Language. Mobility. Environment.

Language of Secrets – The Runic Fuþark

A very good teacher of mine used to say that etymologies are always safe ground for a clear, engaging introduction. And given the fascinating story this tiny little word has behind, her tip does fit the bill.

Worm’s text.

The English word ‘rune’ appears for the first time in modern languages in 1636, when Ole Worm published his Runer, seu Danica Literatura Antiquissima. The Danicorum Monumentorum Libri Sex and Specimen Lexici Runici were also published throughout the following twenty years, thus initiating the extensive scholarship on runic inscriptions that would have burst out in the Germanic countries later on (Page, 1999). Before that, the word rune was just buried in a forgotten past. Or at least, between that year and back in the days when Middle English was spoken in Britain.

Before then, rūn was a common Old English word meaning secret, mystery. The Old Norse correspondent rún evoked magic rituals, a secret lore that would explain the tendency to associate the runic alphabet with the esoteric. The obscurity that typifies this branch of Germanic philology is endorsed by the simplest analysis of common words in today’s Germanic languages, like the German rauen, to whisper. This theory however does not prove an undeniable fact; alternative theory associate the word rune with the Indo-European root /ró/, which very simply evokes ‘writing’ and ritzen (German, to scratch) (Morris 1985).

Although the religious rituals and ‘spells’ are undeniably typical of the civilization that adopted this alphabetic system, I will give an outline from a purely linguistic point of view. I think it is also important to remind that this is mostly an alphabet, a system of graphemes whereby people carved sounds and words on stone, and not necessarily for merely ritual purposes. There is an extensive collection of Christian inscriptions in runes, prayers or even inscriptions despising the pagans (Antonsen, 2002).

So, if we now try to look close at runes themselves we will inevitably come across a few problems that old languages tend to share. There is no standardization in spelling or even in graphic representation. When I randomly decided that I wanted to learn the runic alphabet I had to come to terms with the huge variety of alphabets that have been studied in runology. Runes developed overtime and thus changed the way they were written. In addition, when dealing with runes we have to take into account the geographical factor: albeit similar, runes vary sensibly across the territories where they were employed, from Iceland to Russia, going through Denmark and Norway.

Also, I have just realized that I should stop referring to the runic system as an ‘alphabet’, as the first two letters do not correspond to the/a/ and /b/ sounds. The runic alphabet is actually called Fuþark, a meaningless word that groups together the first six letters of this writing system. And no, that third letter is not a p, but a þ (thorn). It represents the English /th/ in

Fig. 1

words like thanks, thin, thorough, thick. It was widely used in Old English, and nowadays it’s still part of the Icelandic alphabet, where the popular Nordic god Thor is actually spelt Þórr. Where does it come from? Funnily enough, this letter is but the latinisation of the rune in fig. 1, þurisaz. Originally, runes were symbols of natural elements or concepts and thus had a similar use as Chinese ideograms.  But let’s now have a look at them. This is the so-called ‘Elder Fuþark’, i.e. the oldest system.

Runes - handwritten


I kept the usual 3×8 layout which, according to many, hides magic powers. As you can see, every symbol corresponds to a specific meaning. I will provide the translation of each name below. I will follow the fuþark order – I understand that a scanned copy of my handwriting might not have been the best idea.

  •          Fehu: “wealth, cattle”. Just to make things clear, this is where ‘Feud/Feudalism comes from.
  •          Üruz: ”aurochs/urus”. In case you don’t know what they are, here’s a picture.
  •          Þurisaz: “the god Thor, giant”
  •          Ansuz: “Someone who is part of the Æsir, i.e. the Nordic pantheon”. To make things easier, it can be translated simply as ‘god’.
  •          Raiþō: “ride, journey”. Ride/Raiþō sound quite similar, don’t they?
  •          Kaunaz: “torch”. But this translation is questionable.
  •          Gebō: “gift”. Again, gebō, give, geben, gift.
  •          Wunjō: “joy”.
  •          Hagalaz: “hail”, like the hail we had in Warwick a couple of days ago.
  •          Nauþiz: “need”.
  •          Isa: “ice”
  •          Jera: “year”.
  •          Eihwaz: “yew-tree”
  •          Perþ: debatable. Some people say “pear tree”
  •          Algiz: like above. Maybe “elk”.
  •          Sōwulō: “sun”.
  •          Teiwaz: “the god Teiwaz”.
  •          Berkona: “birch”, a type of tree
  •          Ehwaz: “horse”.
  •          Mannaz; “man”.
  •          Laguz: “water”.
  •          Inguz: “the God Inguz”
  •          Dagaz:”day”
  •          Ōþila: “inherited land, possession”.

