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.)

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