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Month: March 2024

Dispatches from Linguists: Sailing with Al-’Arabiyya – The First Journey

By Omar Auf

This month’s dispatch from Omar Auf, explores what native languages are and how language and identity are linked so closely.

I don’t know where I’m going, nor where I came from, but the wind is in my hair, and I’m sailing.

Ever moving onward, towards a destination at the very beginning. Seeking what? I do not know.

Learning a foreign language is one thing, but learning your own is another thing entirely. It’s like finding little pieces of yourself with every new word and phrase, or belonging to a people who used to be in the range of sight but not of touch. Such an experience becomes all the more cathartic, and confusing, when you don’t even know what your own language is.

This matter haunted me for a good while. Am I a native Arabic speaker? What does that even mean? Is Egyptian Arabic my native language, which is what I grew up speaking at home? Or is it English, which is the language I have the strongest command of? It certainly isn’t formal Arabic, Fusha [fusˤħaː], as nobody is a native speaker of Fusha.

It may be odd, but I truly wanted to consider myself a native Fusha speaker. I considered it to be my language, regardless if it were anyone else’s. The fact of the matter is, having done all my education in English, I was terrible at formal Arabic. And it was precisely because the language felt so foreign that I felt so attached to it; it felt as though a part of my identity was missing, as if I wasn’t whole.

I grew up to more English cartoons than Arabic, and then more Hollywood movies than Egyptian. I was fascinated to find out from a neighbor that at the age of five I spoke English with a “perfect American accent” – not to mention the fact that my entire education was in English. So throughout my life, people would often mistake me for a foreigner, most likely from Syria, because of my appearance, combined with the fact that I didn’t sound entirely like a native Egyptian. Granted, a Syrian grandfather and English grandmother explains the vaguely-foreign looks, but I spoke nothing but Egyptian Arabic at home, yet my native tongue was not quite native enough. Having others question my identity since childhood led me to do the same as a teenager.

The first time I picked up a proper Arabic book was when I was 16. It was then when I began sailing through dark oceans and unknown seas, trying to find a lost treasure, a language, and in turn, myself as I ought to be.

And indeed, the language was lost in pages of literature which called to me in broken voices. The waves were cruel with words unknown and the winds raging with contempt for wasted beauty. I couldn’t sail as I did not even know how to raise or lower the mast, yet the winds carried me in their rage, and contempt seemed to be mixed with joy.

So I struggled, and looked up words, and struggled, and reread paragraphs, and struggled, and slowly went through books I didn’t entirely understand – all as if I was learning a foreign language. Then I started writing bad poetry in broken Arabic. It was then that the sun rose, and I saw the horizon I was looking for – I wasn’t sailing aimlessly through the night, though aimless many a crooked poem seemed; I was headed towards something I did not see, but could feel in my heart, so when eyes and heart aligned, the latter began to sing.

Writing poetry is often a very personal affair. I always had trouble expressing myself and saying what I really meant or wanted to say, so poetry was an outlet from the depths of many unexpressed emotions. Writing it in Arabic, as bad as it may have been, was so significant because it became part of me, and I was beginning to reclaim an identity I never had. Looking back, I realize that the treasure isn’t buried at the end of a journey which has no end, but it is the journey itself, shaping my identity as someone who belongs. Because perfection is not a prerequisite to belonging, nor is exclusivity. By seeking a definitive identity through Arabic, I began to understand the complexity and beauty of language learning, dialect formation, bilingualism, and empowerment through self-identification. I realized that even though my Arabic skills did not reflect that of people’s view of a native, I was still a native Arabic speaker, as I wanted to be. I grew up speaking three fourths of a language and because I now choose to embrace it, I’m strengthening and reasserting my identity.

Now, what “native Arabic speaker” implies is still quite vague. I’m mostly focused on being more comfortable with Fusha, which also helps my comfort with the Egyptian dialect, and with it my sense of belonging. Yet, while I feel the most immediate relation with people from my country, my sense of belonging through Arabic encompasses something much greater. Besides, to tell you the truth, I don’t really like the Egyptian dialect that much – but these are discussions for another time.

The journey is still long ahead. At times I still have to look up words, reread paragraphs, or miss out on some things in a book. But I still write bad poetry, and, now in less broken Arabic. Sometimes, I even think, not just in Egyptian, but in Fusha as well.

The day is young, the mist has yet to retreat, and it certainly feels like the wind carries my destiny. Yet it also feels like I chose to sail, knowing that I’ll go exactly where I go. I feel a deep calm and electrifying excitement by this perpetual state of certain uncertainty. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? It’ll definitely be something.

