dantesco, which l’Accademia della Crusca (The Italian Academy) celebrates with the series of events, including Dante’s word of the day. The tradition says that Dante started his masterpiece on 25 March, thus, the word cammin (way, road) was analysed that day.

nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In Latin, the first work was Cicero’s In Catilinam I (Against Catilina). We had to read it our Latin class, in its entirety, to analyse and translate it, and to learn multiple passages by heart. It took our small group a full academic year.

quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?

I hated the speech and my patience for Cicero was definitely abused after this exercise. I had never touched a text by him afterwards – until last month. Inspired by an old FS post on friendship, which showed Cicero in different light, I started De amicitia and have been really enjoying it.

Napoleon’s defeats

we all possess Napoleon’s features …

This year, I reread Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, for the fifth time. War and Peace is one of my favourite books, and since I first read it at high school, I reread it regularly. This time, I reread it so quickly, I was so absorbed in the narrative, that I turned the last page regretting that there were four volumes only. I would have enjoyed reading twenty of them!

While I was regretting War and Peace was so short, my inner linguist started wondering about expressions related to Napoleon, in any language that springs to mind.

Any language in this case meant English and French, and the two expressions refer to Napoleon’s defeats.

In English, you can meet or face your Waterloo, the expression popularised not so much by the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon indeed did surrender, but by the song Waterloo by Abba, which won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.

Just as I was humming Oh, oh, oh, oh, Waterloo / Finally facing my Waterloo, a French colleague commented on a committee she participated in, with the words c’est la Bérézina. The expression means disastrous and disorganised matter, and refers to another Napoleon’s defeat, this time by the river Berezina, at the hands of Russian army.

Strangely, nothing in Russian came to my mind. There are obviously quotes: Napoleon was a popular figure in the 19th century Russia, which is reflected by ambivalent feelings of the War and Peace male protagonists towards him.

Alexander Pushkin mentions Napoleon in his Eugene Onegin: мы все глядим в Наполеоны (we all aspire to be Napoleons).

We all possess Napoleon’s features;

The millions of two-legged creatures

Are only instruments and tools;

But today, the most famous Napoleon in Russian is a mille-feuille pastry that is called наполеон, although the etymology is unclear, perhaps it is a corruption from Neapolitan, Naples being famous for its pastry.

Winter words

the snow of yesteryear

This winter, we had beautiful snow in the Baltics, and I took up cross-country skiing again, which used to be my favourite sport at school. Now, a thought has crossed my mind that in alternative reality, I would have enjoyed being a professional cross-country skier. Snow, cold, movement, solitude, pure bliss.

While I was daydreaming about skiing championships, my inner linguist was wide awake and was wondering about expressions related to ski, in any language.

I could recall only one, in Russian: навострить лыжи (to sharpen ones’ ski), meaning to try to leave surreptitiously.

Another Russian expression is about sledges: любишь кататься, люби и саночки возить (if you like sledging, you should like to carry the sledge). The closest English equivalents are ‘if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper’, or simply, ‘there is no such things as free lunch’.

What about other winter delights, such as snow, frost, and cold?

In English, many useful expressions relate to the word cold. To come in from the cold, to be left out in the cold, to get cold feet, to get (and to give) the cold shoulder, cold comfort.

Surprisingly, French is quite rich in wintry expressions: ne pas avoir froid aux yeux is the equivalent of ‘not be faint-hearted’ , battre froid à qqn means ‘to give somebody the cold shoulder’, faire boule de neige is ‘to snowball’, and fondre comme neige au soleil is ‘to melt away’, ‘to disappear into thin air’.

My favourite expression is mais où sont les neiges d’antan (where is the snow of yesteryear?), which comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By) by a 15th century French poet François Villon. In the 20th century, it was made into a song by Georges Brassens.

Diverse reading

reading in different directions

The turn of the year is often the time to share book lists, reading insights, and recommendations. Many newspapers, media outlets, and personalities share their reading finds.

I always find it fascinating to know what other readers find fascinating, and often happy to follow book recommendations.

For non-fiction, I like yearly book recommendations of Farnam Street.

For fiction, this past year I noted an initiative in Spain, where Zenda and XLSemanal asked their readers which books should make a perfect library. The final list of 101 book, la biblioteca perfecta, can be consulted here. There were several books in that perfect library I have not heard of, so I took note.

