Tag Archive | English

Language Switching and why I do it so much

If you are a fan of the Legendary Women of World History biographies or period dramas, you have no doubt noticed that I tend to bounce around languages a great deal, sometimes at the expense of being directly understandable in a given point in the book.  So why do I do it and why will I not simply put the whole damn thing in English like normal people do?

In a word, PARALINGUISTICS.  Paralinguistics is a social science term for the parts of verbal communication that are not inherent in the meaning of the words we use.  Paralinguistics is the HOW of our speech: its melody, its pace, its inflection and so forth.  Dialect and specific word choice is also paralinguistic. It conveys to listeners a great deal of information about a person and in particular information about gender, ethnicity, place of birth, place of residence, socio-economic class, even race sometimes.  Different places have different names for the same thing.

soda-pop

The labels we use for objects varies greatly with our geography and our dialect. A classic example of this is our word for a sweetened carbonated beverage.

One classic example I studied in university in my “non-verbal communication” class was the word we use to refer to a sweetened carbonated beverage. No, it is not the same word everywhere.  In the southern United States, the word “coke” is used to refer to such beverages, regardless of brand (I heard this myself during my stay in Louisville, Kentucky).  In many Midwestern states such as Nebraska where I was born and raised, the word is “pop.”  In New England the preferred word is “soda” which is the word I default to. In fact I often very purposely avoid the word “pop,” much to the annoyance of my now late mother who complained that I “didn’t talk like a Nebraskan.” That’s because I had so thoroughly adjusted my dialect to what is normal in the greater New York City metropolitan area that I no longer sounded like someone from the Midwest.

crawdad crayfish

Is it a crawdad, crawfish, or crayfish?  The word you use is largely determined by where you are from.

Beyond geography, our paralinguistics tell listeners a great deal about our socio-economic status and education.  A person with a third grade education talks differently than a person with a university degree.  A person who has traveled a great deal also talks differently from a person who has never left her own town or village. The languages one speaks is a powerful communicator of this information and how that person is perceived.  As a rule, speaking multiple languages is a mark of education, travel, and often class.  It tells you very concisely who that person is and what her or his background is.

No where is this more evident than in the use of honorifics.

What is an honorific?  It’s a word we use to convey respect to another person.  A classic example is when we address a judge “your honour” and a member of a royal family as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” In medieval societies it was especially important to show proper respect with these honorifics which include “your grace,” “my lord/milord,” “my lady/milady,” “my liege,” “sire,” “master,” “mistress,” and so forth.

Honorifics in the Legendary Women of World History biographies almost always follow the person’s nationality or adopted nationality.  So Princess Nest ferch Gruffydd respectfully greets King Gruffydd ap Cynan with the Welsh “f’arglwydd” which means “milord.” Use of “f’arglwydd” (or its feminine form “f’arglwyddes”) instantly tells you the speaker is Welsh. Likewise French Princess Catherine de Valois (book two) periodically speaks French, both to her family members and to the monolingual King Henry V, particularly during their many arguments.

When Matilda of England returns to London after the death of her husband, Kaiser Heinrich V, her persistent use of German and German forms of people’s names is there to tell you very concisely that she identifies herself as “empress” (German, Kaiserin; Latin, Imperatrix).  This is absolutely historical and it is a major reason why the Anglo-Norman nobility found her impossible to work with. Using German powerfully conveys how Matilda saw herself and how she insisted on being treated.

The use of language therefore tells you who the person is and how s/he self-identifies.  The actual meaning of the individual words is far less important than what the use of them says about the person as a whole and in the given moment.  Queen Elizabeth Tudor spoke at least six languages and therefore very fluently moved across them as she desired and the situation merited.  The immediate descendants of William the Conqueror spoke both English and French with the same fluency as many Canadians do today.  By necessity they used English, French, and Latin in the day-to-day administration of their vast realms.  Medieval Europeans prayed in Latin so all of the prayers found in the LWWH are in Latin as well.

Language switching in the Legendary Women of World History series is therefore essential in accurately communicating who these people were and the societies in which they lived.  It might be easier to render a prayer in English from a reader point of view, but it would not be historically accurate to do so. It might be more comfortable for some readers if all dialogue were in English, but doing so would strip out all of the paralinguistics that we all use everyday when communicating with other people.  It would be akin to writers universally using the word “coke” to refer to a soft drink without considering if that word is what a historical person or character would actually label the beverage.  A person from the southern United States most certainly would — but not all people in the United States are from the southern region nor are all English speakers from that region either.

 

Whether we realize it or not our word choices are an essential part of our daily communication.  More than simply which words we use, our dialects and use of borrowed words from other languages communicates a great deal about who we are to people.  Fluency in many languages is driven by many factors in our lives:  social, economic, educational, and professional to name just a few. How we speak is a major part of the tapestry of our lives.  Embrace that tapestry in your own life and use your understanding of it to enhance your understanding of other people.