From the moment I began my journey, I had reached my destination. The road ahead will always be long, and I will never be able to tell where I started from. Was I destined to learn and speak Arabic in this way? Did I choose this path for my own?

I don’t know where I’m going, nor where I came from, but the wind is in my hair, and I’m sailing.

A Peek Outside the Realm of Language – Romanian Interjections

By Laura Bucur

Definitely one of the most untranslatable and inflexible parts of speech, interjections convey a wide variety of spontaneous emotions, feelings, physical or mental states, mostly in verbal communication. Often supported by non- and para-verbal manifestations (face expression, gestures, tone of voice), the possibility to integrate them into a proposition/phrase is actually very limited and they can function on their own to transmit meaning. Savage independent little ones they are! (Betcha read that in Yoda voice).

So why don’t you grab some tea (Spoiler alert: there is a slight chance it’ll turn into wine + headache by the time you finish reading this piece, especially if you try to pronounce all the stuff below) and let’s see how Romanians express various categories of meaning via interjections.

One of the simplest way to indicate that an occurrence happened out of the blue or someone said or did something inappropriate or surprising, were you a Romanian, is to say Hodoronc-tronc /hodo’ronk – ‘tronk/. The two words composing this interjection can be also used separately, but their combination is more powerful, as it describes the sounds produced by a voluminous mass falling on a steep slope full of rocks. Or large furniture accidentally falling down some stairs. From a usage viewpoint, this expression is used more often in written pieces than in current spoken language and it is part of many classical pieces of Romanian literature, as it carries a vibe of forgotten times when life was mainly rural, roads were not paved and people moved around in horse carts to take barrels of wine from here to there.

E.g. So there I am, politely explaining to the black helmet dude, I ain’t joining his side when, hodoronc-tronc, he goes “No, I am your father”.

They say it was first used by Archimedes in the bathroom – we’d advise differently, but anyway the interjection bâldâbâc /bɨldɨ’bɨk/ is uttered or written to indicate something rather heavy has suddenly fallen into a liquid. So, we wouldn’t use it for ice thrown in a glass, for example. It also has some very expressive sisters and brothers, such as știobâlc /∫tio’bɨlk/ or huștiuluc/ hʊ∫t∫ʊ’lʊk/, depending on which region of Romania you are in. These are all onomatopoeias pointing to an action, however, unlike in English, they were not able to generate verbs in the current language (such as ‘plop’, ‘splash’, ‘snap’), probably due to their length and phonetic nature (Romanian verb conjugation with these would sound like Wookie). The degree of presence of these words in written Romanian is quite high, but, due to the quite oldfangled sound, they are seldom used nowadays in colloquial manifestations.

E.g. Unless she’d taken that high leap backwards, lightsabre fiercely clutched in hand, he’d have pushed her bâldâbâc! into the ocean.

With a very rich area of connotations in such a short word, fâs /’fɨs/, based on the sound made by a gas when coming out with pressure via a narrow orifice (yes, it also encompasses bodily manifestations…), expresses the fact that a piece of information is totally not interesting, or it completely dismisses what the interlocutor said – the overall connotation of this particle could be probably summarized by a “rolling eyes” emoticon. Obviously, this makes it very suitable for wide usage in current slang and informal speech.

E.g. He just stared at me explaining fear was the path to some obscure side while I was thinking “Fâs, been there already!”
E.g. When he told me he found my lack of faith disturbing, I went like “Fâs, how much did your clairvoyance help you, mate?”

Whenever someone – especially someone older – is staggering or limping Romanians say they are walking șontâc-șontâc /’∫ontɨk-‘∫ontɨk / (does not apply to pub crawling, though). Etymologically, it is rooted in the Hungarian sántika. This interjection is actively used in all forms of the Romanian language: journalists seem to prefer it when writing articles on how fast the highways are built, netizens apply it when they comment on the speed of having vaccines available and so on.
E.g. The little green being, though you’d have expected it to jump like a frog, took three steps șontâc-șontâc toward the young boy.

Interjections – in any language, not only in Romanian – are carriers of a wide array of meanings, as they are categorized as spontaneous and also encompassing intonation and non-verbal elements which help the listener to decipher the message. Imagine how my face contorted, my eyes rolled and my voice rose and sunk while writing this article! Did it help?

…. Aargh, how’s that tea doing by now? Mine has turned into a dry white wine, but shh!… let’s keep this between you and me!