This coming year, however, I plan not only to follow the reading recommendations and read what everyone else is reading, but diversify my reading habits.

I first heard the notion of diversified reading from a young colleague of mine, a prolific reader. She keeps tracks of the books she reads and sets herself reading targets, including diversity. For example, she tries to read as many books by male authors as by female, to respect a balance between European and non-European authors, to read both in French and in English, etc.

We are living in the era of powerful recommender systems and optimised search engines, which result in echo chambers and rabbit holes. That is why this year, I would deliberately seek to diversify my reading, and encourage you to do the same.

Obviously, for language freaks like myself, reading in different languages is one of the ways to go.

Last year, my focus was on Italian. Accordingly, one quarter of the fiction I read was in this language, with balanced distribution across centuries: Dante and Bocaccio, Italo Calvino and Luigi Pirandelli, Elena Ferrante and Antonia Arslan.

This year, I will focus on books in German, in particular, on contemporary fiction, as I know next to nothing about this period’s writers.

Any recommendations?

Year in Languages 2020

light in the darkness

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.

I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.

These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.

So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.

English.

I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.

I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.

Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.

Estonian.

Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programme Как это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.

Italian.

Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.

First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.

Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.

Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including Boccaccio Decameron, Dante Inferno, Italo Calvino I nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by Elena Ferrante.

I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.

Other languages.

Ancient Greek.

This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.

In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War where he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.

For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.

German.

My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.

French.

I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.

Latvian.

I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.

Russian.

I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.

Spanish.

I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.

Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.

In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.

This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.

That’s all, my language year 2020 in review.

Language Monthly, December 2020, Etymology

white December

December is the 12th month, despite the fact that its name means the ‘tenth’. It derives from Latin decem ‘ten’, as December was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar, which began with March.

I can spend hours looking for etymologies, and have compiled a list of my favourite resources.

English

Online Etymology Dictionary

Italian

Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana di Ottorino Pianigiani

Vocabolario Treccani

Spanish

The Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish

Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE)

Multilingual

Etymologeek

The advantage is that you can search in many languages. The disadvantage is that being a compilation, it can be unreliable or plainly wrong.

Estonian

Eesti etümoloogiasõnaraamat

Yes, it is in Estonian, but invaluable for comparative Finno-Ugric and comparative linguistics. In fact, for anyone who already knows some Baltic, Slavic, or Germanic languages, understanding etymologies of Estonian words is a useful tool for remembering these words.

Let’s take an Estonian work raamat, meaning a ‘book’. At a first approximation, it resembles nothing. But when you look at its etymology, you realise it is related to the Latvian grāmata, meaning a ‘book’, which in turn is a borrowing from Slavic. In Russian, грамота means ‘official document’ and also ‘ability to read and write’. The Slavs borrowed the word from the Greek γράμματα ‘letters’, of which the English grammar is also a descendant.

One year on

a trip down memory lane

Today, this blog celebrates its 1st birthday. On this day in 2019, I wrote my first post, explaining why I had named this blog 19 languages

One year later, I have not written as much as I would have wished. For obvious reasons, this year I have not traveled as much as I have done in 2019. My trips to Italy and Spain were purely virtual, more precisely, linguistic. I was overwhelmed with work more than once, too tired to write anything. I had a long summer hiatus, when I lived in the countryside, spent my time primarily offline, although my language learning never stopped.

Still, I was appreciative and surprised that readers like my infrequent posts, and would like to thank all of you for your interest.

Some vanity statistics:

The blog post that was most popular was about Rome-related expressions.

The one about an obscure topic that received attention was about a Latvian poet.

The one that I really enjoyed writing but that received zero attention was on English colour idioms, which made me see red.

They say you should write something that you yourself want to read. This is true in my case. I have devoured language-related articles on such sites as Language Heroes library on 60 languages and Multilingua Blog, written in Russian about Romance languages. I have always regretted these articles were not more frequent, or that similar style articles did not exist in other languages. Or, probably they exist, but I do not know about them. Hence, this blog.

They also say that to write well, you should start by writing frequently. I have not written as frequently as I would like, although it was not the lack of ideas nor material to chew on, but rather the lack of time. Something to improve over the next year.

As a birthday present, three language-related social media accounts that I have discover this past year and that my readers might appreciate.

For English, Susie Dent on Twitter, her word of the day choice is unrivaled.

