Language-learning snake oil

While mainstream publishers use plenty of hyperbole in the titles of their textbooks, from Teach Yourself’s ‘Instant’ series to Hugo’s ‘In Three Months’ books, the product usually still works somewhat if you put enough work into it. Only recently, however, have I discovered that there’s a wide variety of snake oil products for language learning, and these firms cover even the smallest of Western languages. Take, for example, this hypnosis product for Occitan:

  • Boost your understanding and articulation of Occitan automatically, naturally, and effectively.
  • Create a linguist’s mindset so that you not only desire success in Occitan, but that you will find a way to excel at it!
  • Find yourself more and more confident in Occitan until you soon discover you’ve become totally fluent.
  • This CD contains three different subliminal sessions. The first one is a 20 minute study session that you can listen to while studying Occitan. All you will hear are the soft sounds of a rain forest combined with the subtle entrainment beats that will allow your mind to learn effectively, and it can be used without headphones if desired. The second session is a 29 minute musical entrainment experience designed to take your brainwaves into a proper state to give your mind the ability to rapidly learn, absorb, and speak Occitan. It can be used without headphones if desired. The final session is a 30 minute musical entrainment experience to give you more than one option musically and it is designed to be used with headphones. All three sessions have specific suggestions pertaining to you learning the Occitan language.

I can’t imagine that there’s much profit potential in this, so the producers of this CD must be doing it out of love for a threatened minority language. And nothing says ‘I’m learning a language of the Mediterranean shores’ quite like the sounds of the rainforest.

The company Brainwave Mind Voyages offers audio CDs for relaxation and meditation—and even one that promises to reverse hair loss—but they’ve got some language ones as well. I like how one Amazon reviewer responded to their Spanish offering:

This CD stands out from all the new age subliminal hypnotic affirmations trash that goes around.

Due to the limitations of the human ear, ultrasonic subliminals have no effects whatsoever on humans, which is why I thought this product is just a joke.

But I decided to give it a try anyway, and had it played in a loop overnight. Next morning, my dog starts speaking with my Hispanic neighbors as if Spanish was his mother’s tongue!

I’m astonished, and must say Quantum Subliminal Matrix Technology works! Buy this CD and expand your dog’s education with a 2nd language!


In addition to my entirely respectable studies of historical linguistics, I must confess a love of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, whom unless you’ve been living under a rock this last decade you know as the appalling reporter from an entirely fantasy Kazakhstan. There’s something just so enthralling about Borat’s accent and lexicon that makes me wish people in Kazakhstan really were like that, minus all the bigotry of course. In any event, the attempts of me and my fellow travellers to greet young people in Almaty with I like you, I like sex! went entirely unappreciated.

I was wondering if any blogger out there had set out the specifics of the fake Kazakh language that graces episodes of The Ali G Show and the Borat film. Well, back in February the proprietor of the sadly defunct weblog Language Geek put together a collection of links on the matter.

Chuvash through Narspi

When I was in Cheboksary in May I purchased a copy of Konstantin Ivanov’s Narspi, a long poem that holds a prominent place in Chuvash literature. The Russian facing-page translation is not only difficult for me, as I’m used to the functional Russian of linguistics books, but also apparently somewhat loose. I’m not yet sure what the poem is about, although I gather it tells the story of a beautiful Chuvash maiden forced to marry some cruel foreigner (i.e. Russian) when she’d rather be with a local village boy. That the story ends on a tragic note is obvious from the title of the final chapter, ‘Four Deaths’.

Just translating the beginning lines reveals some interesting properties of the language and its (formerly) close relationship with Mari:

Пуш уйӑхӑн вӗҫӗнче
Хӗвел пӑхрӗ ӑшӑтса,
Силпи чӑваш ялӗнче
Юр ирӗлчӗ васкаса.
Тусем, сӑртсем хуп-хура
Юрӗ кайса пӗтнӗрен,
Тухать курӑк ҫӑп-ҫӑра
Хӗвел хытӑ хӗртнӗрен.

The month of March is at its height
And the sun shines warmly.
In Silpi, a Chuvash village
The snow melts quickly.
My friend, the hills are ever-black
As the snow disappears.
The grass grows ever-thickly
As the sun strongly burns.

In terms of similarities with Mari, Chuvash васкаса is cognate with Mari вашке ‘quickly’. Chuvash also uses the same word for ‘looks, watches’ and ‘[the sun] shines’, пӑхрӗ, just as Mari does with ончаш.

