Category Archives: Intercultural & interlinguistic

A linguistic excursion: from industrialization to nature via the sports field

Linguistic excursionToday’s entry is going to be rather bitty – though with a long ornithological excursus towards the end that non-bird-nerds should feel free to skip – but I do have what I hope are some interesting word- and phrase-related snippets to share. Some are new discoveries, others welcome jogs to the memory I’ve come across over the last few days.

On stereotype and cliché

I knew that the term stereotype came from printing, but professional cornucopia of knowledge Stephen Fry added some further insight into the matter on this week’s QI (a BBC quiz programme, in case you didn’t know). The term was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1798 and it applied to a process whereby once a page of print had been (manually) typeset in its final format, a mould was made and a single metal printing plate cast from this mould. It was easier and quicker to print multiple copies of any page from this plate than from the original made up of all those small pieces of metal lined up in a frame.

Given that manually setting movable type was a laborious and time-consuming business, printers had discovered that if they had phrases that were frequently reused, it made sense to make a cast of the whole phrase so that it could be quickly inserted in one fell swoop. And these mini-stereotypes, metal strips of interconnected print “characters” representing well-worn phrases, were known as clichés. Some say that the etymological origin of the name is the verb cliquer, meaning “to click”, on account of the clicking sound the metal made as it was poured into the mould.

On jacquard and sabotage

Also on QI, there came a discussion of technical developments including prototypes of the computer and other “programming” systems. The broadcast of the episode almost coinciding with the birthday of Ada Lovelace (born 10 December 1815), mention was made of her work with Charles Babbage, and the discussion turned to developments preceding their work on the Analytical Engine.  The machine made use of punch cards of a kind developed in 1801 by French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard for insertion in a special patented loom to add a degree of automation to the weaving process by “pre-programming” a pattern into the cloth. To this day we associate the term jacquard with certain ornate types of woven fabric, damask being one example, and it was thanks to the punch-card system that the process of producing these complicated patterns was made very much quicker and more efficient. I remember becoming fascinated by the idea of the Jacquard loom during a visit to the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre (South West Wales) some years ago, but at the time I hadn’t completely cottoned on (geddit?!) to the extent to which the reach of this invention went so much further than producing cloth.

Not everyone, though, was as inspired by Jacquard’s invention as the likes of Babbage and Lovelace. Just as the Luddites in England revolted against the introduction of machine looms a few years later, fearing that their status as skilled handloom weavers would become worthless, their French counterparts were similarly aghast at Jacquard’s innovations and set out to destroy these new-fangled machines. Their weapons of choice? Their wooden clogs – sabots – and thus the word sabotage came into being. Or at least, that was Stephen Fry’s line – Wikipedia suggests that the term might actually go back to Dutch weavers in the fifteenth century, though in a similar scenario.

On throwing people curveballs and knocking them for six

This morning on Twitter, Kellie (@belouise) was asking what a “curveball” was, not in the original baseball sense but in the figurative expression “to throw someone a curve[ball]“. I didn’t know what it meant either – we Brits don’t do baseball or baseball idioms, on the whole – but I did a bit of poking about on t’internet and found out that it basically means to confuse someone or throw them off track by doing something surprising or unexpected. It struck me that in British English we tend to use the expression “to knock someone for six” with much the same meaning, though interestingly the expression is based on the (unexpected) behaviour of the batsman in our case, not of the bowler, and – not so surprisingly – it is derived from cricket rather than baseball.

It is also no real surprise that there are many sport-derived idioms that have developed differently in American English and British English (as well as a lot more that share meaning and form). While translating a text with colleagues recently, I found that while I had written “the ball is in the politicians’ court” (= tennis), an American colleague had written “the ball is in the politicians’ corner” (= baseball again). In the wider context, it is certainly the baseball terms that have come to the fore in the international boardroom, though interesting that phrases such as “to touch base” and “a ballpark estimate” frequently make it onto British-based lists of most hated “management speak” or jargon. Is this due to a knee-jerk anti-Americanization drive, because they sound alien or false when used by a non-American, or simply because a few people use them too frequently in an offhand, cliched manner? I really don’t know and am not going to be the judge of that here.

