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     Origin of all linguistic knowledge? (source)
This is an experiment into how quickly one might be able to acquire a foreign language by comparative texts.  

Let's test that idea on a widely-translated text, in this case in the German language:

12 Jesus ging in den Tempel und trieb alle Händler und Käufer aus dem Tempel hinaus; er stieß die Tische der Geldwechsler und die Stände der Taubenhändler um 13 und sagte: In der Schrift steht: Mein Haus soll ein Haus des Gebetes sein. Ihr aber macht daraus eine Räuberhöhle.

I present my own linguistic terminology here, which is that of Lego words.  German likes to build different concepts into verbs (and other words) by building large words out of small components like Lego blocks.  (Technically this is called an "agglutinative" or a "synthetic" language, but rather than these confusing terms, I think "Lego language" more evocative, no?)

Most of these German Lego block word components have cognate forms in English, and may be possible, if one can identify the cognate Lego blocks, to more readily comprehend the German text.  

After that, I'll try the same method on a very different language, Maltese.

STEP I.  Identify and assign meaning to all nouns.
German and English have a lot of words which are "cognate", that is literally "born together".  (The meanings aren't always the same, so be careful.)  Fortunately, all nouns are capitalized in German.  

a.  Identical (or nearly) words: Jesus, Tempel, Haus.
b.  Closely related words:
-- Händler. literally: handlers; better: merchants, dealers.
-- Stände. literally stands, better here: table.
-- Schrift; literally: script, better: writing.
-- Räuberhöhle; literally: robber's hole, idiomatically: den of thieves.  

c.  Distantly related words.
-- Käufer: buyers. This is cognate with cheap, which in Old English was ceap meaning "bargain, deal, or trade."  
-- Tische: tables.  Dish and Tisch are cognate, with the German word shifted from initial D to T.  Originally both words meant a container for food, with the meaning of Tisch transferred to the table itself.  Table comes from Latin tabula, entering the English language via the French-speaking Normans.
-- Taubenhändler: literally dove handlers, better dove merchants.  A Lego word. Taube is cognate with doves, with  the German sound shifts of initial D to T and medial V to B.

STEP 2.  Cull out the little words.
Most of these are determiners, prepositions, or pronouns, and most have very close English equivalents.
-- den, dem, die, der = the or of the.
-- in/in, und/and, alles/all, aus/out, ein (eine) a, an, aber/but, daraus/out from, out of.
-- er = he

STEP 3.  Identify the verbs.  
With the nouns and the short words identifed, the verbs should fall into place ...

a.  Pick out the short apparently cognate verbs.
Think of these as single Lego blocks:  ging, sagte, steht, soll, machte.  These are all verb forms, for the most part in the past tense, of geh(en)/go, sag(en)/say, steh(en)/stand, soll(en)/shall or should, and mach(en)/make.  Note the strong similarity between the modern verbs in German and English, even though German and English began diverging from their mutual language predecessor approximately 1600 years ago.

      It is a little-known architecture fact that
      the Reichstag is made entirely of Legos.


b.   Pick out the Lego verbs.
German requires, at least in some cases, that verbs made of two or more Lego blocks be taken apart to be used in sentences.  Hence one writes in German:
... er stieß die Tische der Geldwechsler und die Stände der Taubenhändler um...


...trieb alle Händler und Käufer aus dem Tempel hinaus...

The infinitive forms of these verbs are umstossen / to shove over, to toss around, and hinaustrieben / to drive out.  Note treib(en) is cognate with drive.  

c.  Be alert to sein, the infinitive meaning to be.  
As in English, it is highly irregular, although in many of its forms are cognate with English or at least some form of archaic English, for example Ich bin/I being, du bist/thou beest, er ist he ist, etc.

d.  Resort to dictionary in emergency.
Look up anything else you can't figure out, and, if possibly, try to remember the English connection, because the Lego piece will probably turn up somewhere else.

-- Gebetes :prayer.  Related to the English word bid which has an older meaning of prayer and solicitation.
--Geldwechsler: money changer.  Another Lego word.  There doesn't appear to be a cognate English word for Wechsler, but there is Geld/yield, with the older sense of payment or money, rather than acquiescence or surrender.

So we come to the point where we can arrive at a rough translation of the verse in question, which turns out to be, as you may have surmised by now, Matthew 21:12-13.

12 Jesus ging in den Tempel und trieb alle Händler und Käufer aus dem Tempel hinaus; er stieß die Tische der Geldwechsler und die Stände der Taubenhändler um 13 und sagte: In der Schrift steht: Mein Haus soll ein Haus des Gebetes sein. Ihr aber macht daraus eine Räuberhöhle.

becomes, in English, in rather clunky Yoda-esque word order:

12 Jesus went into the Temple and drove all the dealers and buyers from the Temple out; he shoved the tables of the money changers and the dove dealers over 13 and said: In the writing it stands: My house should a house of prayer be. You but make from it hole of robbers.

      Ghaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti ("Association of
      Maltese Writers").  This organization regular-
     ized the grammar and orthography of the
      Maltese language in the 1920s.
Limits of the Lego method.
Now, let's see how far we can take this.  We were sort of cheating with German, which has a lot more in common with English than is commonly thought, which is why English, despite its heavy influence from French, is still classified as a Germanic language.  

So let's switch to a non-Germanic language and see how the Lego theory works.  

Here's the same text in Maltese, a  Semitic language like Arabic and Hebrew which is written in the Roman alphabet:

12 Ġesù daħal fit-tempju, qabad ikeċċi 'l barra l-bejjiegħa u x-xerrejja kollha li kien hemm fit-tempju, u qaleb l-imwejjed tas-sarrafa tal-flus u s-siġġijiet ta' dawk li kienu jbigħu l-ħamiem. 13 U qalilhom: "Hemm miktub li ‘Dari dar it-talb tissejjaħ’. Intom, imma, għamiltuha għar tal-ħallelin!”

Wow.  One can identify Ġesù and fit-tempju must have something to do with temple.  U obviously means and, but other than that, without knowledge of Maltese grammar and reference to a dictionary, this would would be a stumper.

But let's change the text:

Kulhadd, bhala membru tas-soċjetà, ghandu l-jedd ghas-sigurtà soċjali u ghandu l-jedd li jissodisfa, permezz ta' l-isforz nazzjonali u l-kooperazzjoni internazzjonali u skond l-organizzazzjoni u r-riżorsi ta' kull Stat, il-jeddijiet ekonomiċi, soċjali u kulturali li minghajrhom ma jistax iżomm id-dinjità tieghu u jiżviluppa bil-libertŕ l-personalitŕ à tieghu.

And compare to the English translation of Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Here, the text contains a heavy complement of Latin words.  Maltese, being strongly influenced by Italian, becomes very close to intelligible even to someone, like me, with no prior knowledge of Maltese.

It turns out that Maltese, which is a fascinating language, has a base of Semitic words which have little in common with the Indo-European languages such as English and German.  For Francophones, Wikipedia has a splendid article.  Thus a text such as Matthew 21:12-13, which is written with basic word forms for the most part, can't be comprehended readily by the Lego method.  

As we move into ideas which are expressed in more abstract fashion, the influence of Italian (and, to some extent of English itself) becomes more prominent, and the text becomes almost comprehensible to an English speaker, and with the aid of a Maltese-English dictionary, it would be readily so.   This is aided by the fact that Maltese is unique among Semitic languages in that it is written in the Roman alphabet.

English shows this same tendency, that is, of a language composed of portions of two different language families, with a Germanic substrate of the more common words and basic grammar, and the addition of a huge inventory of French and Latin vocabulary.  So in this way we see the obvious connection between English and German on the basic level, and the also strong common features of English and Maltese in a more abstract situation.

Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 07:42 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .


How many languages do you speak?

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30%3 votes

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (14+ / 0-)

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 07:42:13 AM PDT

  •  Your poll needs a little definition (4+ / 0-)

    Does a smattering of a language count as "speaking" that language?

    In that case, I speak five languages, in varying degrees of competency.

    No Maldavian, I'm afraid.  :)

    I've always thought that someone interested in language development should focus on autistic children.

    My daughter doesn't speak in any significant way, but she sings in several different languages, mostly asian (Korean, Japanese, I think some Chinese but I can't be sure), even though there are no speakers of asian languages in this house.

    She picks it all up from cartoons on You Tube.

    I blog about my daughter with autism at her website

    by coquiero on Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 09:01:35 AM PDT

  •  English and German. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cartoon Peril

    Geld equates more closely to gold than to yield.

    The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth. - William O. Douglas

    by PSzymeczek on Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 12:10:53 PM PDT

    •  It appears that way, but it actually represents (0+ / 0-)

      a consonant change between an Old English letter called yogh which looked like a lower case g with a flattened top, and was pronounced somewhere ranging between modern y and g.

      Following the Norman conquest of 1066, the French scribes who were writing for the French-speaking court struggled with the unfamiliar letter yogh.  As result, some Germanic words spelled with yogh came to be spelled with y in English and their cognates in German with g, hence we see the pairs of yellow/gelb, yester(day)/Gestern, yard/Garten, and yield/Geld.

      Gold is identical in both English and German and apparently has been so for a very long time.  Ultimately it appears that both gold and yellow seem to come from a common root in an extinct (and never written) reconstructed language called Proto Indo-European.

      A quick source for a lot of word history and cognates is the Online Etymology Dictionary.  Also available on line if is the Grimm's dictionary, which while a bit dated for modern times, and written in old-fashioned German and (partially) in Latin, contains exhaustive word German word histories.

      You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

      by Cartoon Peril on Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 01:02:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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