Friday, June 29, 2007

Latin for all

One evening, going home from the Institute, I picked up an old copy of Omnibus, magazine for teachers and students of Latin and Greek, to read after dinner. Omnibus is a curious word: being the dative plural of Latin omnis, all, everyone, literally it means 'for all'. By the way, the English bus derives, via French, from omnibus.

My acquaintance with the word comes not only from Latin lessons, but from a funny Latvian song about omnibuss that destroys kitchen gardens with all the vegetables -- I like the song but have no idea about its deep meaning. (The final double s in omnibuss is not a typo: in Latvian, all masculine nouns have to end on s, even if they are foreign borrowings that already have one s. In this case, you just add another s. For example, James Bond becomes Dzeimss Bonds.)

In my copy of Omnibus, a tiny article caught my attention. It contained excerpts from a Latin glossary, allegedly composed by Vatican authorities to help Latin speakers to cope with essential modern phenomena. I cannot help but reproduce some of its entries here. Lambrusco: acre vinum Aemilianum. Merlot: vinum rubrum Burdigalense. Sangria: potio mixta Hispanica. Scotch: vischium Scoticum. Vodka: valida potio Slavica. It made me smile, and think how an ordinary wine list becomes, by a mere fact of being translated into a different language, a source of laughter.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Deformation professionelle

I discovered blogs in spring 2006. More precisely, I discovered food blogs, which I was reading for months on end before realising that there existed blogs about things other than food. Anyway, the very first was Chocolate & Zucchini, which has remained a favourite ever since, for its recipes, its pictures, its design, its sense of purpose, its skillful marketing, and bien sur for the beautiful English of its author, Clotilde Dusoulier.

Last Tuesday, I had a chance to meet Clotidle en personne at the launch of her book at the French Institute in London. When I walked in, I saw the following picture: the publisher with a pile of volumes to sell; the author busy signing her books; technical guys fiddling with microphones; two tables with cakes and other edibles; and lots of rather lost-looking English people who did not quite know what to do. Were they allowed to taste the food? Was it appropriate to talk? Was it possible to talk in English? The worst of all, however, was the completely abandoned, unmanned tables with zucchini carpaccio, and slices of bread, and two savoury cakes, and some cheese biscuits, to which not many people were paying any attention at all.

Being an events organiser, this is a situation in which I cannot stand still: I walked in, went behind the table, and began offering the food and explaining about it. The food was delicious, I was having interesting conversations, and on the whole having wonderful time. 'Thank you so much for organising the event', someone said, assuming I was a part of the crew. 'Oh, not at all. I am just helping out', I replied. 'I am a professional events organiser, you see. ' 'What do you mean?' 'Well, I saw they needed some organisation, and I stepped in. Deformation professionelle.' I have no idea how to say it in English, though. It is such an un-English thing to do.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wanted: a (good) Greek teacher

I believe that majority of those who have learned a foreign language have done so in highly individual ways, by developing special tricks and techniques that work for them. My idiosyncratic mix is made of the following elements: strong motivation; visits to the country; reading the literature; romantic or at least personal interest; and a good teacher.

I promise to write about the first four elements at some point, but it was good teachers, or rather, scarcity thereof, that I was thinking about the whole of the previous week. The thinking has been triggered by a Greek party I attended last weekend. As the Greek parties go, the food was plentiful, the music traditional, and the guys hot. Linguistically, however, the party was disappointing, despite the presence of a woman who actually was a professional teacher of Greek, sent by the Greek government to teach the language of Kavafis and Elytis to the expats' children in London. The government might have its own selection criteria, but in my opinion, the very first quality language teachers need is the ability to speak beautifully themselves. The woman at the party did not: her language was hesitant, bland, primitive, as indeed the language of many people at the party.

In many cases, the best teachers I had were not professionals, but friends and acquaintances of mine. Probably, the best of them all was an Italian friend with whom I spent several months in Hamburg and who single-handedly transformed me from a so-so Italian speaker into an advanced one. (She also taught me to cook, by the way.) By the time I met her, I had lived in Rome, had read La Divina Commedia, and was chattering away with any Italian in my vicinity. She did not criticise -- it is only much later that she admitted that at the time I spoke with Italian words and English structure -- but she would listen to me, she would correct me only sometimes (she is very polite), but more important, she would speak herself. We did not have any formal lessons, now and then she would answer my question about grammar, but after a while, I realised I was improving dramatically. We learn a lot by imitation.