Every single letter represent something, it’s a way to find a meaning behind words, behind the names of things. As you would expect from a writing system used to carve stones, it’s mostly a matter of lines. Or branches and staffs. as described in this very useful table putting all the letters together according to their graphic features.

Antonsen, E. H. (2002). Runes and Germanic Linguistics. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter (p. 53)

Antonsen, E. H. (2002). Runes and Germanic Linguistics. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter (p. 53)

When approaching the study of runes, the Elder fuþark seems to be the best starting point as it kind of encompasses the most common writing system adopted by the Germanic people inhabiting northern Europe from the first century AD onwards. Later on, we come across two alternative versions of Fuþark: a ‘simplified’ one – developed in Scandinavia – called Younger Fuþark. However even this one will then split up into two branches, the Danish or long-branch and the Swedish-Norwegian, or short-twig. These two led to the development of a further system used during the Middle Ages in series of manuscripts completed entirely in runes. On the other side, Frisians and Anglo-Saxon developed a different version, known as Fuþork, due to a vowel shift. So, to cut it short:


What struck me the most was the fact that such an ancient and fascinating writing system could be easily employed today. It is remarkably easy to learn and both English and the majority of the Germanic languages could be doubtlessly written using this script. But what’s ultimately most fascinating about runes is their introspective power. They might be famous for rituals aimed at forseeing the future, but what they really do is to scan reality, find connections and associations with the simplest thing, they find the bonding line intertwined between every element within the scope of our perception. But I’ll leave you there before getting excessively philosophical.  I hope you’ll have fun writing your name in Fuþark!

Hafðu það gott!


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Dis-moi dix mots – International Day of the French-Speaking community

Today’s topic does not come at random.

Hear ye, here it comes, the 20th March!

As a matter of fact, today is the Journée Internationale de la Francophonie (International day of Francophony), a day where French speakers or appreciators celebrate the values of solidarity and intercultural bonds bringing the French-speaking countries together.

The term Francophonie was coined in 1880 by geographer Onésime Reclus while working on a report on the French speakers throughout the world. He personally believed that French was the most appropriate linguistic means to spread the values that had driven the French Revolution in 1789. However, the term fell into disuse and was not retrieved until the 1970s, when the Agence de cooperation culturelle et technique was set up. The urge of holding the transnational French-speaking community together, triggered by a shared cultural identity, led to the establishment of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) which ultimately sponsors today’s celebrations in 70 countries across the globe. (Source: These events are aimed at promoting the French language as language of education and development, yet respecting cultural diversity. (For more info, have a look at the Passeport de la Francophonie!)

Although English does not really give French a fair competition, la langue française remains strong as long as organizations such as the OIF makes sure that its influence on a global scale is not undermined. French still has a strong impact on international culture and prides itself on a thriving literary production that flourishes transnationally. Moreover, French is for many the language of success. The motto stands clear: le français est une chance, French is opportunity. French is a force stimulante, as Abdou Diouf, general secretary of the Francophonie has claimed in his speech. This dynamic portrait depicts the Francophonie as a device to make one’s voice heard, “the boldness to say that, together, we can make an impact on our shared destinies”.

The Francophone community embodies the power of language over global dynamics. How language ultimately shapes society, research, development, culture, frames of mind. What language means to the individual, how the individual can engage with a language and with what kind of history and Weltanschauung (I love this word!) that particular language conveys. I like to think of language as an opportunity. Many might (actually, I am pretty sure they do) argue that single languages should have the priority and the voice of the people should be heard anyway, no matter whether they speak the language of former colonizers or not. I agree to some extent: opportunities should be equally available, to anybody, no matter what language they speak. However languages like French, English, Spanish, Chinese, are languages of larger communities, they bring people together. Some of them do evoke a nefarious colonialist past, we cannot deny that. But we can neither deny that these languages today create connections, they actually give people a chance to develop, to think outside the box, to embrace cultural diversity – see?. And if French does that, I do not see why we should perpetually look backwards. French is future!

(And, funnily enough, future comes from French).

