French, Dutch, Cantonese, other languages (oh my!)

Yes, I know it has been awhile since I wrote on this blog. I have been in study mode for a while now.

Last month, I mentioned that I was studying Dutch. While studying Dutch, I decided that it might help me to review French and compare French grammar to English and Dutch. I don’t have an English grammar textbook, but I have a French textbook from university. I spent 11 years studying French and decided long ago that I would probably pick it up again as it would be a tragedy to completely forget something I spent so long learning. So, I spent a good month reviewing French, everything from articles to the subjunctive mood. Suffice it to say I have a better understanding and appreciation of French grammar now. It has also improved my understanding of English grammar.

Now that I understand French grammar in comparison to English grammar, I can begin to understand Dutch grammar in comparison. So far, articles in Dutch are slightly easier than in French. There are no masculine or feminine nouns in Dutch but some Dutch words use a different article – het rather than de. Conjugating verbs in the present tense is so far much easier than in French, though, of course, Dutch has some irregular verbs. Zijn (meaning “to be”) and hebben (meaning “to have”) are both irregular verbs in the present tense as in French.

I have recently continued with studying Cantonese. Last month, I mentioned studying Chinese writing and that the writing system is different than the system of oral communication. Cantonese is not my native language. In fact, there are many dialects of Chinese. In south China where my family originates, the dialect there is Toisan. It is also called it Hoisan, and nowadays it is properly called Taishan. The name of the language is the same as the name of the village where it originates. Taishan is now a small city, and I suppose overtime the language will be called Taishan instead or as English speakers might prefer “Taishanese” (though I don’t know why English has this propensity to put “ese” at the end of it). In any case, Cantonese is not my native language although it is very close to Toisan. One of the main differences is the use of the “voiceless alveolar lateral fricative” in Toisan. In English you can probably equate it to a “thl” but not quite. In layman’s terms, I would say put your tongue on the top of your mouth, hold it there and blow air through your mouth and make an “l” sound.

This is amusingly enough the same sound for the double l’s in Welsh, such as in “Llew” (for the Celtic god Lugh). Although Welsh would be quite difficult to pronounce for English speakers, because I speak Toisan I actually can pronounce “Llew” properly in Welsh. 😀 (So much for Welsh being a difficult language.) Also, the Welsh “rh” is pronounced the same way as the “ll”, but of course with the “r” sound instead of the “l” sounds. (So, um… yes, at some point I might learn some Welsh, just because it’s an interesting language to me. I always thought it sounded like Chinese to me, now I know why, but it seems much softer spoken.)

Oh, I digress. Yes, I am studying Cantonese and even for me it’s a difficult language. This is because of its use of tones to distinguish between words. This means there are a lot of homophones, words that sounds the same but aren’t the same in meaning. In English, we have “there”, “their”, and “they’re” as examples of homophones, and you understand which is meant by the context of what is spoken. In Cantonese, Toisan, and Mandarin (they are all tonal languages – so are Vietnamese and Thai, in case you were interested), almost every word is a homophone. There are seven different tones in Cantonese (Mandarin is slightly easier with five tones instead, one which is considered “neutral”). The tones in Cantonese are high level, high falling (to middle level), high or mid rising (rising to high level), mid level, low rising (to middle level), low level, and low falling. Of course, the tones are relative to the pitch of your voice. You should be able to reach a high level without straining too much and your low tone should be comfortably low. Thus, as you can see, this takes practice. Practice is good because you don’t want to mix up your homophones and accidentally insult someone like, for example, your mother. “Ma” with low rising tone means horse and “ma” with a high level tone means “Mom”. You might do better by calling her “Mama” with a low falling tone followed by a high level tone on the second syllable. 😉

I’ve also managed to sneak in learning the Russian alphabet. Here it is, all 33 letters, in both upper and lower case except for three that do not have upper case because they are never needed:

Аа, Бб, Вв, Гг, Дд, Ее, Ёё, Жж, Зз, Ии, Йй, Кк, Лл, Мм, Нн, Оо, Пп, Рр, Сс, Тт, Уу, Фф, Хх, Цц, Чч, Шш, Щщ, ъ, ы, ь, Ээ, Юю, Яя

The letters are callled (in the same order as above):
a, be, ve, ge, de, ye, yo, zhe, ze, i, i kratkoye (short i), ka, el, em, en, o, pe, er, es, te, u, ef, kha, tse, che, sha, shcha, tvyordiy znak (hard sign), yeri, myagkiy znak (soft sign), e oborotnoye (reversed e), yu, ya

If you already know the Greek alphabet, the Russian alphabet shouldn’t be too difficult. “A” is the same as alpha (and “a” in English), “ka” is the same as kappa (and “k” in English), “o” is the same as omicron (and “o” in English), and “te” is the same as tau (and “t” in English). Some of the upper case letters are the same. “Ve” (В) is the same as beta, “ge” (Г) is the same as gamma, “em” (М) is the same as mu, “pe” (П) is the same as pi, “er” (Р) is the same as rho, “u” (У) is the same as upsilon, “ef” (Ф) is the same as phi, and “kha” (Х) is the same as chi. “De” (Д) is similar to delta, “el” (Л) is similar to lambda. The order ka, el, em, en, o, pe, er, es, te, u, is similar to Greek (and English).

Other languages I would like to learn are Irish, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Welsh (already mentioned), German, and maybe Italian. Many languages have similarities to each other and learning one may make it easier to learn another. Dutch is supposedly easy for English speakers. Spanish and Italian should be easy after learning French. German should be easy for English and Dutch speakers. Irish and Welsh are Celtic languages. Japanese writing is essentially Chinese writing except that Japanese has another system that they use in conjunction with the Chinese characters. Korean has its own “alphabet” and should be interesting.

For now, I’m making my way through Cantonese and Chinese writing (which needs to be practiced regularly), improving my French, and learning Dutch.

In case you are curious and want to learn a language too, I’ve been using the “Teach Yourself” language series. These books provide a good basis for whatever language you’re learning and you can look for additional material. You may have problems finding Cantonese and Chinese writing material. My approach is to learn Cantonese purely as a spoken language and just use the Mandarin writing materials. Once you know Cantonese, you can then associate the proper Cantonese word with the meaning of the Chinese character. Chinese University Press has two dictionaries that are for Cantonese, an English-Cantonese one and a Chinese-English one that provides both Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations. The English-Cantonese dictionary is strictly for learning to speak Cantonese (lots of English words and phrases are listed). The Chinese-English one provides the characters with the pronunciations and the English translations. For Cantonese grammar books, I have ordered one published by Routledge – Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Reading and Writing Chinese: Traditional Character Edition by William McNaughton and Li Ying contains a total of 2306 characters and lists the basic characters which a student should know first. There is also a Simplified Character Edition.

For Dutch, there are grammar books from Routledge. There is Dutch: An Essential Grammar and Dutch: A Comprehensive Grammar which is to be reprinted this year.

~~~C

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