My love of languages


Recently one of my posts was liked by a blogger called “Operation X”. My interest was piqued; a 007 fan or something more sinister? Did you know that the word sinister is derived from the Latin word for left? To my surprise and delight, Ken Ho’s blog focuses on minority languages. One particular post on Frisian languages caught my eye and it turns out my husband knows a Frisian speaker. After commenting on his post, Ken asked me if I would collaborate on the subject.

Y’all (Southern USA dialect) know my moniker ‘Chatty Kerry’ and I really do chatter in a variety of languages but only proficiently in English. I was born in San Francisco to an Irish mother and Mexican American father. My grandmother Juanita Ortega spoke Spanish although her family had been in California for generations.

As a child we moved from the USA to Formentera, part of the Balearic Islands east of the Spanish mainland. I have no memory of this experience but my mum later taught me some basic Spanish words. Then we moved to Scotland where I lived with my Nana, Mum and extended family. Although Nana had been brought up in Liverpool, England, with a rather plummy accent, she had married my grandfather Daniel McHugh who had a farm in County Sligo, Ireland. My aunt told me that they learned Irish Gaelic at school but after the death of my grandfather they moved to Scotland to learn yet another form of English. As a child, my Nana taught me my numbers in Irish Gaelic.

We lived on a public housing estate that was full of first generation Irish immigrants many of whom were from County Donegal. Gaelic was still spoken as a first language there and immigrants brought it with them to Glasgow. I watched housewives with headscarves and pinafores chat in Irish Gaelic on street corners. My Nana told me that they talked in Gaelic so they could gossip privately but I think that it was just a comfort to speak in the language of your country. All their children spoke English as a first language and few of them retained any Irish Gaelic. When I was 12 I went to a huge Roman Catholic High School with so many languages spoken at home. This was in the early 70’s so Glasgow had an influx of immigrants after WWII. The Catholics came from Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy. For the most part their parents still spoke the language of their birth country but all the children quickly segued into English like most second generation immigrants.

One of my childhood friends spoke some Scots Gaelic and I was fascinated! Scots and Irish Gaelic are similar in origin but they sound very different. Scots Gaelic was mostly spoken as a first language in the Western Islands. In an odd twist of fate after the Protestant reformation, each of the islands became predominately Protestant or Catholic. My friend’s family comes from South Uist which was Catholic, yet North Uist is Protestant. Her family members still speak Scots Gaelic fluently. Then I met my husband whose family were Protestant and from the North East of Scotland.

Shortly after I married, I met most of his family from Peterhead, the biggest fishing port in Europe. The dialect is so strong in that area that I barely understood what his uncle was saying. The language is interspersed with Scandinavian, Dutch and old Pictish words. Many of the local towns start with PIT, such as Pitmedden, which indicates it was a Pictish nameplace. We lived in two villages in the 80s and 90s. One was Auchnagatt, a derivation of an old Gaelic word Achadh nan Cat that translates to field of the cats. The other was Maud which derives from Allt Madadh translated as stream of the dog/wolf. It very often rained cats and dogs in both villages… Scots Gaelic was spoken in the area generations before but the language had evolved in a complex dialect of English. Each fishing or farming community had distinct differences in language.

Immediately after we married we moved to North Wales were locals still actively speak Welsh, another Celtic language. There was some enmity between English incomers and the local population but they accepted us because we had Scottish accents. I regularly mediated in arguments between the opposing factions. Wales has made a huge effort to increase the language usage. All public documents have to be printed in Welsh and English. Children learn both languages at school. It is astonishing that they put such effort into a language spoken by so few people but admirable. It became obvious that you couldn’t really work for the local government without having a working knowledge of Welsh.

In 2002 we moved to Egypt and I had to learn some Egyptian Arabic, distinctly different from Gulf Arabic, for example. Their second language was English or French both of whom colonized Egypt at some point in the past. I took Arabic classes but I honed my skills by talking to shop-keepers and taxi driver who delighted in correcting my accent. It was then that I realized that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. My Arabic was good enough to argue at the souk or get the correct groceries but it would have taken many more years to learn it fluently. It was fun learning a new language with a good friend from Ukraine. She also learned English from me and her new husband from New Zealand – how strange her accent was.

In 2004 we unexpectedly moved to Houston, Texas, USA – which is officially the most ethnically diverse city in the USA with the most languages spoken. We brought three Egyptian street cats who understood commands in both English and Arabic. When they were naughty, I would say, No! If that didn’t work I had to revert to Arabic, Laa! That always worked and until they died they understood Arabic commands. To my surprise, I found that I had deep roots in Texas from my paternal grandfather’s family. Not only had my great-grandparents been married just north of Dallas but my grandfather was an Oiler in the 20’s and 30’s.