Dis-moi dix mots

These are the 10 words selected by OIF for the annual Dis-moi dix mots Games. Participants have 24 hours to produce something creative (a piece of prose, a poem, a visual work and so on) playing with the 10 words announced. This year’s bunch includes AMBIANCER (to enliven the atmosphere), À TIRE-LARIGOT (galore), CHARIVARI (uproar),  S’ENLIVRER (my favourite, ‘to be drunk with reading’), FARIBOLE (nonsense), HURLUBERLU (eccentric, a screwball), OUF (‘phew’ – expressing relief), TIMBRÉ (crazy, nuts), TOHU-BOHU (a pandemonium, a hustle, a mess),  ZIGZAG (well, I guess this is quite clear). Some new words here!

Vive la Francophonie!


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Language Innateness – Jan-Wouter Zwart vs. Dan Everett

Is language innate, is it build progressively from a basic universal grammar? Or does it construct itself imposed by external factors (necessity, society)?
See what Dr Zwart from the University of Groningen and Daniel Everett, from Bentley University, USA. I suggest reading this article from TheGuardian to get the gist of what is Dr. Everett’s position:

Many thanks to the Linguistica in Pillole Facebook page for sharing this video.

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Drawing Naxi (i.e. leading people’s souls out of hell)

The Yunnan Province.

The Yunnan Province.

Naxi – 纳西 (pronounced Na-she) can refer to an ancient people inhabiting the Lijiang autonomous county in the Chinese province of Yunnan (see map) and to the language this people speaks. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman languages macro-group and it is spoken by approximately 300.000 people. The Naxi civilisation boasts of a stunningly rich history that spans from the eighth century until 1724 when the region was annexed to the Chinese dominion.

There’s something very peculiar about this language, so unique to have drawn the attention not only of anthropologists from all over the world but also – and most significantly for us – of linguists and philologists interested in Asian studies. Traditionally, written Naxi is not expressed in Chinese characters, but rather in the so-called Dongba Script. What’s so interesting about it?

Oh well, it’s just the only living pictographic language, halfway between language and art. A bridge linking life and death together. In fact, religion represents a decisive factor in the characterisation of this culture, lying at the base of the community life. Dongbas are actually the practicing priests who personally write prayers and religious recitals adopting the script and use what thus becomes a precious literary and historical piece as props for specific death or blessing ritualties.

A sample of Naxi script.

A sample of Naxi script.

The Dongbas, in a state of trance, compose their mystical speech on coarse paper or wood.

Sheets were sown together at the left edge to form a book. Pages were ruled horizontally, and the pictographs were drawn from left to right in three or five sections within the rules. Somewhat thicker sheets of paper form a stiff cover, which has the title. They were usually named after the type of ceremony for which they were used.

Dongba script inevitably reminds of the Egyptian hieroglyphics – and to be fair, the idea behind it does not really change. Nevertheless, Naxi have to deal with a more complex system of rebuses to convey verbs and other grammatical elements.

“These old documents … are extremely rare and scientifically important because almost nothing is known of the [Naxi] people naxi2whose history they reveal. Furthermore, the art of making the books has died out and the scrolls, which used to take a skilled [Dongba] six months to make while in a trance, are scarcely ever seen now. The writing, unlike anything known elsewhere, resembles superficially the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, but it has a certain action and humor that separates it at once from anything so stylized. The characters, at first glance, look like a child’s picture book, a sort of Mickey Mouse. There are many little drawings of cows, horses, birds, tigers, dwarfs and strange gods that show a vigorous and refreshing artistic style.”

The Library mentioned above is the main source people wanting to study this language should rely on. Apparently we are lucky enough to have 21,842 manuscripts available, out of which 12,741 are in China, 7,288 in the USA – mostly donated by Quentin Roosevelt II and Joseph Rock, to whom goes also the merit of taking care of the European collection (1,513). More 300 manuscript are kept in Taiwan,  where Zhu Bao-Tian, anthropolgist, studies the Naxi literary tradition. The Chinese anthropologist has curated the extensive collection of manuscripts sorting them out into specific categories, depending on their topic and their ritual employment. According to him:

“The manuscripts are a living fossil for the study of ancient culture”.

In my opinion, the most interesting and fascinating elements of this collection are the manuscripts containing the description of romance and love-related ceremonies. These ceremonies usually involve a series of sacrifices/meaningful gestures aimed at the salvation of the dead’s soul from hell. According to Li Lin Ts’an, an art historian,

[T]he [Naxi] people look upon death as an affair of great moment. The Naxis believe the soul goes immediately to hell. One of the Dongbas’ primary duties is to lead souls out of hell.

