All posts by Christopher

Making off

I have quite a few Eastern European friends, and sometimes I use English words that they don’t know, and I have to explain them. They are usually the more literary or figurative words, which may not be included in a beginner’s or even intermediate language course. The problem is that many thousands of such words, even if they are quite infrequent, are nevertheless entirely appropriate to use in everyday conversation when called for, and all native speakers know them.

 Because of its peculiar history of having Germanic, French, Latin and sometimes Greek or other strata in the same lexical fields, and because of its worldwide dominance and use in a vast array of fields, it is far from unlikely that English has the largest and richest vocabulary of any language ever known. Royal, regal and kingly stand side by side and are not entirely interchangeable in meaning and ‘feel’, whereas a language such as German has just königlich. Languages such as French and Hindi have two main strata, the native development and then forms based on older, classical versions of themselves (Latin, Sanskrit), but English is unusual in having three such strata, and in having gone from a position of subjugation that it was semi-creolized with French to such a position of prestige that it can dominate and influence with loanwords almost all other languages on the planet, while still retaining its cheery promiscuous ease in taking its pick of words from those languages, from zeitgeist (German) to wiki (Hawai‘ian).

 So if I say ‘dastardly’, ‘ominous’ or ‘cower’ or ‘hold sway’ or ‘teeter’ in conversation with my friends, I suddenly see a look of incomprehension and have to stop to explain, which is sometimes very different. Living with non-native speakers of English is probably good training for being a lexicographer though!

 It is sometimes daunting and depressing when one considers how vast the vocabulary of English is, especially when I try to learn other languages (at the moment Russian fills me with despair…). I am studying Gaelic and know it fairly well, but reading old poetry I sometimes have to look up half the words: the traditional bards had enormous vocabularies, and they lived in a world where everyone was immersed in these words all their lives and knew what they meant. Such richness in Gaelic is fading fast, it is hard to find in any speaker under 60 years old, as the language gives way to English. But if it is any comfort (agus is beag an sòlas a th’ ann dhomhsa—nach eil de dh’eanchainn ann an ceann duine a dh’fhòghnas airson dà chànan beartach taobh ri taobh? — cha jean ee cosney ping dhyt, agh chamoo nee ee coayl ping dhyt), they are replacing Gaelic with a language that probably has the richest and most fertile idiom ever known. (This is not to say Gaelic is inferior; it is still very, very rich: but a language that has millions of speakers all communicating with each other by new-fangled means never dreamed of in other ages, and drawing from so many sources, will inevitably be off the scale as regards fertility and richness of vocabulary). Of course, Anglophones often boast about their language, and claim it is the most expressive on earth: but in certain respects there may be a grain of truth in it. English is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing language to me personally (Gaelic or Welsh would be at the top of the list), and other languages may be more expressive than English in certain contexts—for example, I find Celtic languages much better for poetry than English, because in the latter the Romance and Germanic elements jar with each other in verse unless the author is very careful*—but I nevertheless maintain that English is probably the all-round most expressive and subtle language in existence. The language capacity in all humans is equal, and languages all have equal potential, and a base line of expressiveness that is the same for all languages (probably the level to which children automatically take pidgins when they make them into creoles), but nonetheless it is possible that because of various external circumstances, languages may not actually be equal in all respects.

 (*For example, I love John Donne but still think he would sound much better in Welsh or German, or even French.)

 Anyway, to get back to my L2 English-speaking friends. One of them is currently reading The Lord of the Rings (a wonderful book for demonstrating one facet of the greatness of English—Tolkien has a very good grasp of the beauty, subtlety and simplicity of earthy native and low-register or register-neutral English words and expressions. His language is generally not consciously archaic, but neither is it modern: it is timeless, as if the author was trying to capture an element of the genius of English which runs all the way through it synchronically and diachronically). My friend says he learnt the expression ‘make off’ (as in ‘depart’) from LOTR.

 This made me think about this expression and related ones. It is a phrasal verb, another thing that strongly characterizes English (and also German and Gaelic, but not Romance). There are many different types of phrasal verbs in English, including ones formed with prepositions and adverbs, and ones that are separable and inseparable. Incidentally, I have a book called The Oxford Dictionary of English Phrasal Verbs, which classifies and lists thousands of such verbs. I found this tome in a small bookshop in another town where it had been sitting so long on a shelf near the sunny window that the red on its spine had been bleached to a sickly pink. After eyeing the book on several visits over several months, I finally could not resist any longer and purchased it. One of the stated aims of the book is to be a guide to L2 learners, since phrasal verbs are one of the trickiest parts of English for foreigners.

‘Make off’ is not very frequent, and has a slightly jaunty air, and may be a tad archaic; though it is often used to mean ‘steal’, as in ‘He made off with the cutlery’. More commonly, one says ‘set off’, or ‘set out’, which are more or less synonymous except that ‘set out’ is more purposeful, and can be used in a non-literal sense: ‘He set out to kill his wife’ can mean either literally that he moved from one place to another in order to kill her, or else figuratively that he had the intention to kill her and began planning how to do it, whereas ‘he set off to kill his wife’ can only have the first meaning. Also note that ‘set about’ means almost the same as ‘set out’ in this non-literal sense, but they are syntactically different in the complement they take: one can say ‘he set about ruining my life’, but not ‘*he set about to ruin my life’; and one can say ‘he set out to ruin my life’ but not ‘*he set out ruining my life’. No wonder it’s confusing!

Much, much more could be said on this topic, but this is enough to show how complicated English is (and all other languages), and what a chore it is to learn all the subtleties. At the end of the day all you can do is keep an ear out for new things, and read, read, read a wide range of text types and look things up in dictionaries, no matter how dull or tiresome that is. However you do it, reading The Lord of the Rings is no bad place to start. I must remember to start reading The Hobbit in German again…


An animal hospital or a people one?

A linguist friend recently asked me if I thought it grammatical to say ‘Is it a medical hospital or a dental one?’. He wanted to know whether ‘medical’ and ‘dental’ are adjectives in these cases, or parts of compounds, in which case *‘dental one’ would be ungrammatical in the same way that you cannot say ‘Is it a watch maker or a clock one?’

(‘Medical’ and ‘dental’ are interesting because they do not behave like normal adjectives; for example, you cannot use them predicatively: *‘this hospital is medical’.)

I said I found nothing wrong with ‘dental one’. I then asserted that even with nouns, it seemed acceptable, at least in some circumstances: ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one?’ He was adamant that this is impossible, but it felt OK, if informal, to me.

On the other hand, ‘watch maker or clock one’ definitely seemed totally beyond the pale to both of us, even though the structure is theoretically the same as in ‘animal hospital or people one’.

Somehow ‘watch maker’ feels differently. It is not a type of ‘maker’, it is not just a compound. It feels like more like an inflexional than a derivational process, a fully grammaticalized paraphrase of a verb phrases ‘makes clocks’. ‘Watch’ still feels like a direct object in ‘watch maker’, as if ‘maker’ is closer to being an inflexion of the verb ‘to make’ than to being an independent noun. While ‘hospital’ is indisputably an open-class noun, ‘maker’, which can be compounded with any noun that the verb ‘make’ can take as direct object, feels more like a function word.

In addition, even if ‘people one’ is ungrammatical, it would be understood, and I think  speakers often use ungrammatical utterances quite deliberately but for no obvious reason and with no predictable pattern. We could call these ‘as it were’ utterances. E.g. ‘Is it an animal hospital or a people one, as it were?’. Someone I know sometimes describes wooded areas as being ‘very treey’, even though ‘treey’ is not a possible word of English’ due to its phonological bizarreness. The speaker, I am sure, is fully aware that ‘treey’ is not grammatical, you can even tell from the ironic tone of voice such items are uttered in, and these things are not the same as nonce words, which may well obey the grammar of the language and which are generally made out of necessity when no suitable word is available: one could easily say ‘The valley has lots of trees’ or ‘Is this an animal hospital or one for people?’