Kyiv, not Kiev: why you should double-check transliterations of post-USSR geographical names

By Maria Kardash

As an Eastern European studying abroad during the last two years, I’ve got an impression that the post-soviet space (including my home country, Ukraine) and its linguistic complexities, in particular, are still pretty much a terra incognita (a Latin term historically used in cartography for marking the unknown lands) for a wider community. With the following article, I want to start a series of sketches exploring how language choices determine the modern faces of countries that once cohabited the big communal apartment called the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian independence was born in the same year as me, 1991. When I was a kid, I never really questioned why everyone around me was using Russian in a state called Ukraine. I was growing up in the most multinational Ukrainian region, Bessarabia, where the Russian language served as a bridge between different ethnicities. I’ve been talking Russian within my mixed family (although I’m half-Ukrainian, half-Moldovan), talking Russian in school and even having all my school subjects taught in Russian, except for about four hours of the Ukrainian language and literature each a week.

Only in high school did some teachers switch to Ukrainian explaining that “you gonna need it in the Uni”. And still, that initiative met some resistance among my classmates wondering “How do you even learn Math in Ukrainian?” Although most of the teachers kept using Russian in their classes, for the first time I realized a big thing: Russian was not the universal tool anymore. You really need to learn your state language, darling.

Ok, so school’s done, Uni begins. I left my hometown and moved to the North of the country to study in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. There I was struck by two things:

a. The Ukrainian language doesn’t only exist in textbooks.

b. People use it in their daily life.

Several years later, a bunch of Hungarian students came for cultural exchange to our Uni. With my friend, I’d been dragging them around Kyiv for three days. Then one of them suddenly told us: “guys, I’ve been listening to you speaking and I think Ukrainian sounds quite similar to Russian”. Me and my friend, both Ukrainians, looked at each other feeling slightly ashamed, then revealed the ugly truth to this dude: “You know… we’ve been actually speaking Russian all this time”. And all the Hungarian group started asking questions like “Oh are you serious? But why?”, so we had to explain all the historical and political implications.

I admit these situations may seem weird or even ignorant to you, but that’s the linguistic realities in my country. Some regions managed to preserve Ukrainian as a language of everyday usage during the USSR times and happily ditched Russian as soon as independence arrived. However, other places experienced (and sadly, still experience) a huge problem with acknowledging Ukrainian as a state language. Decades of russification quite affected us as a nation, so that we don’t even realize that and keep using Russian in our personal lives. The geographical remoteness of some regions is also making the overall transition to Ukrainian more difficult. This is the case of my birthplace: Bessarabia is stuck between Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea. When I show my non-Ukrainian friends where my hometown is located on a map, they are usually very surprised: “Oh, is that still Ukraine? I thought it’s already some other land”.

Nevertheless, every next generation is getting more and more ‘Ukrainized’ as the status of the Ukrainian language is restored within the country and around the world. That’s why we may seem too sensitive and passionate about the choices the worldwide community makes when spelling our geographical names. Most of them arrived in the English language from the form used by the USSR or even the Russian Empire and thus traditionally had Russian spelling. However, for Ukraine and other post-soviet states it is important to be represented on the international agenda not through the lens of the colonial past but with their own definitions. Our story is not unique: remember Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta? I can assure you, using the old form Kiev anywhere on the web can raise a similar amount of heat in the comments.

‘KyivnotKiev’ is probably the most well-known Ukrainian campaign, aimed to change the Soviet-era spelling of the Ukrainian capital – Kiev – to Kyiv, a form deriving from the Ukrainian language. Although an official transliteration of Ukrainian geographical names into the Latin alphabet was introduced in 1995, it wasn’t widely adopted until 2018, when the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the online campaigns #KyivnotKiev and #CorrectUa, which were aimed to correct the misspelled names.

These initiatives gained popularity among social media users, who massively engaged in tagging big international media companies and calling for action when spotting the usage of the wrong name’s version. It appeared to be quite effective: the BBC, CNN, Euronews, The Guardian, and other media giants, airports and airlines adopted the new spelling. Even the media outlets which previously made a statement about sticking to established spelling eventually changed their mind and adopted Kyiv (see The Calvert Journal in the sources). Huh, while I’m writing this article the autocorrection highlights Kiev with the annoying red line and proposes to replace it with Kyiv. Win-win!

Not only Kyiv, but many other Ukrainian toponyms were incorporated in the international communication from the Russian language. Now the worldwide community is making an effort to abandon the old forms: Lvov for Lviv, Odessa for Odesa, Kharkov for Kharkiv, Chernobyl for Chornobyl and so on. Wait, you may ask, is that all fuss about replacing one or two letters? Yes. What may seem a minor difference, in fact, for us is a huge step in a nation-building process and establishing a new politico-cultural narrative. So, if you ever need to use some Ukrainian or any other post-USSR toponym and find yourself confused about how it is spelled, I’m really encouraging you to double-check which version is preferred within that state.