On eagles, hawks and kites

Moving away from contentious issues, it seems to be a fact internationally acknowledged that birds of prey have good eyesight, and this fact has given rise to its fair share of idiomatic expressions, some dating back to ancient lore. An observant or scrutinising person can be described as having eyes like a hawk or keeping an eagle eye on something, and in German you can use either Falkenauge (= hawk, falcon) or Adlerauge (= eagle), or related phrases, to get the same idea across; I’m sure many of you reading this could provide further parallel examples from other languages, too.

My heart did a little skip the other day, though, when I discovered that a Welsh expression for this seems to be llygad barcud, i.e. “eye of the kite”. Now, eagles are extremely rare in Wales – the golden eagle, once a native species, has not been resident for over 400 years and sightings are thus extremely rare, and the white-tailed eagle seems also to be only a rare visitor. It may in fact be that neither was ever really prevalent in the area, so that the absence of these species from everyday expressions would not be that surprising. Kites are a rather different case in point, having been present in Wales for longer than anyone knows, though not without their challenges, as I’ll explain in a moment.

To backtrack a bit first: in English folklore and literature the kite traditionally suffered pretty bad press, being considered nothing more than a trouble-making scavenger: Shakespeare, for example, has King Lear refer to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite”. In Scotland the situation was no better as they were legally labelled as vermin in the 15th century. Not the stuff of noble idioms, then. Nor any surprise that the red kite was extinct in England and Scotland well before the end of the 19th century (with reintroduction only from 1989: see here).

I really don’t know how the red kite was viewed historically by the people of Wales – maybe someone else can enlighten me on this – but it is certainly the case that various individuals made efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prevent its extinction. They managed that, though only just – by the 1930s the population had continued to decline to an estimated <20 birds. What did happen, though, was that the local population became fiercely protective of these birds – not least against the efforts of egg thieves – and the red kite took on an almost mythical status that I can still remember from my childhood. Mid Wales was a place of hallowed pilgrimage for those seeking the last habitat of the UK red kite.

The situation has much improved since then and has been mirrored elsewhere in the UK through reintroduction programmes. In Wales, though, the red kite remains a symbol of triumph over adversity and has widely been used as an icon representing wildlife in the region. In a poll run by the RSPB and the BBC in Wales in 2007, the red kite was the clear winner: “an astonishing 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favourite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin – which came second with 15% of votes – and the barn owl in third place with 11%.”

I still feel a sense of exhilaration when I see a red kite – or even a pair of them – circling overhead, and all of this is why I was so pleased to find an expression that ennobled this lovely bird.

Thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far – that’s all for this week. :)

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Random interlinguistic thoughts for the week

I don’t seem to have a concrete topic to write about this week, but I have been saving some snippets of thoughts about language, especially connections or contrasts between languages, that have occurred to me while in the shower, through overheard conversations or just in the course of everyday activities.

1. There’s a hole in my bucket

One of this week’s mundane but important tasks was to repot several large plants and trees that seem to have accumulated in the flat. We needed to make some drainage holes in the bottom of a galvanized metal pot, and M set to work at this, humming away (as you do). And it was at that point that I had what Germans call – and I love this term – an Aha-Erlebnis (“aha experience”), as I realized he was humming the tune to “There’s a hole in my bucket”, which I remember very clearly from childhood. Except, of course, that the muttered fragments of text that were audible were German.

It turns out that the song is in fact in all likelihood of German origin, the earliest known version being attested from around 1700 – I really hadn’t imagined it was that old. It later became known as “Heinrich und Liese” (Henry and Liza in the English version, of course) and was widely believed to be a folk song from Hesse. Interestingly, it may have entered English through Pennsylvania Dutch, as versions were collected in some mid-20th century collections of Pennsylvania Dutch folk songs.