Of course, people love to play with words and often do all sorts of ‘abnormal’ things in their language, for various purposes, such as talking in a different accent, speaking telegraphically, using Pig Latin etc. However, the ‘as it were’ items do not seem to appear simply when conversation participants are openly using abnormal fun language, or when the things that are referred to by the ‘funny’ phrasings (trees, hospitals), are a subject of fun in the conversation: they appear fairly random. I wonder if they are a strategy of self-deprecation to get put one’s interlocutor at ease by making deliberate ‘mistakes’ and inject a little lightness and humour into an exchange which might not have any in its actual topic. The fact that you can abuse language in this way also shows that you are a creative and lively user of language, so increases your worth in the eyes of interlocutors, whilst the fact that it is random and only on a grammatical level, rather than making clever jokes at the level of meaning, means that it is unthreatening to the other person: using ‘as it were’ utterances makes you sound self-deprecatory and witty at the same time, but not too witty.

Perhaps some of the things I have been rambling about in this post have been investigated properly; if any of you can elucidate any of this stuff more clearly, I would be gratified to hear from you.

Wilhelm und Katharina, Guillaume et Catherine…

Hope you are all enjoying your extra Bank Holiday.

Here are a couple of linguistic curiosities I noticed while idly trawling foreign news sites about the royal nuptials:

On I encountered the following description of the wedding:

Moderne parce que les Royals étaient très décontractés. La tape du prince William sur l’épaule de son grand-père l’atteste. A la limite, le court baiser au lieu du French kiss témoigne de la pudeur très anglaise de ces épousailles.

[Modern because the Royals were very relaxed. The slap of Prince William on the shoulder of his grandfather attests to this. And the short kiss instead of a French kiss witnesses to the very English modesty of this wedding.]

Is there no French term for ‘French kiss’? And surely ‘les Royals’ should be ‘les Royaux’?

I then turned to, a German tabloid, where I found a video report of the day’s events. The commentator talked breathlessly about ‘Prince Herry’, the ‘Erzbischof von Kenterbury’, ‘Kefferine Middleton’, ‘Westminster Ebbey’, ‘Backinghem Pelace’ and ‘Queen Elizabeff’. The conversion of the dental fricative into a dentolabial one is understandable enough, I suppose, though it is strange that the Irish change the manner of articulation but keep the place (the fricative becomes a plosive th>t), whereas Germans and Cockneys change place of articulation but keep the manner (one type of fricative becomes another type of fricative th>f).

But why, oh why, do they have to change the vowels so egregiously?

Dear German-speaking world, please henceforth pronounce ‘Abbey’ exactly like you say your own word ‘Abi’ (the German equivalent of A-level) and you’ll be just fine (it may not be exactly right but it’ll be a darn sight better than ‘ebbey’). There is no need to change the vowel! Where did you get this strange rule (convert English short a into German umlaut a) from? I have been told it is because of American English, cf. the infamous ‘Harry Baals’, but the Germans don’t have enough of the American drawl to pull it off, so they just sound South African. (Actually I think many German accents sound closer to the English RP in their clipped, ‘refined’ sound than American, French or Scottish accents: perhaps this is because of the historical kinship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans and their languages).

The poor commentator on was obviously trying so hard to sound English though, carefully cultivating her w’s to the extent that they even appeared where they are not wanted (apparently there is a famous English footballer called ‘Dawid Beckham’).

Why, though, do speakers of other languages feel such a need to bend over backwards to conform themselves to English? Why was it ‘die Queen’ who arrived at Vestminster Ebbey and not ‘die Koenigin’? And why is it ‘Prince William’ and not ‘Prinz Wilhelm’ or ‘Prince Guillaume’? After all, in English we talk of ‘Frederick the Great’, not ‘Friedrich der Grosse’.

The only language I know that defiantly translates foreign names as far as possible is Scottish Gaelic. So ‘Prince William agus Catherine Middleton’ would be ‘am Prionnsa Uilleam agus Catriona Middleton’. On the BBC Gaelic news service, we here regularly about ‘Daibhidh Camshron’ (David Cameron – Camshron is actually a Gaelic surname and means ‘crooked nose’) and his sidekick ‘Seoras Osborne’ (George Osborne). The Queen is ‘Banrigh Ealasaid’ and Prince Charles is ‘am Prionnsa Tearlach’. The notorious mutation rules are applied ruthlessly too, so ‘the BBC’ is ‘am BBC’ but ‘on the BBC’ (in the dative case) is ‘air a BhBC’ (pronounced ‘VBC’).

The lesson of all this? Stand up to English, but if you insist on using it, speak it properly! (A bit prescriptivist I know, but it is a Bank Holiday…)

Last comment: on the theme of German and big events, isn’t it strange that the Germans call Eurovision the ‘Grand Prix’? Lena in an F1 car, now that would be interesting… Talking of which, why in Germany’s entry this year does she sing ‘stranger things are starting to begin’? What does this even mean? Is it an oxymoron, or a tautology??? Rebecca Black makes more sense…

How is dog?

An interesting phenomenon I have noticed in L2 speakers of English. When they ask for a word in another language, they often say ‘How is X in Zulu?’ (random language to avoid identification of speakers), or ‘How do you call X in Zulu?’ This sounds very strange to native English speakers. I have noticed it consistently in two speakers from of two different Slavic languages. I assume it comes from their own language, cf. Russian ‘kak vas zovut?’ – what is your name? literally ‘how do they call you?’.

It sounds particularly strange when they abbreviate the question, as native speakers would say ‘What is ‘dog’?’ for ‘What is ‘dog’ in Zulu?’. When these speakers say ‘How is ‘dog’?’, I have to suppress a terrible urge to say ‘Dog is fine thanks.’

What intrigues me is that these speakers have very good English, speak it fluently and generally without noticeable errors, and yet this ‘how’ instead of ‘what’ stubbornly remains in what is a very fundamental phrase. You’d think that, in learning a new language, one of the first phrases you would want to master would be how what something is called, and that it would not be too hard for people to learn it correctly.

In English you can say:
What is the Zulu for ‘dog’?
What do you call a dog in Zulu?
What is ‘dog’ in Zulu?
How do you say ‘dog’ in Zulu?

Most of these expressions use ‘what’, and I think there is a semantic difference between them. We use ‘what’ to ask for a definite, objective, particular name for something. What is ‘dog’? means ‘What is the particular word equivalent to ‘dog’ in Zulu?’ Whereas with ‘how’ – which I would use most naturally to ask for sentences or idiomatic things, like ‘how do you say hello in Zulu’ – being aware that there are many differentr ways of greeting people, and not necessarily a particular word corresponding to ‘hello’. So ‘how’ is used to ask for a means of saying something, whereas ‘what’ asks for a particular word with the implication of one-to-one correspondence.

In these other languages, however, ‘how’ is used not just in this way, but also to ask for a particular name, even in expressions corresponding to ‘What are you called?’. It is as if a Russian thinks of ‘Christopher’ as a method of referring to me, whereas an English speaker thinks of my name as a particular albeit abstract ‘object’.

It is not just Slavic languages. In French you say ‘Comment tu t’appelles? literally ‘How do you call yourself?’, in German it is ‘Wie heisst du?’‘How are you called?’
(actually the verb is active, there is no equivalent in modern English. But in Old English it was ‘Hu hattest þu?’ (the thing that looks like a p is thorn, a th, thu = thou = du), with the same verb as German, and saliently, it used ‘how’ not ‘what’!)

The only European languages I know that say ‘what are you called?’ and ‘what is X in Zulu?’ are the Celtic languages. In Scottish Gaelic for example, you ask someone’s name by saying ‘dè an t-ainm a tha ort?’, lit. ‘what’s the name that’s on you?’. To ask the word for something, you would say ‘Dè a’ Ghàidhlig a tha air ‘dog’?’ – ‘What’s the Gaelic that’s on ‘dog’?’ or ‘Dè chanas tu ri ‘dog’?’ – ‘What do you say to a dog?’ but meaning ‘what do you call a dog?’, or ‘Dè th’ agad air ‘dog’? – ‘What [word] do you have on ‘dog’?’ All of these use ‘what’, not ‘how’.

