make yourself at home!

This week I bought myself a lifetime, unlimited languages subscription to Rosetta Stone for the bargain basement price of $179. The only hard part of the decision was picking which language to dive into first. Since I am hoping to visit Israel soon, I ended up starting with Hebrew. I chose a learning plan at the intermediate level, optimized for those who feel compelled to learn for familial reasons.

So far, Rosetta Stone’s technique seems to be close to Duolingo‘s, i.e. immersion without explanation. Not sure I love that approach, although I’m also not sure it’s the only one they employ — I’m still early on in the process.

As of tonight, I’m officially three lessons in, and I’m starting to be served words that I recognize but don’t understand, as well as some words that I’ve never encountered before at all.

I learned the word for “to swim,” for example — לִשְׂחוֹת (lischot). Useful! And in that verb’s case, it did seem effective to keep seeing and hearing the word next to pictures of people swimming. But in the case of the verb לְבַקֵר (levaker), a word that I have heard a ton before — but whose meaning evades me — the pictures of people waving did not help. My best guess was that it must mean “to greet” or “to say hello,” but there was no way to check within the lesson itself.

I was just about to Google it when my parents Skyped me, so I asked them instead. My mom’s immediate response to the question, “What does levaker mean?” was, “To criticize.” I told her that either she must be wrong or I must have said the word incorrectly, because the contextual images I was shown were all happy-go-lucky people waving to each other outside houses. Then she said, “Oh, well it also means ‘to visit.'”

I’m not sure whether the people without Jewish mothers will appreciate the brilliance here. This ancient language of my people has managed — with irony, with dry wit, with perfect precision — to nail the contemporary (and, it begs the question, perhaps also the eternal?) Jewish psyche in just one word.

Though it would never have occurred to me to think of it this way before, “my mother is visiting me” and “my mother is criticizing me” are virtually interchangeable. A visit without criticism would be like a ship without an anchor, an empty vessel.

While I need no explanation for how my mother makes the leap from visiting to criticizing, I was curious about how Hebrew made the logical link between the two. My father pointed out that a third definition for levaker is “to examine.” If you think of them on a continuum, it starts to make sense. The three actions flow in stages from one to the next: you visit, you examine, you criticize.

I just find it hilarious that Hebrew puts the entire continuum into one word, especially when another perfectly good continuum would be: to visit, to examine, to praise. Perhaps a different language — one belonging to a more lighthearted people — possesses a word like that.

P.S. It just occurred to me that this post was an exercise in levaker: I visited my blog, examined a word, and criticized both it and my mother.

late-in-life realization

I’m 41 years old. And yet it only just occurred to me today, while playing The New York Times Spelling Bee, that the word “kneel” comes from the word “knee,” as in, to go down on one’s knees. I never in my life thought of them as etymologically related before. I guess that’s because knee has a long e sound and kneel has a different vowel sound — a diphthong? Still, you’d think that I would have connected it during one of the thousands of times I have knelt on my knees in my life.

Every once in a while, I have another one of these startling discoveries. How have I gone through four decades of life, and they are still happening? I guess it’s sort of fun, but it also makes me feel a little ditsy.

speaking of kennings…


…I was deleting some photos from my laptop yesterday and found one that I took of a page from Iceland Air’s in-flight magazine on the way to Reykjavik. On the page were a bunch of facts about the Icelandic language. At the time, I thought I would share some of them when I posted my Iceland pictures, but by the time I got around to that, I had forgotten about it.

With the passage of almost a year, there’s only one fact on the page that I still find interesting. And I just realized that coincidentally, it is a fact about a kenning, whose definition — a compound word with a metaphorical meaning — I just learned.

“Icelanders have selected their favorite word in a national referendum: Ljósmóðir (literally, ‘mother of light’) is the Icelandic word for midwife.”

Isn’t that such a beautiful word and a beautiful sentiment? It reminds me of the Spanish phrase for “to give birth”: dar a luz (give to light), which I only know because I spotted it on a sign in a hospital waiting room.

It would make sense that Icelandic would be kenning-heavy, since kennings originated in Old Norse (and Old English), a precursor to Icelandic. And according to Wikipedia, “Since the written language has not changed much, Icelanders are able to read classic Old Norse literature created in the 10th through 13th centuries with relative ease.”

