Daily Archives: February 6, 2009

English and Its Closest Relatives

In the last post, we looked at Scots, the closest language actually related to English outside of English creoles. That’s according to Ethnologue anyway. There are only three languages in the Macro-English section, English, Scots and Yinglish, which is Yiddish English.

From Ethnologue (note Fishman is Jewish):

Professor Joshua A. Fishman says, “‘Yinglish’ is a variety of English influenced by Yiddish (lexically, particularly, but also grammatically and phonetically). Any good English dictionary will now include 50–100 (or more) ‘borrowings from Yiddish’ (Yinglish)….

These forms are now used not only by Jews but by others, inversely proportionally to their distance from NYC. In the case of non-Jews the original Yiddish meaning may no longer be known and a related metaphoric or contextual meaning is intended….

Since the variety is only used… (by speakers who can always speak ‘proper English’) Yinglish is never a first language acquired by the usual process of intergenerational transmission. French, Spanish, and Russian counterparts (also a Hebrew counterpart) also exist, but are more restricted in nature, both in size as well as in availability to non-Jews”. Jewish. Second language only.

At first I thought this was a preposterous, but a commenter notes that “it is English with a heavy Brooklyn accent spoken by older Jews and peppered with Yiddish words and phrases.”  Ok, maybe that makes sense then.

Still, I don’t see how that gets in and Geordie (an extremely diverse English dialect) or Scouse (Liverpudlian, likewise), Scottish English or even AAVE (Ebonics) doesn’t make it. Hell, I’ll take Queens New York English before Yinglish.

We looked at Scots earlier. Listening to some Scots tracks, you can pick up a bit of it here and there. It’s hard to say how much you can get. 25%? Less? Who knows. Those of you who listened to the Scots audios in the previous posts, how much were you able to understand? At any rate, for all intents and purposes, Scots is utterly unintelligible to US English speakers.

There’s a lot of silly talk around about mutual intelligibility.

German and English are said to be slightly intelligible, and if German is, you know Dutch must be. It’s frequently said that the language Frisian, spoken in the northern part of Holland, is somewhat intelligible to English speakers.

Frisian is doing ok; it’s relatively secure at the moment. According to commenters at the end of the post, it even has some monolingual speakers. Wow, I never would have expected that.

Frisian been separated from English for possibly up to 1000 years, and if you listen to Frisian, this is what languages sound like after they drift apart for 1000 years. That massive dose of Latinate that went into English did not help matters.

Nevertheless, English and German share 60% lexical similarity, and it’s 80% for the most commonly used vocabulary. In a Swadesh list of 200 words, I think there are only 6 or 7 that lack German cognates. Frisian is even higher. Besides Scots, Frisian is the closest related language to English on Earth, with 61% cognates. So it ought to be interesting to listen to some Dutch and some Frisian to see how much of it we can pick up.

Here is an interview with a top Dutch model, Doutzen Kroes, for a promotional campaign promoting the use of the Frisian language. I believe it is all in Dutch. I could barely make out of a single word out of this 5 minute Dutch language tape. I got a few words, but that is only because I happen to know some Dutch words here and there. Obviously, that doesn’t count. I got about 2%, but that’s only because I know a bit of Dutch.

I will say that Dutch has a bit of a familiar rhythm to it, does it not? It’s not Spanish, French or Italian. The prosody has that English feel to it somehow.

The next video is an interview with the same top model in which she responds in Frisian to questions directed at her in Dutch and English. Don’t look at the Dutch subtitles, because you’ll pick up a lot more words that way. I got the word for “no” in Frisian and that’s pretty much it. But there was a lot of background noise. Comprehension was around 2%.

Let’s try another one. In this one two Frisian poets, Tsead Bruinja and Albertina Soepboer, are interviewed about their upcoming books of poetry. All dialect is in Frisian, clear of background noise, crisp and clear diction. Later Bruinja reads some of his poems in a playground. It was shot in Groningen by Omrop Fryslân, a group that produces Frisian shows on Frisian TV. They have Frisian TV! Cool!

In the comments there are some English speakers claiming that they could pick out enough of it to get the basic understanding. As for me, I could not make out a single damned word. Comprehension was 0%. However, I will allow that Frisian, in prosody, sounds a lot more like English than Dutch does. In fact, it sounds somewhat close to those Scots tapes.

If Frisian and Dutch are this bad, I’m not even going to bother listening to a tape of German. This bit about English and German having some intelligibility seems ridiculous.

A lot of language is about prosody and rhythm. Even if you can’t get a word of that Frisian or Dutch, the rhythm is there. If you have ever heard Old English or try to make it through Beowolf, you will hear that sound in Frisian also. This goes to show you what 61% lexical similarity in two languages gives you comprehension wise – often not a damned thing.

Keep in mind that Japanese and Korean supposedly have 65% or so of their vocabulary derived from Chinese via borrowings. Do you think speakers of Japanese or Korean can make out a word of Chinese, or the other way around? Forget it.

I got a weird and creepy sensation in my body as I watched that Frisian tape. Frisian is a look into our past as English speakers, back to the days before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes got on boats and took off for England long, long ago.

There was a fascinating show on the Discovery Channel a while ago in which the journalist takes a crash course in Old English and then tries to use Old English to buy a cow from a Frisian farmer. The Frisian farmer can actually sort of understand the Old English! Weird…

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