It has been proposed – by J R R Tolkien among others – that there is a British Isles Sprachbund incorporating English and the Celtic languages. There are a number of syntactic and phonological features that look suspiciously similar to Celtic and not found in the other Germanic languages. For example, ‘I am working’, ‘I was working’ – this sort of thing is normal – in fact more common than in English – in Welsh and Irish, but you can’t say ‘Ich bin arbeitend’ in German. The ‘do’-auxilliary is another thing. So is the survival of dental fricatives (th sounds) and the labiovelar approximant (w) (sounds very frequent in Welsh). Note that in Modern English we say ‘what are you called?’ but in Old English it is exactly the same as German ‘how are you called?’ – Hu hattest thu? (Wie heisst du?). Perhaps the ‘what’ is a substratal influence from Celtic peasants who imported their own usages into English, while the noble elite carried on using the pure Germanic until eventually the vernacular variant bubbled up and became dominant (for this argument in relation to progressive forms, see Dal 1952: 113)

If you’re interested, read ‘The Celtic Roots of English’ (Filppula, Klemola and Pitkanen, 2002). Whether it has anything to say about ‘how’ and ‘what’ I don’t know, since I have only just started reading it. Ond pwnc diddorol yw e beth bynnag!

Dal, Ingerid (1952). ‘Zur Entstehung des englischen Participium Praesentis auf -ing’. Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap
(What a wonderful journal title – Sprogvidenskap is Norwegian for ‘linguistics’. cf. German Sprachwissenschaft – speechknowledgeship, or speechwitship as it probably ought to be if 1066 hadn’t happened.)


The joyful unanimous cries of ‘aye, aye’ at the Langsoc AGM made me think of doing a post on words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In English there are informal and neutral / formal versions of both the affirmative and the negative, namely ‘yeah’ and ‘yes’, and ‘no’ and ‘na(h)’. There are also dialectal / archaic versions, ‘aye’ and ‘nay’, which you will still hear in Scotland and many other dialects, as well as in the House of Commons where ‘the ayes have it’ if the vote is passed. Another archaic / literary version of ‘yes’ is ‘yea’, which is especially associated with Biblical English as an emphatic word meaning roughly ‘indeed’.

This word ‘yea’ was brought to my attention the other day when I noticed a certain L2 English speaker of my acquaintance writing ‘yea’ in an e-mail or a blog or something. When I read this and said it in my head, it jarred strongly. What was the solemn, Biblical ‘yea’ doing in the middle of a modern, colloquial text? Maybe it was a deliberate idiosyncracy—after all, I occasionally thou people when I’m in an Early Modern English mood. But no, they used ‘yea’ consistently, in multiple places. Then it hit me: they meant ‘yeah’. There is a slight difference in pronunciation, ‘yea’ rhymes with ‘hay’ whereas ‘yeah’ has the vowel of ‘get’, but a massive difference in connotation and stylistic tone. I had never realized before then how close and yet how far apart these two words for ‘yes’ are in English. Moral of the story: silent h’s can be very important sometimes.

In English, there is a two-way distinction ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but in French and German there is a difference between a straight ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to a negative (oui, si, non; ja, doch, nein) e.g. Tu ne nous accompagnes pas. Si! Du kommst nicht mit. Doch! You’re not coming with us! Yes I am! In English you have to add to add a pronoun and a verb to clarify what you mean. As I said in my last post, I think ‘si’ and ‘doch’ are awesome and wish we had them in English. But all of these languages lack this distinction for ‘no’. I have always thought it would be good if there were some way of identifying what we mean when we say ‘no’ in the following context: Aren’t you coming with us? No. Does this mean ‘no I’m not’, or ‘no, you’re wrong, I AM coming’. We have all experienced queries of the kind “Do you mean ‘no you’re not coming’ or ‘no you are coming’?”

The Celtic languages don’t have single words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at all. Instead, you repeat the verb of the question in an affirmative or negative way. This is a bit like in English saying. Are you going? I am. / I am not. except you leave out the pronouns and just say ‘Am’, ‘Am not’.

Examples from Scots Gaelic:

A bheil thu a’ dol? Tha. Chan eil. Notice the suppleted forms, tha and eil are both present tense forms of the verb to be.

And if there is no auxilliary, you repeat whatever verb it is:

Did you go? (Went you?) Went. Not went.

An deach thu? Chaidh. Cha deach. (Again, suppleted forms.)

This is observed without fail by native speakers, no matter how long the verb is.

So forget is notoriously long (especially the spelling) in Gaelic.

Did you forget. Yes (Forgot). No (Not forgot).

An do dhìochuimnich thu? Dhìochuimhnich. Cha do dhìochuimhnich. Note that ‘do’ is a past tense marker.

Tag questions and various other things are done similarly (e.g. I didn’t forget. Why not? would be I didn’t forget. Why not forgot? you can’t just say Why not?) but I’ll leave it there.

Apologies to the ‘yeah’ ‘yea’ person if they are reading this. I used this example in the interests of linguistics! Forgive me.

PS. ‘Thou’ is the correct English verb for ‘tutoyer’ or ‘dutzen’. OED 1603: All that Lord Cobham did was by thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou Traitor! (i.e. I refer to thee with the pronoun ‘thou’ (accusative ‘thee’, genitive ‘thy’) to emphasize my contempt for thee.

Unnatural natives: the paradoxes of second-language learning

Prof Antonella Sorace’s recent SoapVox lecture on bilingualism raised intriguing questions for me, who have Manx Gaelic as a fully fluent second language. In case you don’t know, Manx is the currently being revived language of the Isle of Man in the centre of the British Isles, officially having ‘died out’ in 1974 and now spoken, according to the latest census, by about 1,600 people. Manx is a language of contradictions and anomalies: extinct as a community language, and yet used by a strong and vibrant community of friends and acquaintances who have never used any other language but Manx to speak to each other; most of the best speakers of the language are children or young adults, yet almost none of them are native speakers; there are reputedly a handful of L1 speakers from language activist families, but they learned this their native language from high-level L2 speakers; I regard Manx as the native language of the Isle of Man, and English as a foreign language, yet English is my first language; all Manx people speak English natively and yet it is not a native variety of the language, being still influenced slightly by Gaelic idiom, vocabulary and phonology.

All this raises the question: what is a native speaker, and how do you draw the line? Is someone who learns a language as a second language in childhood by unconscious absorbtion a native speaker of that language? What am I? A ‘near-native’ speaker, to use Prof Sorace’s term, like those who learn a language as adults to an almost perfect level? But I learnt the basis of the language in childhood, still just about within the ‘critical period’, so can I be a ‘semi-native speaker’ or some such thing? And what about personal idiosyncracy, talents and circumstances? I confess to being a language nerd: I have perhaps a greater curiosity and powers of observation for grammar, idiom etc. than the average person. Most people who learn languages, or even think about their first language, tend to take things for granted and just gloss over syntactic, idiomatic or lexical issues they don’t fully understand; they are content to get the gist. I’m not looking down on this approach: those people might read something in French or German much faster than I would, because I feel driven to spend hours consulting dictionaries or interrogating bemused native speakers to tease out the exact nuances of the language. This perfectionism or hyper-curiosity sometimes irritates me for these very reasons; I can’t sit down and enjoy reading Les Misérables or L’Etranger without underlining every other word in pencil and spending hours investigating one phrase. If I don’t do this and just read for gist, I feel guilty and can’t sleep, for I have missed an opportunity to broaden my knowledge of some intricate new use of a dative or a subjunctive or a particular word or whatever! My curiosity makes me want to learn new languages, and I feel depressed and guilty if I haven’t learnt a new tongue recently; but then learning too many languages means I haven’t the time to dedicate myself properly to any one of them, and so I don’t acquire them as well as I would like, and this also makes me feel depressed and guilty.

The upshot of this personal idiosyncracy / talent is that I am better (at least I think so) at picking up finickity* details of languages than most other people. By finickity details, I mean things like the pronoun distinction discussed by Prof Sorace (e.g. in German you use ‘er, sie, es’ or ‘der, die, das’ based on which individual you are referring to in context). From my personal experience, I remember working out that inversion could be used in German instead of the word ‘wenn’ (if), and then realising you can do that to a limited extent in English (Had I seen him, I would have… v. Haette ich ihn gesehen, haette ich…), and being delighted by working out the same could be used for ‘as if’, unlike in English: ‘als haette ich…’ for ‘als ob ich…haette’. This was long before I was taught this formally. I was fascinated when I worked out that inversion could also be used in a certain type of negative reply (e.g. Du koenntest mir dein Auto leihen. Koennte ich nicht!) I also remember being excited to work out by myself that in German you don’t stroke someone’s hair, you stroke to them over the hairs.

