iesus nah, des git as noed

I don’t think I’ve ever said much here about the years I lived in the Alps. It was a long time ago, so long it’s almost hard for me to imagine. In the summer of 1973 I went to Austria with the American Field Service exchange program (which still exists, and functions) and stayed with a family in the village of Andelsbuch in the middle Bregenz Forest in the northern part of Vorarlberg, Austria’s western most province. I was hoping there would be a high rez map of Vorarlberg at Google Earth but a huge swatch of central Europe, including all of Vorarlberg and the entire country of Liechtenstein are still low rez. So here’s a dopey little map instead.

The short version of this story is that I got so interested in the dialect spoken in the Bregenzerwald that I ended up studying linguistics, writing a dissertation on variation and change in a specific dialect of a specific village (Grossdorf), getting a PhD, and going off to teach linguistics and German at the university level. Eventually I ended up writing Homestead. I guess it must be clear that along the way I learned both (what I think of as) book German and various dialects of Swiss German. Swiss German is a bit of a misnomer as this group of dialects (which I’ll start calling Alemannic at this point, to warn you) is spoken in south-western Germany, western Austria, and all of German speaking Switzerland.

Why am I telling you all this. Because today I was listening to dialect stories recorded by a woman from Mellau, really gorgeous stuff that simply could not be translated either into book German or English, which always makes me a little sad. You will never hear the story of how the Mellauer and the Auer, in their endless inventive taunting of one another, ended up inventing yodeling. It’s a good story. So I was listening and feeling a little homesick for the Bregenz Forest. As a result I went to look up the author (Reinhilde Hager) to see if she had a website. Which she does not (unless she married since the recording was made, in which case I don’t know how to look her up). But I did find something that made my jaw drop, and that that there is a wiki for Alemannic.

If you go look at the Alemannic wiki, you probably won’t get very far because it is actually written in Alemannic. The equivalent might be if there were a wiki written entirely in Chaucerian English, which would also most probably give you severe pause.

I almost got teary, reading through the Alemannic Wiki. Of course the dialect represented there is not exactly the one I speak; if you’re going to write down a language, you’ve got to take some steps toward standardizing spelling, at least. But it’s very close, and it felt like running into an old friend on the street.

I don’t get the opportunity to speak Waelderisch (my particular variety of Alemannic) very often, and I’m a little rusty — but not very. I can read it without a problem and when I listen to the recorded stories, I’m right back there, thinking in it. If I got on a plane tomorrow it would take me maybe three days to get back where I was. Which leads me to a linguistics topic which may be of interest. Anybody ever hear of the black box, universal grammar, the critical period, and the distinction between language learning and language acquisition? Because it’s interesting stuff.

4 Replies to “iesus nah, des git as noed”

  1. Oh yes. I know exactly what you mean. I studied Linguistics as part of a BSc so all those terms are familiar to me – even though it was way over 20 year ago now.
    I eventually finished my BSc combined hons in German and Business Admin during which time I spent a year working in Dusseldorf, where the dialect is also fascinating. I can still hear my German workmates chattering away over zweites Fruhstuck, horrified that I couldn’t bring myself to eat raw mince with my morning bread roll.
    Do you miss those foreign words for which there is no real English one word translation? My 2 particular favourites from Germany are ‘eventuell’ and ‘erledigt’ – they both carry a certain something in the meaning which just does not transfer no matter how you translate it.
    Language is so luscious.

  2. When I was in grade 4, I told my friends I’d take linguistics at university. I don’t recall why. Never pursued, but always interested. “Ennui” is one of my favourite French words for how (for me) it captures the feelings of boredom and tiredness and that flagged feeling of ‘whatever’ I get when dealing with “the same old” sometimes at work. I’m curious about the mechanics behind some of the “PopPsych” stories in linguistics (PopLing? Pop’Stics sounds better though) such as the tired(is it?) example: “the inuit have X number of words for snow but X words for _____.” As a ‘civilian’ in linguistics, I want to believe this to be statement of fact, although I don’t understand how a language can become so particular as to distinguish shades of emotion (or snow) while others will use a type of blanket statement for snow or love and be blissfully ignorant. I guess it’s in the cultural values of the times at the development of the terms? Laugh at my naivete!

  3. My M.A. is in Applied Linguistics, but language acquisition and psycho weren’t my favorite subjects (I loved socio!). Still, I find it really interesting, especially now that I have a daughter who is growing up bilingual.

  4. Black box and what? Do tell.

    I used to be fluent in French, back when I was 13-17, after total immersion in France forced the issue. Then, without any significant practice, it slowly tapered off until I could only speak with difficulty. It doesn’t help that I learned my accent in the south of France (Lyon) and most speakers are used to a Parisian accent, and tell me my accent is pathetic. It’s not. Natives mistake me for a native…hick.

    The odd thing was studying Mandarin, and suddenly French was coming back and I couldn’t figure out why. I recall a few times struggling to remember the Mandarin word, and my mouth would open and out would pop French: instead of wode meimei, I’d say ma meimei… One time I answered the professor’s question with “tada bicyclette cui beijing” or whatever, and it took me nearly a full minute to realize I hadn’t been speaking only Mandarin.

    The irritating part of that was that I had learned to think in French, since thinking in the language does seem to be the stepping-stone for true fluency. I never managed that in Mandarin, but then, I also never had a total immersion situation, either. I suspect that would make a difference.

Comments are closed.