It wasn’t until about 1960 that the English version became popular – notably through Harry Belafonte’s recording of it with Odetta, which reached no. 32 in the UK singles chart in 1961. Oddly enough, while I hadn’t imagined the song’s history to go back as far as 1700, I was also surprised at how recent an addition it is to the English-language repertoire of nursery rhymes and so on.

 
Daisies 1

2. Daisy

No, I’m not going to regale you with the story behind another childhood song here (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”) – this time it’s the word itself that interests me. Or more specifically, the name of this flower in different languages.

The English name is, I guess, pretty “meaningless” (in the sense of not having an obvious, substantial semantic component) to the casual observer – it has a feminine quality, not just because of its association with a flower but because it doubles as a girl’s name. It was only when I learned the Welsh name for it that I had another of those Aha-Erlebnisse – it’s widely known as llygad y dydd, which translates literally as “eye of the day” (which is, incidentally, the exact English term Chaucer used for it), shortened to “day’s eye” and hence the cognate of the English name.

The other languages whose words I know for the same flower have rather different names for it. In standard German it’s a Gänseblümchen (literally: little goose flower), this name coming, apparently, from the fact that it tends to be found in areas where the grass is short, and in olden times such suitable habitats would often have had their grass kept short by e.g. geese grazing on it.

The French word for the larger ox-eye daisy, marguerite, has something in common with the English word “daisy” in that it doubles as a girl’s name. What I didn’t know until very recently, though, was that the English girl’s name Daisy was, in former times, most frequently a nickname for a girl called Margaret. Ordinary daisies, it seems, are called pâquerettes in French, in connection with the fact that they tend to make their appearance around the time of Easter (Pâques).

3. Out(ge)sourced language

German is full of anglicisms these days, especially in areas such as advertising, fashion, telecommunications and marketing. I’m sure you can work out why some people in these areas might find it cool, impressive or whatever to pepper their sentences (if they manage sentences, that is) with this foreign jargon. Other people’s sensitivities can flare up, though, when more everyday language becomes noticeably affected.

I used to try to avoid unnecessary anglicisms when speaking in German, but at some point you realize you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to avoid them altogether, and I’m not keen to sound stilted, old-fashioned, snobbish or foreign for avoiding these words. Plus languages have always borrowed from one another; it’s an inevitable element of language change.

However, I continue to find some of the English words that have been adopted into German to be really rather awkward, even embarrassing to use, especially the verbs that you can conjugate as if they were German verbs. One example that I heard used numerous times on a talk show at the weekend was the verb outsourcen, especially the past participle outgesourced. Now that’s just yucky. As it happened, the host and about half the guests on the programme seemed rather uncomfortable using it, too, so I did find myself wondering why they bothered.

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The incredible dryness of cold

Frosted gingerbread roof

I’m not about to express surprise at the fact that it’s cold in winter. By the standards of a LOT of people I can think of, the temperatures we’re facing this week – an average of about -7°C during the day – are temperate, mild, even balmy by comparison with quite extensive other parts of the world.

But what never ceases to amaze me in Southern Germany is just how dry cold can be. Having spent my formative years in the insular climate of lowland areas of the UK, especially on the coast, I’m used to cold being accompanied by wet. I expect a daytime thaw even when there’s snow on the ground, and so the fact of the snow just staying the same for days on end, simply because it remains frozen and can’t go anywhere or change its consistency, is quite weird. It strikes me as eerily Groundhog-Day-like, so maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this post today of all days!

What’s struck me particularly today is that even though there is absolutely no snow or visible patches of ice on the streets here in the middle of the city (the picture above is of the North-facing roof of the house), the street surfaces nevertheless have an odd look to them, a pale, dusty, almost mildewed-looking grey. It’s like a thin salt crust or sprinkling of talcum, very dull and matte, and not in the least slippery. I’m guessing the tiny moisture droplets in the air are simply freezing on contact with the frozen ground and causing this strange effect. It’s definitely not salt as it darkens and then disappears if you warm it.

It’s odd how little details of a place’s climate can astonish you even after many years of living there, but at the same time it’s pleasing to be able to marvel at something that must strike many other people as ordinary or insignificant.

