Hirsty work: the shortest history of European languages

History bookI have been reading The Shortest History of Europe, by John Hirst (published by Black Inc). It’s 147 pages long (short?), for those who are thinking of writing a shorter one and snatching the title from him. It’s really a series of lectures he gave at La Trobe University in Melbourne to introduce European history to university students in Australia, who apparently, “had had too much Australian history and knew too little of the civilisation of which they are a part”. But it’s a good refresher for anyone who wants a very general look at how Europe came to be what it is today. The book has had quite a few front covers but mine looks like the one in the picture, from 2009. Since then, I think, it has been reprinted with more dramatic covers, and possibly even updated.

It includes an excellent chapter on languages, which has certainly given me a clearer picture of the overall set-up, whereas often those complicated graphs, charts or family trees that you see in reference books and websites leave you feeling more bewildered than anything else. The chapter starts off by explaining how there were two “universal languages” in the Roman empire, Latin in the west and Greek in the east, and the boundary between the west and east ran through what is now part of Serbia. But even though the Romans got as far west as Britain, there the Celtic language survived. In contrast, in the rest of the west, many of what were the local tribal languages, if you like, gave way to Latin. Not the formal Latin of scholars, but rather the “vulgar” Latin spoken by soldiers, traders and the like. There were, of course, regional variations, and after the Roman empire broke up, these evolved into separate languages, the Romance languages. Hirst says the chief Romance languages are French, Spanish and Italian, but I think the Portuguese and Brazilians would quibble with that.

Romance languagesLatin, Hirst says, was a highly inflected language – that is, “the meaning of a word in a sentence depends on the ending of the word (its inflection)” and word order in Latin “does not matter”. He then explains that people, through ignorance of the grammatical rules, began to use prepositions and did not change the word ending. This, he says, “explains why Romance languages do not inflect their nouns and hence word order is crucial”. (But Romanian, for example, still has some characteristics of Latin that the other Romance languages don’t).

There is also an interesting segment on how Latin did not have a word for “the“, so people used the demonstrative pronoun “that” (ille in the masculine form, illa in the feminine), which were shortened to le and la in French, el and la in Spanish and il and la in Italian. (In Portuguese, o and a are used, but in Romanian, “the” is a suffix attached to the end of the word).

In the fifth century, the Roman empire fell, not so much in a significant battle but more by petering out – it just became too hard to administer from a central point – and German conquerors took over in the west, while in the sixth and seventh centuries, Hirst says, the Slavs settled into much of what was the eastern part of the old Roman empire. However, the Romance languages survived in south-western Europe because Germanic settlement there was not strong enough to change the languages, but it did add Germanic words to the local Romance lexicons. These words were mainly, Hirst says, “those concerned with kings and government and with the feudal system; that is, the terminology of the new ruling class”. Later, of course, France, Spain and Portugal evolved into powers in their own right, and so cemented their languages.

Indo-European-languagesHowever, as the above map shows, Germanic languages are prevalent today in the western-central parts of Europe, in most of Scandinavia and in Ireland and Britain. The history of England and hence English is interesting. Hirst says, “It is in England that the Germanic languages had a complete victory, which is to be expected given the over-running of the Britons by the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes.” Later, in the ninth and tenth centuries, England was again invaded by Germanic-speaking tribes – Norsemen and Danes. “The basic vocabulary of English emerged with the melding of these Germanic tongues. In the process English lost the inflections of its Germanic origins,” Hirst writes. Then in 1066 England was invaded by the Normans, who spoke a variant of French. “England’s new ruling class continued to speak Norman French for several centuries until this too was melded into English, which resulted in a huge increase in the vocabulary of English. There were now two or more words for almost everything.” (Hirst gives the examples of royal, regal and sovereign being added to king and kingly.) This may explain why English is a challenging and perhaps baffling language for other language speakers to learn! (My comment, not Hirst’s.)

Hirst does point out that the Latin/Romance, Greek, Germanic and Slavonic languages are descended from what has been called the Indo-European language. It has been given that name “because the Indian language Sanskrit and Iranian are also descended from it”. But, Hirst says, linguists are still arguing or debating over where the Indo-Europeans lived. The discovery of the Indo-European language is attributed to William Jones (1746-1794), an English judge living in India, but others also contributed, some of them before Jones did.

But not all European languages belong in this category – some European languages are what Hirst calls “loners” – they are not closely related to any other. Greek and Albanian are among them, even though they are Indo-European. Hungarian and Finnish are not Indo-European, and neither is Basque (no-one quite knows where it comes from”).