Putting a Name to a Place: Understanding Aboriginal Place Names in New South Wales

By Rebekah Bradshaw

If you have ever visited or lived in Australia, chances are you would have spent some time puzzling over a road sign or two. Perhaps you were heading up to Coonabarabran for some star-gazing, or enjoying the nightlife in Woolloomoolo. Or maybe you were wondering why Wagga Wagga can be called ‘Wagga’, but Woy Woy can never be just ‘Woy’? There is no doubt that Australia has some very unique place names! But where do these names come from, and what do they mean? 

When Europeans invaded Australia in 1788, there were over 250 languages spoken across the continent, with as many as 800 dialects. As the country was colonised throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers often recorded and repurposed the traditional names of places they were moving into. Many places are still known by their Aboriginal names today – examples around my hometown of Sydney include the suburbs of Parramatta, Bondi, Turramurra, and Cammeray. In other cases, a location was renamed, meaning that its original name might exist in a record but not on the map. Since 2001, the Government of New South Wales (hereafter NSW), where I live, has been committed to a policy of dual naming, reinstating a place’s traditional name where possible to be used alongside its newer, colonial name. 

The state of NSW was the first place In Australia to be colonised, and as such has had a longer history of Aboriginal peoples being dispossessed from their lands and discouraged from speaking their languages. Our knowledge of languages in NSW may often be patchy and incomplete as a result. Sometimes, surviving traditional place names of an area may be one of the few keys we have to understanding that area’s language. 

Recent years have seen an increased interest in Aboriginal cultures and their languages, with many curious to learn about local place names and their meanings. Understanding Aboriginal place names in NSW is not always a simple process, however, often presenting an interesting puzzle for linguists and historians. 

In NSW, most local languages are no longer spoken fluently. When interpreting a place name, the initial challenge is often working out how it is meant to sound. To understand the difficulty, we must go back to when these place names were first being recorded. Aboriginal languages have no writing system of their own, with information being passed along orally. The first time their place names were recorded in writing was by European settlers, farmers, and surveyors, most of whom had no linguistic training, and often poor literacy – as you can imagine, this was not a foolproof process! 

Aboriginal languages and English do not share all of the same sounds with each other. It can be difficult for a person to describe Aboriginal words using an English spelling system, particularly if their ear is not tuned in to recognise the differences. English makes distinctions between sounds where Aboriginal languages tend to only hear one – for example, languages in NSW do not distinguish between voiceless and voiced velar plosives /k/ and /g/, so Cadigal and Gadigal are both reasonable English spellings for the group of people belonging to the area around Sydney Harbour. On the flip side, English has only one rhotic /r/ sound, whereas a language like Gamilaraay has two, including a rolled or tapped sound (often denoted by a double ‘rr’). A native Spanish speaker would be more likely to notice the difference between the words muru (nose) and murru (buttocks), whilst an English speaker may miss it. NSW languages also commonly make use of quite “un-English” sounds like the lamino-dental stop/plosive, notated as ‘dh’. To make this sound, try pressing the tip of your tongue forward onto your bottom front teeth as you make the sound /d/. To the untrained English-speaking ear, this sound is often heard and written as either ‘d’, ‘th’, or ‘t’. 

Next to consider is the question of accents. An English word can be spelled exactly the same around the world but sound very different spoken aloud, depending on where the speaker comes from. To cut a long story short, if we do not know the accent of the person who initially recorded the place name, it is hard to know what sounds they had in mind when they used certain letters in their spelling. We will often end up with multiple different spellings of the same place name, and sometimes none of them accurately represent the pronunciation of the original word. 

So, how do linguists unravel this problem? It helps to go back to the source, comparing the earliest forms of the name as it first appears in the records. We then use what we know about the language as clues to help us reconstruct the original word. Working backwards in a kind of reverse Occam’s Razor, we want to find the most complex solution so that all of our potential spellings can be explained through simplification. 

Let us take the example of a coastal town on Yuin country, where I like to stop at my favourite pie shop: the name is spelled Ulladulla today. Going back to records from 1828, we find spellings including Ulladulla, Woollahderra, and Nulladolla – all seemingly quite different! But notice the /n/ that one of the settlers chose to put in their version. Most NSW languages don’t start words with an /n/, but what is quite common is a velar nasal /ng/ at the beginning of a word. And because English speakers never start their words with /ng/, they have trouble picking it up, instead hearing a straight /n/, or even a /w/, or no consonant at all. Now notice the ‘rr’ in Woollahderra.