As a result, there are some particular ceremonies dedicated to those who committed sucide for love. It’s the Dongbas’ duty to use their power to ensure their access to the Kingdom of the

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain or, according to local myths, the Kingdom of the Suicide Lovers.

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains or, according to local myths, the Kingdom of the Suicide Lovers.

Suicide Lovers, where they will preserve their beauty and their happy love forever. Most of the works that have reached the present time are about funerary ceremonies. Interesting in this sense is the Journey to Heaven, a particularly suggestive Naxi Divine Commedy . Although a sylllabary has been drafted overtime, and a broader diffusion of this particular art has been encouraged, there still is a very close relationship between the written language and its creator. Written works were often burnt together with the priests when they died. Decoding Dongba could turn out to be very difficult without the aid of the writer/artist himself.

Nowadays this script has regained recognition and is often used throughout the Lijiang area alongside Chinese, which is expectedly more commonly used. However the Dongba script continues to be employed for religious purposes and to attract tourists, thus embodying a century-long tradition and the history of an entire people and promoting cultural diversity to the public.

I found this picture here ->

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Boþe lered and lewed, olde and Ȝonge. / Alle understonden English tonge.

After living in the United Kingdom for a certain period of time, “externals” are bound to familiarise with different aspects of British society that are not necessarily exported overseas. A good example of this sort is the never-ending north vs. south debate. I currently live in the Midlands and attend a university where the majority of home students come from the south, especially the South-East (London, Kent, Surrey, Essex and so on). These two realms pride themselves on different historical backgrounds that have kept them separated from each other for a good deal of centuries. Clashes have arisen quite bitterly during the Thatcher Era, since which the South-East has profusely flourished at the cost of a severe impoverishment of the northern areas (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, etc.). This economic gap has expectedly affected relations between the two and, overtime, old dissimilarities have re-emerged from the past.

Language represents one of the most striking factors of this domestic socio-cultural clash. Accents have become a sort of unmistakable mark to be proud of (or not). They differ significantly from the ones widespread in the southern counties (I am not referring uniquely to RP) but I am actually thinking of the local accents, local speech peculiarities that are (often unconsciously) the heirs of almost two millennia of history. Although nowadays English paves its way into globally ‘weaker’ languages, disseminating  those words and expression around that undermine the ‘purity’ of individual languages, this language is the daughter of hybridity par excellence. Celtic substratum and Latin influence aside, albeit especially the latter has been crucial throughout an ongoing process, Anglo-Saxon languages have prevailingly affected the evolution of English to such an extent that English is unequivocally considered a Germanic language. Old English (or Ænglisc as I prefer calling it) is incredibly similar to languages like German, Dutch and Frisian in terms of vocabulary and syntax. But the next linguistic source is what I will analyse more closely in this article.

Old Norse was the language spoken by the Vikings who invaded Britain in the ninth century AD and ruled over the Danelagh (Danelaw in English) which corresponded to present north-eastern England, roughly  between today’s Lancashire and East Anglia. Old Norse is stunningly similar to Icelandic and it can be visually recognised by the use of Latinised runes (þ, ð, ƿ and Ȝ – voiceless dental fricative th, voiced dental fricative th, w and y respectively). The vowel system is also peculiar and it represents one of the most evident factors that impacted on certain areas of northern Britain. Nevertheless this section of English glottology is tricky because – to cut it short – loads of things happened in a very short period of time and historical evidence is limited. The Battle of Hastings (1066) pinpointed the French domination over Britain and the shift from Old to Middle English, ‘the dialectal phase of the history of the English language’ (Lerer 2007). And it was then that dialects drifted away from each other. This phase can also be considered the Dark Ages of English, as French prevailed in the highest ranks of society, thus pushing the local language back to the background – at least until the kingdom of Richard I.

From this period we can recognise five major dialects: Kentish, Southern, East Midland, West Midland (spoken where I currently live) and Northern. The latter distinguished itself for a more encompassing influence wielded by Scandinavian languages (i.e. Old Norse). Geoffrey Chaucer gives an account of this particularity in his most well-known work, The Canterbury Tales. The Reeve’s tale features two

Cambridge students who came from ‘fer in the north’ and gives the audience an interesting linguistic description throughout the narration. If compared with the rest of the text, drafted in the London English of the time, this section possesses some linguistic particularities that can be associated with the contemporary Northern dialect, as demonstrated by the close analysis of manuscript of the time produced in specific areas of the former Danelaw. Some examples?