In terms of Chuvash’s relationship with other Turkic languages, one can see from сӑртсем ‘hills’ that Chuvash uses the plural suffix -sem while in the rest of the Turkic family one finds -lAr. Chuvash nonetheless preserves the reduplicating intensifier prefix as in other Turkic languages: хуп-хура ‘very black’. It’s a mystery to me how such a prefix could arise naturally (just like nasal infixes) and as soon as I’m back at a university library I intend on doing some reading about that.

Winfred Lehmann RIP

Since I was on an agonizing week-long journey from Kazakhstan to Mari El at the time, I completely missed the sad announcement that Winfred Lehmann has passed away. Lehmann was always my favourite of the contemporary Indo-Europeanists. On one hand, he was doing major original work in fresh new fields like syntax, and he applied new typological insights in a fashion that inspired more confidence than, say, glottalic theory. On the other hand, he really knew how to present Indo-European studies to total beginners. Lehmann’s Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics is in my opinion the single best introduction to the field, while his Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical Indo-European Linguistics kept new students tied to the entire tradition when they otherwise might know only current fashion.

(My gratitude to Angelo at Sauvage Noble for bringing this to my attention.)

Mordovian authorities seek to shut down Erzya-language newspaper

This is unfortunate news for both Erzya-language publishing and for the press freedoms of Russia’s language minorities. There was an English-language article at the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (no longer available) on the start to this:

Authorities in Russia’s autonomous Republic of Mordovia have pressed charges against the independent newspaper, Erzyanj Mastor (“Land of Erzya”), demanding its closure, Radio Svoboda reports.

The newspaper is being accused of inciting ethnic hatred and of extremism. The trial date has been set at 10 August 2007. The newspaper’s editors expect the court to deliver a verdict that will satisfy the prosecutor.

The editor-in-chief of Erzyanj Mastor, Mr Yevgeny Chetvergov, said the prosecutors moved against the newspaper immediately after the Finno-Ugric festival that was held in Saransk recently. The newspaper criticised the event repeatedly.

Erzyanj Mastor has been published in Saransk since 1994. The newspaper’s publisher is the Foundation for the Salvation of the Erzyan Language, which was founded by members of the Erzyan intelligentsia.

The deputy editor-in-chief of Erzyanj Mastor is Mr Grigory Musalev, Chairman of the Foundation for the Salvation of the Erzyan Language. He is the leading figure in the national opposition movement in Mordovia. has archived a Russian-language article that covers some of the legal attacks made so far.

Чăваш ялӗнче (In a Chuvash village)

As I write this I’m staying in a village in the Chuvash Republic called Bol’shoe Janikovo, an hour’s drive southeast from Cheboksary. The vigour of the Chuvash language is immediately apparent. As my hosts presented me to all of their neighbours, they may have asked me some detail in Russian, but when I had answered they went right back to Chuvash, and a very loanword-free version of it. This is much different than my experiences in Mari villages, where my use of a single Russian phrase in mainly Mari speech would set villagers off on speaking Russian, which would continue even after I withdrew from the conversation.

Mari-language humour

From the 3 August 2007 issue of the Mari newspaper Кугарня (Friday) here’s an except from the humour page.

Эше ик мут — эше ик страф!

Ик гана кевытыш пурышым, но тушто шуко шым кудалт — вич минут гычак лектым. Ончем, милиционер шога да машинам йоҥылыш шогалтымылан штрафым воза. Воктекыже миен шогальымат, ойлем Ну йӧра, ик ганаже проститле.

Садет пуйто нимом ок кол, тугак квитанцийым воза.

Тидлан тудым аҥыра манын лӱмдышым.

Вашмут олмем эше ик страфым возыш, тиде ганаже покрышкылан.

Вара тудым сӧсна маньым.

Сырымыж дене милиционер кумшо страфым кусныш.

Тыге ме коктын 20 минут шогылтна, а садет почела-почела стафым возыш.

А мыламже вет садак ыле: шкемын машинам йӧршеш вес верыште шоген. Изишак мыскарам ыштымем шуо.

One more word, one more fine

Once I went into a shop, but I didn’t stay long. I left in five minutes. I saw that a police officer was writing a ticket for the car, improperly parked outside. I went up to him and said, Come on, forgive just this once.

He didn’t listen, he just wrote out the ticket.

So, I called him an idiot.

Instead of answering he just wrote out another ticket, this time for the tire.

Then I called him a pig.

The policeman angrily wrote out a third ticket.

Thus we stood together for 20 minutes, and he wrote out ticket after ticket.

But for me it was all good: I had actually parked my car somewhere else entirely. I just wanted to have some fun.

One does wonder about the legality of such a stunt.

