I have been having a very linguistic couple of weeks.
In Latin news, I got myself hopelessly confused while reviewing tenses in subordinate clauses with my oldest son and his study buddy for the National Latin Exam. Tense by sense, tense by relation, tense by sequence -- they're all on different pages of the Henle Latin Grammar, which is concise and good for referencing with its index, but not very good for learning as it has you flipping back and forth from one reference table to another, which (especially when my, er, students are looking at me expectantly) reminds me of trying to solve a multiphase mass-and-energy balance problem on a thermodynamics exam.
So I used some of my abundant free time to make tables of English sentences like "I will ask whether she shouted" and "I have asked whether she will shout" and "I know that you are swimming" and "I knew that you would swim" and "I fought so hard that I was winning" and "I fought so hard that I won" and "I fought so hard that I will win" and "I fought hard so that I would win" and the like, and painstakingly translated them all into Latin making notes about which tense goes where. Now I still do not have them all memorized, but I have a better sense of it -- especially, I have a sense of which sentences will come out right if you make the tenses behave more or less like the English, and which will come out wrong.
Sometimes, if you remember to think them the right way, they translate quite literally. For example, take "I know that you are swimming" and "I knew that you had been swimming." If you remember to think them in your head as "I know you to swim" and "I knew you to have swum" instead, then they go straight into Latin the way they ought to. Scio te natare; scivi te natavisse, with the present and perfect infinitives.
I feel very satisfied about this and should probably laminate the tables.
In French, I finally beat the big boss in Duolingo: I made it through the entire program, all the levels. We'll probably be visiting again this year, and I wanted to brush up on stuff. And now I have none left.
In Italian, I have been reviewing the Pimsleur audio course, hoping to move forward from where I was about three years ago before our big trip. There is a good chance we will spend a little time in Italy, and I am discovering that I can advance pretty quickly through Italian what with all the French, Latin, and Spanish. Almost time to buy a new chunk of lessons!
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I picked up my Somali books again recently after having neglected them for a while. I admit I have not gotten very deep into anything conversational (except practicing saying pharyngeal consonants without giving myself hiccups) because I keep going down linguistic rabbit trails, trying to get an overview of how the whole thing works. This morning my new dictionary arrived and I started to read the grammar overview in the beginning. Here is what happens when I read a grammar overview:
Somali is an agglutinative language.
(Googles agglutinative, reads first paragraph of Wikipedia article, comes to term "synthetic language")
(Googles synthetic language, reads first paragraph, takes notes: "Agglutinative -> synthetic -> high morpheme/word ratio, more-synthetic languages have fewer articles, prepositions, etc.")
Reads next sentence. The basic grammatical categories are: Noun, clitic pronoun,---
(Googles "clitic pronoun" and writes, "Form of affix, meaning of word")
---verb, adjective, verbal adposition,---
(Googles "adposition." Googles "postposition." Googles "English postpositions." Writes: "Ago, notwithstanding, hence, aside")
---determiner, focus word---
(Goes looking for that one used text book I have upstairs that explains briefly about focus and theme-rheme and topic-dominant versus subject-dominant languages)
(Googles topic-comment languages)
(Impulsively buys three used textbooks via Amazon)
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So today's rabbit trail really was, er, focus. My used textbook says: focus determines which part of the sentence contributes new, nonderivable, or contrastive information. In spoken English, focus is mainly communicated by intonation, it turns out; and we sometimes try to do it in written English, with underscoring and capital letters.
The more I learn about different language, the more I realize how sloppy teachers of grammar can get when they are working within a single language, especially one as weird as English. Wouldn't it have been useful to have heard of aspect as distinct from tense? Tense is when the action happens -- you already know that -- aspect distinguishes between one-time actions and continuing actions, the difference between "it happened" and "it was happening," between "I swim" and "I am swimming."
The children's Latin curriculum is good enough, but I have always been bothered by its distinguishing subject from predicate by defining subject as "what the sentence is about." I never really could articulate why it bothered me -- I mean, obviously it is a simplification for children, but it has always felt wrong and not merely oversimplified. Well. It turns out (correct me if I get this wrong, I am a complete amateur) that in English the subject usually is "what the sentence is about," because English is a "subject-dominant" language. But the more generally applicable term for "what the sentence is about" is the topic. And some languages are topic-dominant instead of subject-dominant.
We wind up using the passive voice a lot in English because in subject-dominant languages, the topic and the subject are by default the same. So if we mean to say that the most important item in our sentence (the topic) is acted upon, is the object of some action, we turn it from object to subject in order to keep it in the topic spot. The wall was painted yesterday: I care about the wall and what happened to it, it's not important who did the painting.
Or maybe I mean it that way because we've been talking about the wall, and now I want to tell you something new about it, like its new coat of paint. So the word order becomes a way for me to indicate focus -- the new or contrastive information. In English we often have a pattern of given-new, given-new, when we write sentences. We mention old information, then we add new information. Another way we do it is by intonation: do you want popcorn or soda? I want popcorn AND soda!
Anyway, some languages don't really do the passive voice, and the intonation channel is busy conveying other information. So there is this other structure called topic-comment, in which you say what the sentence is about (topic) and then you add new information (comment). Not "I already saw John yesterday" but "John, I already saw him yesterday." Not "Coffee is a delicious drink" but "Drinks, coffee is delicious." We do this in spoken English: "About that guy? He called me again yesterday" or "Speaking of cars, I mean to buy one soon" but it's marked somehow, nonstandard, as if we are changing the subject.
Somali apparently conveys focus with a particle that is stuck into the sentence next to the topic. I will dig into it some more later, but I admit that the whole "focus" thing got me thinking about whether I can detect the different ways that focus is marked in the other languages I am interested.
I mean, I have known for a long time that in English we can vary the cadence and stress of our words in a sentence quite a bit, even compared to other European languages. In French the length of syllables cannot really be varied much, for example. If you want to say in English, "I have a big dog and a little cat" it doesn't have to take that much longer than to say "I have a dog and a cat" because the big sort of sticks to the dog and the little sticks to the cat; but in French all the words are more equally weighted. So it would stand to reason that we have a certain, normal channel of information in our intonation and cadence, where in French the same emphasis might have to be marked with something else like word choice, repetition, word order.
I really want to go look at some French news articles and Latin texts now and see how the given-new pattern makes itself known. French just because I am more familiar with it, Latin because I know that word order can be shuffled for special emphasis but because it has never been really well explained to me exactly what sorts of orderings signify what sorts of emphasis.
Anyway. That's my Sunday.