With the Greek teaching, on the other hand, I did not have much luck. Apart from a former Greek colleague who would teach me in one hour more useful phrases than my formal teachers would teach in a year, but who unfortunately lives far away, I am still looking. . .

Friday, June 15, 2007

Would you like a cup of coffee in Bulgarian?

I am convinced of the importance of learning useful set phrases at an early stage of language acquisition. Moreover, I believe that learning humorous, rare, idiosyncratic, and slightly odd words and phrases is extremely useful, too. Although these cannot be used in any circumstances, they would often open many doors - and hearts - of native speakers.

I am able to engage in more satisfying conversations with Greeks, when I reveal that -- apart from everyday's kalimera/kalispera -- I know to say palikari (a compliment to a Greek macho), briki (Greek coffee pot), phrontistirio (private school, the word originates from Aristophanes where it meant the 'thinking house'), and kouraviedes (my favourite biscuits).

Funny and odd phrases, being individual and easy to remember, can be also handy when you need to master complex grammar features. I learned the entire set of rules on the use of Italian subjunctive by making up sentences involving my flames of the moment. Seven years on, I have no idea where all those flames have gone, but I still remember by heart these rather obscene -- and mostly written in highly hypothetical or unreal mode -- sentences. Needless to say, I rarely make mistakes in Italian subjunctive.

I have a favourite phase, which I try to learn in any language, even in those I will never be able to speak: You have beautiful eyes. I must confess that few of those whom I have asked to teach it, be it in Armenian, Hebrew, or Hungarian, reacted adequately. Many were surprised, some shocked, but in some cases it was a true ice-breaker.

And I am always happy to learn a few phrases in any language, so when I meet someone who speaks a language new to me, I ask them to teach me some. My most recent attempt was at a Bulgarian colleague, and the response was more than adequate. 'Yes', he said happily, 'I can teach you Would you like a cup of coffee? and Would you like a massage? My collection of useful useless phrases is expanding!

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I am always impressed when people who have known me only for a short time say something insightful about me. I warmed up to my once-boss, a super successful businessman from Russia, when he observed that I was more a boutique than a supermarket person. Not an obvious thing to say: I routinely buy all my basics in supermarkets, am known for my love for bargain, particularly two-for-the-price-of-one type, and find shops full of latest fashion and arrogant assistants unbearably boring. Something exclusive, specialised, trendy, expensive, and luxurious, particularly when used as an adjective - a boutique hotel or a boutique recruitment agency - is what the word boutique implies in English (and in the languages that have borrowed it from English, as in Russian butik.)

But in French, where the word comes from, it is a completely different story: boutique is just a small specialist shop. (On my first visit to France I was amused to find boutiques SNCF.) The word's etymology reveals its humble origins -- in Ancient Greek apotheke means storehouse, depository -- and its family connection. Spanish small shop bodega and Italian bottega, (one day, I hope to become a regular customer of one), are boutique's sisters, and Apotheke / apteka, drugstores in German and Russian, and certainly in other languages, are distant cousins.

In this meaning of a small useful shops, yes, I am a boutique girl. I prefer buying my supply of cheese from my favourite small shop. If it were in London, I am sure it would have been called Boutique Cheese Shop Le Fromage something, but as it is in Paris, this time, it is just a fromagerie.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

To my first readers

I have been reading blogs for ages and thinking about blogging for a while, but it was exactly one month ago when I posted the first entry on my own blog. Blogging gurus say that four things matter in this increasingly competitive business: contents, design, promotion, and readers. Contentwise, it has taken a while even for most serious bloggers to find their unique selling point, and all of them have improved with practice. My web design has always been famously minimalist: I used to be a webmistress for a university society, and the webpages I created, to quote a colleague, could be read on a ten years old computer in Sudanese desert.

