One of the things I enjoyed about our trip was the different languages we encountered as we moved through various countries and seeing which words for common, everyday things changed. The shifts may have been so subtle that the words remained recognizable, or they may have become something completely different and/or unexpected. I thought it would be entertaining to do a post where I collect and compare the terms in all the languages we came across.
Language fascinates me. A couple of years ago I started listening to the “History of English” podcast by Kevin Stroud. Before listening to this podcast, I was aware that the English language had a lot of Latin, French, and German influences, but I didn’t really know why. Stroud’s podcast is an in-depth study on how the English language evolved alongside England’s history of occupation beginning with Celtic settlers and moving through invasions by the Romans (Latin), the Anglo-Saxons (German), the Vikings (Old Norse), and the Normans (French). My passions for language and history neatly intersect in this area of study.
I was intrigued to discover that English has so many influences from Old Norse which, by the way, is also a Germanic language (more on that later). When Neil began studying German while we were in Berlin, he put a few sticky notes up on things around the apartment to help him learn their German names. One of these was fenster, meaning window.
“That’s interesting,” I pointed out to him, “since the French word for window is fenêtre, which is very similar. Where did window come from if it’s not German or French, and why is it so different?” Neil looked it up, and found that window comes from the Old Norse word vindauga, literally meaning “wind-eye” (vindr = wind, auga = eye). How cool is that? (If you’re as nerdy as me or Neil, the answer is very cool).
I know some basic French vocabulary, and so learning their German counterparts was a fun way to learn more about where my native language comes from. Our travels began in France and then took us through Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy. This was an ideal itinerary to see how similar or dissimilar English was to countries that share a linguistic history. Later, our travels took us to Spain, Slovakia, Croatia, Estonia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Spanish and Catalan, like French and Italian, are also Romance languages. Fun fact: a “Romance” language is called that because it stems from Latin, the language spoken by the Romans, and not because the language sounds more romantic than others (although that is arguably true). Slovak and Croatian are very different from English and we had no familiarity with them, but like all the other languages we had encountered so far these two languages are still Indo-European (more on that later). Estonian is the outlier, as it is the only language we encountered that is not Indo-European, and belongs instead to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family. Dutch (spoken in the northern parts of Belgium and in the Netherlands) is very similar to German.
What is the difference between Indo-European and Uralic language families? There is a beautiful language tree that you can see/read about here and order here. (I’m probably going to order this for Neil for Christmas, don’t tell him!) The artist who created this tree also has a fun comparison of the Nordic languages using cats here. The Proto-Indo Europeans were a prehistoric people who lived in Eurasia around the 4th century B.C.E. and who shared a language (Proto-Indo-European) and culture. As various members of these Proto-Indo-Europeans split off into different groups and migrated throughout various regions of Europe and Asia, the once-shared language and culture split off and became differentiated as well. There are about 445 Indo-European languages that make up most of the modern languages of Europe, most of the languages we North Americans are probably familiar with, and all but one of the languages that Neil and I encountered on our trip. But in addition to the languages that immediately come to mind and that I’ve previously mentioned (such as the ones that have Germanic and Latin roots), Indo-European languages also include languages in Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Russia, among many others. Sanskrit and Celtic languages are Indo-European as well!
Here is an Indo-European language map that I’ve drawn up. Keep in mind, I’m not an illustrator, and Neil and I are currently on the road so I only have a lined paper notebook and a couple of ballpoint pens with me! It is not a complete depiction of the Indo-European language, as that would take up a lot of space. I’ve only filled out what is most relevant to this discussion. If you want to find out more about the Indo-European people and their language, I would highly recommend Kevin Stroud’s “History of English” podcast.
The Uralic language consists of 38 languages, the most prominent of which are Hungarian, Estonian, and Finnish. Various regions of Russia include languages such as Erzya, Moksha, Mari, Udmurt, and Komi. This language family gets its name from the Ural mountains, a mountain range that runs north to south in western Russia, and serves as the conventional boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. There is some disagreement about the origin of Uralic speakers, but it has been hypothesized to be near the Urals. They lived around the 5th century B.C.E. The Sami languages, spoken by various groups of people who live in parts of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, are Uralic. There is some debate about whether the Uralic grouping includes the Samoyedic languages.
If you want to learn more about language families, this page is a good starting point.
All right, after all that ado, let me present three different charts of languages we encountered and some of the words I paid attention to as they changed across our travels. The first chart is a comparison of the Germanic languages, the second compares English with the Romance languages, and the third compares English with the rest of the languages we encountered on our trip. Please note that I’ve used Google Translate to draw up these charts, so the words below may not always best reflect the way the language is actually spoken. If you’ve noticed there are any mistakes, please let me know!
I’m not going to wade too much into pronunciation because my knowledge on that is woefully inept. Here are a few things I do know:
- in German, the ß character can mostly be used interchangeably as an English “ss” sound. So straße can be pronounced as strasse.