Northern and Southern English do not always agree on when to use the ‘a’ or ‘o’ sound. Today foreigners might struggle to distinguish ‘four’ and ‘far’ pronounced by a northerner speaker. This can be observed in the vocabulary adopted by Chaucer when imitating the students’ speech: hom(e) becomes haim or ham (see Birmingham, Cheltenham, Durham, – the house of… some people living there when the town was funded). Likewise, the ‘ch’ was pronounced as a voiceless postalveolar affricate [t͡ʃ] in the South (like the modern English ‘church’) but the voiceless palatal stop was liked better in the north, i.e. [c] like in cattle, castle, carve, caterpillar. For instance, ‘such’ is ‘swich in Southern Middle English, but ‘slyk’ in Northern M.E.. Toponyms represent further evidence of the Scandinavian domination. Just look at place names like Wetherby, Selby, Derby, Whitby, Grimsby. Guess what’s the word for ‘town’ in Danish? Yes, right: By. What about ‘village’ in Icelandic? Oh well, þorp is the answer. Or thorp if we want to use properly Latin letters. This easily echoes Scunthorpe, Copmanthorpe, Mablethorpe. Geography has spoken. And if we are confused because we don’t understand our friend from York, it’s probably because we are not familiar with Norwegian and Swedish either!

So, my conclusion? I love the northern dialect as I love Scandinavian languages. And, no, it’s not the inability to speak English properly. It’s a precious linguistic identity that needs to be preserved, as a piece of history that has shaped and marked today’s Britain. North is cool, even though over there lunch is dinner and dinner is tea, which is weird. But you’ll get used to it, trust me.


Benskin, M., M. Laing, V. Karaiskos and K. Williamson. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).

Burrow, J.A. and Turville-Petre, Thorlac, A Book of Middle English (Oxford: Blackwell 2005)

Lerer, Seth, ‘Lord of this Language: Chaucer’s English’, Inventing English (New York: Colombia University Press 2007).

Milroy, James, ‘Middle English Dialectology’, The Cambridge History of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992).

Tolkien, J. R. R., Chaucer as a Philologist: the Reeve’s Tale, read at a meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford on Saturday, 16th May, 1931. [Yes, THAT Tolkien]

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Things you should know about the Republic of the Maldives

So, if I say ‘Republic of the Maldives‘ the first image most likely to come up to your mind will be something like this: MaldivesStunning, isn’t it? The sunny side of life, they say. And indeed it is, but I’m not here to talk about that. Let travel agencies and airline companies do it. This article is about that side of this bunch of tiny atolls (1,192 islands in total) unfairly underestimated by the general public. Yes, I am speaking about their culture, their language.

Maldivian? Well, yes, many people refer to this fascinating language simply as ‘Maldivian’ but it’s actually called Dhivehi. Dhivehi is the language Maldivian people speak, Dhivehi is the Maldivian people itself. Dhivehi is the rich history of an Indo-Aryan ethnic group and their countless legends, recounted on the Lōmāfānus (ލޯމާފާނު), old Maldivian texts carved on copper plates.  Dhivehi is literature and poetry, either from the old times when the language was not like the one spoken today and the alphabet used was different, or more modern texts that stress on the close relation Dhivehi people have to their Motherland, which is now facing so many environmental threats and – perhaps a less fatal issue – foreign language invasion. But let’s start with a couple of significantly beautiful lines:

އަސަރަކާއި އަދި ފޮނިކަމެއް އެކި ބަސްބަހުން ހަމަ ފެނުނަކަސް

          އަސަރުގަދަ އަދި އެންމެ ފޮނި ބަހަކީ މަށަށް މި ދިވެހި ބަހޭ

I’ve also scanned the written text, in case your PC happens not to like the Thaana script.

