Let Me Have a Euro-Word With You

As a language buff (or dilettante), I found the book Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe riveting. Author Gaston Dorren covers a lof ground in 60 chapters organized into nine parts. I can pay this book the highest compliment: it made me stop and think about languages, including my own, those I have tried to learn, and those I hadn’t heard of it. His book is best enjoyed as a feast of individual items, selected according to a reader’s interest, rather than a single integrated explanation of linguistic issues.

Dorren ranges across the history of obscure and major languages, and how they survived and struggled. He stops in Iceland to consider a language that’s mostly unchanged over the last thousand years, makes a pit stop at Esperanto and ponders the number of ways the language of the Samis, better known as the Lapps, refers to the concept of “snow.” After a while my head started spinning, especially with languages and ethnic groups that weren’t familiar to me. From Polish name formation to the struggles between Russian and Belarusian, Dorren covers the linguistic waterfront.

Let’s start with the last entry, titled, “The global headache: English.” I’ve always sympathized with those trying to learn English, with its maddening spelling and pronuncation. Dorren takes the difficulties one step further and compares English to Chinese in degrees of difficulty as a global language with the most speakers. Dorren comes down on the side of English as the more difficult language. While learners of Chinese get used to the pace and varying tones of Chinese, it can be done. But English vowel sounds and the subtle differences in them are baffling to learners. Moving on the spelling, Dorren thinks the Chinese are more likely to come up with a simplified spelling system. The lack of inflection is a plus for both languages, so nobody gets extra points for that.

The comments on Finnish also caught my attention. I’ve always heard that Finnish is one of the truly hard languages to learn. in fact, it’s the easiest of all European languages to spell, with its economy of letters. He writes,

When it comes to the letters themselves, Finnish is also easier to learn. There is no c, q, w, x or z, except in foreign words, and even these are often respelled: pitsa, taksi, kvanttimekaniikka. B and f are only seen in loan words. For a genuine Finnish word, 21 letters suffice (19 common ones plus ä and ö, which count as separate letters). In other words, five fewer than in English. This amounts to a savings of nearly 20 percent.

The chapter on Italian jumped out, detailing its wealth of diminutives, augmentives, pejoratives and affectives. The process is common enough with other European languages, but Italians excel at this. What was striking is I had never contrasted this aspect of language to English:

In English, however, they are quite scarce, though the -ie suffix is used to create diminutives such as “Ronnie,” “hottie,” “sweetie” and so on. And English does have a lot of old diminutives, such as kitten (a small cat), darling (a small dear), towelette (a small towel) an buttock (a small butt — have the size, to be exact). There is, however, no mechanism for the routine production of new ones. In Italian, on the other hand, there are loads.

Dorren provides some examples relating to women, mostly with negative connotations, which is too bad, since I immediately conjured the image of Sophia Loren when I read the chapter. There’s donnicciuola, a simpleton of a woman, and donnicciuoluccia, a very small woman, and then donnina, donnetta and more. For the big-boned ladies, Italian has donnona, donnone and donnotta, each with shades of meaning. On the more pejorative side, with an aspect of size, you have donnettaccia, donnacchera, donnaccia and donnucciaccia — nothing I would want to apply to my dear Sophia.

I thought about how English covers this topic. While Italian has a system in place to create a bewitching edifice of words based on donna, in English takes another direction. Some of the concepts exist but they are distinct words, not flowing from a common root. That may just reflect English’s status as a language with a huge vocabulary that easily borrows from other languages. A little German, some Spanish, a little Old English, maybe some Irish (“lassie”?) and you’ve got your word list in place.

Now, what language am I inspired to study (or re-study) based on this? What Sophia Loren movie is next up on Netflix? Che bellissima!

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