Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Burmese and The Secret of Tonal Languages

Most Burmese people who come into daily contact with foreigners speak English to some degree. A casual visitor may even remark that "everyone" in Myamar speaks English. As is so often the case, this is patently untrue. The English language is very prevalent throughout the country, it was after all a British colony and English is apparently being learned by every student, young and old. But, that being said, it is highly unlikely that your average shop assistant, barber, rickshaw driver or street vendor knows any English beyond "hello" and "goodbye".

Though I tried my Burmese out at the hotel's front desk, it was on the street that I really made use of it. To be honest, I found Burmese pronunciation to be extremely difficult. I remember trying to rattle off some sentences and being answered bylittle more than bemused smiles. I seemed to be getting my message across less than half the time. Then one day I went to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda Complex in central Yangon. There I met a monk, a very intelligent man, who was learning English. Like a well worn path our conversation finally came around to an examination of our respective languages. It was then that the monk told me the secret to learning and speaking tonal languages, and believe me, it applies to them all. The secret is this: when all the words in a sentence use the neutral tone (i.e., your natural voice) the result is completely monotonous; the voice does not waver up or down to nuance words or create questions as it would in English. It is flat and atonal. By slipping a toned word in amongst the neutrals it's possible to hear how the tones really worked. Burmese pronunciation is difficult and I still made a lot of errors but from that day forth I started making a lot more sense.

More next post.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Burmese Daze

Burma, now renamed Myanmar, is in a sorry state. By rights it should be one of the richest countries in the region. It isn't. The military junta that has ruled it with an iron fist for the last forty odd years doesn't want to give up one iota of power. The tragedy the Burmese people have to live with is the knowledge that opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi legitimately won the last election and has been denied her rightful position by the thugs heading the military. They have her under house arrest and would have her killed if they thought they could get away with it. The Burmese people know the election was stolen from them. One day soon the ubiquitous mutterings on the street will turn into cries for justice once again; I only hope a bloodbath won't ensue.

Yeah. I was deeply touched by Burma and the Burmese people.

Burmese is not the world's easiest language. Syntactically its set up is very similar to Japanese, which is to say that damn near everything is backwards to the way we'd do it in English. Like most of the languages in the region, Burmese is tonal. Apparently tones didn't supply nearly enough difficulty, so the Burmese have seen fit to augment the pronunciation of their language through the use of short vowels, long vowels, glottal stops, final nasals, diphthongs and aspirated and unaspirated consonants. "What is an aspirated consonant?", you may well ask (let alone all those other terms). It's pretty simple; put your hand in front of your mouth and say the word "pot". When you said the "p" a slight burst of air hit your hand. This is the aspirated way of saying the "p". Now, with your hand still in front of your mouth, say "spot". When you said the "p" this time there was no burst of air. If you further examine this second "p" by saying "spot" again, you'll notice that it actually sounds more like a cross between a "b" and a "p". This is the unaspirated variety of the consonant. In Thai, Lao, Shan, Vietnamese, Khmer, Burmese and a slew of other languages this differentiation is really marked; begin a word with the wrong version of the "p" and you give that word an entirely different meaning.

In the next post I'll stop babbling about the structure of Burmese and get down to describing how the Burmese version of the language sheets worked out.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Off to Indochina to Test the Theory

I had a finished "language sheet", as I was calling them then, for Lao. I knew that using it I could create thousands of phrases in that language but I still wasn't convinced it would actually work in the field. I decided to shelf my plans for going around the world and instead decided to create two more language sheets: one for Burmese and another for Thai. I would then go to Indochina to test if the theory worked or not.

It took several months to dissect the languages, write up the language sheets and prepare for the journey. At the beginning of 2005, I flew to Thailand.

I arrived in Bangkok's international airport at 2am. My memory of it all is pretty fuzzy, as you can imagine. It's funny, the purpose of my journey was to see quickly I could speak basic Thai and I have absolutely no idea what my first words were. The first sentence I remember using was said while looking for a hotel room in the Khaosan Road area of the city - "Do you have a room?"

Over the next few days I happy to learn that my Thai language sheet was capable of doing exactly what I'd hoped it would. I got to use the Thai language pretty extensively. I remember being in a tuk-tuk on my way back to the hotel after some excursion. While we were stuck in traffic, the driver and I got into conversation. It was basic stuff but I was able to make myself understood and get a grasp of what he was saying too. And I'd been in the country three maybe four days in total. I look back on that now and shake my head in wonder at it. I love this system of mine. I bearly remember anything in Thai now but I know that when I go back to Thailand all I have to do is pop open the new version of the Thai Phrasemaker (that's what they're called now) and I'll have that language laid out before me, literally at my finger tips.

Burma was my next destination. Before long I had my visa and a plane ticket and flew to Yangon, the capital.
More about that in the next blog.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Farsi Turns into Lao

I started working with Farsi, the language of Iran. It's an Indo-european language with a hefty dose of Arabic thrown in for good measure. What surprised me was how like other Indo-european languages it was in its constituent parts; some of it was amazingly similar to Russian, others parts of echoed German or French. What was really odd was learning that "good" and "bad" are pronounced "khud" and "bad" and that the Farsi word for "better" is essentially "better". After dissecting the Farsi to the best of my ability, I put it back together again in a form I hoped would help me speak it when I needed to.

I still didn't know if the system worked, so I tracked down a person who spoke Farsi and extemporaneously created a few sentences using my system. It worked! She understood what I was trying to say. Unfortunately she was unable to give me any further help. She'd been living in America since she was a child and knew Farsi more as a run-on collection of phrases and didn't seem to have the ablility to break down the language down into individual components. Nonetheless, I was very happy with the results.

At this point, one of my friends told me she was going to Laos. I saw this as a golden opportunity to test out my idea. With a definite deadline, I set to work and a month later had a rudimentary Lao phrasemaker for her. Like all projects, time had allowed for extra thought and the final product was very different to the original Farsi version. It was more complex and refined, yet easier to use. I gave her two versions: one used concertina style pages, the other was like the cover and back page of a magazine with all the middle pages missing.

I was very excited and awaited her return with baited breath.

She didn't use it. It was a business trip and all the people she came into contact with spoke English. I was disappointed and now had a nagging feeling I'd made the system too complex.
More in the next post.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Where I intend all this to go.

I just started a new company called Fetch-a-Phrase. I took much longer to actually put it in to operation than I ever dared imagine, but finally, finally it is up and running.
It all started like this...
I came back from a journey around the world and decided I would like to make another one. This one would involve travelling at a lower latitude and would require the ability to speak the basics of a variety of different languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Pushtoon, Mandarin and several others. What I needed was a system that would allow me to speak them without actually having learned them.
I have dabbled in languages for the better part of my life and had a good idea of what I needed. There are very definite phrases a person learns while travelling. Some are purely idiomatic, like "hello" and "thank you" but others phrases like "I want to see a film", can be used as templates to construct phrases with entirely different meanings. I wanted to see if I could expand upon this idea and, in essence, put down the bones of the language a person needs while travelling and have it all on a single piece of paper. I believe I have succeeded.
More in the next post.