 

 

 

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Language switching and “Empress Matilda of England”

empress-matilda-of-england-full-cover

As Matilda prayed King Henry quietly slipped into the chapel, “You are still in mourning, Matilda.”

Matilda turned to him and bowed her head respectfully, “Mein König!”

“You are not empress and this is not Germany.”

“Ja, mein König.”

“Stop calling me that and speak English, Matilda,” growled King Henry sternly.

“Pourquoi?”

“Parce que je suis le roi d’Angleterre et vous êtes ma fille!”

“Oui, sa est ta fille, Henri,” confirmed Queen Adeliza as she strode out from behind one of the chapel’s many columns. Adeliza curtsied to Matilda, “Guten Morgen, meine Kaiserin. Fröhliche Weihnachten.”

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” smiled Matilda before switching to English, “You must be my step-mother.”

If you are a fan of the Legendary Women of World History Series, you are probably familiar with quick language switching from the above except from “Empress Matilda of England” that hallmarks the series. Historical persons speak many languages in the Legendary Women of World History, a reflection of their personal histories and the world around him. Speaking in one’s native tongue, at least occasionally, helps us remember who people are.  Language is a core part of our identity, our psychology, even when we are not conscious of it. Words carry not only their direct meaning, but a cultural subtext that literally alters how we think.  One of the many benefits of speaking multiple languages, at least partially, is the way each language forces us to work from a different point of view.

Chinese, for example, uses the same verb form regardless of singular, plural, or when something happened.  In Chinese things these are signaled through nearby words. For example 我说中文 means “I speak Chinese.” 说 is the verb “to speak.” 她们过说中文 means “they [female] used to speak Chinese. In spoken Chinese the words “he” and “she” are pronounced exactly the same. The ideas of “he” and “she” are contextual in Chinese. 她们过说中文 and 他们过说中文 sound exactly the same and in English are translated the same since English does not distinguish gender in the third person plural unlike French which does (ils sont verses elles sont).

Specific traits from our native language shape our view of the world. Gender is not immediately obvious in spoken Chinese (only in written Chinese) unlike many Western European languages where gender is instantly recognizable. Welsh often begins sentences with the direct object and puts the subject last. A famous example of that from Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd is my favourite line, “Cymraes dw i,” which means I am a Welsh woman. Cymraes means Welsh (person) in the feminine form (the masculine is Cymraeg which is the same word as you use for the Welsh language). Dw i means “I am.” Welsh often mutates. “Gymraeg” is the same word as “Cymraeg” and which one you use depends on context — and is one reason why the language is best learned in person with native Welsh speakers.

It is this massive role that language plays in our lives that requires the persons in the Legendary Women of World History series to occasionally speak a few words of her or his native tongue.  When Baron William Fitzgerald calls Matilda, “F’arglwyddes!” she and you along with her immediately know that William is Welsh. F’arglwyddes, if you haven’t guessed, means “Milady.” Incidentally “Fitz” in a name means “son of” and is the French equivalent of Welsh “ap” in a name.

Fortunately, most of the non-English in the LWWH can be figured out through context. Contextual reading is not usually the way Americans are taught to read, but it is critical skill to develop and one more reason why the LWWH make excellent texts for home schools. Contextual reading means you are working not only on the word level, but the sentence and paragraph level to discern meaning. In chapter one of Empress Matilda, I kick this up a notch in a single scene.

“Guten morgen. Sie müssen Matilda sein. Ich bin Heinrich, der römisch-deutsche Kaiser.” Smiling Emperor Heinrich looked into Matilda’s grey eyes, the blankness on her face making clear to him that she did not understand what he just said. Slowly Heinrich knelt beside her to meet her eyes, his voice soft and reassuring. “Ich werde dich nicht verletzen. Hab keine Angst. Ich bin derjenige, der dein Mann sein wird. Ich bin jetzt dein Kaiser und wenn du alt genug bist, wirst du meine Kaiserin.”

Here we are confused and meant to be confused. Matilda is eight years old and suddenly ripped from her home and family in London to be presented to Kaiser (Kaiser means “emperor” in German) Heinrich V to whom she is to be wed. Like most royal brides of the middle ages and early renaissance, she does not speak a word of her future husband’s language. Because we do not understand on a sentence level what he is saying to her, we share in her terror and confusion and in her relief when, soon after in the scene, the English ambassador steps forward and summarizes what Heinrich just said, telling her that this is the emperor to whom she is to be wed and conveying to her his reassurances that he means her no harm.

This is context on the scenic level which is the level that we operate on when in social situations. For example, a simple “Merry Christmas” can express completely different ideas and intentions depending on who we are speaking to, when, our tone of voice, and our histories with the person or persons we are saying it to.

This is the level you are sometimes asked to work on when reading Empress Matilda of England. This is a major reason why Matilda is for ages twelve and up; it requires a more advanced reading proficiency than the six previous books in the series.