Asarakaa adhi foni kameh eki basbahun hama fenunakas / Asarugadha adhi enme foni bahakee mashah mi Dhivehi bahey

Asarakaa adhi foni kameh eki basbahun hama fenunakas / Asarugadha adhi enme foni bahakee mashah mi Dhivehi bahey

The core meaning of these two lines is simple but very straightforward. Foreign languages might be very rich, expressive, nice, but there is no language as sweet (foni) as Dhivehi. I have the pleasure to listen to the sound of this language fairly often and I can confirm that the sweetness mentioned by the poet is totally there. It’s pretty, melodic, it’s one of those languages where there are so many long vowels that you could speak and sing at the same time. This language is at the crossroads between Arabic, Sanskrit, Sinhalese. Geiger, a German linguist and one of the first Europeans to take up a serious study of this language, considered it ‘the daughter’ of Sinhalese, but later studies have demonstrated that it shares the same roots with Sinhalese, i.e. they both draw their origin from Prakrit, a medieval Indian language that shares some connection with Vedic. Pretty long history, actually.  Oh and now that we’ve ascertained that there is actually a very rich history behind this language, you might still think that Dhivehi is today standardised and spoken homogeneously throughout the archipelago. Well, ‘archipelago‘ means ‘group of islands‘ and, as you might know already, ‘standardisation of language‘ and ‘islands‘ are two expressions that don’t go well together. Trust me, I know from experience.

There are six major dialects, named after the islands/regions where they are spoken:

  • Male
  • Addu
  • Huvadhu
  • Mulaku
  • Maliku
  • Haddhunmathee

The first one is, let’s say, BBC Maldivian, the allegedly standardised version. National standardised French came from the linguistic patterns adopted in Paris. Likewise, Maldivian/Dhivehi is commonly associated with the dialect spoken in the capital, Male. (I will not type Malé because it’s pointless).

Addu is, to keep with the British references, the Oxford Maldivian. This is the dialect spoken in the southern region of the archipelago, an area quite diversified from the rest. So diversified that it has often asked for administrative independence. The educated stratum of Maldivian society tends to be from this region, well-known throughout the country to be an educational hub. It’s fairly similar to the Mulaku dialect and it can be distinguished by the use of the final -o where Male Dhivehi would use -u instead. Oddly enough, people from Addu think that their own dialect and the Male one are not that different after all and can easily understand the variations. On the contrary, people who grew up speaking Male dialect claim not to understand Addu. Either way, this plethora of language variations just make things more complex than they actually are, although I must admit that this language as sweet as it might sound, is scarily complicated. Well, unless you’re fluent in Hindi, Sinhalese and Arabic, which I’m not.

So, to me languages tend to be exponentially difficult according to what number of cases they have. Dhivehi is a 7-case language (nominative, genitive, dative, ablative plus locative, instrumental and emphatic (and I thought that Latin was bad enough). (Just kidding, I actually love cases). Anyway, exactly like Latin, word order doesn’t really matter as long as you got the word endings right. Endings that might sounds quite funny to the external listener, especially when the endings are applied to words of foreign origin. Dhivehi authorities do not seem much of a protectionist force, I guess they have other issues to deal with. Yet I personally find quite odd (and unfair) how foreign languages – especially English – shape today’s Dhivehi. The phenomenon is not completely homogeneous, it does depends on the individual’s background that might or might not have been into English-speaking education. However, English is always there, ready to replace words, although I have been told that time to time news agencies try to hold back the foreign wave retrieving words from an antiquated vocabulary, which – I guess – would make them modern again. When Dhivehi deals with English words though, it tends to use certain guidelines in order to ‘naturalise‘ English words in a local context. This operation is not difficult at all if applied using the Thaana script, where the transliteration of foreign words is bound to change the original words to be adapted to a different phonetic system.

On that last note, let’s now speak about writing. Written Dhivehi is very interesting because – brace yourselves, because this is super fascinating – written and spoken Dhivehi adopt different forms. It’s not only a form of register, but also of word construction. This language is built upon layers over layers interconnected between each other but clearly distinct. Such as the levels of formality, which change according to whether one is speaking a high-ranked personage, the elderly, their parents or their friends. Languages tell us so many stories.

So, writing. We know that Maldivian Buddhist monks had a peculiar writing system that foreruns the aforementioned Lomafanus. Unfortunately no single evidence of this writing system has outlasted these two millennia. The earliest examples of old Dhivehi (see photo) or Dhivehi Akuru  came from script systems used in the southern areas of the Indian subcontinent.

This particularity has time to time made scholars assume that the Maldives were somewhat part of external kingdoms, yet history has taught us that the Maldives have proudly kept their independence throughout the centuries. A mystery remains: when did the Dhivehi people actually shift to Thaana script? There are many attempted answers, some claim that the old script was abandoned when the islands were converted to Islam, other scholars claim that the change occurred even 200 years earlier than that. One thing is certain: the modern Thaana system is much easier.