I have not really done much promotion yet, which made me pleasantly surprised to find the first readers' comments on my blog. They came from two countries I am fascinated with in equal measure, Spain and Italy. Bettina writes her Diario de una mujer normal, pictures of Spanish life full of useful Spanish expressions, from Madrid, and Saffron muses about food and life in the eternal city in Saffron and Pepper from Rome, the city to which I owe my interest both in cooking and in Italian literature. I am grateful to both of them and am very happy to have readers in these two cities: Rome and Madrid are where I actually would like to live, and if I am not there yet, it is simply because I cannot make my choice between the two. Perhaps, I should move to Barcelona, because of the sea, or to Milan, because of the industrial scene, instead?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A pig for James Bond

Do you remember when in The World is Not Enough James Bond together with a cute nerd Christmas are travelling inside the pipeline in a sort of a shuttle? In real life, the device exists under the name of pig, which has nothing to do with a domestic animal, but stands for Pipeline Inspection Gauge. I learned the term last week and find it amusing. First, because it sounds funny. Second, because the devise is aptly named: originally, the pig was used to collect dirt from the inside of the pipeline, and real pigs are traditionally considered as not particularly hygienic animals. (Although it is not quite true, say zoologists.) And third, because even such an insipidly named movie you can serve as a source of useful terms. I should go and see Goldfinger or Octopussy immediately!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Words from Africa

I know next to nothing about African languages. I do not speak any of them, and I have never tried learning one. Besides, which one to choose? Apparently, there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. My whole knowledge about the continent is minimal: I have never been there and am not familiar with African writers. The same is true about my ignorance about Asia, Australia, and Oceania, but whereas these areas leave me pretty much indifferent -- apart from Asian cuisines, that it -- I have inexplicable fascination with Africa. I always read articles and dossiers on Africa in The Economist and Courrier international, I used to search for best African restaurants in Paris and Geneva, and I have been known to respond positively to chat-up lines of African guys in public places. I even once accepted a job offer on the strength that it involved travelling to Africa (unfortunately, the company had downsized before I managed to set foot there).

And of course, I am fascinated with African languages, that is why last Saturday I attended Word from Africa in the British Museum, part of the African festival that London, a home for many people of African origin, has been hosting for several years. The programme promised many wonders: listening to poetry, songs, and story-telling in Tonga, Zulu, Hausa, Swahili, or Somali, and I was anticipating a linguistic feast. Alas, it turned out to be a more of a burned toast experience: haphazard organisation, poor acoustics (in the BP lecture theater! I wonder how it is possible), moderators who had mistaken the festival for a TV reality show, and the worse of all, mediocre performance. I have heard fantastic African artists before (mostly in Paris) and am confident that the continent has many original and talented artists, so when I walked off home, disappointed, I wondered what could be the reasons of that poor show. Lack of money? But surely with increasing interest of Western companies for African markets and resources, one could have easily found several sponsors eager to showcase their involvement. Institutional weakness? (an expression my once-boss would use to describe the lack of efficiency of many ministries and public services in the developing world.) Lack of skills on the part of organisers? Next year, I would be happy to run the show, just in case the BM is interested!

Friday, June 01, 2007

The most useful phrase I learned last year

People who learn a foreign language to use it (unlike those who are engaged in learning a language in perpetuo), know the importance of mastering useful set phrases from early days. Phrases like Sorry I do not speak X well, Do you speak English, or I would like to ... should be learned at the very first lesson. It does not matter that you do not understand the construction, which might include the subjunctive: thanks to theses little phrases, you will be able to conduct a polite and meaningful conversation. You can not come up with those phrases yourself: they exist, it is up to you to discover them and to make them part of your vocabulary. They convey the meaning precisely and much better than anything you, a non-native speaker, can come up with. Unfortunately, teachers and schoolbooks often neglect this principle.

In the early years of my acquaintance with English, the phrase that came most useful was I beg your pardon?. If I am not mistaken, textbooks do not mention it often enough -- in any case, I learned it when I landed in the UK -- but this phrase is a little gem. It is short, it sounds better than 'I am sorry could you repeat what you just said?', and it is idiomatic, that is, it does mark you as an insider.

Last year, the most useful phrase I learned came from the Brazen Careerist blog. The phrase it Do you have any reservations about hiring me?, coming from the post about turning an interview into a job. I learned it by heart and used at all my job interviews, and, as if by magic, it landed me two jobs. (The first job turned out to be a lemon, but this comes from ignoring the first advice Penelope gives: research the company).