Latin_EuropeSo why is Romanian the “surprise” sole surviving Romance language in the former eastern part of the old Roman empire (the lonely black blob on the right in the above map)? Romania today is sandwiched between Slavic-language speaking Ukraine to the north and east (as is Romanian-speaking Moldova) and by Slavic Bulgaria and Serbia to the south and south-west. Hungary, too, is an odd meat in a similar Slavic sandwich. How come the Slavs did not make their linguistic presence felt in this region? Hirst does not go into this much, other than to say, “That country [Romania] lies to the north of the River Danube, which was usually the border of the Roman Empire. The Romans extended their control north of the river in a great bulge for a hundred years but that would not seem a long enough exposure to Latin for it to have become the base for Romanian. This has led to the suggestion that the Romanians lived south of the river, where they had a long exposure to Latin, and later moved north, not a suggestion that the Romanians are happy with.” (A reference, most probably, to territorial disputes with Hungary and arguments over whose ancestors were there first, etc). I think it would need a much longer history of Europe, of the Slavs, of the Dacians, and the Turks, and of Romania in particular, to be able to answer that properly. I’ll get back to you later, okay? Much later, probably!

* John Hirst’s books are available online at the Black Inc website. Here is the link to The Shortest History of Europe, which appears to be available as an e-book too. I bought mine in a second-hand bookstore. 😀

* Language maps and illustrations from Wikipedia.

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It’s Rom-karaoke night! You’ve got talent. Make some Smileys

“I want to sing, to dream, and to laugh.”

Who doesn’t? Well, here’s your chance to do all those three things. Bernardo is staging a special Romanian karaoke event, and it’s happening right here, right now. You – yes YOU – are going to sing along to the hot Romanian hit of the moment. OMG! I hear you shriek. No, don’t run away! Don’t flee elsewhere with your cursor. You don’t have to worry – the lead singer is here, you just have to do the backing vocals alongside him, okay? Most probably you – or your audience – will laugh 😀 and laugh 😀 at your efforts, then later you can dream about it (or have nightmares, depending on your sensitivities).

First you have to know the tune, which is Acasa by Smiley. As I predicted it would be, it is still currently one of the most played songs on Romanian radio, and many people have posted their cover versions of it on YouTube. I have selected a couple of good piano covers for you. It’s a great song to hum along to once you know the melody, so when you feel ready, hum along. No Romanian is required, yet – this is the easy bit.

First, Cosmin Mihalache, who was a competitor in Romania’s Got Talent television program, has a crack at the song.


Next up is another young Romanian musician, Andrei Nastase. By now your humming should be getting louder and more confident. I want your neighbours to think that you are being attacked by a swarm of bees.

So, now that you know the tune, it is time to think about the words. Next up is the original version with Smiley singing, and I have chosen a YouTube entry with the lyrics flashing on screen so that you can sing along with him. And, to help you understand what it is all about, I have pasted below a “screen grab” of one of three translations of the song from the lyricstranslate.com website. You might need a magnifying glass to read the lyrics, sorry. (You can find the other two translations here.)

So give it a go now and the main thing is to have fun….

acasa lyrics

So, how did you go? In some parts the words come thick and fast, don’t they? I’m sure even Smiley found singing those bits quite a challenge. From a pronunciation point of view, can you spot the differences between aă and â, and between ş (with a squiggle underneath) and s? How about the t and ţ (with a squiggle) and the i and î? No? Go back and play it 57 times!

Take a bow. Give yourself a round of applause. Now I think you deserve to sit back (maybe pour yourself a stiff drink) and let our pianists entertain you for the rest of the night.

I have featured Andrei Nastase on this blog before, covering Antonia’s Jameia and Elena’s Ecou here, and Deepcentral’s beautiful O Stea there. Moving on to French, he has also done a version of Bella, by African-born French singer Maître Gims, about whom I wrote recently here.

Lastly, here is a clip of one of Cosmin Mihalache’s performances on Romania’s Got Talent. There are 45 seconds of introductory waffle from various sources, then he lets rip on a very floral piano. 

Are you a lampadato?

