IPA

December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.

IPA

November 25, 2016

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.

 

Second to Italy

November 9, 2016

A few days ago, in an article in Salon, I came across an interesting bit of information.

In a study measuring the level of political knowledge among citizens of Western countries, the United States came in second to last. The last one was Italy.

So it’s only fitting that Italy was ahead of the US in choosing as its leader a corrupt, narcissistic, lecherous real-estate developer and entertainer.

It’s likely that Trump’s administration will follow the example of Berlusconi’s in many ways: policies that will help enrich himself even further; good relations with the likes of Putin, Erdoğan and Netanyahu; and so on.

Incidentally an explanation of why Trump won despite most polls showing him as losing may be the Johnson factor. Those same polls gave Gary Johnson, on the average,  about 6% of potential votes, but when the choice was narrowed to Clinton vs. Trump, these votes seemed to split evenly between the two candidates. But in reality it seems that of those voters who told pollsters that they would vote for Johnson, the Trump half ended up voting for Trump, while the Clinton half stayed with Johnson.

Quebec language notes

October 26, 2016

My wife and I have just come back from a ten-day trip to the province of Quebec, a place that we had both meant to visit for many years and had not managed to do until now. We were both enthralled by the beauty of the fall foliage and the charm of the historic old cities — old Montreal, Trois-Rivières and especially Quebec City — but for me there was another point of interest: to explore the bilingualism of Montreal.

img_1688   img_1737  img_1754 

I am fascinated by by bilingual societies. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every bilingual society is bilingual in its own way.

I come from a bilingual family. My parents, Polish Jews born respectively in 1905 and 1913, both had Yiddish as their native language. But by time my mother started school Poland had regained its independence (in 1918), so that all of her schooling was in Polish, which soon became her primary language, while Yiddish remained that of my father. In their conversations with each other, as far back as I remember, he spoke in Yiddish and she spoke in Polish. To me, however, they spoke only in Polish, and I did not actually speak Yiddish fluently until I was ten or so, in different circumstances. Consequently, I am not a native bilingual, as are some of my Barcelona friends who cannot recall a time when they didn’t speak both Catalan and Spanish.

According to statistics cited in Wikipedia, only 0.8% of the residents of Greater Montreal reported speaking both English and French “as a first language.” (By contrast, 17% of the people of Brussels speak both French and Dutch at home.) On the other hand, “most of its residents” are said to possess a “working knowledge of both.”

That working knowledge can be quite variable. Except in Westmount and at an Italian restaurant near the airport  in Dorval, nearly all the people we dealt with were francophones (some of whom may have been French), and their English, on the whole, was not very different from what one hears from younger people working in tourist-oriented occupations around the world. I found this surprising, since I thought that these people were far more exposed to English — from their anglophone fellow citizens and from English-language television and radio — than their counterparts elsewhere.

There may have been one or two people that we met who were of the 0.8% — native-sounding in both English and French. Our English-language guide at the Notre-Dame Basilica spoke with an almost perfect North American accent, but gave herself away when she said “we are Monday” (a calque of nous sommes  lundi) when meaning to say “today is Monday.”

Another difference from Brussels is the near-absence of bilingual signage. Even streets whose names are untranslated  English (such as University, McGill College, or City Councillors) are prefixed rue, with no “street” (see here for a Brussels example). Largely anglophone Westmount (now a separate city) gets away with neither rue nor street. All signage on freeways throughout Quebec, even warning signs, is in French only — I wonder how English Canadians driving, say, from Nova Scotia to Ontario, through their own country feel about that. Station announcements in the Montreal metro are in French only. Only federal institutions such as post offices carry bilingual signs consistently.

Once outside Montreal, even in a nearby suburb such as Repentigny, one might as well be in provincial France. Except in tourist-heavy old Quebec and nearby Ile d’Orléans, bilingual menus are less common than in Paris, and seem to be found only in chain restaurants.

I have to confess that I have written two novels, books 2 and 3 of my Wilner Trilogy, whose respective protagonists are Montreal native bilinguals (they are brother and sister), and whose action takes place to a significant degree in Montreal. I wrote these books without ever having been in Quebec, that is, in direct defiance of the “write about what you know” dictum; what details I needed I got from the Web. My visit satisfied me that I made no big blunders. But much of the action takes place in what was then the town of Saint-Laurent (now it’s a Montreal borough), and this is an area that I didn’t have time to visit during this trip. I’ll have to take another one.

More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!

 

 

Phonetic alphabets

September 25, 2016

In my post the other day, I wrote that “the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly.” I’d like to elaborate.

