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

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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

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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.

Multilingual is normal

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Oh Lithuania, my fatherland

Today is the International Day of Multilingualism.

The date has not been chosen at random: 27 March, 196 BC, is the date mentioned on the famous multilingual Rosetta Stone. The stone is engraved with a decree in three scripts: hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Ancient Greek, and was instrumental in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To celebrate the International Day of Multilingualism, I am starting a series under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

The first example comes from Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), which I read in a wonderful English translation by Nicholas de Lange.

That’s how Oz describes his family, which came to Israel from Eastern Europe.

Books filled our home. My father could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: Shto s toboi?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami! – What’s the matter with you? You can see the boy’s right here!) Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.

The picture above is taken in Vilnius, Lithuania, a place frequently mentioned in Oz’ novel, since his father’s family originated there. Speaking multiple languages was common in the region at the time. The monument to Adam Mickiewicz, a great Polish poet, who lived part of his life in Lithuania, reminds us of this linguistic diversity.

Books in the time of pandemic

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Venezia, Venedig, Venice

The world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre.

Intellectually, to make sense of how the disease has been spreading, one needs to understand the mathematical principle of exponential growth.

Psychologically, to cope with this uncertainty, one can read about previous disease epidemics.

Diseases, such as plague and cholera, have been striking humanity since time immemorial, and  are used as background and inspiration of many great books.

Here are my favourites:

El amor en los tiempos del cólera (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1985

La Peste (“The Plague”) by Albert Camus, 1947

Пир во время чумы (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) by Alexander Pushkin, 1830

You can read it in Russian here.

The play was written during the first Russian cholera epidemic of 1830. The plot is based on a play “The City of Plague” by a Scottish poet John Wilson, which was inspired by the Great Plague of London (1665 – 1666).

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 5th century BCE

Chapters 2.47–2.54 describe the Plague of Athens, a severe epidemic that devastated the city in 430 BCE, reemerging twice. This text is one of the earliest accounts of a disease epidemic.

Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) by Thomas Mann, 1912

Here is an excerpt from chapter 5, describing the arrival of cholera in the city. The rumours, the denial by the authorities, then first visible signs, and suddenly it is everywhere.

Seit mehreren Jahren schon hatte die indische Cholera eine verstärkte Neigung zur Ausbreitung und Wanderung an den Tag gelegt. Erzeugt aus den warmen Morästen des Ganges-Deltas, aufgestiegen mit dem mephitischen Odem jener üppig-untauglichen, von Menschen gemiedenen Urwelt-und Inselwildnis, in deren Bambusdickichten der Tiger kauert, hatte die Seuche in ganz Hindustan andauernd und ungewöhnlich heftig gewütet, hatte östlich nach China, westlich nach Afghanistan und Persien übergegriffen und, den Hauptstraßen des Karawanenverkehrs folgend, ihre Schrecken bis Astrachan, ja selbst bis Moskau getragen.

Aber während Europa zitterte, das Gespenst möchte von dort aus und zu Lande seinen Einzug halten, war es, von syrischen Kauffahrern übers Meer verschleppt, fast gleichzeitig in mehreren Mittelmeerhäfen aufgetaucht, hatte in Toulon und Malaga sein Haupt erhoben, in Palermo und Neapel mehrfach seine Maske gezeigt und schien aus ganz Calabrien und Apulien nicht mehr weichen zu wollen.

Der Norden der Halbinsel war verschont geblieben. Jedoch Mitte Mai dieses Jahres fand man zu Venedig an ein und demselben Tage die furchtbaren Vibrionen in den ausgemergelten, schwärzlichen Leichnamen eines Schifferknechtes und einer Grünwarenhändlerin. Die Fälle wurden verheimlicht. Aber nach einer Woche waren es deren zehn, waren es zwanzig, dreißig und zwar in verschiedenen Quartieren.

Ein Mann aus der österreichischen Provinz, der sich zu seinem Vergnügen einige Tage in Venedig aufgehalten, starb, in sein Heimatstädtchen zurückgekehrt, unter unzweideutigen Anzeichen, und so kam es, daß die ersten Gerüchte von der Heimsuchung der Lagunenstadt in deutsche Tagesblätter gelangten.

Venedigs Obrigkeit ließ antworten, daß die Gesundheitsverhältnisse der Stadt nie besser gewesen seien und traf die notwendigsten Maßregeln zur Bekämpfung.

You can read the book in German on the Project Gutenberg website.

There is also a great film  Morte a Venezia by Luchino Visconti, made in 1971, which captures admirably well the atmosphere when everything still seems normal yet is no longer.

When in Rome

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the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.