I asked Prof Sorace whether part of the reason near-native adult L2 speakers have some trouble with the ‘er/der’ pronoun distinction2 is that little details like this are often not taught in language classes; many teachers, even if they are native speakers of the target language, are probably not even aware of such distinctions. I wondered whether research into these subtleties with which even the best learners tend to have trouble could be applied to make teaching methods and textbooks better and more effective. Prof Sorace said that I might have a point, but questioned whether conscious (‘explicit’) knowledge of such things as the ‘der/er’ distinction would actually make much difference in the split-second subconscious choices we make in fluent speech. She thought ‘implicit’ knowledge, that is, what we absorb without consciously learning, would be more important in these cases. She gave the example of English prosody, which she as an Italian still has trouble with today. She said people occasionally point out the mistakes she makes with stress and so on, and sometimes she remembers these tips and uses them to inform her speech, but most of the time probably not.

I agree with this to some extent; certainly from my own experiences of learning other languages, and from observing non-native English-speaking friends who continue to have rather strange stresses and pronunciations in certain words, despite my having repeatedly corrected them, I can see that explicitly-learned knowledge has an uphill struggle (or a downhill struggle?) to get embedded in our automatic language-producing faculties. However, is it not possible (indeed, necessary, if people who learn languages partly from verb tables etc. are ever to be fluent at all), for this ‘explicit’ knowledge to migrate and become ‘implicit knowledge’; then the speaker will have the information as both explicit and implicit knowledge at the same time. After all, the other way round certainly happens, for as linguists the very nature of our subject means that we look on our first language with the eyes of the outsider, and what was purely sub-conscious implicit knowledge about particular syntactic feature of English, for example, then co-exists with explicit conscious knowledge of the same phenomenon.

I perceive that there is a difference in the way a native or native-equivalent speaker thinks about a given linguistic phenomenon, in that I know about the ‘hair-stroking’ thing in German as a fact, whereas a German speaker has a ‘feel’ for the naturalness of that expression that I may not be able to grasp. On the other hand, I may doch be able to grasp it. I inserted that doch because that is a very useful German word that I long ago got a native-style feel for (or at least a native-style feel for some of its uses; the German particle system with its legions of mal’s, eben’s, wohl’s, aber’s, ja’s, nur’s and schon’s remains a frustrating mystery to me, like a garden of delights with very high walls). I fell in love with the word doch so much (‘Aren’t you coming? Yes I am’ would sound much better if ‘Yes I am’ were replaced by a crisply-barked ‘Doch!’) that I sometimes feel myself wanting to say it in English, and find it choking in my throat as I realize with disappointment that there is nothing corresponding in the insular Saxon dialect (for the cognate though has a different meaning). Or I will give you an example of how Manx influenced how I used to think about other languages I was learning. Now Manx is a VSO language, and I assimilated this fact and got thoroughly used to it very early on. A couple of years after I learnt this fact of Manx grammar—to the point that it seemed entirely natural to me to have verbs before subjects—I started to learn French grammar in earnest3. I found myself staring at French sentences, feeling that there was something wrong with them. Somehow the sentences felt naked or bare, as if something was missing but I could not tell what. Was it the verb? No, the verb was there. Then it struck me: the verb was in the wrong place. The sentences felt ‘naked’ to me because the verb was not in its proper place according to Gaelic syntax, even though it was perfectly-formed French. This experience demonstrates how this feature of Manx grammar, which I must have learnt consciously as explicit knowledge at some point, had become fully naturalized in my mind to the point that it affected my gut-reactions to a completely different language. Of course, English is SVO the same as French, but was not affected because English was already naturalized within me and I did not think about it consciously to the same extent as the completely new French. A couple of paragraphs ago I wrote ‘…working out the same could be used for ‘as if’, unlike in English…’. When I was writing that sentence, I had a terrible urge to type the French ‘à la différence de l’anglais’ because it somehow felt better in that particular sentence, more ‘natural’, while ‘unlike’ in that position felt clumsy for some reason. But being unable to think of a better word or expression in English, and realizing that not everyone reading this blog will know French, and that even those who do would be perplexed to find random phrases of that language in the middle of my English for no apparent reason, I forced myself to be satisfied with what somehow still feels less natural and less fitting to me. Another example: when planning in my mind this paragraph we are in now, I had an urge to use the French phrase ou bien to introduce the third example; since English seems to have nothing that sounds as fitting and as natural to introduce a second alternative. (e.g. Il fait X. Ou il fait Y. Ou bien il fait Z.) The English ‘or again’ sounds stilted to me, using ‘or’ more than once on its own is clumsy, ‘secondly, thirdly’ etc. is both stilted and clumsy, and the other translation of ou bien, ‘or else’, would not work in this context. I hope these anecdotes help to show how words and expressions of a non-native language can become naturalized in a learner’s brain, perhaps up to the point where the whole language is similarly naturalized. I wonder if it is meaningful to be a native speaker of certain parts of a language, even of individual expressions. I am not a native speaker or even anywhere near a near-native speaker of French or German, but am I a native speaker of à la différence de, ou bien and doch?

I will try to express more clearly what I mean by getting a native-style ‘feel’ for points of idiom, grammar and lexis. When I come across something I am not fully familiar with, such as the use of doch or the different use of il and celui or er and der depending on whether we are talking about the former or the latter of two third-person actors, at first I may not understand what is going on completely, then I will work it out from context, logic and repeated exposure (with occasional recourse to a grammar book or dictionary or native speaker if I am really stuck, unsure or want confirmation for my suppositions) why exactly different forms are used, and I will know it as a conscious fact, as explicit knowledge. But I always try to imagine what a native-speaker feels when he uses that piece of his language, to get inside the native speaker’s head by means of imagination, empathy, intuition, comparison with what I already know of that language and others, to get as close as possible to the flavour, the taste, the blas (as a Gael would say) of that fragment of the language. Sometimes I only get a hint of it, only a hint of what the native speaker thinks and feels in using that expression or idiom; sometimes I ‘see’ the native-speaker thought-mode floating around in my imagination like a ball of light, and if I concentrate I can touch it, taste it or enter into it fully for a while; and eventually it may embed itself in me

I realise most of the last paragraph (and this blog in general) is very subjective and not very technical, but I hope it conveys something of the serious points I am trying to get across, and at least illustrates to some extent how my own mind works when it comes to learning and ‘getting a feel’ for languages, even if it may not apply to everyone. I have little knowledge of bilingualism and language acquisition research beyond what I have heard in introductory lectures, and I realize that my amateur intuitions and deductions are groping in the dark; but I hope I am groping in the right direction.

It is possible to know a language to a very high level but still be a fairly mediocre speaker of it. For example, I must know tens of thousands of German words and idioms, but I don’t really speak that language very well; I could know nine tenths of the language, and still be rubbish at it, because I could know nine tenths of every word and expression: that is, be only nine tenths certain of the form and uses of every word, and so though knowing 90% of the total contents of the language, I would still be very bad at speaking it because I would be uncertain and hesitent about every single word. Or very often before we fully learn a word it hovers in our mind half written into memory: that is, we are vaguely aware the word exists, might recognize it if we saw or heard it, and even if we didn’t, would slap our forehead when taught it again, saying, ‘I knew I’d learnt that word before!’ Imagine that all the words we knew of a language were in this half-remembered state. Imagine that I know every single word that exists in German, but only in this state of half-knowledge. That means I would know 50% of the whole language, or rather 100% of the whole language, at 50% competency; but in practice I would have trouble recalling and producing a single one of these words that I half-remember.

Of course, really language learning does not work like this, but these thought experiments are meant to show that even if you know very large amounts and proportions of a language, the gulf between your competence and native-level competence might be almost as wide as if you were not far past being a beginner. It also means that you might reach native level quite suddenly after being in the doldrums of semi-knowledge for a large part of the language-learning journey; this was certainly my experience with Manx, when I quite suddenly found myself fluent when I was about twelve or thirteen (I learnt the basics of the grammar and vocabulary when I was between seven and ten, already had a high-level intermediate knowledge of the language when I started high-school, passed the GCSE with A* when I was thirteen and the A-level at A grade when I was fourteen and had published a book in the language by the time I was fifteen).