By “phonetic alphabet” people usually mean one that represents the sounds of the language faithfully, not like the unruly alphabets of English or French. On Wikipedia, a search for “phonetic alphabet” leads to a disambiguation page that includes a reference to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is not really an alphabet in the usual sense (there is no alphabetic order in it, for one thing) but an open-ended collection of symbols that should actually be called the International Phonetic Code (IPC); this abbreviation would also be helpful in distinguishing the code from the organization responsible for it, also called IPA. The usual meaning of “phonetic alphabet” is discussed on the page titled Phonemic orthography, but that is an unfortunately all-too typical Wikipedia page, representing the often contradictory work of many hands. For example, the Greek digraphs γκ and μπ , representing single sounds, are included as examples in the paragraph discussing the opposite — cases where a single letter may represent a sequence of more than one phoneme. And such important matters as syllabic stress or vowel reduction are not mentioned at all.

Among learners of English, complaints about the non-phoneticity of the English alphabet are often heard from those whose primary language is Italian or Spanish. And indeed, the alphabets that they learned as children can be called phonetic, but only halfway. Specifically, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly but not reader-friendly, while the Spanish one is the opposite.

What I mean by “writer-friendly” is that someone familiar with the rules can, on hearing Italian speech, write it down correctly. The only exception I can think of is the presence of in the strong forms (all persons singular and third person plural) of the verb avere, distingushing ho, hai, ha and hanno from o, ai, a and anno.

On the other hand, when reading written Italian one doesn’t know, first of all, on what syllable the stress falls, unless its the last (in which case the vowel carries an accent mark). Nor does one know whether or is to be pronounced as open or closed, or whether sz or zz is to be read as voiced or unvoiced. Consequently, the Italian alphabet is not reader-friendly.

Spanish is the opposite. Someone trying to write down spoken Spanish but not thoroughly versed in the language will not know when to write a silent h; whether the phoneme /x/ before or i is to be written g or j; whether (outside northern and central Spain) /s/ is written sz or (before e or ic; or whether to write b or v. Many Spanish surnames have changed their spelling on crossing the ocean: Chaves, Cortés and Valdés, for example, became Chávez, Cortez and Valdez, respectively.

But reading Spanish correctly, according to any one regional standard, presents no problem. Syllabic accent follows strict rules, and no letter represents more than one sound, except x in proper names of non-Spanish origin (such as México or Xola or Xàtiva ), which one needs to learn.

So let me get back to Macedonian cyrillic. Macedonian, unlike other South Slavic languages, has fixed syllabic stress — on the penultimate in two-syllable words and the antepenultimate in longer words. It has, unlike Serbocroat, no long and short vowels. Unlike Bulgarian, vowels sound the same whether stressed  or not. It has neither digraphs nor the opposite (that is, single letters representing two sounds, like Bulgarian [or Russian] щ,  ю and я). It seems perfect to me.

 

 

 

 

 

Threesomes

September 14, 2016

It can often be said, in the case of three languages (say X, Y and Z) of the same family, that Y is “between” X and Z. For example, as stated in Wikipedia (with several references given), “Dutch is closely related to German and English and is said to be between them.” Such “betweenness” is roughly symmetric, in the sense that Y has some features in common with X and others with Z, in addition to having some that are shared with neither. It can, more over, be refined further: Frisian can be said to be between Dutch and English, and Low German between Dutch and German. In a similar way, Catalan is between French and Spanish, while Occitan is between Catalan and French, and Aragonese is between Catalan and Spanish.

But there are some language threesomes that are asymmetric in a peculiar way: Y is like X on one level, and like Z on another. More specifically, X and Y are, historically, one and the same language, but because of a political and/or geographic separation between their territories, and a corresponding association with the territory of Z, Y sounds much more like Z than like X. Also, while the traditional vocabulary of Y is the same as that of X, its modern vocabulary is more like that of Z.

The two examples that first struck me, because of their similarities, are Portuguese-Galician-Spanish and Bulgarian-Macedonian-Serbian. The time scales of the political connections are different: Galicia has been under Spanish (Castilian) rule since the 13th century, while Macedonia (the present Republic) was under Serbian control or influence only during the 20th century. But the effects are similar.

Fundamentally, Portuguese and Galician are the same language — modern descendants of the medieval language that is now called Galician-Portuguese — with some of the same grammatical peculiarities (such as the personal infinitive) that differentiate it from other Romance languages, and in their written forms (aside from the different orthographies, to be discussed below) they look much the same.

