reede, juuni 15, 2007

Travelin' Man

So I am back in New York after a whirwind journey that started at the Tartu bus station at 4:00 AM. We flew Czech Airlines this time, which isn't a bad airline. People in the US -- I suspect -- are a bit sketched out by the prospect of flying any airline that has the name of a former communist country in front of it.

Therefore Icelandair and Finnair are good, safe, wholesome, clean, Aryan airlines, while flying Czech Airlines, LOT, and others means you have to sit between chicken coops and sacks of potatoes. The truth is that there are many US airlines that are far more untrustworthy than anything that comes out of Prague, or as Vice President Dick Cheney still calls it, Czechoslovakia.

Anyway we met a nice woman on the first flight from Tallinn to Prague who was reading a romance-themed novel in Russian but spoke to my daughter in Estonian and played with her. Her name was Natasha, or as my daughter called her, 'Patasha' and came from Narva. I told her that I wanted to visit Narva and she seemed a bit interested in this because I have a feeling that in Estonia telling people you want to visit Narva isn't your average conversational topic. It's like saying, 'North Philadelphia? I always wanted to visit North Philadelphia!' But I do want to visit Narva. So there.

On the flight from Prague to New York there were many Lithuanians. I felt like every other person held a passport that said Lietuvos on it. Lithuanian is an Indo-European language. I know that you know this, but to actually hear it makes a world of difference. Because if you know Latin -- and I took three years of it -- you can guess the meanings of Latvian or Lithuanian words just by looking at them.

Also, subconsciously your mind digests languages differently -- I think. Because Estonian word order and its unique case system are so different, what happens in understanding Estonian is that you are literally thrown a series of random words that your Indo-European mind must then decipher, rearrange, and digest within seconds. With Lithuanian, even though you don't understand the words, your mind is more receptive to the pace and the sounds. It's hard to explain, but there is a difference.

I also got to travel with Estonians on the plane. This was interesting to me because I got to listen in on conversations and test my language comprehension. What could be a better place to learn Estonian than standing at the baggage retrieval in JFK and trying to figure out what jet-lagged Estonian teenagers are saying to each other.

One thing that has been difficult is that Estonian-speakers often start sentences but don't finish them. That is they say a few important things, then mumble the rest incomprehensively. This is followed by a series of 'jah's which are uttered as one sucks air in.

Another thing that is a bit odd about Estonian, especially among younger people, is the use of totally irrelevant words to get a point across. My niece does this all the time. Because the most important words are often at the end of the sentence -- the verbs -- I am left fishing for meaning through a series of 'tegelikult' (actually), sellepärast (because), 'noh, ma arvan' (well I think), and a few more 'tegelikult' just for good measure.

I think people do this in all languages. I do it too. I use the word 'like' and 'just' too much. But when the most important word is often the last one, it leaves me hoping that the speakers will just, like, get to the friggin' point already!

Two of the best Estonian words are 'onu' and 'tädi'. Depending on the context, your 'onu' -- which means 'uncle' but is synonymous with 'adult man' for children -- is generous and friendly, or standoffish and dull. Either way, the word has a hint of clumsiness to it.

'Tädi' -- or aunt, but again 'female adult' -- has similar undertones. I feel that your average 'tädi' though is the kind that is on time, has her own personal library, and drinks a lot of tea with her friends. That is, she is a bit older and perhaps does not want to be bothered. A generous tädi will perhaps stoop down to the child's level and give her a piece of chocolate and a smile. Because of this conservative image, it's kind of funny that our younger kindergarten teachers were called 'tädi'.

Either way, I am very grateful to all the onus and tädis that made it possible for me to travel with a three year old from Tartu to Tallinn to Prague to New York. Whereever you are, thanks for your assistance in making it happen. I will be traveling to San Francisco and Vancouver during this trip, so I will be sure to follow up with some California and Canada bashing in the near future.

8 kommentaari:

Heli ütles ...

I use "tädi-(lik)" as a generic name for all female who are rotund even if they are younger than me. And I´m 32 myself :)!

classical_pm ütles ...

Aw, Man. Sucks that you won't be visiting us L.A. folks. If you manage to stay long enough in the USA, perhaps you can attend our local annual Estonian event. But that's sometime in Aug.

Juan Manuel ütles ...

I think it is hard to say what is and what is not Indoeuropean. For instance, Estonian word order seems to be influenced by German. German has the craziest word order I have ever seen. Thinks like:

Weil ich dich Gestern im Theater mit deiner Freunding gesehen habe,

meaning literally:

Because I you yesterday in the theater with your girlfriend seen have"

Crazy, isn't it? Even Estonians are more practical ;)

Concerning vocabulary, I think each language choses how to build up its own vocabulary. Basically, you have two options: import foreign words (mostly from Latin, but also from other languages), or make up your own words. This decision has something to do with language policies that trace back to the 19th century, but obviously there are other, deeper reasons.

The Germans can do both things, but for some reason they always gave priority to their own words. As a result, they seem to have (or use) less Latin words than the their British neighbors.

For instance, they have Universität and Hochschule. In legal speech, you will always find the German term, not the Latin one. The same thing can be said about illnesses.

How about Estonians? I don't know what actually happened, but back in the ärkamisaeg they badly wanted to use their own, Finnic words. And in many cases they started using their own compound words, often using German (and Finnish, etc.) as a reference.

Elukutse - Beruf
Vaimustus - Begeisterung
Hochschule - Ülikool
Kuritarvitamine - Злоупотребление
Grundgesetz - Põhiseadus
Reichtag - Riigikogu

As Estonian became a language used for commerce, business, politics, etc., some new terms had to be created. And somehow they found Põhiseadus better sounding for daily use than Konstitutsioon.

Kaur ütles ...

Weil ich dich Gestern im Theater mit deiner Freunding gesehen habe.

And it gets even worse when you add another subordinate clause describing the girlfriend, for example sth like that:

Weil ich dich Gestern im Theater mit deiner Freunding, die sehr schön ist, gesehen habe,
(I'm not sure that it's entirely correct.)

Juan Manuel ütles ...

Yes Kaur, I misspelled Frundin (there should be no g at the end). Apart from that the sentence should be ok.

space_maze ütles ...

It's quite correct, just that you wouldn't really say it.

Weil ich dich Gestern im Theater mit deiner schönen Freundin gesehen habe

.. would be how I would say it. Which is not to say that way more insane constructions than the one I'm rejecting here aren't quite acceptable.

Weil ich dich eines Tages im Theater, welches an Rand der Stadt liegt, ohne deine Freundin, welche ich nicht kannte, gesehen hatte, wusste ich, dass das, das du mir erzählt hattest, nicht wahr war.

Jakob ütles ...

As a Dane leaning Estonian I have had a lot of help from the fact that quite a lot of Estonian words are more or less directly "imported" from German and only modified slightly - since we Danes have done exactly the same.

There's still the wild sentence stucture, but often it's possible to guess the meaning of a word just by thinking in German/Danish.

Lips - Slips - necktie
Pood - Bod - shop
Torm - Storm - storm
Täring - Terning - dice
Korsten - Skorsten - chimney
Vundament - Fundament - foundations

And so on...

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