This could be a trilled or rolled /r/, another sound not common in English and easily mistaken for an /l/ (notice how, to make both sounds, the tongue is up and sometimes touching the roof of your mouth). We can also make a reasonable assumption that the /d/ in the middle of the word was actually our lamino-dental stop/plosive /dh/. Putting this together, we end up with our best guess for the reconstructed place name, written as Nguladharra (quite a mouthful for an English speaker!) 

Linguists beware: you might think you know which place names are Aboriginal in origin, but take care not to miss any that are hiding in plain sight! The delightfully-named Blue Knobby has its origins in the Gamilaraay Buluuy Nhaaybil (the meaning of nhaaybil is uncertain, but buluuy actually means ‘black’, not ‘blue’!) 

Once we have our reconstructed place name, can we find out what it means? Much like the rest of the process, the answer is complicated. In any language, the primary “meaning” of a place name is its geographical referent – the location that comes to mind when the name is spoken. But when we ask about an Aboriginal place name, we often also want the etymology of the name, and the story of how it became associated with its location.

Our records may not always help us with this. Language barriers and misunderstandings could lead to the place’s cultural or functional significance being given as its meaning, rather than a translation of the name’s components. For this reason, linguists are wary when a general answer such as ‘meeting place’ or ‘watering hole’ is listed in the records.  

Sometimes we get lucky: local Aboriginal communities still hold the knowledge of the place name, we can match a reconstructed name with a definition in an existing word list for the language, or we have a way to confirm the supposed etymology provided by the early settler. Other times, it can be a very speculative process. We can use certain known trends as guidelines – for example, many place names that we know the etymology of include species of flora and fauna, body parts, and sometimes rock or soil types.

We can also look for common elements in multiple names in a language that can help us identify related meanings. A common ending for place names across Gamilaraay country is bri (see Narrabri, Collarenbri, etc.) Consonant clusters like ‘br’ do not occur in Gamilaraay or its associated dialects, so we know that we must add a syllable. And as it turns out, -(b)araay is a common comitative suffix meaning ‘with’ or ‘having’. At the very least, we know that any local place name ending in bri can be roughly translated to ‘place with [a certain feature]’ or ‘place having a lot of [a certain feature]’. 

Even when we can provide an etymology with certainty, we still do not necessarily have the full story behind the name. A place might be part of a network known as a Songline, a chain of sites that tracks a particular journey or event in the Dreaming and helps Aboriginal peoples pass on knowledge of important routes across their country. These Dreaming events might not always be clearly encoded in the etymology of the name. In the Northern Territory, a place is known as Manaji, meaning ‘bush potato’ in Warumungu. Taking this etymology at face value, the outside observer might think that bush potatoes can be found in this area (which may well be true).

Warumungu people, however, know that this is one of the stops in a journey taken by ancestral women during the Dreaming, in which they dug up bush potatoes after travelling east. Knowledge of how places connect into the Dreaming often survives today within Aboriginal communities, and so consultation with these communities and their Elders is a vital stage in the process of understanding place names. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some stories and elements of lore are sacred, and not meant to be shared publicly. The full meaning of certain places may forever remain a mystery. 

As we have just discovered, something seemingly as simple as a place name can be absolutely full of information! Directing people to a single point in space, it can also become a gateway to discovering the history, people, and language of an area. Being able to relate to our surroundings “in language” is a fantastic way for Australians to recognise and celebrate our country’s unique and rich heritage, and for visitors to learn about and experience the incredible linguistic diversity of the oldest surviving culture in the world.

The Etymological Corner: Panis, pane, pão …빵 (ppang)

By Katarzyna Koźma

Have you ever wondered why we say things the way we say them? What is the history behind various words and phrases? Welcome to our new monthly section – The Etymological Corner where we explore interesting, mysterious, and oftentimes crazy history of many words in various languages!

Panis, pane, pão …(ppang). It’s surely a coincidence!

Today, we will try to figure out what is the connection between the Korean word 빵 (ppang) meaning bread and words for the same tasty product in Romance Languages. Enjoy!

Recently, I’ve found myself being increasingly interested in Korean. After trying to resist the urge, explaining to myself that I should be focusing on the languages that I’m actively studying right now and that I’ve a long list of languages which are in a standby mode, I’ve done what any self-respecting language lover would do in this situation – I gave in. I don’t know about you but I like to start my language adventure with some food-related vocabulary. Some will say that it’s a part of essential, survival knowledge, some will say that I just really like eating. Potato, potato…. However, that is why I stumbled across the word 빵 (ppang) pretty early on. I was intrigued. How on earth this Korean word sounded similar to the Italian pane, Spanish pan, French pain, Portugal pão, Romanian pâine and finally, Latin pane? Korean, after all, is an Altaic language and all the Romance languages belong to the Indo-European family. But can it be a coincidence? Let’s check, I thought. And that’s how I went down the rabbit hole of research.