I’m not sure whether this counts as a kenning, but I also just discovered this Icelandic word that I love: gluggaveður, which means window-weather (weather = glugga; window = veður). It refers to “weather that is nice to look at through a window, but not nice to be out in.”

Oh words, you delightful poetic things!

The best of words, the worst of words (Wolof edition! With French bonus word!): lekk / kay and Badara (+ époustouflant)

Salaam alekum! Nanga def? Lou bess?*

I haven’t done a “best of words, worst of words” since being in Senegal, so, five days before my departure (!!!!!), i present to you the first and probably last Wolof version of the series, at least for the time being.

Tantie aka Armande chose two favorite Wolof words. Usually I force people to commit to just one above all others, but since she had so much trouble coming up with her most detested word, I cut her some slack. Her first favorite:

Lekk means “to eat. She chose this word because she likes to eat, pure and simple.

Her next choice was not so simple, at least not for non-Wolof-speaking me.

Kay means “come,” but unlike other verbs, kay has no conjugation. It’s always just kay, and whatever modifier you add to it indicates your specific meaning. Tantie likes this word because it can have so many different senses – demanding, friendly, romantic – depending on how you say it and which word(s) you follow it with.

As for her most hated word, Tantie sort of cheated. She couldn’t come up with an actual word so she chose a Wolof man’s name.

Tantie has no idea why she dislikes this name so much. One day she was watching TV with her brother when a man came onscreen with the name Badara, and she found herself saying vehemently, “I hate that name.” She assured me that it had nothing to do with any actual person.

For good measure, I asked Tantie what her favorite and least favorite French words are. She could only come up with a favorite. (Tantie may be too nice for her own good.)

The reason for époustouflant: It’s a funny word that’s fun to say.

It is indeed. And it means breathtaking, mind-boggling, staggering, or amazing.

I hope you enjoyed your brief Wolof (and even briefer French) lesson. Jerejef – thank you – for reading.

* Hello, how are you? What’s new? [Salaam alekum is Arabic; the rest if Wolof. You may see the Wolof words spelled differently in different places because Wolof’s original written script has been replaced with transliterations based on French or other (Arabic? not sure) phonetic systems.]

5 things I will never get about French

Because I respect my elders, I am willing to accept that thousands-of-years-old French has a rhyme and reason to it that my relatively infantile self fails to grasp. Still, you cannot blame me for getting frustrated with certain facets of the language that seem objectively insane if you’re a non-native speaker. To wit:

1. Numbers above 69

I have stated this before but it bears repeating:

It’s like they let the village idiot come up with the French numerical system at his daughter’s wedding. He did pretty well for himself up to 69 – echoing the Roman decimal system by counting in tens… but then he got shit-faced and started adding and multiplying random numbers together to come up with everything from 70 to 99. What else could account for soixante-dix (sixty-ten, i.e. 70), or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four-twenty-ten-nine, i.e. 99… because, of course, four times twenty plus ten plus nine is 99)?

I have recently learned that Belgians, Swiss, and Congolese use a more logical numbering system in which seventy is septante, eighty is huitante or octante, and ninety is nonante, and I have further learned that the weird French way may be a Celtic leftover. I tend to think that when your leftovers have gotten rotten it’s time to throw them out, but who am I to argue with the Académie française?

2. Reflexive verbs that are not actually reflexive

Here is the definition for reflexive. Pretty simple, right? And yet, French reflexive verbs are not bounded at all by that definition. While I can acknowledge that French reflexive verbs consist of more than simply verbs in which the action is performed on oneself (when the subject is singular) or each other (when the subject is plural), I cannot intuitively grasp it because I see absolutely no logic in it. I completely understand why you would say, “Je me habille” or “Nous nous marions”- because you dress yourself and you marry each other. But why do people say, “Je me souviens?” as though they are remembering themselves and not the memory? And why is it, “Je me promene,” as though you are a dog walking yourself, but it’s also “Je marche” and not, “Je me marche,” when marcher and promener both mean “to walk”?