If I assimilate a structure thoroughly enough, then I feel the same sensation of abhorrence and nausea when it is misused that everyone gets when a foreigner or a learner mutilates their native language, as if someone said ‘dogs barks’ instead of ‘dogs bark’ or ‘I want going out’ instead of ‘…to go out’. I don’t know if others feel as pained as me when they hear things like this—maybe it is partly just my own perfectionism and intolerance—but I am sure that everyone gets a feeling of ‘wrongness’ when they hear their native language mutilated in this way. Outside of English, this happens with me most of all in Manx of course, and I will give you a specific example and some implications thereof.

Manx Gaelic has possessive determiners which precede the noun, just as in English. Thus ‘my hie’ means ‘my house’, with ‘my’ (in which the ‘y’ is an unstressed schwa) meaning ‘my’ and ‘thie’ (pronounced like English ‘tie’ but with a dental t, NOT a fricative) being the word for ‘house’. (There is also the issue of mutation: ‘my’ lenites the following words but this is not significant for our purposes.) However, the Gaelic possessives, à la différence de l’anglais,  are clitics and cannot be stressed. In English, when we want to emphasize the possessive and say ‘this is MY house, not yours’, we do this by stressing the possessive. This is a feature of English that goes right through the language: anything we want to emphasize attracts exaggerated stress. In Gaelic, however, emphasis is shown by changing word order and using cleft sentences (something also possible in English to some extent), and/or at the level of individual words by adding emphatic suffixes, something that does not exist in English. Thus, to say ‘MY house’ in Manx, we do not change the stress on ‘my’; in fact the prosody of the phrase does not really alter at all. Instead, a suffix –’s is added to the noun: my hie’s = MY house. Morphology is more important than prosody in other areas of Gaelic grammar too: for example, in asking questions there is no question intonation, because the interrogative nature of the sentence is made clear (in most cases) by using a different form of the verb with a special interrogative particle. (in Irish and Scottish, it has been elided in Manx) [Stress and why going up is a bad thing,]. English first-language speakers, even when they are aware of the difference in how emphasis is shown in Gaelic, find it very difficult to get their heads round this rule, because stressing possessives and anything else you want to emphasize seems so natural to them. It wouldn’t occur to them that it could be done in another way, and even if they explicitly know that it is done with suffixes instead of stress, they still don’t ‘feel’ the emphatic nature of saying something in a deadpan accent with just a sibilant stuck on the end to make the difference. I certainly found this. However, those learners who are aware of this rule and struggle with it are the lucky ones: most learners probably never become consciously aware of it, because they are never taught it; for most teachers, even (or perhaps especially) if they are native speakers of the target language, are probably unaware of many of these ‘little details’, such as the Gaelic emphatic structures or the German ‘er/der’ distinction. However, I believe that these little details are in a way the most important, and the most in need to conscious teaching and learning, for reasons I will outline below.

Even teachers who notice, consciously understand, and appreciate the importance of the little details, tend not to press or enforce them too much, neither do they often correct them in the speech of learners, for fear of putting them off or destroying their confidence or willingness to continue learning. I suppose they think that if you correct them too frequently and for the small, trivial things, they will be cheesed off, and feel that their effort in mastering the large parts of the language is being ignored, while all their little slip-ups are condemned. I however, think it has to be done, and the pupil will be fine with it if it is explained to hin why it is done and that he is not being ‘bad’, and that the corrections are not vindictive. If he really wants to learn, he will accept this, and be willing to cope with such frequent micro-correction, if it means he acquires an accurate grasp of the language faster, which is presumably what he wants. Indeed, I think correction of the small points is more important, for the big mistakes in basic grammar and vocabulary use—the things he probably will be corrected on— will be so obvious and so frequent, and cause such major misunderstandings in discourse, that the learner will almost certainly work them out even by himself even without being corrected by others; on the other hand, the little things do not by themselves often cause enormous problems, and because there is no consequent pressure to identify and eliminate these little errors, and because they are rarely corrected or pointed out to him, they persist for much longer than is necessary, perhaps for ever. This can dishearten learners, for they are stuck with being an ‘okay speaker’ for a long time, but with a vague feeling of continuing inadequacy with no end in sight. For it is the little things that separate him from being a native-level speaker, and even if his language is 95% felicitous, and mostly fully comprehensible and articulate, but it continues to be peppered with little errors, then the learner is still marked out as a learner just as much as if he only knew a few words. Of course, some learners may be content to remain in an intermediate stage, for they know the language well enough for their purposes, and do not have the time, resources or desire to reach perfection. However, I suspect that most people who bother to expend lots of time, mental effort and possibly money to learn a language to a fairly high level would be very willing to take the final step up, and I feel that they would be much better assisted in this endeavour, if linguistically-aware language teachers focussed more on honing the little details rather than just glossing over them and hoping that the learner will just ‘pick them up’ as they are exposed to the language. Of course, many bright people are able to pick things up in this way to some extent; but that does not mean that explicit teaching does not have a valuable auxiliary role to play, especially if the learner has little access to exposure in the language, or for learners whose are not so talented as others might be in noticing and assimilating things4.

Most language teaching materials seem to work on this false assumption that learners who have reached a high level do not require much help with the details. Perhaps some might not strictly need this help, but it is still very beneficial. Perhaps the compilers of language courses text-books etc., are simply lazy: they perceive that explicit explanation of all the finicky points of grammar, idiom and distinctions of vocabulary are not absolutely necessary in the way they are for beginners, and so breathe a sigh of relief and shirk the burden and the cost. Or perhaps they are daunted by the sheer vastness of the idiom of a language, so that do not see any way of categorizing and taming it (and indeed any such categorization and arranging of the language can never be perfect or comprehensive; but that does not mean we cannot aim to be comprehensive, and so aiming, produce something better than what exists now). Indeed it is a formidible task, but one that is not entirely impossible. For example, thesauruses can be developed into thematic vocabularies, which not only include the basic words, but many of the more ‘advanced’ ones that are nevertheless not that rare. There are excellent ‘basic’ vocabularies for most languages, but almost nothing at the advanced level. For example, existing thematic vocabularies will have ‘hand’ and ‘head’ under body parts, but what is there for the student who wants to learn ‘groin’, ‘shin’, ‘small of the back’, ‘lobe’, ‘palm’, ‘knuckle’. I can’t think of these off the top of my head in French or German; if I had learnt them systematically, perhaps I would do. Abstract words especially tend to be underrepresented in the systematic learning of vocabulary; but they are essential for accurately expressing emotions, for example. Synonyms are important: all too often a student learns just one term for a thing, and then passes himself off as a competent speaker of the lanmguage while remaining in utter ignorance of the other words, which have their own subtleties and power without which the language is impoverished. As an example, everyone learning Manx learns that the word for ‘anger’ and ‘angry’ is corree. All well and good; but to be able to express oneself in Manx, to have a full command of the language, surely you must also know the other words and idioms for anger: eulys, farg, elgys, jymmoose, sproght, goaill olk rish, ve trome er (compare English fury, wrath, ire, livid, enraged, mad etc.). It is probably helpful if all these words are presented together, so that the learner can memorize them as a whole semantic field if that suits him, refer back to them when he needs to, and so that there is nothing ‘left out’: all too often, learners learn a word for something, without it even being hinted to them that there are other words or expressions for the same or similar things; only much later does he stumble innocently upon the other word(s) which then turn out to be almost as common as (or more common than) what he learnt in the beginning. It is better to lay all one’s cards on the table than to leave nasty surprises for later.

Perhaps the paucity of good intermediate and advanced language-learning methods in this country is because of the real or perceived ineptness of the anglophone British to when it comes to other languages. Most Britons do not learn anything beyond a few garbled snatched of French, rarely venturing beyond ‘bong joor, parlee voo onglay’; even for the adventurous minority who go a little further, there is a widespread assumption that language-learning is especially ‘hard’ and that grammar especially is unpalatable and needs sweetening with lots of pictures, glossy textbooks with only a few words on each page, and patronizing titles such as ‘French made easy’, ‘German for dummies’, ‘Spanish without any writing’, ‘Swedish in three weeks’ etc. etc. There is a glut of such books in bookshops and libraries, and they infuriate me, for they are generally little more than phrase books, teaching little or nothing of how to actually construct your own sentences and thus say things you want to say, and there is very little at an advanced level, for it is assumed no-one will get that far.

