Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ja, und ich kann Latinisch lesen.

(Yes, and I can read Latin.)

Today, I fought a battle against technology. I think I may lose the war. It's funny to think my analysis of fossils 130 million years old is bogged by a software package that is considered ancient because it was made in 1999.

Thus I wasn't able to finish my post on Salzburg and the Borths family adventures in town. Stay tuned. Those should appear tomorrow. Beware: you may also get "The Sound of Music" stuck in your head after reading it.

Today I had a little discussion online with a linguistics scholar on the origins of English grammatical rules in Latin. This was partially sparked by my frequent use of terminal prepositions and this article from the New York Times. The Latin discussion made me nostalgic for a quick Latin lesson, so I went to YouTube.

I've already made a reference to Life of Brian, so you know I'm a fan of the movie and Monty Python in general. The first video is from the original English version and is a staple of every Latin scholar's comedy repertoire.

The next video is the same scene dubbed in German. I was able to take out two birds by watching this video, polishing my Latin and stumbling through my German!

The two languages have much more in common than I ever expected. They're both Indo-European, sure, but one, Latin, gave rise to the Romance languages, and German gave rise to, well, the Germanic languages (including English and Dutch). In my mind, the Germanic tribes fought with the Romans and traded, picking up some vocabulary, but nothing fundamental to the structure of the language.

English doesn't use any of the Romantic grammatical rules and England was occupied by the Romans roughly as long as the Roman legions were stationed across central Germania. English doesn't have much Latin grammar (Note: I know we have a ton of Latin in our vocabulary. Especially our snooty polysyllabic words. This Romantic influence can be blamed, once again, on the French.With the Norman invasions in 1066 a longboat-load of new words flooded the English language. However, the Romantic stuff didn't come anywhere near our construction of the past tense as we will see after this note is over.).

We English speakers don't have gendered nouns (except when literal gender is involved), our adjectives proceed our nouns, and our verbs could care less about the number of people doing the running, reading, believing, back-flipping etc. But the Germans have adopted many Latin rules, including kicking the main verb to the end of the sentence in all tenses but the present, giving arbitrary cases to certain prepositions, and generally building an incredibly complicated method of communication.

The main divergence between Latin and German is their economy. Latin crams as much information as possible into a few words and letters mostly by getting rid of pronouns, articles, and most auxillary verbs. German forces you to take your time and a deep breath before launching into a simple declarative sentence. English inherited a bit of this, too:

Latin) Ambulabo. (Eight letters)

German) Ich werde gehen. (Thirteen letters)

English) I will walk. (Eight letters)

Latin) Cogito ergo sum. (13 letters)

German) Ich denke, also bin ich. (18 letters)

English) I think, therefore I am. (18 letters) (I've always thought a better way of translating this phrase would be "I think, thus I am." This emphasizes the brevity of this simple, but profound musing. "Therefore" always carries a whiff of self-importance and egg-headed-ness.)

Further observations on German and English will follow, but for now know that I was very happy to bring my linguistic loves together in one Python sketch. It's educational stuff. Maybe you feel a little enlightened, too.

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