The origins of this particular script are quite interesting. The first part of the alphabet (h-z) derives from Arabic numerals, whereas the last bit derives from the local Indian-subcontinental numerical system. This feature has triggered many studies that often come across stories of magic and esoteric rituals. Apparently, Thaana scripts were used to cast spells according to specific local rituals (fandita). This would perhaps explain the order of Dhivehi letters, which follows an unusual trend not found in other languages, related to it or not. Nevertheless, the writing system does not differ so dramatically from Arabic. Again, you write syllables where the main body of the grapheme is the consonants, whereas vowels are added either on the top or at the bottom as diacritic signs.

So, the Maldives are certainly a prestigious holiday destination, but they do have much more to offer. Like a super interesting anthropological and linguistic history yet to be explored completely. If you are interested, I am planning to talk more about Dhivehi in the future, as this post is turning to be quite long. I will probably look closer at the alphabet and general language features next time! So… to be continued!

And I must thank my Maldivian friend, for all our chats on her language and culture, over a nice cup of tea.

Watch this space!


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A clique of clicks

7 million of people in South Africa speak Xhosa. Nelson Mandela himself spoke it and not many outside this community are able to pronounce correctly his complete name, or the name of the town where he grew up – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and ‘Qunu‘ respectively. Since last week I thought that nothing could be more unpronounceable that the Danish rødgrød med fløde, yet I have now  changed my opinions completely. In terms of phonetics, Xhosa is quite of a tricky one. The hardest bit is certainly the clicking sound system, traditionally considered by many a form of primordial human language – theory that has now been disproved. This particular linguistic feature has been borrowed from the Khosian languages, which use clicks quite extensively. Xhosa has three types of plain clicks, two Dental/Alveolar (central and lateral, written respectively as c and x) and Postalveolar, conveyed with the q. The word ‘Xhosa’ itself begins with the former. Although we might find it not that hard to imitate the sounds, put them into actual words and use them in a flowing conversation sounds like madness. Not to mention singing…

It’s an agglutinative language, that means that it makes uses of lots of prefixes and suffixes to convey the role each word has in a sentence. As most African languages, it is quite complex and certainly its odd phonetical features do not help the external learner. The official languages of higher education in South Africa are English and Afrikaans, yet at least nine institutions use Xhosa and the language is taught in primary and secondary school extensively throughout the country. The number of its speakers and thus its political relevance makes it particularly influential; it also appeals the curiosity of linguists from all over the world, expectedly fascinated by the weird clicks. However, no matter how surprised people might feel hearing this language, this phenomenon is closer than we think. According to Susanne Fuchs, Laura L. Koening and Ralf Winkler, German – yes, that German, one of the three official languages of the European Union – actually possesses a (weak) form of click. (click here to read the article). Close analysis have showed how in phrases like ‘Er nascht Kitschende‘ or ‘Er nascht Tischende‘ a so-called lingual ingessive airstream mechanism occurs – fancy words that simply describe, for instance, that funny sound kids make to recall a horse trotting.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students' Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students’ Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Sala kakuhle!

African Languages, Senza categoria , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

B for Bilingualism

Aneta Pavlenkos’s Emotions and Multilingualism is at the moment the linguistics book that is keeping me company on my daily journeys to campus. Or while I’m working at the Gallery, during some occasional dead shift. I must admit I have just started it, therefore it’s very likely that my next articles will be affected by the amazing discoveries I will make every now and then, page after page.

Still, since the very beginning I have come across a bunch of particularly interesting points. Including a parenthesis on names and definition, a hodgepodge of letters and numbers, like a series of equations. In short, we have L1 (Language 1) i.e. the language acquired first, regardless the individual’s competence, at any phase of their life. It may happen that that this individual hasn’t been speaking L1 for decades. The latter is actually a very specific case, as generally L1 corresponds to one’s mother-tongue. L2, L3 and L4 (and so on) come afterwards, i.e. other languages acquired in everyday life contexts, NOT in educational environment. In the latter case, Second Language Acquisition scholars speak about FL, Foreign Language. Most recent studies have redetermined the linguistic vocabulary, as it now takes into account discussions on bilingualism o multilingualism; the phrase L2 user sounds by far more politically correct than ‘non-native speaker’. But hang on, the best is yet to come.

At university I have met quite a few multilingual mates whose ‘case’ were to me pretty bizarre. They designate a certain language as L1, nonetheless their competence is, grammar- or phonetics-wise, much higher in their L2. How come? I ask myself.  Is it then possible to speak about mother-tongues, even though their grammar knowledge is clearly weaker if compared with their mastery of L2?

