Who makes the language rules?

Lexicography” is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries.

Lexicographer” is a person who writes dictionaries and studies the history and meaning of words.

There are few different elements that go into making the rules of a language. I am still not an expert in French by any means. But this is a little essay on where our modern languages come from.

I remember reading about Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) who led a team of nine scholars in creating one of the first English language dictionaries. In 1755 “A Dictionary of the English Language” was published for the first time. In doing so Dr. Johnson actually changed the language.

Before 1755 there were no real standardized spelling rules. Different parts of England had different names for different things. A “bumble bee” in some areas of England was known as a “dumbledore” in other places. Dr. Johnson chose one name for an object and stuck with that one name.

Many of the older names for objects are now considered to be slang terms. E.G. An older term for a “girl” was “bird”. “Bird” is now considered a slang term but it is, in fact an older word that was discarded from the mainstream.

I’ve been studying in French and Italian recently it’s interesting to me that the languages are very similar, as they are both based on Latin, but their choice made at some point in history as to what constituted a word was made. Take a look at the simple statement, “follow me” translated into Italian, French, and Latin.

English = Follow me.

French = Suivez-moi.     (Suivre= follow, moi = me)

Italian = Seguitemi.     (Seguire  = follow,  mi = me)

Latin = Sequi me. =      (sequi = follow,  me = me)

In English (the newest of the four languages) “Follow me” is two words.
In French, it is two words joined with a dash.
In Italian, it is one word.
And most interesting of all, in Latin, the granddaddy of all these languages it’s two words.

At some point in time four sets of Lexicographers working in four different countries, most likely working with quill pens, decided if “Follow me” was one or two words. Hundreds of years later we still live with their decisions.

These are the kinds of choices made by ancient Lexicographers that we are still living with today.

It should be pointed out that Languages change over a period of time. Shakespeare is considered “modern English” yet most people today find Shakespeare’s plays difficult to understand.

So who made the rules for the French Language?

Published more than 60 years before Dr. Johnson’s dictionary Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française {The Dictionary of the French Academy} was published in 1694.

It’s interesting to think that the Lexicographers of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française were exploring uncharted territory. For as in English, French which had been written for centuries before the Dictionary, there were no set rules. And the rules and traditions of the language were different in different parts of France.

The Lexicographers compiling the Dictionary of the French Academy said that their mission was to “preserve the status of the French Language as it should be written (and spoken).”

Work on the first dictionary took more than forty years. The second volume of the Dictionary was a little quicker taking only 36 years.

Now this may seem like a lot of time and it can be pointed out that the first English dictionary took only nine years and the English language has more words than the French language, however, it should be noted that the French language was in official use for a lot longer than the English language. The researchers of French had to go through a lot more material than those compiling the English dictionary.

French, was in fact, the official language of the British House of Lords until the beginning of the 20th century.

For many years English was considered to be a sort of street slang language. It was spoken but not written down. The British nobles spoke French, the House of Lords kept their records in French and the Clergy spoke Latin. English was spoken by most of the people without any rules so it was allowed to evolve and become more fluid.

It’s always interesting to me that the French don’t pronounce the final consonant of their words. I’m sure that at some point and time these consonants were pronounced but slowly but surely they were dropped from speech over the years.

This most likely happened after the creation of French dictionaries. So now the population of France had a spelling and an oral tradition that out of sync. This happens in English as well but as English was standardized later the Lexicographers could record a more modern version of the language.

I don’t want to seem bias here. As a native English speaker, I have grown up with the language. I realize that other language learners find English confusing. Spanish has very exact rules and is a very consistent language, from what I understand. I’ve seen comedy routines where a native Spanish Speaker makes fun of the inconsistencies of English.

The inconsistencies of French, in my opinion, may have been caused by the earlier creation of a dictionary. Before 1694, did anyone really know what a dictionary was supposed to be? It may simply be that English being a language of the masses and not the nobility was a lot less formal than French, but it could also be that Dr. Johnson learned from and improved on the idea about how the French language was recorded in Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, when creating his own English dictionary.