The difficulty of finding a Chuvash textbook

I had a very difficult time finding a decent Chuvash textbook here in Cheboksary, which was quite unexpected considering Chuvash is among the largest minority languages in Russia. G. A Degtiarev’s Изучаем чувашский язык (Cheboksary: Chuvashkoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1995) is sold in a few bookstores, but it is an oddly structured book that assumes some sort of prior familiarity with the language. Booksellers are generally completely clueness about the kind of book an adult student needs to learn Chuvash, with my request for a textbook usually answered with Ah, you want a dictionary/phrase book/children’s primer.

A friend of mine telephoned the Chuvash National Congress, an organization one might expect to support the further use of the Chuvash language. The office administrator said he’d very much like to meet me, but once I arrived the people in the office didn’t understand my needs either. They too smiled and said, Ah, you want a dictionary/phrase book/children’s primer. I showed them my Mari textbook and told them I wanted that sort of book, a rigorous series of dialogues, grammatical paradigms, and exercises. At that point, they said that unfortunately there is no Chuvash textbook in English. I answered that of course I can use a Russian-language textbook, as we were speaking Russian at that very moment and I had already learnt Mari through Russian. Nonetheless, after one of the staff telephoned a Chuvash lecturer at a local institution, he reported, We might have found you a Chuvash-French dictionary!. At this point I gave up and left.

My local friend said we should check out the university library, where we found a beautiful textbook that was just what I was looking for, I. A. Andreev’s Чувашский язык (Cheboksary: Chuvashkoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1996). It is now impossible to buy, but I would have happily made a photocopy of it. Unfortunately, the library staff complained that my friend was missing some minor detail in his student documents, and would not accompany me and the book to the photocopier. While traveling abroad I try to maintain some level of humility, but it seems to me that if someone comes all the way to your country from far away to learn your language, you should help him out. However, when I said that I vitally needed the book for my studies and this was my only chance to get it (my friend offering the white lie He’s come all the way from America!), the staff just walked away from the counter.

Well, there was another university library not too far away, where the staff luckily didn’t notice the missing detail in my friend’s documents. I was able to give the book to the staff of the photocopying centre, and though it cost quite a bit and I’m not too happy with how they did it, at least I now have a Chuvash textbook.

It’s funny how Mari, a language which is threatened both by lack of official support and declining numbers of speakers, and whose community is fairly poor, has turned out to be much easier to learn than Chuvash, whose speakers boast it to be a strong and healthy language.

Horálek’s introduction to the Slavonic languages

Several days ago I came across Peter Herrity’s two-volume translation of Karel Horálek’s An Introduction to the Study of the Slavonic Languages (Nottingham: Astra Press, 1992) ISBN 0-946134-26-X (Volume I) and 0-946134-34-0 (Volume II). Horálek’s original Úvod do studia slovanských jazyků was published in 1955 in Prague, with a second edition following in 1962.

The first volume is the most wide-ranging, examining the Slavonic family from a diachronic perspective from Proto-Indo-European up to those specific changes which set each of the national languages apart from each other. Unexpectedly, the discussion of Proto-Indo-European takes laryngeal theory into account; either Horálek was unusually visionary for a Slavicist, or this came as part of the amendations which Herrity contributed. While the discussion of sound changes throughout this long span are more substantial than in most other introductions I’ve encountered, Horálek’s discussion of accent and intonation is skimpy and confused. I fear we still await a decent introduction to Slavonic historical accent for the beginning student, and I’ve seen graduate students of the subject forced to piece together a vague idea of the system from articles and monographs overly specific and far beyond the layman’s reach.

Horálek’s introduction uses a wealth of data from Sorbian, Kashubian, and Polabian. I’ve encountered no English-language introduction to the field that even gives these two acceptable passing mention, let alone treats them as just as worthy of attention as the rest of the family. But as the author wrote for a Czech audience, Czech gets the most attention of all. This is sometimes a problem, for Horálek often compares other Slavonic languages to Czech, making it difficult for the reader without knowledge of Czech to understand his point. And as the author was writing during the height of socialism, a common text presented in each of the Slavonic languages is taken from the Communist Manifesto instead of something less technical, though to his credit Horálek does make it obvious that he hates this obligation.

The lack of information on accent is more than compensated by the attention given to comparative syntax: fifty whole pages worth. I’ve never seen such a friendly introduction to the syntactical features of the whole family (Oxford’s Comparative Syntax of Balkan Languages obviously only serves for Bulgarian and Macedonian in a Sprachbund context).

The second volume ends the comparative examination of the entire family with the matter of lexicology. Then a new theme arrives with a survey of the history of each of the literary languages from the earliest times (dialectal differences in OCS texts) to the age of nationalism. This is followed, putting the cart somewhat before the horse, with a history of Slavonic writing systems. Horálek sensibly upholds that Glagolitic was the first alphabet, making the usual arguments in favour of this point. After this there is a brief listing of the identifying features of each Slavonic language. Much of this information has already been presented in the first volume, but scattered long discussions of obscure features. This section is useful for quick reference when one is wondering how, say, Polish treats original dj.

