October 2017 Immersion Mission: Greenland / Iceland!

Well, here it is. The month in which I present at the Polyglot Conference 2017 is finally upon us.

October 2017 also promises to be one of the most exciting months of my life to date for ANOTHER reason: I am finally going to be visiting my favorite country! (Or, what I would pick as my favorite if I had to…)

It is my great pleasure to tell you that, when the Jewish holidays conclude, I will have the priviliege of visiting Greenland!

You know what this means: I’m going to have to prepare for language immersion, much in the same way that I did before my trip to Myanmar back in May 2017.

But this time, the trip promises to be different for the following reasons:

(1) I’ve had years of experience behind each of the languages involved (even though my Greenlandic is, in my opinion, quite weak).

There are a total of three languages that I expect to use when I’m in the North Atlantic (in addition to English, if the occasion arises). Icelandic in Iceland, Greenlandic in Greenland, and Danish in Greenland (although Danish is commonly studied among Icelanders and some I’ve met speak it quite impressively, usually those that have spent time in Denmark. For those unaware: Iceland used to be part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland and the Faroe Islands still are).

(2) I also have to rehearse MY COMPLETE COLLECTION before the Polyglot Conference.

And I’m quite worried about it.

I’ll plan on bringing the following languages to the conference: English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Irish, Krio, French, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic, Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole, Myanmar / Burmese, Lao, Tongan, Guarani, and Khmer. (Ranging from “I speak this language fluently” to “I can have simple conversations in this language” in descending order. Khmer and Guarani may get the boot, but it seems unlikely that any of the others will, even though for all the languages from French downards I have gaps in my vocabulary that I need to address…)

Between rehearsing for the conference specifically and this trip specifically, I am more inclined to put effort towards my weakest languages rather than the trio that I am likely to be using during the trip. This may change during the days leading up to the trip itself.

(3) This is the first language immersion mission in which I’ll be using languages that I have strong command of.

Danish definitely, and I’ll see how my Icelandic and Greenlandic stack up (I’m inclined to think that I’ll do very well with both of them in tourist functions, and reasonably well with Greenlandic in conversation and quite well to very well with Icelandic. I’ve been rehearsing Icelandic and Danish quite regularly during my weekends, although I’ve neglected the study of my Greenlandic quite badly!)

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What sort of traps will I expect and I will I try to diffuse them?

For one, I’ve notice that by far my biggest enemy is my own self-doubt.

I’ve seen this being played out with cruel consistency at many language-exchange events. Sometimes I use the wrong word or say SOMETHING that isn’t congruent with my extremely high standards that I set for myself, and then I get vexed to the point of being self-conscious during the rest of the evening, certainly far away from being at my best.

This could even be something like “I used a word or expression that I’m not entirely sure is correct” (that’s what it usually is, come to think of it).

I think that what I’ll definitely be needing more of in this mission is more mental discipline.

Namely, well-disciplined people are more likely to control their emotional stimuli, and less-disciplined people are more like to be controlled by them. I can’t let my ego get in the way so often.

There is one good note that I’ll end on: I’ve noticed that there is a very small minority of people who, despite the fact that English is not their first language, will not use their native language with you, sometimes even if you’ve demonstrated that you’re fluent (or otherwise very good) in that language.

This has only happened a handful of times over the course of this year (and one of them was actually yesterday) and I’ve fully learned to actually disregard such people. There are few things that you can do to make me significantly lose respect for you and that is one of them. (I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll learn not to do that).

And this brings yet another issue concerning Danish in Greenland, that I won’t get too hurt if people refuse to speak Danish with me (regardless of the case) because no doubt there are painful colonial memories and a process of reconciliation involved. In places like Spain like Catalonia or the Basque Country, or in France like Brittany, or perhaps even among some Palestinians (the last of which have been, surprisingly, more than happy to converse in Hebrew with me), I can understand why they wouldn’t want to use Castillian, French or Hebrew respectively, regardless of how well I spoke it.

After all, my less-than-savory memories of previous chapters of my life in the United States have sometimes made some languag situations uncomfortable for me (e.g. sometimes using American English with foreigners makes me uncomfortable, or Yeshivish English can also rub me the wrong way at times. It reminds me of a time of my life I’d like to forget, and that world that I was a part of had a horrifying revelation that I’ll write about when it gets settled, but not until then. But prepare to be shocked.)

