Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Threatened Words

Auke Leistra has finished the translation of my book now. We had some interesting email conversations. Dutch seems a more precise language than English in some ways. For instance when I said 'room' he wanted to know what size it was because there are various different alternatives in Dutch. So he asked me how many chairs and tables there would be in this room, which I suppose is better than asking for the measurements, because it gives a better idea of the room and its function.

Auke is from Friesland and his parents speak Frisian. A few years ago I heard Melvyn Bragg interviewing some Frisian people on his programme about the English language. Old Frisian is related to Old English, so hearing a Frisian talk gives an impression of how the monks who wrote down Beowulf around 1100 might have spoken. (The phrase 'butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese' is 'Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk' in Frisian and sounds similar in both modern languages today).

Of course the two have since developed along paths of their own; language to me seems to be much like biological evolution - once isolated a new species gradually develops - and I wonder now if perhaps there is a relationship between how much change there is between two related languages and how long they have been separated. In some ways it might be like hedgerows - counting the number of different plants in a hedgerow gives and idea of how old it is - so counting how many words are different in two related languages might be an indication of how long they have been growing apart.

An example of this is Breton. The Breton language was brought to Britanny (from Wales via Cornwall) in 300-500 AD and there are still similarities between the two languages today. It was with this in mind that my father (whose first language is Welsh) decided to seek out a friendly Breton when we went on holiday there when I was a child. For some time we travelled along high-hedged Breton roads (oddly similar to the roads in both Cornwall and South-West Wales - perhaps there is something about rugged high-cliffed places that is of special appeal to this particular Celtic personality) searching for 'a Breton' until we eventually came across an elderly gentlemen who was quietly walking alongside the road. The resulting conversation was quite animated and many similar words were found. My father returned to the car extremely happy.

However, unlike Welsh, which is one of the official languages of the United Kingdom and actively encouraged (Welsh is a compulsory subject in Welsh schools), and Frisian, which is spoken by 350 000 people and is one of the two official languages of Fryslân (in the Netherlands) with the numbers able to speak it increasing, Breton is not officially recognised by the French government. Although 500 000 people can still speak Breton today, I suspect that without any official encouragement it is in danger of dying out in the not-too-distant future - rather like Cornish, the language to which it is most closely related, did in the twentieth century. This seems to me to be a shame.


Blogger Kay Cooke said...

This is so informative; so interesting. I didn't know any of those things before - how you can tell the age of a hedgerow for example!
You must have one of those very eclectic minds - which is a great asset for a writer. Having a dad who searched for a Breton with as much enthusiasm as yours, and who involved you in the adventure as well, is probably one example of how your curiosity and thirst for enquiry and resolution, was nurtured.
Congrats on having your book translated!

Thu Jun 08, 07:57:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Chiefbiscuit. Did your father ever find his Breton?

Thu Jun 08, 09:45:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to admit that in second form in Grammar School we had a tester term and had the choice of German vs Latin as a result. I chose Latin as it was was what expected of me in choosing sciences for my 'A' level.

German in those days seemed hard, more so than Latin. I was glad I chose Latin.

But, subsequently, and many years later, I found myself working for a German owned company and I signed up for German lessons. Suddenly I could see words in German that were so similar to works in Welsh!

Any ideas on the link there Clare?

I'm sure there is one...

Best for your course by the way...

Best always,

Thu Jun 08, 06:02:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Yep I think he did many times over - he was always so taken with how people talked and what they said. He liked to listen. He loved an Irish accent in particular - he had an Irish grandmother whose endearment for her grandchildren was 'Jewel'.

Fri Jun 09, 01:00:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

Strangely, I have been thinking over the same subject. Quite independently! There is such a thing as lingusistic palaeontology. It was invented in the 19th Century by a Swiss professor. I have a half-completed post on this which I will post soon.

When we were in Brittany recently, we met school children who were learning Breton at school. When we asked them if they used it at home, they seemed a little surprised by the idea.

Fri Jun 09, 09:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chiefbiscuit: I'm glad about that. 'Jewel' is lovely. I reminds me of a book inscription I was shown which was written by one of the characters in one of my books. It was to his wife to be and he wrote: 'I came looking for diamonds but found a pearl instead'.

Jonathan: Really looking forward to reading this post - shall keep checking. Pleased to hear that Breton is being taught to non-Breton speakers - that's excellent news.

Sat Jun 10, 09:13:00 am  

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