In English we say,

  • I go
  • You go
  • He goes
  • They go

(There are only two versions of the root word “go”.)

In French:

  • Je vais = (I go)
  • Tu vas = (informal – you go.)
  • Vous allez = (formal – you go)
  • Il va = (he goes)
  • Ils vont = (they go).

(The French root word “go” = «aller» changes with each usage.)

By creating all the tenses and adopting all the word genders from Latin the early French Lexicographers may have felt that they were making the language more logical, scientific and in the Latin tradition. As French was a language of the Royal court it would have also been important to have a formal word for “you” and as well as an informal version.

Latin was considered the most important of Languages at the time when the French and English dictionaries were created. As members of the church and universities spoke and wrote in Latin. Latin was also the language of the early scientists.

Francis Bacon

English scholar Francis Bacon, (1561 –  1626) who only ever wrote in Latin, saying that it was a much more expressive language than English.

Latin was once considered a B-class language. In the time of Julius Caesar (100 BC to 44 BC) the Roman upper classes spoke to each other in Greek. Greek was considered to be the language of learning. It is interesting that Caesar’s last words were in Greek, however in Shakespeare’s play Caesar’s last words “Et tu, Brute?” are in Latin which was more prestigious than English and more widely understood than Greek in Shakespeare’s day.

Gaius Julius Caesar Born 13 July 100 B.C. – died 15 March 44 B.C.

Caesar’s last words according to Roman historian, who lived at the time of Caesar, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 BC – after 122 AD) were;

“καὶ σὺ τέκνον “
(pronounced Kai su, teknon) = {You too, my son/child.}

The Greek Language predates that of Latin by thousands of Years. Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were written about the Trojan war that took place around 1194–1184 BC. As a result of this ten year war the survivors of the Troy fled for their lives and settled in what is now Rome. They lived in small villages for the next few hundreds of years. The early kingdom of Rome was founded around 753 BC.

Greek was the older language and greater language. There were books and plays written in Greek. People from other countries around the world studied Greek. On the other hand, Latin at this time was just the language of the Romans. Who were for the most part unknown to the rest of the world. And they would have been looked down upon as the offspring of Trojan refugees and escaped slaves.

Latin gain importance because of Rome’s military prowess in the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar lived about 700 years after the founding of Rome. Caesar marched with his army around Europe conquering the broze age tribes in what is today, Spain, Britain, France, Germany and Belgium.  The language of Latin was spread all over Europe. Caesar spread the language to Gaul, which is now modern France and the language mixed with the language of the native

Caesar spread the Latin language to Gaul, which is now modern France and the language mixed with the language of the native Parisii people (the people living in and around modern Paris) and Frankish and Norman invaders and eventually formed French.

Book Review: “The Way of the Linguist”

“The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey”
By Steve Kaufmann

I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, Steve Kaufmann is one of my language learning heroes. I’ve always wanted to learn a second language but never really knew how. A few years ago when I turned 50 I found Steve Kaufmann’s videos on YouTube. I found his fresh and supportive approach to language learning very helpful and encouraging and he is an excellent role model.

Steve knows someplace between 9 and 15 languages. (Depending on which Youtube videos you watch as he is always learning more.) He may be up to 16 or 17 by now. It’s hard to tell.

Anyway, I am currently reading his book, “The Way of the Linguist”. It is very well written. I guess if you are going to speak 15 plus languages you know how to get your point across with as few words as possible. The book is very tightly written with just the right amount of detail about his travels to different countries around the world to make it interesting. I’m sure he could have written a book about just his travels and another about the food he’s eaten and anther about doing business in foreign lands, but this book is focused on language.

After college, Kaufmann was work with the Canadian Foreign diplomatic Service.  His first government posting was in Paris where he learned to speak French properly, studying the language under a native speaker. Kaufmann studied in Paris for two years.

His next post was to Hong Kong and also mainland China where he learned Chinese. Next Kaufmann was posted to Japan where he undertook to teach himself Japanese, and so on.

