Upon studying many languages in a similar area, you begin to realize that each language tells a story—one of its own culture’s relationships with others, one of its own culture’s struggles, and also of its hopes.
Trying to list ways to prove that is something for another time.
But another thing that happens is that you get to see certain pairs of languages which seem uncannily similar to each other.
The fact that English and Icelandic/Faroese share many idiomatic structures shouldn’t surprise anybody (e.g. “I am with child”, made famous from the story of King David, parallels an Icelandic method of indicating ownership by saying “Ég er með…”).
But here are some other pairs that are more surprising.
The fact that English and Modern Hebrew share close idiomatic links is often overlooked by the many Americans and other English speakers who take Hebrew classes every year. This is in part because of the British Mandate of Palestine, but also because of American and English-Language influence on Contemporary Israel.
The American Olim brought their idioms with them from across the Atlantic, and many of them have impacted Modern Hebrew’s development very starkly. There are people in other countries (Germany and the Netherlands come to mind) who do use lots of English words in their native-language speech, but not as often do they translate the idioms into their languages. Modern Hebrew has done exactly that, in too many examples to even count.
For those of you in Hebrew classes: see if you can notice this more often, especially if you are in an upper-level class. (I’m not giving examples here because I’m afraid the left-to-right thing might screw things up a bit…)
Another example of European influence with a non-European language has been the exchange between Danish and Greenlandic (c’mon, you guys know me by now, of course I would mention it!).
Danish favorites, such as “lev vel!” (bye bye, meaning “Live well”, “tak for sidst” (“thanks for the last time”), “vi ses” (“We [will] be seen [by each other again]”) and “velkommen (“welcome”) got translated literally into Greenlandic, courtesy of Oqaasileriffik (the “Greenlandic Language Secretariat”, which creates purist words, place names, and personal names).
I’ll give an example: “Tikilluarit” means “Welcome” in Greenlandic:
Tiki – to come
Luar – to do something well
-it – you (singular
It is a literal translation of “come well”, which is exactly what “welcome” and “velkommen” and its Germanic siblings all convey!
All modern items (computers, typewriters, etc.) can also be conveyed in Greenlandic using Danishisms (computeri, skrivemaskiina, etc)
In their idiomatic structures, Finnish and German are quite similar. Wednesday in both Finnish and German indicates “middle of the week” (“keskiviikko” and “Mittwoch”), whereas in Swedish this isn’t the case.
The compounding of nouns is nearly identical in both languages and the sentence structure in Finnish is closer to German than it would be to Swedish. This is probably due to trade routes, although definitely some German structures that existed in Swedish were thrown over to Finnish as a result of Swedish control of the region.
A surprising amount of cognates similarly exist between Northern Sami and Swedish/Norwegian. One example is that “Stora/Store” (big) becomes “Stuoris”. The word for chair is “stuollu” (stol), the word for fox is “rieban” (my first Northern Sami word, actually, coming from Norwegian “reven”).
I was shocked to see how many of these exist in the language (I can’t speak for the other Sami Languages), and nothing that I saw in Stockholm’s Nordic Museum on the Sami People and Languages alerted me that this would be the case. Like the English idioms in Hebrew, the scope of these import words is quite mind-boggling.
And for a final pair I’ll leave you with Irish and Biblical Hebrew.
Yup. You read that right. A number of my professors mentioned it throughout the years, but I still don’t have a convincing theory as to why this would be the case.
Both languages lack indefinite articles. The idea of prepositions with a personal ending exists in both. The sentence structure in both is so congruent that I find it almost frightening.
That isn’t to say that they are all the same—Irish, like Spanish and Portuguese, differentiates between two states of being (“ser” in Spanish would be “Is” in Irish, and “estar” in Spanish would be “Tá”). In Hebrew, like in Russian, there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in conjugated forms.
There are also some cognates between the other Germanic Languages and Hebrew, “אֶרֶץ” vs. “erde” (German), “לְהַצִיג” vs. “Zeigen” (also German), and others that a professor of mine told me about but don’t come to mind too easily.
One thing that I truly have noticed: sometimes similarities can note a language’s diplomacy and history. But at other times similarities are just coincidences.
I have so many of these throughout my collection of languages and beyond that I could make a case as to how any two languages are related. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean that I should.
Or maybe you’re going to put me up to the challenge?