That was a nice note to end on.

My clothing is in the washing machine, I need to go get it.

Have a good day and keep getting closer to your dreams!

6 Reasons Why You Should Learn Breton

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Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, pick a more original picture, but this keeps in mind those that have never seen this flag before. Introducing, dear friends and followers and curious people, the flag of Brittany!

Time for me to be honest, I get vexed whenever I see a “reasons to learn popular language” post, as if they needed any more reason aside from being from (usually) very politically powerful and/or rich countries.

So this series is my response, and I’ll start with one of my favorite languages to sing in…

 

“You’re learning what…?”

Too often people will rule out potential languages to learn if they have to explain what it is to most people.

Look.

You have one life.

I understand if you may not want to spend even a small portion of that life doing a certain something.

But if you do have a desire, however small, to learn a language that most people in your community don’t even know exist, then…DO IT ANYWAY!

But you haven’t come here for my opinions, you’ve come here to learn about Breton (or maybe you just want to know what it is!)

 

What is Breton?

Breton is a Celtic Language native to Brittany, which is the area of France directly across from the English Channel. That peninsula sticking out westward towards the sea? That’s it.

But if you go to Britanny nowadays, you’ll hear mostly French spoken on the street, the reason for that being the same as why you’d hear mostly English rather than Irish in Dublin.

That said, there are movements for the revitalization of the Breton language, and there are a lot of people who know it natively (at least 100,000 people!), but most of these are older people (born in the 1950’s or so).

So given the current demographics, and despite the existence of the Diwan school network (which you can read about here), there is some cause for worry.

But luckily you, dear traveler, can help!

And if you want to hear it spoken, feel free to scroll down where you’ll encounter folk songs and heavy metal (no, not making this up!)

If you want to see it written, feel free to look at some of the links as well as Breton Wikipedia here.

And No. 6 on this list will have exciting ways for you to use the language while having fun!

 

Why Should I Learn Breton?

 

  1. Breton played a key role in the history of Britain and France

 

Bretons were essential in turning the tide of victory to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, one that ultimately decided the future of the world’s most powerful language today.

After the Normans defeated the Saxons and set up “house” in England, Bretons migrated from across the English Channel to Cornwall, making the Celtic languages there, especially Cornish, more similar to Breton.

The Celts played a role in influencing both Britain and France, and their influence in turn has been spread over the entire world, despite the fact that all Celtic languages alive today are endangered.  Enya’s “March of the Celts” describes them as “Beo go deo / Marbh go deo” (Irish for “Alive forever / Dead Forever”), and ever since hearing these words, I’ve noticed that the not-completely-subtle-nor-completely-invisible influence of Celtic Languages and Cultures has spread throughout the entire globe.

Brittany is no exception, and among some well-known people of Breton heritage you may have heard of are Jack Kerouac and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom used the language at various points.  (General de Gaulle’s uncle was a Breton poet! De Gaulle = V’ro Chall. Bro C’hall = Gaul Country = France)

Brittany continues to play a role in popular culture in the Francophone world the same way that Scotland does in the Anglophone world. What’s more, people with Breton names live in all continents, by virtue of the fact that France actually has territory in more time zones than Russia does (!!!)

 

  1. Like Singing but Can’t Play Instruments? Breton is for you!

 

Almost all of the Breton music I have heard sounds equally fantastic when sung solo as it would be on highly produced recordings.

If you like Open Mic nights and want to impress people with something exotic and memorable, getting to know Breton music for a while would be highly worth your time!

Denez Prigent (his last name is pronounced as in French), best known for songs of his that were featured in works of American popular culture such as “Black Hawk Down” and “South Park”, learned Breton from his grandfather and has since become a powerful voice of Breton music.

This is the song that was featured in both of these works, and I know it isn’t particularly creative of me to include it, but I have to include it because some of you may have that “wow, I actually know this song from somewhere”. Lyrics and information in the description of the video:

(This song has since been covered dozens of times as well, and I highly recommend you check out Denez Prigent’s other albums, “Irvi” and “Sarac’h”, some songs are very helpful for advanced beginners, others are quite arcane, however…)

And for those seeking something more energetic and wondering. “Cool…got any heavy metal?”