Kaufmann ended up with enough contacts overseas that he was able to set up his own export business in the private sector in Canada. It wasn’t until I read Kaufmann’s book that I realized what a good investment it is for a government to train its diplomats in foreign languages. Even if the diplomats don’t continue to work for the government.

Steve Kaufmann’s language learning website; LingQ.com

Kaufmann took his language training and his overseas contacts and set up a successful export business in Canada. Thus improving Canada’s exports and GDP. Canada got it’s investment back from him.  Kaufmann, whom I believe is in the lumber business, says that he has done business with a number of clients from different countries around the world in the client’s own language. That has to be helpful to a private business owner.

America has a Foreign Service Institute (FSI) that trains Americans with overseas postings on foreign languages. I hope with all the budget cuts and the attacks against so-called “big government” the recently elected party realizes the long-term value of the FSI is to America.

Kaufmann learned his languages one at a time over a period of time, by a combination of;

  • Study of interesting written content
  • Talking to native speakers of his target language
  • and “living in the language”

Living in the Language

For me, Steve Kaufmann was really the first Linguist that I ever heard about that made language learning accessible. Prior to Kaufmann most polyglots I read about or saw interviewed seemed to have some sort of chip on their shoulder. They knew all these other languages and I didn’t blah blah blah. And they never encouraged anyone to emulate them. They were part of an elite group that didn’t seem to want any new members.

Kaufmann shares my frustration with how foreign languages are taught in school. Kaufmann being Canadian was required to take two years of French. He passed the test but. However, he quickly found that he was unable to speak French after he was finished with school.

Kaufmann points out that there are a number of reasons for this. He also talks about this in a few of his videos. Basically, in school, you are taught what you need to know to pass a standardized test. But that test has little to do with fluency or practical use of the language.

To really learn a language, Kaufmann points out, one has to “live in the language”. This doesn’t mean one has to go to France to speak French. But one needs to set aside time, each day (consistency is important) to read and study a language. He also said that it is important to meet and talk with native speakers of that language. This can be done by seeking out native speakers of your target language in your neighborhood, and or via Skype.

Kaufmann says that language is more about food and culture than it is about words and grammar.

In his early days of studying German on his own. Kaufmann went to the second-hand bookstore and bought about nine or ten German books. Many of these books were formally owned by other students of the language so they had helpful notes scribbled on the pages. Now days, we have it easy, with the internet and iPads and iPhone we have a world of books in all languages at our fingertips. Not to mention google translate and other such sites.

The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey

366 Days with Duolingo

I am not the most disciplined person in the world. I tended to start off very excited about a new project and then lose interest about 75% of the way through.

I’ve just completed a year (a leap year even) of doing Duolingo every day. I started Duolingo two years ago, 10 January 2015, after trying a number of other online websites both Free and paid. I had a dream of learning French but wasn’t sure how to get there. Now I can kind of read French Newspapers and can often understand some French conversations. I do have a way to go. But I don’t think I would have come this far without Duolingo.

I have had a dream of learning French for years, but wasn’t sure how to get there. Now I can read and understand French Newspapers and can often understand some French conversations. I do have a way to go. But I don’t think I would have come this far without Duolingo.

Duolingo is Free so this is not a sponsored add. I also use other paid websites including Rocket French, however, it is Duolingo that I come to first every day.

I have written about Duolingo before. But this is the one year mark of a perfect streak so I have something to celebrate. To tell you the truth I did miss a few days from time to time. But Duolingo lets you use your acquired points, called Lingots, to get a one-day streak protection, so that your score doesn’t go back to zero. It is very disheartening to see your score go back to zero, but then I have to remind myself that I am here to learn French and not run up a score.

Interestingly enough it’s the score that keeps me coming back. I’m not overly competitive but I use to be a hardcore gamer back when “Doom” and “Duke Nukem” were new. So there is something about Duolingo’s ‘gamification’ that appeals to me on a deep level.

Steve Kaufman creator of the LingQ.com website.

I guess, by keeping score, it makes me feel like I’m making progress even when I find the language frustrating. But as the experts like Steve Kaufmann say, language learning is about spending time daily with the language. Duolingo has done that for me. It has made me sit down each day and just do a little bit. As you can see from my

As you can see from my screenshot at the top of the page, I am only doing Ten words a day right now. I was doing thirty, but then Duolingo ran out of French and I had to do Italian for a while.