For Spanish, also on Twitter, La Real Academia Española, which solves your linguistic doubts with a hashtag #dudaRAE and offers a word of the day with #PalabraDelDía .

For Italian, the best bilingual museum account is that of Gallerie degli Uffizi on Instagram, which artfully combines useful with beautiful.

Enjoy, and let continue together to the next year!

Not a day without a line

so many lines

I have always enjoyed reading long books, especially long novels. In my youth, my favourite novel was War and Peace, which I reread in Russian at least three times. Last year, the book I liked most was a 1575 pages novel in German. This year, a tetralogy in Italian.

Some of these books are difficult to read, either because of a complex subject matter, or of the language I do not master, or an older variety of a familiar language. Plato in Ancient Greek. Don Quixote in Spanish. Dante in Italian.

Still, if I want to read them, I plough on. Over the years, I developed a method of reading long and linguistically complicated texts, based on three principles.

First, as they say it in Latin, nulla dies sine linea, ‘not a day without a line’. To keep the momentum going yet not to get overwhelmed, I read a portion of text, be it a page, a chapter, or a section, every day, often, at a dedicated time in the day.

The daily lesson can vary in length, but it should be short enough not to tire me out.

Thus, I read Boccaccio’s Decameron over three months this summer, every morning going through three or four stories. Now, I am reading Dante’s Inferno, one canto every evening.

Second, I read every daily portion at least twice.

I first learned this principle many years ago, from a book on language learning by Kató Lomb, an accomplished Hungarian polyglot of the 20th century, who relied on reading as her main language learning method.

I adopted this principle of reading every passage multiple times, and have been using it ever since.

First time, I read to get the gist of what is going on. It is often surprising how much one can gather, guess, and deduce from the context. Second time, I read to understand what I have not understood the first time, sometimes looking up words in a dictionary or pieces of grammar in a manual. I might reread some passages the third time, if I did not get a critical aspect, or if I like a particular turn of phrase and would like to learn it.

Third, I do not really bother about unfamiliar words. At first, I skip them, and look them up only if I miss the meaning. Only when a word pops up repeatedly, and its precise understanding is critical, I will learn it by heart.

For example, in Decameron, I could easily guess the meaning of ‘cagione’ (an archaic variation of ‘occasione’), but really needed to know the precise meaning of ‘vago’ (the women are often referred to as ‘vaghe donne’), as the word has multiple interpretations.

I borrowed this approach from a report I read somewhere, on Anna Akhmatova, a famous Russian poet, learning English in mature age to read Shakespeare in the original. Allegedly, every time she consulted an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, she would put a dot next to it. Once a word had more than seven dots, she would learn it by heart.

I do not remember when I read this report neither whether it is authentic. Still, this vocabulary learning method works well for me.

Multilingual music

IMG_20170525_091754
playing alone and together

This post is inspired by a beautiful initiative presented by a philharmonic orchestra of Grand Canary, La Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. Last Sunday, its 79 musicians played and recorded themselves from their homes, apartments, and gardens. Their technicians mixed and edited the audios and videos, to give a magical impression that the orchestra played together.

The performance is stunning musically, technically, and also humanly, and you can watch it here.

One additional aspect struck me as I was reading the final credits: how multilingual the whole endeavour was. The orchestra is Spanish, the conductor is British, the soloist is Latvian, the musicians, judging by their names, are from all over the world, and the music is Gustav Mahler’ Resurrection Symphony.

Classical music is one of the fields where multilingual is normal. A question is often asked whether having a musical ear (which is definitely not my case) helps one to learn foreign language. Singers have to learn texts in a variety of languages paying particular attention to pronunciation and enunciation, and these techniques can be used by simple mortals to improve their accents. Still, between being able to perform in a language differs from speaking it, thus researchers are not certain about the relation between musical and language learning abilities.

More significantly, I think, is that many musicians lead truly multilingual lives: they study abroad, perform all over the world, travel to competitions and festivals, and have international friends, colleagues, and often families. For example, the soloist in the video, Elīna Garanča, who is my favourite opera singer, probably masters at least five languages: Latvian, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and sings also in Italian and French.

On a completely different note, multilingualism in the music world is satirically reflected in a film Prova d’orchestra (‘Orchestra Rehearsal’) by Federico Fellini, where Italian musicians revolt against the conductor, who speaks with a heavy German accent.

Multilingual Spinoza

IMG_5_BURST20160619184449
Castilian Spanish

A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.

Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.

Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.