Prof Sorace said in an undergraduate lecture on bilingualism that near-native speakers of a second language who have mastered the grammar and vocabulary to a very high level are often still betrayed by their persistent foreign accent. This is indeed noticeable; I know many people who have more or less perfect English and yet still sound foreign. On the other hand, I also know people who have acquired the accent as perfectly or nearly as perfectly as the grammar; for example, my German teacher at school who is from Leipzig and yet having learnt English as a student speaks it better than many mother-tongue speakers in terms of articulacy and breadth of vocabulary, and there is a hardly a hint of Germanness on her speech, at least to my ears (though RP English and refined German accents sound rather alike to me; they have the same slightly pompous Teutonic timbre and a still perceptible kinship of sound).

Logically, full mastery of the pronunciation of the target language should be the easiest part; for there are only a few dozen phonemes, allophones and prosodic rules, compared with thousands of grammatical rules and many tens of thousands of words and idioms. Admittedly, there is an added complication with pronunciation in that it involves a complicated interaction between the brain and the muscles in the vocal tract which may be hard to retrain, whereas the other aspects of the language are less physical, but even so with application and determination it should still be easier to acquire a good pronunciation than to learn the grammar and vocabulary. So why do near-native speakers appear to struggle to achieve a native accent when they have fully mastered the other components of the language? Again, I think it may in part have to do with conventional teaching methods, and what is concentrated on in courses.

Acquiring a good pronunciation is typically encouraged, but only to a certain level. Learners are expected to attain a moderately good pronunciation (unless they are learning Classical Greek), but not a perfect pronunciation, and it is expected that it is normal for non-native learners to retain a non-native accent to some extent. Acquiring a perfect accent is not essential for functioning in the language; you can have quite a thick accent but so long as everything else is correct, you can be understood perfectly by yout interlocutors. On the other hand, errors in grammar and vocabulary use are far more likely to cause misunderstanding, so there is much more pressure on students to acquire a perfect mastery of these features. Pronunciation in contrast is generally not taught systematically because only an approximation of the native phonology is required, and most teachers do not have the necessary knowledge of phonetics to explain and instruct their pupils properly. I think this is a shame, because although perfect pronunciation is not essential, I am sure many learners of languages would want to try and attain it, and since the phonology of a language is much smaller and takes less time to learn than syntax and lexis, it is a pity that language learners are not given the knowledge and encouragement to master this fairly painless ‘add-on’ to their language abilities if they so desire.

It is really something of a paradox that people have such trouble mastering native accents. After all, ordinary English-speaking people mimic regional and foreign accents all the time, and quite accurately I would say, when they are humorously talking about people they have encountered, or telling a story i na dramatic fashion. (It seems to be a fact that almost everyone is a good actor when they want to be except when on stage). Most English people can imitate a French accent when they are at play, so why do they find it so hard to have a good French accent when they are actually speaking French? Admittedly, some people are better at this imitation than others. I have a Bulgarian flatmate who speaks very good English, but with a fairly strong Bulgarian accent (though he says his compatriots say he has an English accent when speaking Bulgarian). He tried to get me to teach him how to get rid of his Bulgarian accent. I told him to imitate people who have native accents; I said it was perfectly possible to change your accent at will if you tried hard enough. To demonstrate, I started speaking English in a perfect Bulgarian accent, which I had absorbed in the few days since I had met him. He was quite spooked and said I sounded just like him! However, he was not able to go the other way, except in individual words if he concentrated. Now his accent is not so pronounced and he has modified certain sounds, but the Bulgarian accent is still noticeable. Perhaps it is partly because he hears so many different anglophone accents: which one do you choose? I personally find certain accents easier to imitate than others. I can do an almost perfect Welsh accent; but I get mixed up with the various English accents. I can’t tell where people are from in England, apart from the obvious ones like Scouse and Geordie. I can’t do a very good American accent either.

I am very sensitive about the Manx accent, in English as I will discuss below, but above all in Manx Gaelic itself. There are large numbers of immigrants from England and other places coming into the Island, and many of those learning or having learnt Manx are immigrants, or native Manx with an anglicized accent. Although I am pleased to see people coming to the island and taking an interest in our language and culture, I must admit that hearing Manx spoken in a southern English accent pains me greatly. Soon, there may be no Manx accent left, even within the Manx-speaking community. Of course, linguists will be inclined to say ‘languages change, just go with the flow’ and be suspicious of prescriptivism, but Manx is not in a normal situation, it is not changing in a natural way and people learn Manx because they are interested in it for its own uniqueness and Manxness and they find it beautiful: its idiom, structure and sound. If Manx pronunciation is watered down into an English sludge, what is the point of people learning it? English speakers mutilating French when on holiday in the Paris doesn’t matter much, because there are tens of millions of French speakers in France, and the sound of French is not going to be altered by a few rosbifs with strange pronunciations. But Manx can be ‘damaged’ by only a few learners speaking it with non-Manx accents. I presume that such learners probably want to adopt a Manx accent, and would be keen to access any resources that helped them to do so; so this is again another instance of inadequacy of phonetic teaching and knowledge and priorities in a pedagogical environment, and one that worries me greatly. Gyn chengey, gyn cheer is the motto of the Manx Gaelic Society: No language, no country. And I would add: Gyn blass, gyn chengey — No accent, no language.

Having securely mastered Manx Gaelic, my interests spread to the other Celtic languages, as well as to language and linguistics in general. I learnt Irish and Welsh, and when I started thinking about doing Celtic Studies in Edinburgh, I began to concentrate on Scottish Gaelic. I am now doing Gaelic 1B at the university, a course for native speakers and advanced learners. I can understand spoken Gaelic well, and read it fluently, and can converse in it myself fairly well—but not as well as I would like. Now Manx and Scottish Gaelic are very cloesly related, having diverged from one another only in about the fifteenth century. Now they are on the borderline between being dialects and separate languages, much like the Scandinavian languages. They are not very mutually intelligible, especially if spoken at normal speed, but it is fairly easy for Manx and Scottish Gaels to pick up one another’s dialects. I have found this to be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because being a near-native speaker (or whatever you want to call it) of Manx, I already knew most of Scottish Gaelic. I understood the grammar already, and even where there were differences they were easy to understand from a Manx point of view; and most of the vocabulary was familiar to me. In this respect it took less effort to learn the language than to learn something where everything is new. But also a curse, because the two Gaelics seem to interefere with each other in my mind. I find it very difficult to speak Scottish Gaelic fluently and naturally without Manx words or grammar coming out; and so there is always a hesitency in my Scottish speech as I have to choke back what seems more natural for me to say. The effect is not so pronounced the other way, though I do occasionally find Scottish words infiltrating my Manx. I recall Prof Sorace saying in the undergraduate lecture that bilingual children learning closely related languages such as Spanish and Catalan manage to keep them apart with no trouble; perhaps the confusion between similar languages is restricted to older learners, or perhaps it is to do with sequence. Those children are learning Spanish and Catalan at the same time, so there is not one dominaintly established before the other, whereas Manx is strongly established in my mind from a fairly young age, and my much weaker and less engrained Scottish Gaelic has to compete with that. Whether this can be overcome with time I do not know; but there is a man in the Celtic department who is a native speaker of Irish, but he has learnt Scottish Gaelic as an adult and can now switch between them flawlessly.

I imagine that other people learning languages very close to one they already know have similar experiences to me. A German learning Dutch will find, once he has familiarized himself with a few of the quirks of the latter tongue, that he already knows most of the vocabulary, syntax and idiom from German; but he will probably find it very hard to speak Dutch freely without going into German. In this way, even though he might know Dutch to a very high level, his own spoken Dutch will be much more hesitant than that of a learner at an equivalent level whose background-language is further removed from German and Dutch. In this way, even though I am a near-native speaker of a type of Gaelic, I sometimes find it much easier to speak German than to speak Scottish Gaelic. I have a friend whose mother-tongue is Afrikaans, the dialect of Dutch spoken in South Africa. She is a bright girl and linguistically astute; I once gave her Manx lessons and she picked it up very easily. However, she had terrible trouble with German at school. I often wondered why this was, since being a native speaker of Afrikaans she was effectively a native speaker of a type of German already; but now that I ponder my own troubles with Gaelic, I suspect I have found part of the answer: the very similarity between Afrikaans and High German must make it very hard to keep them separate in a learner’s mind.