This is for you (title translates to “The Sailors are Dead”, one thing you’ll notice about Breton is that, like Ye Olde English, the sentence structure actually reads “Dead are the Sailors”. I’m also curious if I’m the only one that thinks of the NES game “Zelda II” when I listen to this):

I’ve found myself genuinely a changed man as a result of Breton music. What’s more, because I am a synagogue cantor as well as (insert my other six odd jobs here), I’ve found inspiration in the a capella melodies of many a Breton singer.

What’s more Alan Stivell, the godfather of Breton music nowadays, is Jewish via his mother’s side (!)

Don’t lie! You’ve heard that melody before! (“Son ar Chistr” = the Cider Song, has to be the only drinking song I’ve found included in a phrasebook [!]).

This song’s melody has been included in various other pop songs all over the world, and is a Breton melody from the 1920’s (if I recall correctly).

One of those tunes that stays with you forever, isn’t it?

 

  1. The amount of public domain songs that exist in Breton is staggeringly high!

Do you like singing?

Even if you don’t like singing, do you want to use classical and vaguely familiar songs in your creative work?

Good news!

Lots and lots of Breton songs are out there, waiting to be discovered!

As well as heart-rending poetry that YOU may be the next great translator of!

Putting this in google.fr set to Breton and clicking on “Ar Voul zo Ganin!” gets me this:

http://per.kentel.pagesperso-orange.fr/

And that’s just 101.

 

  1. Standard Breton pronunciation is straightforward

To the very untrained ear, Breton and French are spoken with identical registers. Not surprising. I tell people who aren’t aware of what Breton is that “Breton is almost like Welsh spoken in a French accent” (even though Cornish is a lot closer, actually).

While there are some tricky sounds, including the c’h that is actually pronounced as a separate letter from “ch” (c’h = guttural sound like “Bach”, ch = sh sound in English), as well as some consonants/vowels that disappear in spoken speech (think New Englanders not pronouncing t’s) as well as shenanigans with the “ñ” sound (you’ll see this letter at the end of words in Breton), vowels are straightforward and diphthongs, while also slightly tricky, don’t take long to get used to.

Accented syllables are almost pronounced as two, and look for these on the penultimate syllable.

An iliz = the church. To be pronounced “on “ee-ee-leez”.

So much fun!

What’s more, there is at least one Breton-Language song I am aware of that is generally available in karaoke outlets in France. Probably one of the most recognizable Celtic songs on the planet, actually!

 

 

  1. By learning Breton, You Take a Stand Against Cultural Assassination

 

There are those that say that Breton has the distinction of being the one language in human history that dropped in usage more quickly than ANY other!

If you can read French, have a look at some of these chilling quotes under the section: “Les langues ne meurent pas toutes seules…” (Languages don’t die by themselves)

http://brezhoneg.gwalarn.org/yezh/kinnig.html

I’ll translate a few of them for you:

 

“For the linguistic unity of France, it is necessary that the Breton Language disappear

“There is no place for regional languages and cultures in a France that must make its mark upon Europe”

“A rule that I would never bend: not a word of Breton, neither in class nor at recess”

“Keep in mind, gentlemen, that you have only been put in place in order to kill the Breton Language”

 

I will spare you the rest of them.

It may or may not be “your” culture, but if you can play “doctor” to someone else’s culture or language, it will give you an extraordinary warm feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are, in this critical moment in time, taking the side of those who have been unfairly treated.

 

  1. Despite the fact that the Republic of France declares French the sole official language of the country, the opportunities to use Breton will grow despite of, or perhaps because, of this policy.

 

And while history can’t be undone, I think that people everywhere are more open to the idea of reviving and nourishing cultures that have been suppressed. And even within France, there are a lot of initiatives, from bottom to top, encouraging the usage of Breton and furthering its publicity.

Even if you are a not a native speaker, you can help! Let people know about the Breton Language, its music, its poetry, and the cultural aspects that may not seem as foreign to the ordinary American / Frenchman / Brit / (anyone else) as he or she may imagine.

The curiosity you spark in other people may very well start their journeys, and it is likely that you may have a deeper impact on creating cultural awareness than you realize!

Last year, one of Denez Prigent’s songs was featured on an episode of South Park (I found out this out at a Jewish youth event in Brooklyn, of all places…), and that by itself caused a lot of people to become curious. You may not be an extraordinary pop culture icon (yet), but you can still do something!