By the way, I’m asking these questions rhetorically here, but I do realize there are answers to them all… And that sometimes the answer is just, “Because.” Languages are funky ever-evolving things with a million exceptions to every rule, and I know that English is as funky as the rest of them.

Regardless, I will continue to vent. Moving on…

3. Gender

Setting aside for a moment the difference between gender and sex… Chairs have neither vaginas nor penises, so why assign them a gender? Especially when considering the following:

– Certain synonyms have different genders. For example, un vélo (masculine) and une bicyclette (feminine) are the same thing, a bicycle. A river can be une rivière (feminine) or un fleuve (masculine). How can the same object have a different gender depending on what you choose to call it?

– Then there’s the ridiculousness of a word like bébé (baby) being masculine whether the baby in question is a girl or a boy. So if you were referring to Baby Jane, you could say, “Elle est mignonne” if you wanted to say that she is cute, or you could technically say, “Le [not la] bébé est mignon” and be referencing the same damn baby. Actually, I am unsure whether you would agree the adjective, mignon, with the noun, bébé, or with the actual gender of the baby, female, in which case it would be “Le bébé est mignonne.” Anyone French care to tell me which is correct?

Regardless, the quagmire itself is as good an argument as any for the ridiculousness of gender both in language and as a biological construct. How about we all go genderqueer in life and language and just call everything and everyone ze from now on? (This would work in French as well as it does in English and would play right in to cute stereotypes about French accents to boot.)

Here’s a lengthy but interesting article on the subject of French genders (much of which makes a mockery of my silly complaints).

4. Swallowed letters

French must have more homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings) than any other language, because only like half their letters are actually pronounced, reducing the possible sound combinations significantly. This is especially true of end letters, which it seems like you are supposed to ignore about 70% of the time.

Take for instance: cent, sang, sens and sans. Thanks to the French distaste for sounding end letters out, these words are all pronounced the same (unless they come before a vowel that starts the next word, but let’s not even get into that).

Why bother adding all those extra letters to words when you’re not going to actually pronounce them? If sans and sang are pronounced the same why not just make them both “san”?

Then there’s the silent h, and the silent “ent” verb ending. As in, mangent is pronounced the same way as mange. Seriously, that is an entire syllable that’s just ignored. All I can do is shake my head (and be grateful that at least when I conjugate my verbs incorrectly, half the time no one knows because it’s all pronounced the same).

5. Possessive pronouns agree with the thing possessed and not with the possessor…

…So what is the point? Constructing sentences this way is often redundant, and it also eliminates the possibility to minimize confusion about who the possessor is.

For example, let’s say John and Mary are standing in a room. The only other thing in there is Mary’s chair. I walk into the room with my friend and, don’t ask me why, I feel the need to tell her:

It’s her chair.

In English, since Mary is female, the pronoun is feminine. Because the pronoun is feminine, my friend now knows that the chair is Mary’s and not John’s.

But in French:

Il est son fauteuil.

The chair is masculine, and that is indicated three separate ways: with “il”, with “son” and with the gendered noun itself. Yet my friend still has no idea whose chair it is, Mary’s or John’s.


And for good measure, a sixth, very specific thing:

The similarity in the meaning of almost every pouvoir conjugation is a total brain twister for me. To wit:

Passé composé: J’ai pu (I could)

Passe Imparfait: Je pouvais (I could)

Plus-que-parfait: J’avais pu (I could)

Futur simple: Je pourrai (I will be able to…. aka I could)

Futur antérieur: J’aurai pu (I could have)

Conditionnel Présent: Je pourrais (I could)

Conditionnel Passé: J’aurais pu (I could have)

Seven different French conjugations, but only two different English translations. Yes, I know that there are subtleties within the French that I could have better indicated in the English, and I also know that rules of common usage dictate when to use which conjugation even if there’s not a one-to-one French to English formula to follow, but… it still boggles my brain to think about the fact that there are seven possible ways to say what we only really say two different ways in English.

But… brain boggling seems to be the name of the game when it comes to learning a foreign language, so all is forgiven, and onward and upward! I’ll just keep telling myself: the more fried, the more French.