The Korean 빵 (ppang) is a loanword coming from the Japanese term パン (pan). But, wait, Japanese isn’t an Indo-European language, so presumably, it has also borrowed this word from someone. Indeed, パン (pan) can be directly traced to the Portuguese word pão. Portugal IS an Indo-European language and is descended from Latin. Case closed; we can all go home. Hold your horses, people, this is exactly the point in which the story gets interesting. How come we can find Portuguese vocabulary in Japanese? The two countries lie thousands of kilometres apart (the distance between Tokyo and Lisbon is around 11142 km in a straight line) and the two cultures do not share much of their history. Right? Wrong.

Let us step back into the beginning of the 16th century. At this time, Japan was basically off-limits to Western visitors and it opened itself to Europeans only around 1540. The first traders were from… yes, you’ve guessed it – Portugal. Together with the merchants, Portuguese ships were bringing Jesuit missionaries into the country. Both these groups had their influence on the Japanese culture of the time, including introducing new food products and names for them. This is the time when Portuguese bread, and the word pão first appeared in Japan. What’s really interesting is the fact that Jesuit missionaries are also responsible for the creation of the most important Japanese-Portuguese dictionary at the time – ‘The Nippo Jisho or Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam’ printed in 1603-04. ‘The Nippo Jisho was later used to facilitate the creation of other dictionaries, such as Japanese-Spanish dictionary (1603) or French-Japanese dictionary (1868).

The Portuguese were eventually expelled from Japan – for political reasons – in 1639 but this didn’t stop the Japanese from enjoying new, European, culinary inventions. All right, so we know how Japanese got its word for bread. But what about Korean, you ask? Korea and Japan share a long and complex history. However, in this little research we need to focus on one period in particular – the time when Korea was under Japanese Rule between 1910 and 1945. During these years, Japan had a strong influence on Korean culture and language. It was also when the Korean word 빵 (ppang) was born.

So, what about Korean bread in the 21st century? How much does it have in common with its European cousin? As we live in the age of globalisation it is certainly possible to buy Western bread in Asia. (Interestingly, two well-known Korean bakery chains have French-inspired names: Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours. They’re not run by French owners, though.) However, Koreans have created their own way of bread-making. Their breads are usually softer and fluffier than their European equivalents. You may also encounter some interesting flavour combinations which might surprise you, if you’re European. This includes (but is not limited to) cream cheese garlic bread or baked goods with red bean fillings.

It’s worth mentioning that빵 (ppang) is often used to indicate not only bread but also various other backed goods, such as for example 붕어빵 (bungeo-ppang) – a fish-shaped pastry – or 황남빵 (hwangnam bread) a pastry with red bean paste. But this is a topic for another time. Or, maybe, you can go on your own etymological adventure and start researching various names for baked good in Korean and beyond? Whatever you decide to do – have fun and see you in the next month’s instalment of The Etymological Corner!

If you want to know more…

…about the Portuguese Jesuits influences in Japan ‘Portugal, Jesuits and Japan: spiritual beliefs and earthly goods’edited by Victoria Weston. The book, originally an accompanying publication to the museum exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston (MA), is a collection of essays on the relationship between Portuguese Jesuits and Japan in the 16th and 17th century.

…about language contact between Portuguese and Japanese in the 16th century – ‘Portuguese-Japanese Language Contact in 16th century Japan’ by Akira Kono. It’s a short academic article published by the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. Even though it was written for academia, the text should be clear for language enthusiasts. If you haven’t studied linguistics at university you can still give it a go!

…about bread in modern South Korea – ‘What Will You Find in a South Korean Bakery?’ by Naomi Blenkinsop published on This is a short article about various types of baked goods that you can expect entering a South Korean bakery, including desserts and pastry. If you, like me, have a sweet-tooth take a look and find something new to try on your next trip to Seoul!

We invite you to participate in our etymological adventure! If you’d like to read about etymology of a word or a phrase that intrigues you send it to Although we can’t promise that we’ll be able to answer all the questions we can certainly promise that we can give it a go!

Hungarian: Agglutination as a Variable Device

By Joe Robinson

So, it’s finally happening. A couple of years of language enthusiast status and a good year and a half of German learning by immersion, I am taking on one of Europe’s bonafide Behemoths: I’m going to tell you about Hungarian. The Hungarian language is notorious for being incredibly hard to learn and has features not found in many other European languages. This article will take you through some of these features and also raise an interesting question: is the concept of an ‘agglutinative’ language absolute?