Case n. 1.  (The awkward moment when your friends turn into ‘cases’)

L1: Dutch ; L2 English ; L3: German ; FL1: Spanish FL2: Chinese ; FL3: French

Case n. 2.

L1: Dhivehi ; L2 English ; FL1: French ; FL2: Arabic

These two cases are quite impressive, associated by a common element: the prevalence of L2 over L1 – unusual form of dominant bilingualism. My reaction might seem rather superficial yet – I reiterate – I really couldn’t comprehend the oddity. I was probably used to an Italian educational reality, where the system stresses on a cultural monolingualism, accompanied (sporadically) by a tentative pragmatic bilingualism driven by trade necessity. The possible scenario where one’s mother-tongue is almost ousted by the second-comer seems to be bizarre as unfair. Why does this happen? Easy, I tend to think from a merely monolingual point of view, an approach that can also be observed in Chomsky’s linguistics theories. I will quote a relevant passage:

Traditionally, linguistics has treated L1 competence of individual speakers as a stable property, meaning that once the speaker’s language system has ‘matured’, linguistic competence would no longer be subject to change. […] (According to MacWhinney) once a local brain area “has been committed, it then begins to accept input data that lead toward a fine-tuning of the activation weights governing processing. If a second language is then to be imposed upon this pre-existing neural structure, it would directly interfere with the established set of weights. In fact, the use of transfer in second language learning allows the learner to avoid such catastrophic interference of L2 back upon L1.

As stated later on in Pavlenko’s argument, recent studies have revolutionised the way people conceptualise bilingualism. Competence in L2 is actually a ‘much more dynamic process, subject to the influence of L1 at to its attrition on L2″. Therefore this argument modernises the idea of ‘native speaker’ breaking the frames of mind hitherto imposed by traditional linguistics. We are now encouraged to think outside the box, i.e. outside our inherently monolingual mindset. We are used to think about languages as separated entities, generally detached from one another (although we still appreciate the interconnection between them). Nevertheless this perspective analyses language adding a more realistic analytical framework. I found particularly interesting how creativity and creative writing made their way into the argument. Pavlenko mentions personalities like Joseph Conrad and Ha Jin, but really, there is no need to look into classic literature. Multilingualism enhances those abilities that are employed when shaping the language for creative reasons. Case 1 is a writer in every sense, case 2 is into journalism (and her articles are pretty good, to be fair). Ultimately, I am not saying that multilingualism creates an alternative ‘language dimension’ where different languages blend together. And I am not saying that L1 and L2 become a confusing mixture of the two either. Yet I believe that the interaction between L1 and L2 especially boosts the ability to engage with language in a more diverse spectrum of aspects.

Again, L1 shapes language competences primarily, L2 completes the work. And the final outcome may result in a particularly impressive mastery of the language, backed up by a previously existing language knowledge which, eventually, works as strengthening factor. This is a much more positive perspective of the issue, where L2 is considered an ‘expansion’ rather than a deficit. Language purists tend to look at the phenomenon as the death of L1, consequently giving L2 a negative, destructive connotation. But fortunately, this is not how things really work.

Nähdään pian!

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Ab initio

I’m putting this first article together after swinging back and forth with my thoughts, in a desperate attempt to make up my mind. English or Italian? – I ask myself. English or Italian? – My life in a nutshell. The eternal question that, with barely two single words linked together by a little, tiny disjunctive, tell my life story. Ultimately, the middle ground gets the upper hand. I mean that hybrid form of border-language, that kind of English which I am not sure whether we should still call it English, or maybe something else. Words come up at random, the first to come is the right one. Yet, translations of particularly pretentious language juggling will be promptly provided, no worries!

Now that my language choices have been clarified, we can proceed to the next, crucial question, the fifth of the holy five Ws. Why?

The idea of this Blog originally stems from a latent form of exasperation shared among my group of friends, fed up with my endless rambling monologues on languages and linguistics. When people happen to talk about languages, my geeky spirit is unleashed, that’s why. Therefore, I now leave a disastrous past blogging experience behind to open up this language nook to trigger discussions on a topic I feel particularly attached to. I often come across interesting essays and articles on this subject, related to general reflections or specific research projects within the field of linguistics. As a result, I’d like to make use of this Language Watch to report and make comments about what’s happening out there, among words, phrases and sounds telling stories of other countries and cultures. Let’s see what happens!


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