Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I have recently found myself in the unusual position of learning a new language, and not even a programming one. This is a fortuitous position to be in: the next novel - a fantasy, you may recall - requires me to create at least one language from scratch and learning an existing one gives me a useful roadmap.

The language in question is German, which I am learning for day-job purposes. I have once before had a stab at this, at GCSE level, but the triplicate of genders made the whole business too confusing and I ditched after a term. This time round I have been told that most Germans don't really give a monkey's whether you get the genders right provided you say the correct words, so I'm making far better progress.

I have never been all that good at human languages. I can pick up programming languages quite quickly though, the legacy of teenage years spent learning ZX-BASIC from spectacularly opaque textbooks: I'm strong on syntax and most programming languages have broadly similar (or at least, easily equated) paradigms.

German is a human language, of course, but it turns out to be rather more regular and consistent than most so getting to grips with the syntax is a bit easier. Also, the nouns are capitalised, a practice which English should consider adopting, frankly - any language is easier to learn when somebody highlights the thing words for you.

Germans have a reputation for being sensible, methodical, unfunny and linear, a stereotype I have never really been able to correlate with reality - all the Germans I have met have been warm, friendly, humourous and weird by turns, with excellent dress sense - but I wonder if the national character has something to do with the language. Orwell posited in 1984 (the book, not the year) that language essentially defines thought, that without the words to express a notion that notion withers and dies - I wonder if language defines us at an even more fundamental level. Take Cantonese, for instance, a language where a word can have up to seven different meanings depending on how you intone it: the Hong Kong sense of humour is mainly entrenched in wordplay and punnery, which the language delivers in shovelfuls. A lot of the jokes in Hong Kong movies lose their punch in translation for this reason: it's a lot cleverer than the subtitles can tell you.

German is a highly regular language. English is a highly irregular language, with idiosyncrasies by region. French is lyrical and picturesque. Italian is punchy and passionate. Even without learning to speak these languages it's possible to see how they reflect the national character: perhaps they do not so much reflect as define.

Modern youth, of course, speak in as few words as possible, cutting out any syllables or consonants they don't feel like saying, substituting fuckin' for almost every adjective. One wonders if the reputation of young people for idiocy and indolence is served entirely by their language: one wonders too if the way you speak makes you into the living, breathing epitome of those words.

Witches change the world with incantations. Perhaps they know something.

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