Whether Empress Matilda of England becomes your next favourite book or not, it is my sincerest wish that you will never stop reading, never stop learning, and never stop seeking to make tomorrow better than today. Let’s roar!

 

 

Meet Boudicca in new youtube videos.

Since 2014 Boudicca, Britain’s Queen of the Iceni has informed and inspired you in digital, paperback, and audio editions.  First in English, then in Chinese, and this spring in Italian, Spanish, Welsh, and Welsh-English editions with French and German language editions releasing on or about Labour Day weekend.

Just for fun here are three brand new videos (all of them created in May 2016) celebrating this new global approach to biographical history.  Can you name what language each of these videos is in?

 

 

 

More videos coming this summer exploring more lives from the Legendary Women of World History biography series. Stay tuned!

Ghosts of the Past: the Dark Side of Medieval politics

Ghost of the Past Chinese webLast week the Ghosts of the Past debuted in Chinese language edition thanks to the careful work of some of the best translators in all of Beijing.  One measure of feedback I received from my editor was just how dark and sexy the book was.  Given my well deserved scholarly reputation as a historian, Ghosts of the Past and its equally saucy sequel Princess Anyu Returns might seem out of place from the rest of my work.  Out of place until you look deeper into history and explore the treacherous realm of sexual politics that was the experience for most medieval noble and royal women.

Life for women has always been somewhat of a treacherous experience filled with dangers.  With few or no legal rights or protections, women rarely decided for themselves who to have sex with, let alone marry.  Instead the men in their families, their governments, and their religions held almost complete control over their bodies.  Among women of high social status this meant that women’s bodies were tools for gaining wealth, power, and social status by those in position to use them.

Ghosts of the Past cover webThis social and political reality for women underscores the sometimes brutally dark sides to Beinarian society.  Sex and childbearing are tools the villains (both female and male) use at their leisure to impose their will on others, advancing mysterious agendas that only become clear after Princess Anyu Returns from her exile.   These agendas add spice to both Ghosts of the Past and Princess Anyu Returns with twists and turns around every corner.  Villains use sex and violence freely to achieve their goals, predating on the innocent and using every method at their disposal to thwart the heroes and heroines.  They are just as likely to kill as seduce and use offspring created at the expense of their enemies as weapons against them.

It is a dark, dystopic realm where only the bravest dare tread.

Are you brave enough to travel there?

 

Find the Ghosts of the Past in English on Amazon, Barnes/Noble, Smashwords, and iTunes or in Chinese on Amazon, Chinese Amazon, and Douban.

We Need to Free Teachers: How Micro-managing Teachers is Undermining American Education

Originally posted June 26th, 2012

 

Recently a 16 year old friend complained about spell check trying to insert an apostrophe in one of her contractions on facebook. Whenever I speak to her in facebook chat, I find her words are so filled with mis-spellings and incorrect grammar that I cannot understand her. When I try to speak to her about this, she ignores me (typical of a 16 year-old!).

Dismayed, I spoke to several public school teachers and university professors I know through both my education and facebook games. I asked them about what is happening in the classroom. Their answers revealed just how much has changed in public education over the last 20 years.

During my education in the 1980s and 1990s, teachers were trusted as the professionals they are, allowed to adjust their lessons to each class they were teaching, accelerating or slowing down the pace, providing enrichment activities that made learning fun, and above all else, free to do whatever they felt would be effective in empowering their students to think critically and apply lessons to the real world. Standardized tests were issued from time to time, but never focused upon. Instead, my teachers focused on making sure every student grasped every subject competently.

Things have changed. Since my high school graduation in 1990, governments on all levels have decided to supervise and micro-manage to levels unheard of in previous decades. Today’s professional educators no longer possess the freedom to adjust their lessons to specific classroom situations and specific student needs in order to maximize student learning. Instead THE TEST has taken over class room time to a degree I find barely plausible. Now, instead of engaging and challenging students, both teachers and students are frustrated and bored. More importantly, students are advancing to the next grade with few critical thinking or researching skills, no ability to apply the classroom to the rest of their lives, and little permanent knowledge.

This trend is so severe that university professors now have to dummy down their curricula. If this seems unimportant, then consider that our most sensitive professions require graduate degrees. Do you really want the doctor operating on you to graduate with less knowledge and competence than a physician educated in the 1980s? Do you want your lawyer to not know the law expertly?

All professions build upon the foundation our public school teachers provide across a person’s early life. We cannot afford for university professors to dummy down anything; doing so puts every aspect of our lives in danger.

It is time to reverse course in education and return the classroom to our dedicated education professionals. It is time trust our teachers to know their jobs. It is time to get government, even local government, out of the classroom and restore control to those best able to handle the responsibility of educating our youth: our classroom teachers. When we remove teacher control from their classes, we undermine our entire society. Let’s stop politicizing education and let teachers teach. Not the politically correct version of their subjects, but each subject taught to prepare each student for the high standards expected of them in university. We all deserve nothing less.