It would be a mistake to think that Texans speak the same form of English that we did in Scotland. Not only is the dialect and phraseology unique but there are nuances lost on a European. Rarely do southern women use curse words but it is increasingly common to F bomb in the UK. The sweetest of Texan phrases, “Why bless your heart!” has a sting in the tail. In Texas it really means you are stupid or ignorant. Since moving here, I have had worked for the airport system, with clients and passengers. I started working there because I still had some rudimentary Arabic but now I speak ‘Aeroporto Espanol’. Houston is a hub for Latin America and who knew so many variations of Spanish existed? Only the Peruvians speak Castilian Spanish which is similar to modern European Spanish. In Lima, I was able to argue effectively for a decent taxi fare to the annoyance of the machismo taxi driver. I can now identify different types of Latin Spanish but Uruguay defeats me. They speak the strangest mix of Spanish and Italian evolving from the early settlers.

One of our first travel trips from Houston was to Louisiana, specifically to Cajun country, where they speak an archaic blend of French and local patois. Don’t ever tell a French Canadian from Quebec that it is an archaic form of French…apparently it is one of the most quickly evolving languages! In the late 1700’s settlers came from France to Quebec in Canada and Louisiana in the USA. They remained isolated partly because of the extreme conditions of both places. Cajuns live in a Waterworld of swamps and bayous. Their ancestors survived on hunting – everything! Heron was one of the favorite dishes (gah!) but raccoon and opossums also make their way into pies. Houston has been badly affected by many recent floods and we are so grateful to volunteers named ‘The Cajun Navy’. At the height of the devastation by Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy came from East Texas and Louisiana in their big trucks with boats attached. They rescued so many people from flooded homes and areas. Their skills with living in a harsh environment have made them naturally skilled in water evacuations. I watched a TV interview with a Cajun hero during the Hurricane and I still don’t know what he said!

Much more recently I discovered from a DNA test that some of my ancestors were Native Mexican – I could not have been more excited or surprised. This started a series of trips into Mexico from Baja to the Yucatan. On a trip to Merida in the Yucatan, I was staying at a boutique hotel. The owners were French but the chef was native Mexican. The menu was in French and the local language, Yucatec Maya. It may as well have been Klingon… I studied French at school for many years so I can read a menu but some words could not be translated, in particular local vegetables. The consonant X was used frequently and soft intonations. My driver kept correcting my pronunciation of Spanish despite my laughing protest that I had to speak regular Mexican Spanish at work. The word, “Yo” meaning I, is spoken as it sounds in most of Mexico but in the Yucatan they say “Cho” or “Sho”. I noticed that some of my colleagues in Houston are shy to use their limited Spanish but that is the only way to learn it properly even if it causes someone to laugh. My bad Spanish has allowed me to trek safely around Latin America. Most countries appreciate you trying to speak their language no matter how bad it is. Usually I start a sentence with an apology, “Mi Espanol es malo…” and the response is almost always, “Mi ingles es malo tambien!” (My English is bad too).

We hope to retire in Texas, our feet firmly planted in the soil, and I look forward to many new languages crossing my path. It is pretty easy in Houston – everyone is from somewhere else. My hairdresser is Thai, our handyman is from Chile, the gardener is from Mexico and our street is like a small UN base. We have neighbors from Ukraine, Argentina, Japan, India, France and even some Yankees. Well, nowhere is perfect!

53 thoughts on “My love of languages

  1. Thanks, Kerry, for that fascinating “language biography”. Ever since I grew up speaking both my hometown (German) dialect and High German, I’ve been interested in dialects. Something I really regret about living here in Texas: I have no longer people around me I can concerse with in “Koelsch”, the dialect of Cologne.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. You wrote a lovely and thought-provoking article, Kerry. I enjoyed reading it and I’l looking forward to hearing more from you. This definitely shows there will be more language-related stories to tell in the future, and we’d love to offer you a platform on our blog again in the future as well so you reach a very wide audience. We are eager to share your inspiring stories with all our readers!

    – Dyami Millarson

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi chattykerry and Dyami Millarson,

      I concur with Dyami about the strength of chattykerry’s article. Well done!