Embed from Getty Images
I have just completed my full first week of teaching English to speakers of other languages since I got my CELTA qualification, and when I say a full week, boy, do I mean full! I was doing double shifts, teaching pre-intermediates in the mornings and afternoons, and upper-intermediates in the afternoons and evenings. It was a most enjoyable experience (I am currently doing it only as cover for when the regular or full-time teacher is away) but I am looking forward to getting away from the complications of the English language and returning to the complexities of the Romance languages instead. However, next Monday and Tuesday I have to guide another class – the intermediates – through the third conditional, phrasal verbs, augh and ough sounds and sentence stress, among other things, before I can return to the world of journalism, which I guess is my comfort zone.

Sydney is a popular destination for short-term language courses, particularly in the southern summer when pupils come to flee the northern winter. The mix of students was cosmopolitan: six Italians, three Colombians and Thais (including one tranny), two Brazilians, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Filipinos, plus one each from Spain, Portugal, China, Japan, South Korea, France, Poland, Lithuania, Nepal, India and Mexico, and the ages varied from 17 to 30-plus.

I mention the ages because it was noticeable how desperate the young people from the European countries, in particular, are to secure jobs and working visas in Australia. It is easy for us who are removed from the European economic crisis to forget how bad youth unemployment is in some countries over there. The student from Spain, for example, is 27, has a degree and two master’s degrees in industrial design, but cannot find work in his own country and can see only a bleak future. He has sold everything he owns back home in a bid to start a new life somehow in Australia. He is now working as a waiter in a restaurant for $10 an hour. (I didn’t tell him that the pay for language teachers is not much better than double that, but never mind!)

In one of our classes we had to discuss words that English has borrowed from other languages, and the reading material for that was based on the book, The Meaning of Tingo, by Adam Jaco de Boinod, who has collected words from all over the world that do not exist in English, but which English could well incorporate. My two favourites were:

  • Bakkushan (Japanese): A woman who you think is pretty when viewed from behind, but is ugly when you see her from the front.
  • Lampadato (Italian): An adjective to describe a person whose skin has been tanned too much by a sun lamp.


Fun, fear, frivolity, a fling and a foetus: the winning French films are revealed

The ceremony for the French film awards, known as the Césars, has just been held, and Les garçons et Guillaume à table picked up five awards, including best film and the best actor award for Guillaume Gallienne. Here is the trailer with English subtitles. Gallienne plays the role of Guillaume and also his mother. He originally did the piece as a play, for which he won many awards too.

The French title would be translated as “The boys and William at the table” but the film has been given the English title of “Me, myself and mum”.

Another fun-looking film is 9 mois ferme, for which Sandrine Kiberlain won the best actress award. I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles, but you don’t really need an English translation to know what it’s all about: she is a busy judge aged 40 and single who has a one-night stand …. well, actually it’s a five-minute stand near the garbage bins after an office party … and gets pregnant. She then has to find out who the father is and, quelle horreur! – he turns out to be a thuggish petty criminal!

Incidentally, “ferme” does not mean “pregnant” in French, it means “firm” as in strict, but in a legal sense it indicates a jail sentence without remission. In other words, in this film the main character (a judge) has to endure the full nine months (of punishment). The English title that this film has been given is 9 Month Stretch. Which is not exactly alluring.

Some of the limelight at the ceremony in Paris was deflected from the podium to a member of the audience – actress Julie Gayet made her first public appearance since the allegations that she and French President François Hollande were having an affair. She was  nominated as best supporting actress for her role in Bertrand Tavernier’s political farce Quai d’OrsayHowever, that award went to Adèle Haenel.

Here are the major winners, in French of course 🙂

  • Meilleur film: Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!, de Guillaume Gallienne
  • Meilleur réalisateur: Roman Polanski, pour La Vénus à la fourrure
  • Meilleure actrice: Sandrine Kiberlain, dans 9 mois ferme
  • Meilleur acteur: Guillaume Gallienne, dans Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!
  • Meilleure actrice dans un second rôle: Adèle Haenel, dans Suzanne
  • Meilleur acteur dans un second rôle: Niels Arestrup, dans Quai d’Orsay
  • Meilleur espoir féminin: Adèle Exarchopoulos, La Vie d’Adèle chapitres 1 et 2
  • Meilleur espoir masculin: Pierre Deladonchamps, dans L’Inconnu du lac
  • Meilleur film étranger: Alabama Monroe, de Félix Van Groeningen

Many of the above-mentioned films, including Les garçons et Guillaume à table, will be shown at the French film festival taking place around Australia this month. More details of the festival can be found on this post here.

Here is another version of the trailer to Les garçons et Guillaume à table, with some slightly different scenes.