Languages of the World

A collection of links and tips

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Location: Snow Mounds, Antarctica

a pinch of shadows, a touch of Jam.

Bridge to humanity's core : languages. This blog presents Merlin's travels in the world of languages. Each post deals with a language.

Thursday, April 24

Hungarian - Magyar

Like Basque, Hungarian is a language which is often spoken of in a hushed, awed voice, surrounded as it is by a swarm of rumours about how difficult, how "exotic" it is.
Hungarian sounds indeed more arduous to learn for an English speaker. It does not belong to the Indo-European family, but to the Finno-Ugric group. Yet even in its own family, it is quite different from its siblings.

Many features of Hungarian would appear striking for English speakers, like the double system of conjugation (roughly, one when the object is definite, one when it isn't), vowel harmony, a whole bunch of affixes, and word order.
If you like lego toys, then Hungarian is the language for you : it is said to be heavily inflected. True, but the system is easier to learn than the Latin declensions. Each grammatical feature has its own morpheme, whereas in Latin, a case ending is a bundle containing more than one piece of information : the ending "-os" tells us that the word is masculine, plural, and object of the verb. In Hungarian, things are somewhat simpler, all the more so as there is no gender.
Two examples of how Hungarian lego-linguistics works :
"A gyerekekvel" means "with the children".

"A gyerekeknek" means "to the children". This phrase can be broken down in pieces like this : A (definite article) gyerek (child) + ek (plural) + nek (dative case). As you see, unlike Latin, dative and plural are each contained in their own lego bricks.

Various links :
=> "Hungarian with Ease" (methode Assimil) : this is the book I use. I think this method is the best. It helps to get the feel of a language very quickly.
=> Hungarian radios : living too far from Hungary and wanting to plunge in the swimming-pool of the language ? The internet is here.
=> Pronunciation : this site has many audio samples, grammar lessons, and many more useful resources (which I haven't been able to use yet, due to my poor level of Hungarian. One day...). An excellent site.

Sunday, October 21

Middle Egyptian

Middle Egyptian is the classical language of Ancient Egypt. It is most famous for its writing system : the hieroglyphs. Thanks to Champollion, the colorful and intricate drawings are not mute any more, and offer us a glimpse into the world of pharaohs.

¤ How on earth did egyptologists manage to decipher the hieroglyphs ?
A haunting question, indeed. For centuries, hieroglyphs baffled everybody, especially as they were thought to be some mystical symbols. But two elements helped : the discovery of the link between Egyptian and Coptic, which is a well known language, and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Champollion, using the work of other egyptologists, his knowledge of Coptic and the Rosetta Stone, discovered how the hieroglyphic system and the language it represented worked.

¤ How do hieropglyphs work ?
Hieroglyphs look like the drawings of objects, animals, or people. They can then be used as ideograms : a circle to mean the sun, a bee to mean a bee and so on. When a hieropglyph is used as an ideogram, it is accompagnied by a stroke.
But most of the time, hieroglyphs are used as phonograms, that is : they stand for sounds. A quail-chick stands for "w", an eye for "jr", a beetle for "khpr". In that way, they work like a rebus.
Some are used as determinatives : they are not pronounced but help us understand the word. For example, a star before a word indicates that the word is the name of a star. A pair of walking legs indicates that the word beside it has to do with motion, and so on.

¤ How did Middle Egytian sound like ?
"m.k tw m mnjw" means "you are a herdsman". This sentence is transcribed from hieroglyphs. Yet it seems impossible to pronounce it, because it contains only consonants. In fact, like Arabic and Hebrew, hieroglyphs never stood for vowels : they only represented consonants. This is why we can't know for sure how Middle Egyptian was actually pronounced.

¤ How to learn Middle Egyptian ?
Books :
I'm trying a book by James P. Allen : "Middle Egyptian : An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs". It contains lessons, excercises (with answers) and short essays on Ancient Egypt civilisation.
The web :
=> On this page for example.