- in German, Ws are pronounced as Vs.
- In German, Danish, and Swedish, Js are pronounced as Ys.
- A Danish ø or a Swedish ö is pronounced as a low eeeew/oooh sound. The Danish & Swedish å is pronounced as a short oh. The Danish æ is sort of like the Canadian eh.
- For more information, a good Danish pronunciation guide is here. A good Swedish one is here.
|good morning||guten morgen||goedemorgen||god morgen||god morgon|
|please||bitte||alsjeblieft||vær venlig||snälla du|
|thank you||danke||dank je||tak skal du have||tack|
|I love you||Ich liebe dich||Ik hou van je||Jeg elsker dig||Jag älskar dig|
|boy, man||junge, mann||jongen, man||dreng, mand||pojke, man|
|girl, woman||mädchen, frau||meisje, vrouw||pige, kvinde||flicka, kvinna|
|dog, puppy||chien, chiot||hond, pedant ventje||hund, hundehvalp||hund, hundehvalp|
|cat, kitten||chat, chaton||kat, katje||kat, kattekilling||katt, kattekilling|
In Germany, we noticed that instead of using auf wiedersehen to say goodbye, many Germans used the much less formal and Italian word ciao! instead. Some amusing translations I came across included the German word pissoir to mean urinal, and the Swedish word julskum to refer to a Santa-shaped marshmallow candy.
Some specific words from the chart above that I like:
- The words for mulled wine in German (glühwein), Danish (gløgg), and Swedish (glögg).
- In Danish and Swedish there are lots of words that began with hj such as hjerte and hjärta. My childhood surname, which starts with an hj, fits right in!
- In Danish and Swedish, orange juice becomes appelsinjuice, almost like apple juice instead!
- The Danish vindue is closest to the English window and old Norse vindauga.
- The Danish øl and the Swedish öl for beer, like the English word ale.
All right, onto chart number two! It covers the English and the Romance languages. Catalan is the language of Catalonia, a region in Spain that wants independence. Barcelona is the capital of the region.
There are lots of tricky pronunciations with these languages and I definitely don’t know what they all are. There are lots of guides available around the Internet, or you can plug the word into Google Translate to hear what it sounds like there.
|good morning||bonjour||buongiorno||buenos días||bon dia|
|please||s’il vous plait||per favore||por favor||si us plau|
|I love you||Je t’aime||Ti amo||Te amo||T’estimo|
|mulled wine||vin chaud||vin brulè||vino caliente||vi calent|
|orange juice||jus d’orange||succo d’arancia||zumo de naranja||suc de taronja|
|boy, man||garçon, homme||ragazzo, uomo||chico, hombre||noi, home|
|girl, woman||fille, femme||ragazza, donna||niña, mujer||noia, dona|
|dog, puppy||chien, chiot||canej, cucciolo||perro, perrito||gos, cadell|
|cat, kitten||chat, chaton||gatto, gattino||gato, gatito||gat, gatet|
Some words that caught my eye:
- I think Spanish has the cutest names for dog/puppy (pero/perrito) and cat/kitty (gato/gatito).
- I like the Spanish niña meaning girl and the Italian and Catalan donna/dona for women because they have become female names.
Chart number three! Remember that Estonian is not Indo-European. I have no familiarity with any of the three languages, so I have no advice to give on pronunciation except to search out some guides if you are interested in doing so!
|good morning||dobro jutro||dobré ráno||tere hommikust|
|thank you||hvala vam||Ďakujem||aitäh|
|I love you||Volim te||L’úbim t’a||Ma armastan sind|
|mulled wine||kuhano vino||varené víno||mullvein|
|orange juice||sok od naranče||pomarančový džús||apelsinimahl|
|boy, man||dječak, čovjek||chlapec, muž||poiss, mees|
|girl, woman||djevojka, žena||dievča, žena||tüdruk, naine|
|dog, puppy||pas, štene||pes, šten̂a||koer, kutsikas|
|cat, kitten||mačka, mače||mačka, mačiatko||kass, kassipoeg|
Some things I noticed:
- that the Estonian word for mulled wine, mullvein, is similar to English and German, even though many of the other words don’t look English or German at all!
- The Estonian apelsinimahl is similar to Swedish and Danish appelsinjuice.
That was fun! Hopefully you found this post educational and entertaining. What caught your eye as you were looking at these charts? What are your favourite words and translations? Any interesting language facts you would like to share? Let me know!
I apologize for any mistakes I may have made, and am open to any helpful corrections you may notice!
If you’re interested, here is an earlier post I wrote about learning German. (I later gave up but Neil, one year later, has almost reached B2! He can have entire conversations in German!)
Hmm, my German may not be great, but for some reason I have no problem translating the sign below.