Language meander

Unless the devil pops up with a draft agreement for a Faustian pact to keep the grim reaper at bay for say another couple of centuries, I’m not going to get where I want to with languages. But like the proverb, I will travel hopefully and the unfinished journey will still be fun.

Studying an Asian language reveals interesting links between East and West. I’ve just seen (from Wikipedia) that 1-10 in Romany is ekh, duj, tritt, štar, pandž, šov, ifta, oxto, inju and deš. Apart from 7-9 where Greek seems to have got in on the act, this is very close to Bangla. Even given what is known about the Indian origins of Romany, it’s amazing it’s so similar (I wonder if this is the case for all versions of Romany). Sheep-counting systems in the Lake District (yan, tan, tethera) among other places in Northern Britain, linking back to Brythonic, offer more examples of this persistence of numbers.

Going back beyond Bangla, I increasingly feel that a knowledge of Sanskrit should be part of every well-educated person’s “formation” (along with Hebrew, Roman, Greek and, perhaps, Farsi). At least I’ve now used Sanskrit for the first time (with more than a little help from someone sitting beside me telling me what to repeat).

We are very fortunate in English to have such an abundance of etymological resources (compared with, for example, Swedish) and the work of the etymologists deserves great respect and gratitude. But I wonder about their conceptual universe when it came to possible source languages. Were some languages more or less under the radar (a small wince at the anachronism allowed) or at least not enjoying at all the same level of expertise as Latin, Greek and Hebrew as sources.

An example the other day made me think – the slang word “dosh” for money given in the Concise OD as “1950s of unknown origin”. However, “dosh” in Romany means exactly money so it seems a strong candidate (and perhaps even further back the word “ten” in Romany and Bangla).

Another language or perhaps rather cryptolect, which is rather under the radar is Shelta, a language spoken by Irish travellers and also known as Cant or the Gammon. There is Old Shelta with a heavier input from Gaelic and New Shelta where English has taken over (grammar and vocabulary). Wikipedia has two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in old and current Shelta.

“Our Father who art in heaven” becomes  “Mwilsha’s gater, swart a manyath” in Old Shelta and “Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch” in current Shelta. Gathra cradgying in the manyak-norch seems rather jolly in a Lewis Carroll kind of way compared with “who art in heaven”. Maybe should find some more academic tomes on Shelta….

One wonders whether “gaffer” has come from Shelta (of unknown origin, perhaps from Godfather in the COD).

At least the Concise Oxford Dictionary has picked up the etymology of “bloke” which we have imported from Shelta, which may also be related to a Gaelic word.

Shelta has some grammatical quirks which are reminiscent of French argot.

Wikipedia has a nice list of various argots and cryptolects including Rotwelsch spoken by covert groups in Switzerland and eastern Germany (probably from Welsh, being an old Germanic word for foreigners, the inobservant Anglo-Saxons never quite getting their heads around Cymry). Rotwelsch is interesting because we have a word “Rotvälska” in Swedish defined as “double Dutch” (hets mot folkgrupp here…) and Gibberish.

Rotvälska always reminds me of my spoken Swedish. My mother really wanted me to be a good linguist so she took me to the river that runs around the Tower of Babel as she had heard that those immersed in the river were given the gift of languages (God’s test to see if the inhabitants of the tower could overcome their mutual incomprehension and cooperate by holding one another in the river without dropping the other person – they couldn’t). My mother was more but not completely successful – I became quite good at languages but she held me by the ear so I don’t hear them at all well and go rootwelshing my way through the languages with my Achilles ear.

There is a certain amount of poetic licence here by the way and perhaps it’s time to meander off to bed….