But Galician sounds like Castilian Spanish; except for having /ʃ/ (which is spelled x) in place of /χ/, the phonology is the same (the realization of word-final /n/ as [ŋ] is a feature of several Spanish dialects, including Andalusian and Caribbean). All sibilants are unvoiced, so that where Portuguese has /ʒ/ Galician has /ʃ/, and where Portuguese has /z/ Galician has /s/ or /θ/. And most importantly, all vowels, stressed or not, are pronounced crisply as in Spanish and unlike Portuguese, in which unstressed vowels are reduced (/o/ or /ɔ/ to /u/, /e/ or /ɛ/ to /ɨ/, /a/ or /ɐ/ to  [ə]). When one hears Galician spoken, it often takes a while to realize that what is heard is not Spanish. And while in principle speakers of Portuguese and of Galician should be able to understand each other, when the great Portuguese singer Amàlia Rodrigues appeared on Galician television, she preferred to reply in Spanish to the Galician-speaking host.

The orthography of Galician, too, is based on that of Spanish: it has ll and ñ where Portuguese has lh and nh, where Portuguese has ç (Galicians don’t fully agree on whether the name of their country should be written Galicia, Galizia or Galiza), and án or ón where Portuguese has ão.

By the same token, Macedonian and Bulgarian are fundamentally the same; indeed, until the beginning of the 20th century Slavic Macedonians thought of themselves as Bulgarians, including the famous Miladinov brothers, considered the pioneers of Macedonian literature, whose collection of Macedonian folk songs was published as “Bulgarian Folk Songs”; to some Bulgarians, to this day, Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect. The two languages share distinctive grammatical features not found in other Slavic languages, such as the definite article and the absence of noun cases and of infinitives.

But the phonologies are quite different. Bulgarian has vowel reduction that is quite similar to that of Portuguese, while Macedonian has the five crisp vowels of Galician and Spanish, as well as Serbocroat. It has regular stress (paroxytone in disyllabic words, proparoxytone in longer ones), while in Bulgarian it is variable (including oxytone).

The threesome is completed, then, with Serbocroat, or more specifically Serbian. The Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet is based on that of Serbian, not Bulgarian (which is more like that of Russian), so that in place of Bulgarian й, ю and я (for /j/, /ju/ and /ja/, respectively) Macedonian has ј,  ју and  ја. It also has the Serbian ligatures љ (for /l/), њ (for /ɲ/), as well as џ (for /d͡ʒ/); and it uses — uniquely — ѕ for /d͡z/, so that it has no need for digraphs. In fact, the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly; and if someone wishes to learn a Slavic language with no prior exposure to any of them, I believe that Macedonian would be the easiest by far.

Except for the fact that Serbian has long and short vowels, it and Macedonian sound very much alike. I am not fluent in either one, and one time, in a taxi in Skopje, it took me a while to realize that the driver was a Serb, speaking in his language. The Macedonian and Serbian film industries use each other’s actors freely, and what is probably the world’s best-known Serbian song, Ramo Ramo (which has been performed by U2), was composed and introduced by a Macedonian.

Let me add a third case, so that I will end up with a threesome of threesomes: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. More specifically, since once cannot really speak of Norwegian language, I will refer to “standard” Eastern Norwegian (standard østnorsk), as spoken in and around Oslo and in most Norwegian films and television series, which is quite close to the Bokmål standard.

This language is, in fact, derived from Danish, which for many centuries was the official language of Norway and, in a norwegianized way, the spoken language of its upper crust; where it is now spoken generally, it has displaced the original Norwegian dialects (the old Oslo dialect is said to have died out in the 1970s).

The norwegianization of the standard has been gradual, and even now the Danish and Bokmål versions of the same text will appear very similar. For one thing, unlike Galician/Portuguese and Macedonian/Bulgarian, there are no drastic differences in orthography: the characters æ and ø were not replaced by their Swedish equivalents ä and ö, since Sweden, despite ruling Norway during the 19th century, did not meddle into Norway’s tangled language controversies. Nor did Swedish, as far as I know, influence Norwegian vocabulary, unlike Galician and Macedonian, which get much of their “modern” vocabulary from Spanish and Bulgarian, respectively. For ‘train,’ for example, Galician uses the Spanish tren, not the Portuguese comboio, and Macedonian uses the Serbian voz, not the Bulgarian vlak. But from watching Scandinavian crime shows one knows that Norwegian police is politie as in Danish, not polis as in Swedish.

But spoken Eastern Norwegian has very little in common with the actual phonetics of Danish, and it sounds much more like Swedish. In a film or television series in which two or all three of the languages are spoken, one can always spot the Danish-speakers, but it’s much harder to tell the Norwegians from the Swedes on the basis of sound alone. The Norwegian Liv Ullman made her career mainly in Sweden, while the Swede Stellan Skarsgård has been a star in Norwegian cinema.