The magic of words

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series of novels, magic power can be gained over something by discovering it’s true name in the ancient language of the dragons. Young wizards who are training in the magical arts have to spend significant time memorizing many of these ancient words, and it can be hard to keep going. To help them along, their teacher gives a little speech about the ancient language.

In his speech, he explains to them that because their language is related to the ancient language, they can find clues within their words. Some of their words are made of bits of the older words. By investigating the older language, they can learn new things about their own. Also, the more words they learn, the more things they can precisely describe and thus have power over. This motivates them to keep going in their long task.

So, as an illustration of how to learn from parallel texts, I’d like you to take a look at the parallels between the different language versions of some of this speech. I’ll lay out 3 sentences along with their corresponding sentences in the other languages. First is English, then German, then Dutch, and finally Polish to give some contrast. These are from the official translations, not google translate.

  • But magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew.
  • Aber Magie, wahre Magie, wird nur von denen ausgeübt, die das Hardisch der Erdsee sprechen oder die Ursprache, aus der es stammt.
  • En magie, ware magie wordt alleen gewrocht door hen die de Hardische taal van Aardzee spreken, of de Oude Spraak waaruit deze is voortgekomen.
  • Ale magia, prawdziwa magia, jest dziełem tylko tych istot, które mówią hardyckim narzeczem Światomorza albo też Dawną Mową, z której to narzecze wyrosło.

  • That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations.
  • Das sind die Sprache der Drachen und die Sprache Segoys, der die Inseln dieser Welt schuf, und es ist auch die Sprache unserer Lieder und Epen und unserer Zauber- und Bannsprüche.
  • Dat is de taaldie de draken spreken, en de taal die Segoy sprak toen hij de eilanden van de wereld schiep, en de taal van onzwijzen en zangen, onze spreuken, oproepingen en bezweringen.
  • Dawna Mowa to język, którym mówią smoki, język, którym mówił Segoy, ten, co stworzył wyspy świata, język naszych ballad i pieśni, zaklęć, czarów i wezwań.

  • Its words lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words.
  • Die Worte dieser Sprache sind versteckt in unserem Hardisch.
  • Haar woorden liggen nauwelijks herkenbaar verscholen tussen de woorden van ons Hardisch.
  • Jego słowa spoczywają, ukryte i zmienione, pomiędzy naszymi hardyckimi słowami.

For those of you who already speak some German or Dutch, you’ll notice right away that the translations are not exactly literal. There are some words that have been removed or added. Also, even for those who don’t know any of these languages, you might have noticed that there are some changes in word order.

If I were starting these languages completely from scratch (which I sort of am with Dutch and Polish, although I have a background in germanic languages to help me with Dutch), then the first thing I’d look for is some “anchor” words. Typically these are proper nouns for people and places, and they tend to stay roughly the same between translations. This will help you even with unrelated languages like Chinese, where the foreign names are usually spelled out somewhat, using rarer characters as phonetic approximations.

In this case, the words that are going to transfer across all translations are “Hardic” and “Segoy”. Due to their connections as indo-european languages, you’ll also see Magic / Magie / magie / magia corresponding. And then among the germanic ones you’ll see more words corresponding like dragon / Drachen / draken (which amusingly seems to be “smoki” in Polish, as far as I can tell). I also guess “ballad” as the Polish word for song. If words were chosen differently by the translators, the different versions could be made to correspond even more closely.

The next thing you can try, is finding a passage that repeats itself with only a slight change, and then see what changed. A good candidate for this is “the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke”. Looking at the polish, you’ll see “język, którym mówią smoki” and “język, którym mówił Segoy”. Without looking at any dictionaries, I would guess that mówi- is a stem for “to speak”, with -ą added for present and -ł added for past. I would also guess that język is the word for language, which is somewhat confirmed by looking at the sentence after that too. I could be wrong, but I would be aided by reading along further in the story.

This is basically the first time I’ve ever looked at Polish in this detail, yet I can still find patterns and start working things out. This is only with 3 sentences. By finding slight hints at patterns, and then seeing those patterns represented in hundreds or thousands of different sentences, you can learn a lot of the language without ever looking at a dictionary. It would take ridiculously long to look up every single unknown word in the unknown sentences.

So, this is why I suggest that learning with books can be really productive, even from the very start. It’s made much easier by having a translated version of the text to make it comprehensible, and you should probably limit your dictionary lookups to those words that you’ve already seen many times (the “high frequency” words). By seeing many many somewhat-comprehensible examples, you can learn a lot very quickly.

Another thing that might help make things more comprehensible, is to do a quick browse through a bunch of grammar examples, just to see what’s possible. No need to try and memorize any tables or do any “exercises” from textbooks, because you’ll pick up their workings naturally as you read through your novel. Looking at a bunch of clear examples is helpful though, because it lets you see what’s possible in the language…to see what’s out there for you to discover. This helps you notice it when it comes up for real in your novel.

Just remember that Exposure comes before Knowledge, not the other way around. Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to expose yourself to the language, because then you never will be. Also, go out and buy some real books. As Khatsumoto has said, you have to own before you pwn. If you have no books on your shelf, you will have limited access to the language.

Have fun reading!

5 Responses to The magic of words

  1. My big issue with this kind of process is the time you’ll waste figuring out the rules. If you get some exposure to the rules first (by, at a minimum, quickly reading through a grammar), then when you see the rules in action you’ll already know what you’re looking for, rather than needing to puzzle them out.

    I lay out my typical grammar-learning process here.

    • doviende says:

      maybe you missed my penultimate paragraph. let me repeat: Another thing that might help make things more comprehensible, is to do a quick browse through a bunch of grammar examples, just to see what’s possible. …followed by: Looking at a bunch of clear examples is helpful though, because it lets you see what’s possible in the language…to see what’s out there for you to discover. This helps you notice it when it comes up for real in your novel.

  2. Bakunin says:

    Doviende, provided you don’t know anything about Polish, your analysis is quite good. The stems are actually slightly shorter (smok, mów-), but you’d figure this out in no time if you kept going.

    Polish is such a beautiful language! It sounds soft and melodic, really beautiful. I might be biased, though, since I studied some Polish at university. You should try to get hold of a Pole and have him or her read these sentences to you; shouldn’t be a problem in Berlin. I know that you advocate using audio in parallel, but in the case of Polish is an absolute must!

    Your method relies a lot on translation, albeit rough translation only, and that’s something I wouldn’t want to push too much in my own language learning. But different strokes for different folks, and it’s really interesting to read in detail about your technique.

    • doviende says:

      The translation is helpful for details at the start, but it very quickly moves to just giving you a general sense for the story. Once you have even a minor sense for the language, then you can just read a whole english paragraph or a whole page first, and then work your way naturally through the L2 section and it’ll just make sense to you.

  3. Natalie says:

    That was quite fun; I enjoyed seeing those excerpts. The Polish was the most familiar to me by virtue of my Russian knowledge. Random fact: мова (mova) means language in Ukrainian, so even in that language there’s a relation to the Polish word. Also, language in Russian is язык (yazik), which is basically the same as the Polish word.

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