There will come a day in which Breton will come to Google Translate (as it already has come to Minecraft and to Mozilla Firefox, in complete translations, no less!). There may even come more impressive and unforeseen victories still.

Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that, and proudly say to your friends and family members that you helped make it happen?

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Your boat, ready to take off for an exciting journey into Breton / Brezhoneg, that will forever change you. Note: this is Sweden, not Brittany. Sorry about that!

 

What Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Irish, and Not a Few Other Languages Have in Common

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In two days, this blog will celebrate its first birthday, and I recognize that for a handful of reasons I have not been updating this enterprise particularly well, although my own language adventures have been energized even more vigorously.

Throughout those adventures, I have noticed that there is a significant break between the languages that UNESCO notes as “Endangered” and those that it does not (and those listed as “Vulnerable” are on the borderline).

For those of you wishing to see the Atlas: http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php

It is not about the number of speakers. Yiddish has more native speakers than Icelandic does, if you take into account all Yiddish dialects (UNESCO’s atlas as well as its Red Book notes individual dialects—suffice it to say that the boundary between dialects and languages deserves another post). Faroese has more native speakers than Irish or Breton does, yet Faroese is only “Vunerable” whereas Irish is “definitely endangered” and Breton “severely endangered”.

And before you ask, what the languages have in common in the title is NOT that they are endangered: Tok Pisin actually is not (for those curious, it has over 1 million native speakers , 4 million fluent speakers at least, as well as government support).

I detect two factors between all endangered languages:

  • The fact that every single one of them has had their usage suppressed by a government. One significant horror story is that of Breton, which in 100 years went from the sole language of Brittany to being spoken by 10% of the population of the region natively…the quickest decline of a usage of any language that did not involve genocide.

The Celtic Languages in the United Kingdom, largely the poster children for Endangered languages in the Anglophone world (next to Yiddish), have similarly had their usage restricted or punished. Even now, there are some British politicians that deem the study and speaking of Celtic Languages as something tribalistic or even pagan.

To go outside Europe (but not far away from it), the story of Yiddish in Israel is well-known, deemed the language of the ghetto in the early days of the state to receiving state support in contemporary times. Israel was far from the only state suppressing the usage of Yiddish—the communist nations sought to integrate their populations into a single standard, and sometimes this vision involved “no minority languages” (although obviously this was notoriously inconsistently followed).

  • Now I get to answer the question at the beginning of the article: a lot of endangered languages (of which Tok Pisin is not, although it has this feature anyway) feature usage of components from various nations that have had an occupying presence or the like. In Irish, there is even a word for Irish that is influenced heavily by English: “Béarlachas” (the word for English is “Béarla”).

Yiddish-speakers in a place like Boro Park will notice that there is also an excess of English words that is found in many Ultra-Orthodox communities, words like “blueberries” and “challenges” are taken direction without any changes in this jargon, although you would be hard-pressed to find the equivalent in anything as assigned reading in your Yiddish-class (such as from the Forvertz).

In Tok Pisin as well, there is a split component. English is a composite language (between Norman, Saxon, Norse, Celtic and Colonial influences) as is Yiddish (between Germanic, Slavic, Latinate, other local languages and the Holy Tongue), and Tok Pisin is as well. Like Irish and Yiddish, there are words used to indicate a version of the language with overt European influence. Except for in the case of Tok Pisin, using too many European loanwords can be construed as unbelievably offensive. Not surprisingly, this variety of the language is called “Tok Masta”, which exists primarily in written text and, when it was spoken, was used primarily by condescending colonists in days of yore.

Not all languages that have this feature are endangered, but every endangered language that I have looked at does have a “purist” version as well as a version (or set thereof) that pays a significant amount of homage to the former rulers. The among of Norwegian words in a Northern Sami dictionary, for example, comes as a surprise to those not expecting the two to be related in any way. But when you consider history, it is not a surprise.

I am not someone to believe that languages influence too deeply the way we think about things (more on that in another post, perhaps). However, I am one to believe that learning languages is an excellent way to learn history and the relations between cultures. I was telling my mother, one day, a history of Celtic languages, and she paused my conversation and said, “are you saying that the history of every language is affected by who invaded where?”

It isn’t difficult to disagree or to say why. But yes.