I had better bring this post to a close soon. I hope it has not been too much of a ramble; everything I have discussed is intended to relate to the following questions: what is a native speaker? how do we learn second languages, what helps and hinders learning, and can teaching methods be made better? And from my own perspective, how does Manx relate to all this? Is Manx alive or dead, or somewhere in between? Do I speak a zombie language? And do the other few people on this planet who know Manx speak the same language as me? For there is more than one Manx. At this point I must reassure you that I am not going to make a tedious philosophical argument that every speaker of a language speaks a different language, or that an individual speaks a different language every time he opens his mouth; for I see no point in such arguments. However, since everyone who knows Manx well is a scholar who has rummaged through obscure documents and come to his own opinions on certain issues, which may diverge from my own, there is no-one else on earth who speaks my Manx. Sometimes it feels like there is no-one else who speaks Manx at all, when I wander round Edinburgh with an urge to speak chengey ny mayrey Ellan Vannin but having no-one to talk to within a hundred miles apart from myself and my toaster. My main everyday contact with the language is from reading; primarily reading 18th century texts, which contain the ‘best’ record of rich, idiomatic Manx as it once existed. This material consists mainly of catechisms, sermons, prayer-books, hymnbooks, temperance tracts and the Bible. I have been working my way through the Manx Bible since I was about fifteen at a rate of a chapter a day (sometimes only a chapter or two a week if I am busy or if the chapters are especially long); and I am still only about half-way through. Of course, this is sometimes rather heavy-going, especially in the depths of Leviticus or some of the Prophets, or when there are pages and pages of dry genealogy or dietary rules; but one has to keep going, for hope of striking philological gold. For every page or two, sometimes every few verses, I will come across a juicy new idiom, point of grammar or vocabulary item, and I get an adrenaline rush as I scramble to inscribe it in my notes, just as a butterfly enthusiast gets a kick when he skewers a particularly rare specimen in his case. Through this process I have learnt many new idioms and grammatical subtleties which seem not to be widely known in the Manx-speaking community at large. I and like-minded people try to disseminate these things to some extent, but by going back to the old texts, are we building a different Manx from what is generally being spoken within the revival movement and taught to learners? (I must emphasize the differences, linguistic and personal, between different sections of the movement, are not that great, and we not have factions anything like in Cornish for example). But the very fact that I am constantly sharpening and revising my knowledge of Manx in this way, does it undermine my claim to be a near-native speaker of the language? Indeed, since through reading I sometimes learn new English words and expressions, am I a native speaker of those English words and phrases? There are many English words that I know only from reading, and when I then drop them into conversation, I discover to my embarrassment that my assumed pronunciation is wrong5. There is always something of an inferiority complex in contemporary Manx speakers when it is pointed out to us that some of our pronunciations are based mainly on guesses from a dodgy and unpredictable writing system, instead of being passed down ‘naturally’ (though much of contemporary Manx pronunciation was learnt directly from the last traditional native speakers): however it is comforting to reflect that the same happens in English to some extent, when we consider words like ‘often’ and ‘forehead’. Writing has had a huge influence on English, but no-one would claim that English is therefore somehow not a ‘natural’ living language. Or if a language has to have unbroken intergenerational transmission to be natural and living, then Hebrew is a dead language, despite the fact that it has millions of native speakers in Israel, many of them doubtless monoglots! UNESCO recently announced that Manx was dead, but after receiving an angry letter in Manx from the children in the Gaelic-medium school in the Island, they changed it to ‘critically endangered’. Perhaps there should be a new category for resurrected languages.

If my Manx is unnatural, I am no more certain of the naturalness of my English. For I have always had a great tendency to analyse my own first language to an abnormal degree, sometimes noticing things that strike me as ‘strange’ in English—in the sense that unfamiliar structures strike us as ‘strange’ in foreign languages—even before I started encountering other ways of doing things in other languages. And now, as I learn more and more about linguistics and increasinly look at English with ‘outsider’ eyes, am I losing to some degree my native perspective of automatic, taken-for-granted naturalness? Perhaps to be a linguist means to become a second-language speaker of your first language.

I’m also not certain if I have a particular natural accent; as a child I had a mild Manx accent from my family, with hints of RP especially when I wanted to be serious or formal. But as I developed an interest in Manx Gaelic I began to analyse my own accent and tried to avoid certain features that I considered too English and non-Gaelic, such as r-deletion and intrusive r’s, which now make me feel nauseous when I hear them in Manx Gaelic speech. Certain features of pronunciation that I had always had that seemed particularly Manx I reinforced and defended resolutely as part of my national identity in an environment at school and elsewhere where at least half the population were non-Manx. These features include the Scottish-style [u:] sound in ‘sure’ (not ‘shore’), ‘look at the book’ (not ‘luck at the buck’) and ‘wasp’ rhyming with ‘clasp’ rather than having an ‘o’ sound. The latter I especially regard as a shibboleth to tell the ‘true’ Manx from the non-Manx and the lapsed Manx; I also think the Manx pronunciation is better for onomatopoeic reasons, for a ‘waasp’ sounds much more like an evil, buzzing, stinging horror than the rather slow-, plump- and haughty-sounding ‘wosp’. I remember when I was trying to improve my Manx Gaelic for speaking competitions my mother encouraged me to get a stronger Manx accent by being less ‘polite’ and more ‘rough’. By ‘polite’ she meant RP and by ‘rough’ the traditional Manx blass, and though she intended ‘rough’ as a positive attribute in these circumstances, no doubt those terms are very revealing from a sociolinguistic point of view! Now I constantly analyse and try to consciously modify my own accent, so much so that I am not sure if I can speak English completely freely and ‘naturally’, that is, natively, anymore.

The End.


1 I love this word. Apparently it is first recorded in 1993 and is a blend of ‘finicky’ and ‘pernickety’. Finicky, finickity and pernickity (and fiddly, which seems also to be related to these words in my mind) all have similar meanings but different semantic ‘flavours’. Try to get your heads round these, ye non-native English speakers!

2 About the ‘er/der’ distinction. I don’t think I consciously knew about this distinction in German before the lecture, though I knew that ‘der/die/das’ could function as pronouns; however, I was certainly aware of it in French, e.g. the difference between ‘Après que Jean ait vu Paul, IL est rentré à la maison’ and ‘Après que Jean ait vu Paul, CELUI est rentré à la maison’ where ‘il’ refers to Jean but ‘celui’ refers to ‘Paul’.

3 I actually started French before Manx, but it was several years before we moved beyond parroting fixed phrases and due to my general apathy for the French language, the way it was taught, and perhaps because the language is, like English and German and unlike Manx, so incredibly vast in terms of idiom and lexis, terms culturally specific to modern western society as well as France, I never got anywhere near as good in French as I have done in Manx. When I say that French is vast, I must state that the Manx language is not that small; it still has tens of thousands of words and a very rich idiom; but having been used in fewer domains by a small number of people with a smaller diversity of activities and experiences to draw on in the making of expressions and idioms, and having virtually no ‘sophisticated’ literature, it is correspondingly smaller in overall ‘volume’ or ‘density’ than other European languages (though of course it has the potential to grow and is growing as vocabulary develops for the needs of 21st century speakers).

4 I do recognize that learners need some opportunity to practice speaking the language, and might be hindered in this by constant correction. Perhaps there should be sessions where the pupil is made aware that he can talk freely in the language without fear of being stopped and corrected, and other times where he is corrected. The teacher who, following my model, is potentially constantly undermining the student’s confidence with her questions, must work all the harder to reassure him that he is doing well and not making any more errors than the average person. There are also other methods besides correcting the student’s own speech: for example, teachers and learners could read a text in the target language together and discuss the little details as they come up. I found in my experience of reading literature in language lessons that such things are too often skimmed over (perhaps because the teachers themselves do not fully understand them), just as errors in the students’ speech are ignored. The standard assumption seems to be “now that they are advanced in the language, they will pick up the remaining details as they go along”. But I say, attention to detail and the role of the teacher in imparting knowledge rather than just facilitating the acquisition of knowledge, are just as important, if not more important, at the advanced level of L2 learning.