The first thing we need to get out of the way is the bit about difference. Hungarian is rather unlike other European languages because it is actually not an Indo-European language. It belongs to the Ugric branch of the Uralic language family and is actually a distant cousin of Finnish and Estonian (both of these belong to the Finnic branch of the family). The Magyars (what the Hungarians call themselves) were originally a nomadic tribe from, you guessed it, the Ural Mountains region and settled in the Carpathian Basin in around the 9th century.

Also, whilst Hungarian shares many similarities as far as structure is concerned, the former two are not mutually intelligible to it. It’s sort of like a Brit listening to a Dutch person, the form of the language is similar, but they don’t understand what is being said. Got it? Good, now let’s move on to some features.

A large factor in what makes Hungarian so difficult to learn is the grammatical devices it employs. Firstly, the use of personal suffixes to indicate the verb “to be” is present in Hungarian: an example of this is the phrase “I don’t speak Hungarian” Nem beszélek magyarul. Hungarian is pro-drop, so the 1st person singular “I” Én, does not need to be present. So, the verb beszél (to speak) needs a suffix denoting the 1st person singular én, one can then read this as if it were a pronoun to determine who we are talking about.

Thus, a word-for-word translation would be “No Hungarian speak-am”. Once you get used to reading the verb “to be” in suffix form as the pronoun, it becomes easier to identify the subject. You also need to get accustomed to reading suffixes all the time, as we shall see later. This can take a while if your native language does not utilise this system, but you’ll get there with practice.

But of course, that is not it. This is Hungarian and if you thought it was going to be that simple, you are in for some disappointment! Each pronoun’s “to be” suffix can take not one, not two but six different forms.

Why is this? Well, Hungarian has two categories of conjugation: definite and indefinite. Definite is used when the verb can take a direct object, like the verb ‘to eat’ in ‘I eat the apple’ for example. On the other hand, indefinite is used if the verb cannot take a direct object in the given context, for example “they were running”. The latter is the variant I used in the previous paragraph.

To add to this, Hungarian features a concept called Vowel Harmony. This means that the vowel you use in the suffix is dictated by its ‘harmony’ with the vowel in the verb stem. There are two main types of stem vowels: front vowels and back vowels. Additionally, there is a third category for stems which contain the vowels ö/ő and ü/ű. Here’s a helpful table to (hopefully) alleviate head scratching:

Pronoun suffix (definite then indefinite)Back vowels: a, á, o, ó, u, úFront vowels: e, é, i, í, ö, ő, ü, űö,ő/ü,ű
1st personom/okem/eköm
2nd personod/sz – or ‘L’ with ‘sz’ verb endingsedöd
3rd personja/nonei/nonejak -ik/none

You’ll notice that I haven’t used any plural suffixes here. I want to keep it simple so as not to hit you with too much technical stuff, that way we can focus on exploring the question I posed earlier regarding agglutination. Where does this come from? The ‘agglutination’ hypothesis was proposed by linguist Martin Haspelmath and challenges the idea of morphology categorisation. He rightly points out that this is a fairly recent phenomenon formulated in the early 1800’s, mainly by a handful of German linguists.

The need to categorise languages increased in the wake of the explosion of nationalism in Europe that began around this time; it ultimately caused the concept of a ‘national’ language to become popular and grow into what we know today. But not everyone is convinced that this doctrine holds up today.

Okay, with that whistle stop tour of Hungarian grammar over with, why don’t we discuss a bit more of the Agglutination Hypothesis and see what it’s all about?

As I outlined previously, the idea of categorising languages was drawn up in the early 19th century. It was then popularised in the 1850’s – 1870’s and mainly focuses on three groups: isolate (one morpheme per word), agglutination (many morphemes stuck together) and fusional (where the divisions between morphemes are obscured). You may ask what a ‘morpheme’ is. It’s simply the smallest possible semantic ‘piece’ of information a language offers.

Some examples in English would be -ing, -ly, -ed and -s. As these suffixes need to be attached to a stem to function, English cannot be considered a purely isolate (or analytical) language and is instead deemed a fusional language. This is because it incorporates both affix/suffix morphemes but cannot ‘stick together’ multiple morphemes to express complex concepts. But it does stand that a fusional language can use inflection to convey pieces of information. Thus, the fundamental premise of the ‘hypothesis’ is that agglutination is a concept that can and should be tested, not a hard and fast rule.

Before he runs the test, Haspelmath first predicts that any language which shows agglutination in one area will invariably show it in others. Upon raising this point, he immediately excludes an aspect of language from his analysis: affix alteration. Why? Well, think of the number of affixes we encounter all the time warmer (intensification) Große (adjective inflected for feminine form), les œuvres (Plural form).