Duolingo’s lessons expire from time to time, so you need to revisit them. So I am back to doing French. I’m doing only 10 again to pace myself. And by only doing 10 a day it gives more time for my completed lessons to expire. I’m doing my real language learning at Rock french these days.

If I were to list the things Duolingo has done for me. They would be, (in no particular order).

  • Made French Learning a habit. (Habits are very important)
  • Kept score – which made me protective of my score. Which made me come back.
  • Gave me a variety of different styles of lessons.
  • Slowly built up my vocabulary over the last two years.
  • Kept me learning during the times I was really over the whole thing. There are some weeks that I just go in a do the minimum. But if you can get through these times you will make progress.
  • Gave me a sense of completion. Last October I completed the last French modules, I felt like I had done something. Yesterday when I completed 365 days and today when I did the whole leap year I felt that way again. As silly as these little feelings of pride are, they are very important in the overall progression of learning French.

I don’t think Duolingo will teach you French, but it will build your vocabulary and your confidence and it’s a great place to start.

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

2017 is here at last! Time to Set New Goals.

It seems like the New Year has crept up on me rather fast. So it is the First of a New Year. Time to start all over again.

I’ve recently read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I highly recommend it along with the book, “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

Talent is Overrated” takes a look at the science behind getting things done. It looks at people like Mozart and Tiger Woods whom everyone assumes to be born talented but were in fact born into families with fathers who were really good coaches. Geoff Colvin looks at different groups of high achievers and how often it is the case that the Highest achievers are just the ones that practice more while also practicing on their weakest areas. The full name of the book is; “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else“.

It is a kind of feel good book. I never really thought that I was gifted. But now knowing that all it takes is practice and focusing on my weakest areas I am given new hope.

The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg is all about the power of setting up regular habits for greater achievement. The full name of the book is; “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“. (Wow all these self-improvement books have such long titles these days.)

These books were recommended to me by the very successful self-publishing author Chris Fox. I wasn’t really going to write about self-improvement in this blog, as this is a French language learning blog, however, these are the things that I am thinking about on the first day of 2017.

My daily dose of French.

This time last year I was interested in setting up new and better habits but didn’t know where to start. I did make myself type out the page from my French Living Language Calendar and do a daily session on Duolingo.com. I am currently on day 362 on Duolingo. So habits do work. However, I realize now that I was just doing fun habits, which is an important way to start, but do really reach French fluency I need to start working on my weaker areas. Grammar rules.

I hated Grammar rules in English (as invented by Grammar-Nazis) however I need to mix them into my regular learning. I can really feel that I am not too far from fluency.

I found the video that I posted of Carrie Fisher speaking French very helpful. I could mostly understand her, although the subtitles helped. But it was also nice to see a fellow American struggling and succeeding with the language. It just goes to show that she was a real princess as princesses were often expected to understand a number of different languages.

I had a boss at one time who was German, her father had been a Count but her mother was Jewish and the family was forced to flee, leaving her families title and castle behind. She always told me that it was important when traveling to at least try and start the conversation in the local language.

My goals for 2017
(Subject to Change)

Learn French Grammar: I will work on the how later.

Speak more French. I know a number of French-owned cafes and restaurants in my area. I am going to go in and make my orders in French. I’ve been a bit shy about this in the past. Put I’m really going to push it. What have I got to lose?

Steve Kaufman creator of the LingQ.com website.

Read more French books. – an Hour a day. Polyglot – Steve Kaufmann recommends reading in a new language. Even if it means going over and over again on the same page.

Rocket French: – I am currently working my way through the Rocket French website. I am going to do a lesson a day.

Duolingo: I ran out of new French content in October last year. But I am just going to continue to do review lessons every day until the language becomes second nature.

Goal: I want to be able to watch French movies and or French TV programs and understand the content. (I’m at a strange point right now where I can kind of follow bits of the conversation and pick up a word or a phrase here and there.)

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