[Photo: Sarah Tarno]

have a nice weekend!

What are you up to this weekend? I plan to lay low in an effort to relax away my growing anxiety about the American election. Maybe I’ll spend a day sitting by the pool at Hotel Savana, above, sipping a (recently mentioned) jus de bouye. Or maybe I’ll just hide under the covers for five days / forever, depending on the outcome.

Here are some interesting reads I’ve gathered for you over the past couple weeks, to keep you distracted if you’re as stressed as I am:

I follow a blog called “About Words,” which every week describes new English words in circulation. Last week’s were fascinating. Can you guess what a bobu or a midult is?

And do you know which country is the world’s most generous to strangers?

This awesome map charts out a cross-country US road trip that visits every national park.

Speaking of maps, here is a new world map that looks bizarre but is way more accurate than the one you’re used to. (Now I understand why getting from Senegal to Ethiopia took me ten hours.)

I love this woman and I am envious of the adventure she’s on. (Though I realize I’m on a pretty awesome one of my own.)

Every Italian who turns 18 next year is eligible for 500 Euros from the government on their birthday, to spend on cultural items and experiences. Fitting for one of the most culturally spectacular places on Earth.

the best of words, the worst of words: foi and impossible

Asking native French speakers to tell me, in French, their favorite and least favorite words and to explain their choices is a good way for me to practice conversational French and also possibly learn some new words. Thus, the best of words, the worst of words. A couple of weeks ago, I targeted my colleague, Serge, for this delightful-to-me/bemusing-to-him exercise.

Serge is a soccer-playing, West African record-spinning, ethnic cuisine-sampling Burkinabè who also spent time growing up in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. I find it inspiring and awesome that nearly every day he does the rounds, visiting cubicles on two floors of our section for friendly little tête à têtes – and it was during one of these that he told me his best and worst words.

He wanted to start with his least favorite word:

Serge's least favorite word: impossible

Impossible = well, impossible. Because, “Rien est impossible. C’est une histoire d’energie. Si tu penses que tu peux faire quelque chose, tu peux le faire, mais ça demande une certaine discipline, l’obligation, courage. Donc le mot ‘impossible,’ je ne l’utilise jamais.” [Nothing is impossible. It’s about your energy. If you think that you can do something, you can do it, but it takes some discipline, commitment, courage. So I never use the word ‘impossible.’] I asked Serge if there’s ever been anything he’s wanted to do but not been able to manage, and with a confident shake of his head he replied, “No.” (I wish I could say the same.)

Serge’s favorite word is the other side of the coin:

Serge's favorite word: foi

Foi = faith. Because: “Croire en soi, peu importe la situation, tout ira bien.” [If you believe in yourself, no matter what the situation, everything will be okay.] For Serge it’s a question of both religious faith and confidence in himself, though he added, “La confiance en moi vient de Lui.” [My self-confidence comes from God.]

So, it appears that Serge and I are polar opposites: he’s an optimistic man of faith, and I’m an agnostic ball of anxiety. But we are in agreement when it comes to our love of West African music. So I will take this opportunity to publicly remind Serge that he still owes me a mix tape. 🙂

that’s a lot of words


I recently read: “There are seven times more words in English than in French (500,000 versus 70,000), which suggests that French relies on contextual clues to resolve semantic ambiguities to a greater extent than English. Many words in French have multiple possible meanings… which means that the listener is responsible for discerning the intention of the speaker.”*

I suppose I could be heartened by the fact that there are only 60-some-thousand words I don’t know in French. Apparently it could have been much worse.

I’ve always found it strange that a country known for romance has the same word for like and love – that you have to figure out the meaning of aimer based on context clues. But now a correlation between romance and multi-meaning words occurs to me. Fewer words + more interpretation = greater opportunity for happy accidents in which one person misunderstands the other’s semantical intentions, believes that love is being declared, and is inspired to respond in kind. Perhaps France is brimming with l’amour because everyone’s living out their own version of a screwball romantic comedy.

As a related tidbit, this little quiz estimates that I know 30,900 English words. I will try to keep this in mind the next time I’m feeling dumb as a brick while attempting to make simple statements in Spanish or not-so-simple ones in French.