The final portion of the book is an outline of the history of comparative Slavonic linguistics. This is quite brief, but I find it of enormous importance. Resources on Old Church Slavonic mention many famous personalities, but the reader is left to wonder at their biography and major overall achievements. Nor does the beginner in comparative Slavonic linguistics get much idea of what theories have already been tried and found wanting. I find Winfred Lehmann’s Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics (Routledge, 2005) the best overall IE primer specifically because it introduces the reader not only to the field as it stands today, but also to its growth and to those major figures who moved it along. Horálek has provided a great service by giving the same sort of history for his own specific field.

My biggest complaint about the book is the quality of the typesetting. I understand that this was probably a labour of love, brought out by a small press with little funding available, but there’s no excuse for such ugly pages. Hear me, O academics forced to self-publish: if you pay a graduate student (like me, for example) just a hundred euro or so, and promise a free copy, your book can be typeset to as high a standard a quality as if it came from Cambridge University Press or the Clarendon Press. Of course, even were the book nicely typeset, the printing of the volume is on cheap paper and from time to time one finds words a little blurry.

I couldn’t even tell you how much this book costs, as it’s not listed at Amazon, hence my posting my review here on my weblog. Still, seek out this through inter-library loan if you enjoy reading about the Slavonic languages. It’s a valuable resource alongside the English-language standards especially if you’re wondering who exactly were all these 19th-century gentlemen whose names constantly pop up.

The early rivalry of FU and IE linguistics

Scholars of Finno-Ugrian linguistics can boast that their field actually predated comparative Indo-European linguistics. János Sajnovics’s work Demostratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse appeared in 1770, fifteen years before Sir William Jones’ rather off-the-cuff and tangential remark on the resemblance between Sanskrit and the European classical languages. Sámuel Gyarmathi (a Kolozsvári, by the way) wrote his Affinitas linguae Hungaricae cum linguis Fennicae originis grammatice demostrata in 1799, some years before any rigorous scientific studies by the likes of Bopp et al. appeared.

Nonetheless, Finno-Ugrian linguistics took a long time to get off the ground, and I think that the problem was simply Finland’s lack of an empire and funds to walk through it collecting all manner of linguistic data. The scholars of fledgling Indo-European linguistics already had grammars of many languages conveniently compiled, and the field moved ahead at a fast clip. Meanwhile, for FU linguistics, it wasn’t until a couple of decades into the 19th century that the first great expeditions were successful organized. I recently bought a delightful history by Mikko Korhonen titled Finno-Ugrian Language Studies in Finland 1828–1918 (Finnish Society of Sciences, 1986). It reveals that it was actually an Indo-Europeanist, the eminent Rasmus Rask, who helped get things off the ground:

One crucial factor was Rask’s visit to Finland in 1818. Rask only remained in Finland for about three weeks, but during this short stay he had time to meet, among other, [Gustav] Renvall who taught him Finnish daily, and [Reinhold von] Becker. There has already been talk of Rask helping to get Renvall’s dictionary project off the ground. It is quite obvious that Rask’s influence, as a pioneer of comparative linguistics, on Finnish scholars in Turku was, in any case, inspiring and productive. Rask’s most important achievement was his contribution to the idea that had been under discussion since Porthan’s time, about the possibility of an expedition to the Finnic peoples living in Russia.

In 1816 Count N. P. Rumyantsev had asked bishop Jacob Tengström (1755–1832) to nominate two Finns who would be willing and qualified for an expedition that was to form part of Rumyantsev’s extensive research projects in eastern Russia. Tengström recommended Renvall who had already shown his skills as a scholar of Finnish, and E.G. Ehrström (1791–1835) who was a scholar of Russian language and history. However, other commitments on both sides meant that eventually the plans for the expedition were canceled. The expedition was still discussed in both Turku and St. Petersburg and several names were put forward. In 1819 a young Finn, Anders Johan Sjögren, informed Rask in a letter passed on by Renvall that he was willing to make a study of the Finnic peoples living in Russia. Rask was, at the time, living in St. Petersburg and was in contact with Rumyantsev. Sjögren was invited to come to St. Petersburg so that he could make himself known and demonstrate his skills for such an expedition. Sjögren travelled to St. Petersburg the following year and made his first expedition in 1823. Finally, in 1824 he set out on his long journey among the Finnic peoples that was to last five years. Thus began a career that was not only important in terms of Sjögren’s own accomplishments, but also because it laid the foundations for later research, for example, the work of M. A. Castrén.