Thursday, November 2

Japanese - 日本語

Japanese is written with a combination of three different types of "glyphs" (as wikipedia puts it).
=> hiragana
=>katakana : mostly used to write loan words and onomatopoeias.
=> Kanji
You can learn some of them here. Or you can make cards and play. This is what I did : I printed the hiragana and katakana charts. I cut off each glyph and stuck it on a piece of paper, on one side the Japonese glyph, on the other side, the 'european' equivalent.
I think that knowing at least the hiragana and the katakana is a good plan before learning the Japanese language.

Various links :
=> Here are Japanese lessons.
=> Watch TV in Japanese (don't be daunted by the Japanese glyphs. Just click on the arrows and tv screens *wink*)
=> Goldfishes have an important place in Japanese culture. As I'm a fish freak myself, I have to introduce you to the Japanese varieties of goldfish : the Ranchu, the Ryukin and the Tosakin.

Friday, April 14


Inuktitut is an Eskimo-Aleut language. It's the official language of Nunavut (its flag is beautiful). It has loads of dialects, and is, alas, an endangered speech, unlike Greenlandic which is thriving. In Nunavut, Inuit children talk English most of the time - and that's always a sign of a dying language.
What amazed me in Inuktitut is its morphology. The wikipedia article is quite interesting.

The Myth : I used to be told that the 'Eskimos' had a lot of words to describe ice, white and snow and that they were a good example of how deeply a language is linked with natural environement. Well, it's true...but not entirely.
Let's take the word ice :
siku : ice
illaujait : dark ice, dangerous ice
immatinniq : melted ice
sikuliaq : new sea ice
qunquq : white reflection of floating ice
Loads of words for 'ice', yes. But the word in Inuktitut isn't the same as the English word. Inuktitut is a polysynthetic language : its words are made with morphemes (i.e. warcraft -> 2 morphemes). Thence, a whole English sentence can be said with a single Inuktitut word.
So in Inuktitut, there is a lot of words to talk about ice, snow or white, but not because Inuits live surrounded by snow and ice, but because their language is polysynthetic.
(You can made hundreds of words to describe pebbles, honey, shoes, sharks, computers...A word would be enough to say 'a-computer-which-purrs-like-an-angry-ginger-cat' *winks*)

Various links :
=> Excellent dictionary

Thursday, April 13


Akkadian is a dead language now : it was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia during 2,500 years (after, it was replaced by Aramaic). It's not an Indo-European language, but belongs to the semitic group (like Arabic). It evolved into 2 dialects : Assyrian and Babylonian.

The famous Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written in Sumerian, an even older language, then Akkadian.

Those very old languages...I still wonder how they did to decipher them. It's incredible! (Akkadian was deciphered in the XIXth century)

What woke my interest in Akkadian (and Sumerian...) are the tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions. Some of them look really impressive. How on earth did they manage to read those?

Brief overview : (very brief : hey what, I haven't learnt Akkadian yet *wicked*) : Akkadian is an inflected language (declension alert! -nominative, accusative and genitive), and has two genders : feminine and masculine, and an interesting detail : even the second person pronoun makes a difference between you-masculine and you-feminine.

Here you'll find a very good site if you want to know Akkadian better.

Various links :
Parser for finite verbs
=> 23 video lessons that you can watch if you understand French.

Sunday, April 9

Sanskrit - संरकृत -

Sanskrit Documents seems to have all we need to learn that old Indo-european language. I still haven't got the time to explore it.

Here's an excellent site to learn the devanagari script, which was and is still used to write Sanskrit and other languages like Hindi.

German -Deutsch-

German is...well, a Germanic language. And like most of Germanic languages, it has many dialects. The German that foreigners learn at school is called "Hochdeutsch", but the German which is spoken in every day life isn't always Hochdeutsch (click here to learn more).

Various links :
=> Leo is a dictionary. It even provides sound files, declension and conjugation.
=> Bbc German
=> Deutschland Radio : live radio (and tv) from every Länder.

(Modern) Greek - ελληνικα -

Independant branch of the Indo-european languages, Greek is mainly spoken in Greece, of course, and is very different from Homer's or Pericles' Greek. (A little precision : Greek is NOT the official language of geeks).