P.S. For English learners (and speakers who want to boost their vocab), here’s an aptly named site.

* I read this quote from Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map” here.

[Photo: Martin Latter]

the best of words, the worst of words: Philippines edition

Ruth in front of her village welcome sign

Two of the people I got to know on my Philippines trip were Ruth, with whom we filmed, and Juan, with whom we worked. They come from two different islands (Iloilo and Cebu) with two different dialects (Ilonggo and Cebuano). I thought it would be interesting to learn their favorite and least favorite words in their native tongues. And it was:

Ruth Celestial Cachuela is the captain (sort of like mayor) of her barangay (village), a community of 200-something households that sits on the northeastern shores of Iloilo. She has six children and six grandchildren, and she cares deeply about them and the wellbeing of her community. A very good person with whom to share a name! Her favorite word in Ilonggo: ruth's favorite word

Palanga means love, and Ruth chose it because, “I was loved by my parents, I was loved by my friends, I was loved by my husband, I was loved by the community, and even people who do not know me love me, because of what I have done. I also love them.” Her least favorite word:

Ruth's least favorite word

Baghak is an insult that means, according to Ruth, “You are downward, you don’t have knowledge for everything, like a monkey.” Ruth finds the word disrespectful and doesn’t like when people use it. She is a sower of love, not hate!

Juan Yao is a soft-spoken forester with an easy smile, born and raised in Cebu City. He is the kind of person whose presence makes you feel quiet and peaceful, which is why I was amused by his choice of favorite word:Juan's favorite word

Payter is the Filipino-ization of the English word “fighter,” and it is used as an exclamation when something is cool. I guess “baller” would be our closest approximation. As for his most hated word: Juan's least favorite word

Burikat is a crude word for “prostitute.” Juan doesn’t mind other words for prostitute, but this one he finds ugly.

So there you have it: Ruth and Juan, upstanding ambassadors of the Filipino lexicon. I now intend to integrate “fighter” into my everyday usage. As in, “I got to go to the Philippines. Fighter!”

rire & sourire

adorable smile

It occurred to me the other day that sourire (smile) literally means ‘under-laugh’ (sous-rire). Something about that is so lovely.

I looked up the etymology and here’s what I found:

“Parce qu’il vient autant du cœur que de la raison, le sourire dit tout et son contraire. Première forme de langage non verbal, il crée instantanément du lien lorsqu’il est authentique, génère de l’inquiétude lorsqu’il est rictus ou provoque un malaise lorsqu’il est forcé.  …

Son étymologie est mal définie: du latin subridere, il viendrait ‘avant le rire,’ dont il serait un avatar inachevé et silencieux, esquissé et contenu. Le sourire ne serait-il qu’un sous-rire, un rire au rabais?

Avant de rire, nous avons souri. Le bébé sourit dès la naissance, alors que les premiers éclats de rire ne commencent qu’entre 4 et 8 mois. Sourire est un comportement inné, et non un apprentissage culturel. …

Le sourire est donc loin d’être une forme affaiblie du rire. … ‘Le sourire est la perfection du rire,’ écrit le philosophe Alain à propos de la plus subtile des expressions humaines.”

My butchery of an interpretation (corrections welcome!):

“Because it comes as much from the heart as from the mind, the smile tells us everything and nothing. The first form of non-verbal language, it instantly creates a connection when it is authentic, generates uneasiness when it is a grin, or provokes malaise when it is forced.

Its etymology is badly defined: from the latin subridere, it would come ‘before the laugh,” which would make it an unfinished and silent transformation, sketchy and contained. [Editor’s note: Wtf??] The smile would be but an under-laugh, a cheap laugh.

Before laughing, we smiled. The baby smiles from birth, while the first peels of laughter don’t occur until sometime between 4 and 8 months. To smile is something that happens on the inside, and not culturally learned behaviour.

The smile is therefore far from being a weakened form of laughter. ‘The smile is the perfection of laughter,’ writes philospher Alain about the most subtle of human expressions.”

Those French and their poetic way with language. (But, oh, what a mockery my translation makes of it.)

(Photo: My niece’s loveliest of smiles, surpassed only by her laughter.)