      When I was in the social science department of one of my former universities, I volunterily audited some of Dr John Bradley’s classes to learn the Yanyuwa language, which has been regarded as one of the Ngarna languages of the larger Pama–Nyungan language family. The language belongs to the Yanyuwa people are an Indigenous Australian people of the Northern Territory who reside in the coastal region around the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. In some respects, the language is more complex than English to learn. According to Wikipedia:

      Many Yanyuwa have also been bilingual in the Garrwa language.[1] The retention of their language as with Garrwa has been attributed to the relative disinterest of colonizing whites in the lands both of these tribes traditionally inhabited.[2] Taking as his starting point an observation by Edward Sapir concerning the Yahi dialect of Yana, who considered the gendered distinction in language use between Yanna men and women as very rare, or not as pervasive as in this dialect, John Bradley showed that in Yanyuwa, the differentiation was at least as structurally thorough as in Yahi. The gendered linguistic difference between liyi-wulu-wu (speech for men) and liyi nhanawaya-wu (speech for women) affected noun classes, verbs and pronouns, and in their creation stories, this distinction was maintained by male and female spirits. Raised predominantly by the women, boys spoke the women’s dialect until initiation, whereupon they were obliged by custom not to speak as if they had breasts and vaginas.[3] Neighbouring tribes, speakers of Marra, Garrwa and Gurdanji consider Yanyuwa difficult precisely for this gendered difference in grammar, whereas the Yanyuwa, conversely, have no difficulty in mastering the latter languages.[4] Two exceptions exist, in ribald talk, and in certain songline cycles where male figures use female speech, though the reason is not known.[5] Bradley’s conclusion is:

      The reasons as to why two distinct dialects for female and male speakers developed are lost in time., This feature has however served to make Yanyuwa a language unique within Aboriginal Australia, if not the world.[6]

      In any case, both my late mother and I have been multilingual and multicultural, as discussed in certain sections of my latest post published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/khai-khim-for-always-and-beyond-goodbye/

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kerry. Loved your blog. The world is truly a village! While I am fine with English okay with French less okay with Italian Spanish and Greek, I have a 7 year old pupil who is trying to teach me a word a day in Mandarin. I am failing miserably. Who knows, this may become my retrial pastime. I’d love to learn Arabic. You’ve picked up lots of languages. You’re right. It is only by trying and not being afraid to look daft that you will succeed. Good for you. Happy language learning x

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Anne. I, too, struggle with Asian languages – so far removed from European languages. Well done on trying Mandarin! Speaking of daft, I referred to Teddy as mi esposa yesterday – the feminine for spouse…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is fascinating, Kerry! How wonderful to encounter so many languages and speak them. I took French and Spanish in high school and I didn’t retain them, can’t speak them today, but I think it made me more aware of how my own language is structured. And how structure in language is arbitrary.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. A great post! I’m not surprised it took you a fair while to write. I love languages too, but though I’ve learnt – or attempted to learn – several over the years they’re all very rusty or almost forgotten now. One of my next projects will be to start refreshing some of them, starting with Spanish, because my Kiwi nephew has married a Peruvian girl, and they’re planning to return to NZ soon.

    Liked by 5 people

      • I agree. I learnt Spanish in NZ from a “teach yourself” type book and a Chilean woman I practised speaking with. I struggled when I first arrived in Chile, but improved slowly. When I was in Peru it all seemed so easy – partly because they spoke more slowly, I think. They used to laugh at my “Chilean” accent. My Spanish improved much faster in Peru than in Chile.

        Liked by 3 people

  6. What a fascinating and informative post Kerry. I had no idea (for example) that exiles from the Irish Gaeltacht brought their language with them to Britain. And Houston I imagined was populated only by oil barons with big hats, and their women with big hair.

    Here in the Channel Islands the native Jerrias and Guernesiais languages are pretty much dead, though kept on life support by a few enthusiasts. Indeed they say that each of the 12 parishes used to have their own variants of the patois.

    I’m not sure I agree with the old languages been kept alive by governments and educationalists. Enthusiasts will always try to do so though, and it’s a fascinating subject.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Roy. I think I should try to make my posts more cerebral… BTW, I have really big hair and Teddy has a XL hat. I have mixed feelings about how to preserve languages since they naturally evolve. It does feel that social media and texting has reduced usage of the marvelous vocabulary we have. But maybe I am just old.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is a remarkable city. During one of our many flooding events, the local TV reporter wanted to interview a guy who had volunteered with his giant dump truck. The policeman said, “you can try but he doesn’t speak English”. He looked African but communication matters more than language sometimes.
      We have a large refugee population from all over the world.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Wow! What a delightful and informative post Kerry. I can see why it took you so long to write it. Thank you for sharing it. I didn’t know you were so interested in languages. I am too. I’m still working on my English writing but after three years of blogging it is getting better. If you ever want to practice your French you know where to find me. 😀 Keep well.

    Liked by 3 people

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