Postscript: Following on from a discussion of this with Rolf on Twitter, I have now been reminded that this phenomenon is called deposition or desublimation – in this case the direct transformation of water vapour (i.e. gas, not droplets) into ice in sub-freezing conditions. Thanks Rolf!

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Crème caramel

Well, I don’t think I’ll be winning any prizes for food photography with this shot, but this is last night’s dessert, crème caramel. It was ever so good.

No one made any snide comments about the choice of a French dessert to follow my very British main course (which went down extremely well, by the way) – maybe people don’t think of it as being French but rather a fairly international dessert.

It’s a type of baked custard.

When I hear the word custard, I certainly think of hot vanilla-flavoured sauce poured over some very British dessert: apple crumble, spotted dick, treacle pudding… The French serve it cold and call it crème anglaise (which the Germans took over as Englische Creme, so they must have thought of it as typically British/English at some point, though I can’t find any more comment on the etymology of this.

The term custard has a wider meaning of course, ranging through various kinds of egg-thickened milk or cream concoctions, whether used for filling eclairs (as confectioner’s custard) or quiches (a savoury form). Many of these forms date back to the Middle Ages, when egg and milk mixtures were popular for filling flans and tarts – in fact the word “custard” is a corruption of crustade, an old word for a pie or pie crust (cf. French croustade). Classic French cuisine, meanwhile, has no specific word for custard, using the more general term crème instead. Maybe it was conceptually more important to the British, since they at least had a word for it.

Europeans took a wealth of custard recipes with them to the New World, though sometime in the nineteenth century the terms “custard” and “pudding” became confused in the United States, so that to this day “pudding” in American English denotes a set milk pudding. This new meaning of the word came back over the Atlantic and settled in German as Pudding. Cue confusion and strange looks when, as a Brit, you start talking to people in this country about Christmas pudding, steak and kidney pudding or black pudding, or even if you simply ask “What’s for pudding?”…

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Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Tomorrow I will be making another step in  my so far successful quest to convince German friends that British food goes beyond fish and chips, haggis, baked beans and spongy square white sliced bread (“untoasted toast” as one student once put it – I guess you have to have lived in Germany to get that one) and is actually rather good.

The main attraction is going to be beef and Guinness casserole with herb dumplings. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – a very quaint English-sounding mixture to those of us who grew up with the song “Scarborough Fair” and were aware that it was not written by a couple of folk-rock dudes from New York.

The line is a recurring refrain throughout the song, which in its simplest form is the lament of someone who has been left by his lover and imagines a string of impossible-sounding feats that will win her back. The herbs mantra seems at first sight (or hearing) not to make much sense, but centuries-old knowledge about the medicinal properties of these four herbs can be tied in to give a somewhat clearer allegorical meaning.

  • Parsley is well known as an aid to digestion (remember Peter Rabbit?) and as a herb to counteract bitterness or acrid tastes (garlic might fall into the latter category). The jilted lover in the song presumably hopes to overcome his own feelings of bitterness.
  • Sage, whose Latin name salvia comes from the verb meaning “to heal” or “to be / feel well”, is symbolic of strength – it is no coincidence that even today it is used as a herbal remedy for excessive sweating, as a means to “strengthen” the stomach following e.g. a course of antibiotics, and as a more general boost to the immune system thanks to its antioxidant properties. An old rhyming aphorism tells us “He that would live for aye / Must eat sage in May”. The “I” of the song thus wishes for strength to overcome his adversity and recover. In German folk tradition, sage was also used to prepare love potions.
  • The herb rosemary represents loyalty and constancy (maybe partly because it is evergreen), love and remembrance (Nicholas Culpeper noted that “It helps a weak memory” and that it is good for “all the diseases of the head and brain”), qualities the singer of the song has not been receiving too much of recently, but precisely those qualities and feelings he hopes to rekindle in his beloved lady.
  • Thyme also contains potent essential oils (the name derives from the Greek verb thyo, “to perfume”) and symbolizes courage. Culpeper said that wild thyme was “excellent for nervous disorders” and that it was “a certain remedy for that troublesome complaint, the night-mare”. The Ancient Greeks believed it strengthened certain masculine characteristics (it does have proven aphrodisiac qualities, apparently), and in the Middle Ages knights often had thyme painted on their shields as proof of their mettle. Today, apart from its continued use in cooking, it has largely been relegated to a remedy for coughs, sadly distant from its rather grander reputation in older thymes …. err, times. However, the protagonist in the song was probably not thinking about his bronchial health.