5 A good example is ‘banal’. I thought it was stressed on the first syllable, which was pronounced like ‘bane’, with the common adjective ending ‘-al’; but apparently the prescribed pronunciation is closer to the original French, with stress on the second syllable: ban-AHL. I was terrible disappointed with this, for my original pronunciation (which the OED says was formerly legitimate) sounds to me much more onomatopoeically ‘banal’. The ‘correct’ pronunciation sounds to me like a type of ice-cream, or a hat.

The White Cliffs of Leith

Further to Gina’s musings about placenames and the origin of ‘Deutschland’, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss names of Scotland and Britain.

For etymologies in this post see OED under ‘Albion’, ‘Scot’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Manx’.

First, we should know that the Gaelic for Scotland is ‘Alba’ and that the name of the colour white in Latin is ‘albus’ (as in ‘albino’, ‘albumen’ and ‘Albus Dumbledore’). The various forms of the name ‘Alba’ are ancient, but it seems that they came from Latin. Pliny calls Britain ‘Albion’, and this form is today occasionally used in English to refer to Britain or especially England. The French like to call England ‘la perfide Albion’.

The first and most memorable part of the island of Britain that the Romans would have encountered coming from the south was of course the White Cliffs of Dover, hence the name based on a root meaning ‘white’. The Irish must have picked up this name from the Romans and continued to use it as a general term for ‘Britain’, even though the westerly parts of Britain most familiar to them would have been hundreds of miles away from the White Cliffs.

When the Irish started to invade and settle parts of the island of Britain, it was natural that they would refer to their new land as ‘Alba’, and gradually this term was restricted to the parts of Britain where Irish people lived, namely the northern part that we now call Scotland. ‘Alba’ remains the Gaelic and Irish name for Scotland to this day: so a name that once referred to most southerly part of the island has ended up being used for the exact opposite end.

The English ‘Scotland’ also comes from Latin. ‘Scoti’ was a term used in Latin to refer to people of Gaelic or Irish race, whether they lived in Ireland herself or in colonies in Britain. Gradually, this term too became specialized to Scotland and is no longer used of the Irish in Ireland. With the growth of Scottish nationalism and the divide between a mostly protestant Scotland and a mostly catholic Ireland, and tensions over Irish immigration into places such as Glasgow in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ethnic, historical and linguistic links between Scotland and Ireland have tended to be downplayed. However, Gaelic-speakers in the Highlands still feel to some extent an affinity and common national and cultural identity with Gaelic Ireland; there was traditionally a single dialect continuum from the north of Scotland to the southern tip of Ireland. It was common until relatively recently to refer to the Scots Gaelic language as ‘Irish’ or ‘Erse’ (which is now considered derogatory), and until the eighteenth century there was a single literary standard, known as Classical Common Gaelic / Irish, and Irish and Scottish poets would regularly tour each others’ countries. The word ‘Scots’ meanwhile became associated with the dialect of English spoken in the Lowlands, and now the original Gaelic Scots are a threatened minority in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon “Scot”land.

The transfer of the word ‘Scot’ from referring to Celts to referring to a Germanic culture and language is mirrored by the name ‘British’, which properly refers to the Brythonic people and language now known as ‘Welsh’ (also Cornish and Breton). Today, however, the word British is almost synonymous both within and without Britain with England and Englishness, and English-dominated imperialism. French-speakers will use ‘Angleterre’ and ‘Grande-Bretagne’ more or less interchangeably, while patriotic Welsh people often say ‘I’m not British, I’m Welsh’, thus disowning their own name for themselves!

England has taken other once-Celtic things and made them its own, for example the legend of King Arthur. If there was an Arthur, he was a Romanized British (Welsh) chieftain fighting against the incoming Saxons in the sixth century. In legend, he became mythical defender of all Britain, and so in English eyes, of England. However, the popular tradition that King Arthur will arise from his sleep in Britain’s hour of need does not mean he will come to save England: rather he would be saving Britain from the English! Sometimes toponomy matters…at least if you take far-fetched prophecies seriously!

The respective names of Wales are very revealing. For a long time, the Celtic-speaking Britons continued referring to themselves as ‘British’ in opposition to the “Saxons” (‘Sais’, cf. Gaelic ‘Sasannaich’, German ‘Sachse’, which still refers to the Saxons who stayed at home), but gradually they needed a new name for their now much-diminished westerly homeland, especially as the “Saxons” started to appropriate the name ‘British’. The Welsh for Wales is ‘Cymru’ (the c is [k], the y is a schwa, the u is [i] in South Wales, high unrounded central in North Wales, stress on first syllable), and means ‘fellow-countrymen’. In contrast, the English ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ come from Germanic words for ‘foreigner’. On the Continent, it referred to Celtic and Latin-speaking non-Germans (German ‘welsch’ is apparently still used to refer to French-speaking Swiss); in Britain it was used exclusively for the native Brythonic Celtic-speaking population. The same root is found in ‘CornWALL’, which retained its Brythonic Celtic dialect until the 18th century. The term Welsh evidently had negative connotations: the verb ‘to welsh’ means to swindle, cheat or fail to keep a promise. ‘Welsh’ is hence arguably a racist and derogatory term and perhaps the Welsh should insist on Cymru (or Cambria?) as the name for their country even in English, like Zimbabwe for Rhodesia, Inuit for Eskimo or Traveller instead of Gypsy. And ‘Abertawe’ (pronounce more or less as if IPA with four syllables) certainly sounds better than ‘Swansea’.

I could not conclude this discussion of national names in the British Isles without a brief mention of the island at the very heart and centre of the archipelago, my own homeland of the Isle of Man. Now I am told this name sounds comical to English-speakers when they first encounter it, because of the English word ‘man’ meaning a ‘male human being’. In the days when Spain was too expensive and everyone came to the Isle of Man on holiday for a trip ‘abroad’, the isle of ‘men’ where women were not allowed was a common theme of humorous postcards, and most recently Yorkie, the chocolate bar famously ‘not for girls’, launched a special promotional pink version of the chocolate on the Isle of Man which was ‘not for men’.

If you know Gaelic, however, all this perceived masculinity seems very odd. For all Celtic country names are grammatically feminine; Eire, for example, is supposed to be named after a goddess; Alba too is feminine, as is Cymru. The Manx Gaelic for ‘Isle of Man’ is Ellan Vannin, which is about as feminine a name as you can get in Manx. ‘Mannin’ (it is lenited to ‘Vannin’ in the genitive case) is feminine like Eire and Alba, and ‘ellan’ although masculine in other dialects (Irish ‘oileán’, Scots Gaelic), is feminine in Manx. The Isle of Man is referred to in songs as ‘Mannin veg veen’ (dear little Mannin), which is about as far from a chauvinistic masculine name as you can get! (For those interested, the base forms of these adjectives are ‘beg’ and ‘meen’, but the initial consonants are changed to ‘v’ to mark the feminine gender. While in French, German etc. you change the end of words to show gender, in Celtic languages you change the beginning.) Another traditional feminine-sounding epithet for the Island (in English) is ‘Mona’, a female personification of the country roughly analogous to the British ‘Britannia’ or the French ‘Marianne’. (Mona is related to Ynys Môn, the Welsh name for Anglesey. Apparently the Romans got the two islands confused. In Welsh ‘Isle of Man’ is ‘Ynys Manaw’.)

The adjective to refer to the Isle of Man, its people and language is ‘Manx’ (occasionally spelt ‘Manks’). This has a very odd (indeed unique) suffix; one would expect something like ‘Mannish, ‘Mansh’ or ‘Manch’, and indeed the native English version of this suffix has an postalveolar fricative. However, the Isle of Man (in common with many other parts of these islands) was once occupied by Scandinavians, and it is likely that ‘Manx’ represents a metathesis of Norse ‘Mansk’. North Germanic has ‘sk’ where West Germanic has ‘s(c)h’; compare Norwegian ‘skip’ with English ‘ship’ and German ‘Schiff’.