Alphabet : derived from the phoenician alphabet, the (modern) greek alphabet has 24 letters.

The first step is of course to learn that alphabet; the second step is...take your gloves and become a blacksmith ! You will have to make a connection between the written letter (which may at first look like a weird drawing) and its sound, with the patient fire of practice! At first it's slow, but soon you'll be able to read Greek properly. (After a few days, I'm able to read it, but not as I read French or English : the words still look somewhat like I haven't finished the Blacksmith stage).
To practice, you can use a little "Greek for tourists" guide, or do it on the net here, or on any Greek website.

Grammar : for both pronunciation and grammar, this site is very good (but i'm still stuck on the first lesson - let's say it's a problem of inner-lazyness *rolleyes*).

Various links :
=> History of the Greek language.

Icelandic - íslenska-

Icelandic is spoken in Iceland, a most beautiful northern island, located between Europe and North America.
It's an old germanic language, derived from the old norse language spoken by the first Viking inhabitants of the country.

Alphabet : even with its 32 letters, it isn't very different from the French alphabet.

There are many rules to pronounce Icelandic the right way, and it's best to begin by learning them, here for example. This site is also very good because it provides audio files, but it's written in Icelandic. Just click on the letters or sound icons *winks*. Listening to the Icelandic radio helps a lot, even if you don't understand a single word : you still manage to get the "musical" feel of the language (ruv).

Grammar : Icelandic has four declension cases : nominative, accusative, genitive and dative. Check out the mimir site. If you're having troubles with verbs, you'll like it here.

Various links : Icelandic online is so far the best site I've found to learn Icelandic on the net. It includes audio files, interactive excercices...
=> Mentalcode Icelandic is good if one wants to practice vocabulary and some verbs conjugation. I admit that, as my keyboard don't have icelandic letters, I have to use an online keyboard, and copy and pasting can be annoying after a fashion. But well, we can't buy a keyboard each time we learn a new language...
Icelandic Medieval Manuscripts, a site for those who love the sagas and medieval history.

Latin -Lingua Latina-

Latin : a dead language ? Only because no child has it as his mother tongue any more. But it's not as dead as one might think. It's still taught in classes, and some are trying to revive it : for example, here's a neo-latin lexicon. Latin is being to adapted to the modern world.

Alphabet : for English speakers (or a French like me), it isn't difficult to decipher, as the letters have the same shape if not exactly the same sound. With its 26 letters, it's the most widely used alphabetic writing system today.

Grammar : the declensions are what people think is most difficult to learn. That's a completly wrong idea. Latin has 6 cases (Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative, Ablative) - or 7 if you count Locative which is only used for a few words (humi, domi, ruri, and some cities' names [first and second declensions only] : Romae, Cretae, Lugduni...), and 5 declension groups (but that didn't prevent Roman babies from learning the language).
To learn them, I do not advise a complete grammatical approach. A method like
Lingua Latina or
Assimil is far better, but a Latin grammar book can help a lot and remains essential.

Reading : Once you've got the basics, you can read easy books. The main problem is that there aren't many children books in latin. But
Harrius Potter et philosophi lapis
or Regulus are a good choice. I've heard S. Aurelii Augustini is easy to understand. I've only started it yesterday, and so far I've understood everything - or almost. *winks*
Ah, look at what I found : easy latin reading. Click !
The latin library provides a lot of reading materials.

Speaking (little words) :
obiter = by the way
extemplo = at once

Various links :
=>The Textkit website is excellent : it proposes a very good forum, e-books, and much more.
Ephemeris is an online newspaper (in latin, of course!)
Vicipaedia latina : sunt 4,883 articuli.
The world of live latin : listen to live latin. Just discovered the site today. Latin's quite alive - more alive than Sumerian, any way.
=> Again a site for Latin ears : in viva voce, you can listen to recited poetry.
Test your vocabulary
Brief overview of the evolution of latin characters with animated gif here.