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.
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.
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.
After the enchanted summer parenthesis, which included September and October and when I read, saw friends, and swam in the sea, it is time to face the reality. The second corona wave, tragic events in many countries, and twilight of democracy all over, with a feeling that digital technology not only does not help us to combat the virus and protect the most vulnerable, but often serves the opposite goal, helping to exacerbate inequalities and foster division and violence.
I have been reading the volume of short sotires Tutte le cosmicosmiche (“Cosmicosmics”) by Italo Calvino, written in the 1960s. It assembles his modern cosmogonies, some funny, others dystopian.
In one of them, the protagonist Qfwfq and his female friend are kidnapped by a bandit Bm Bn amidst a major cosmic change, which will destroy most of their world.
Suddenly, in the last moment of calm before the storm, a scientist enters the scene. He introduces himself as an Inspector of High and Low Tides and explains that, according to his calculations, only their islet is going to survive. The protagonist wants to share this piece of information with everybody else, but is brutally interrupted by the bandit, who wants to be the only one to profit.
When Qfwfq seeks solidarity from the Inspector, the Inspector replies that he is ‘a technician’ and hence would put his knowledge at the disposal of whoever is ‘in command’.
Io sono un tecnico. Se qui, come mi pare d’aver capito, è il signore ad avere il commando, – e fece un cenno di capo verso Bm Bn, – è alla sua attenzione che vorrei sottoporre i risultati dei miei calcoli.
Dangerous words, dangerous attitude, alas also typical for our own times.
Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.
For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.
Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.
So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.
Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.
I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.
Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.
Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.
Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.
I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!
Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.
El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.
How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.
Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.
For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.
With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.
I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.
The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.
Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.
Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.
The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.
For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.
Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.
For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.
To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.
Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.
For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.
I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.
I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.
At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.
A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.
If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue. No day without a line, no day without a word.
To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?
It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.
Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.
Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:
If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.
All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.
Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).
Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.
This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!
Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.
Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.
This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.
Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.
Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!
Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?
First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.
Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.
And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.
This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.
Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.
At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.
This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.
Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.
The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!
The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.
This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.
Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.
The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.
Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).
Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?
It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.
The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.
In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.
An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:
quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,
C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:
ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων
C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.
Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of 30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.
In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:
A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.
Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?
Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.
I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.
When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.
I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.
A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.
she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.
The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:
After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.
The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.
As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.
Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.
Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.
I published a beautiful book
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
Did I plunge into grief?
I published another,
written with fervour –
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
started to write:
for men who rob the exchequer,
couples living in sin,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.
And when it was published
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.
Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.
The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name. Trīs grāmatas
bet visi veikali
no manas grāmatas.
Bet vai es noskumu?
Izdevu otru es
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.
es meklēju viņu
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
Un, kad es,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
smaršoja tikai vairs
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
auto šoferiem un
Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
manas grāmatas vārdu.
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
— Lai dzīvo! —
Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.