The sounds of languages

23. August 2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Sometimes people ask me why I don’t aim to learn at least some of the 80 languages I’m planning to peregrinate through. Well, I say, I’d love to and I’d be proud if I managed to master at least one Slavic language on top of my German, English and several Romance languages with diminishing degrees of stability. But: my age – consider that it gets harder and harder to memorise words and emulate sounds with the years. In this respect I admire my friend Tessa very much who got into Sursilvan, the Romansh variety spoken around her holiday home, at an age when most of us battle with the phenomenon of language attrition. This leads me to the second hindrance: I’d need to have as strong a motivation as she does, e.g. wanting to make her small adopted village in the mountains a second home and be able to communicate in the shops and pubs. My second home is the bicycle saddle, and I’m always on the move. And that is the third reason: which language, if any, should I pick out? The one with the greatest mileage, e.g. Russian, which would open up other Slavic languages? But there are political and social implications. I guess I wouldn’t be heard very favourably in Poland, the Czech Republic (where they still put documentaries of Prague 1968 on TV at least so regularly that I picked up two of them while zapping through the channels here) and elsewhere (yes, I do want to travel though Ukraine one of these days).


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I could actually go by the sound of a language. I don’t take easily to the phonology of Slavic languages, but I enjoyed the differences that struck my ear. The sibilant fricatives of Polish, with its intricate combinations of sh, tsh, zh, and similar (sorry, no phonetic script available right now) stand in contrast to the more guttural and dark sounds of Czech. When I chanced upon a group of talkers in the squares of Sušice or Usti nad Labem, I was more than once surprised to hear my familar Swiss dialect. Yet it was Czech, I discovered after a few seconds – there are certain vowel patterns that had me fooled. Then there was the oddity of Sorbian, which I only overheard a couple of times, clearly Slavic, but with an intonation that sounded distinctly German. Jana Schulz even used the uvular R, but that may well have been an idiosyncrasy.
In any case if I was intent on acquiring a language simply because of the attractiveness of its sound, I would go for Brazilian Portuguese (which I once spoke quite fluently – alas, there goes attrition). Its often slightly nasalised vowels combine to form melodious chains that sound like opera duets if spoken in dialogue. Brazilian Portuguese is probably also the most suitable language for singing and it’s high time it chased English from the loudspeakers.

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As a kind of coda, I should add that I’m now in Passau, the end point of this year’s journey, and last night I welcomed dusk at the confluence of the three rivers Ilz, Danube and Inn. So this trip joins up with the Danube route I took many years ago, and I spent a minute in grateful silence for the recovery of my best friend Reto, with whom I cycled from Salzburg to Vienna then. He was very ill this past winter, survived nearly two dozen operations and now says he’s ready to play badminton again. This is such a relief after all the worries and fears.

Incidentally, I spent the last day cycling through the Bohemian Forest as far up as the source of th Vltava, or Moldau, and was only mildly surprised at the large number of Czechs who walked, cycled or were rolled in their prams there. If you’re looking for symbols of nationhood, there’s one there for sure, a tiny trickle of water in the midst of a forest of skeleton trees (picture to follow). The last 30 km into Passau were a nightmare of dense traffic (talk about least favourite sounds), and I was glad to survive the whole road trip without any really dangerous incidents.

In fact, the most hazardous episodes happened on my three train transfers. In Zgorcelec, I had to extricate my bike from a tangle of luggage and other bikes as I wanted to get off, my bags already out on the platform, when the doors closed and I could only force them open with my foot between them. In Klasterec, getting off was a problem too, because the special wagon the Czech railways has for wheelchair-bound people and bikers is so high and has such narrow doors that it was hard to get the bike and myself down whole. Changing trains in Plzen, I took an escalator with my loaded bike, and it turned out to move so fast that I couldn’t hold on to the bike, toppled over backwards, with the bike and all crashing down on me. It was a feeling of Gregor Samsa to the power of three: at least he didn’t have this thing on him and wasn’t transported upwards at the speed of sound. But then, he didn’t have a kind elderly lady who helped him up at the risk of losing her own balance. I wish I could have thanked her in Czech, but I had lost my wits for a moment there. The last word I heard from her was dobre, dobre. And this I understand, it’s nearly the same from Gdansk to Bitola.

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