This kind of alteration exists in Hungarian too; we have already seen it in fact with the vowel harmony and definite/indefinite conjugations from earlier and can be considered fusional, not agglutinative. Throughout his analysis, there are three distinct characteristic groupings of which 30 languages from a diverse range of families are compared. Interestingly, when the ‘average’ marks of agglutination results are revealed, Hungarian ranks 25th out of 30th. In addition, he marks the language with an asterisk which is he terms languages labelled agglutinative “in literature”. So why such a low score then? Let’s investigate a bit.

Taking the ‘most agglutinating’ language that has been ‘marked out’ as such by the asterisk (Turkish), we can do a little side by comparison. So, let’s take a simple sentence like ‘I am going to the shop”, in Hungarian we have this:

Elmegyek a boltba – “going-am the shop-to”

And in Turkish: markete gidyorum – “shop (market) going-am”

You will notice here to both languages have similar characteristics. Firstly, they are pro-drop languages, although Turkish less so. Both languages feature vowel harmony; the personal suffix um in the Turkish is used to harmonise with the vowel ‘o’ in its stem noun. Without digressing too much, the rules for Turkish vowel harmony are a little different. The vowel “o” in the back position can be classed as either strong or round and suffix vowels only ever harmonise with the ‘back’ vowel.

But our sample sentence reveals one small difference, Hungarian features a definite article ‘the’ with a and Turkish does not. But a rather minute factor is not the strongest indicator of a divergence in the amount of agglutination. For example, the negative behaves in a different way in Turkish, as seen in this sentence “I am not a doctor”

Hungarian: Nem vagyok orvos – Not am doctor

Turkish: Ben doctor değilum – I doctor not-am

We can see two differences here, the first being something I alluded to earlier. Turkish is a pro-drop language, but it seems that when it comes to simple sentences such as these, the personal pronoun is in fact used. The second difference is that the negative in Turkish requires the personal suffix, whereas Hungarian employs it as a standalone morpheme. By definition, this makes the Turkish version of this sentence more agglutinative. Still not convinced? Take a look at a longer sentence like “I am not going to the city”

Hungarian: Nem megyek a varósba – not going-am the city-to

Turkish: Şehre gitmiyorum – to-city am-not-going

In this sentence, Turkish is clearly more agglutinative. This is down to the fact that Turkish verbs have a negative conjugation – gitmiyorum – compared to gidiyorum that we saw earlier. You will notice a change in the Turkish. The 1st person Ben has been dropped, whereas Hungarian’s one-word negation is never changing. Also, from the literal translation break down, we can see that Turkish displays a near-perfect definition of agglutination: little pieces of information ‘glued’ together. Again, we can see clear agglutination in both languages, but more in Turkish.

After this interesting, albeit brief, analysis of the two languages, maybe it’s to make this judgement: a language might not be fully ‘agglutinating’ but that shouldn’t stop us from referring to it as such. Surely, you’d agree with me that the fact that a language can display agglutination is the part that matters.

A drumkit is known to be a ‘loud’ instrument because it has the ability to be and often is. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be all the time, right? In the same way, these two languages certainly agglutinate much of the time, but there are instances where they do not, and share features common amongst fusional languages (whilst both share features amongst analytical languages).

The idea that fusional language be characterised as such is just because they very rarely do something akin to ‘agglutination’, and, when they do, it is normally a small detail like a personal suffix. Languages such as English and Spanish can simply do no more. We will not see a preposition or connective attached to a verb in either of these languages and thus they cannot be classed as Agglutinating. The languages we just looked at can do more agglutination and therefore it makes sense that they be called ‘agglutinating’ languages.

There is something to take away from this though. Due to the centuries-long presence of the Ottoman Empire in South-Eastern Europe, Western scholars became well acquainted with the Turkish language (although less ‘Turkic’ than today’s Turkish). Hapselmath points out that this led them to characterise languages such as Hungarian as “Turkish-like” due to their shared, capacity for agglutination, irrespective of how frequently it may occur. Also, it’s not a mere coincidence that these two languages share concepts such as vowel harmony; another ‘asterisked’ language Swahili also uses this.

So, it’s important that we don’t paint languages with the same brush, but also recognise the similarities they share and the ability to ‘loosely’ categorise. That’s why I think that it’s a good idea to preserve the term ‘agglutination’ to demonstrate a function both of these languages can perform, whilst at the same time not expecting the same level of performance from both. In closing: yes, Hungarian is an agglutinating language, but it should be seen as a feature of the language rather than an overarching form.