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When is a lime not a lime?

In the first part of our tour to Neuf-Brisach yesterday we passed some trees that were in a spectacular state of blossom. No leaves yet, but covered in the most vivid greenish-yellow flowers – I’d never seen the like before. We wondered what they were and had enough nous to rule a lot of tree types out, but we were still stuck, especially in the absence of leaves.

And then the linguist tried to get one up on the biologist – this kind of colour (it looked more greenish to us than it appears in the photo) is sometimes referred to as lindgrün in German. A close English equivalent might be lime green. The German colour is named after the Linde tree (Latin tilia), which in English is a linden (North America) or a lime tree (Britain). So the tree was most probably a Linde, I decided, and that was the end of the discussion, me feeling ever so slightly smug for having solved the puzzle.

I kept thinking about this all day, and it dawned on me that the “lime green” we refer to in English might (could, must, as the day went on) actually be from this same root, i.e. the lime tree of this variety rather than that on which the small green citrus fruit grows. This will strike most other people as über-nerdy, I guess, but I got really excited about this and started writing, in my head, the blog entry that might possibly reveal to my friends (the general public, the world, Wikipedia…) the real origin of the term.

When we got back I reached for my illustrated nature book and also stretched my fingers as far as Wikipedia and some image searches to bulk out my research a bit. It took a bit of time, but I did find out one highly relevant thing…

…This, ladies and gentlemen, is a picture of the blossom of the – ahem – Norway maple (acer platanoides). And the moral of the tale is to check your facts before writing your blog entry. And that I am a better linguist than I am a biologist.

Epilogue: Wikipedia tells us the following about the Linde / lime tree / linden:

‘Lime is an altered form of Middle English lind, in the 16th century also line, from Old English feminine lind or linde, Proto-Germanic *lendā, cognate to Latin lentus “flexible” and Sanskrit latāliana“. Within Germanic languages, English lithe, German lind “lenient, yielding” are from the same root.

Linden was originally the adjective, “made from lime-wood” (equivalent to “wooden”), from the late 16th century “linden” was also used as a noun, probably influenced by translations of German romance, as an adoption of Linden, the plural of German Linde.[1] Neither the name nor the tree is related to the citrus fruit called “lime” (Citrus aurantifolia, family Rutaceae). Another widely-used common name used in North America is basswood, derived from bast, the name for the inner bark.’

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Not a Good Friday for dancing

Yesterday I found out something I thought at first was an April Fool – public dancing events / activities are illegal throughout Germany on Good Friday. So if you were hoping to go clubbing late last night or this evening – forget it! The fact that it has taken me over twelve years of living here to discover this must attest to how often – cough! – I go dancing…

There are other days that have a similar prohibition in place, but it  varies among the laender, with the more Catholic ones like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg having the most such days. Good Friday is the only day with a nationwide prohibition.

Despite appearances – at least as I see it in this case – the German constitution forbids the identification of the state with any particular religious group, for reasons of neutrality. On the other hand, if you are Catholic, Lutheran or Jewish you pay “church tax” on top of your income tax. Individual religious freedom is, as you would expect, protected by the constitution, but in contrast to some other countries, an individual’s choice to practise a particular religion is not seen as exclusively part of his or her private life but is part of a person’s public role within society. This, it would seem, is what makes it possible for (at least some) German courts to prohibit e.g. female Muslim teachers at state schools from wearing the hijaab, since as employees of the state they are required to be neutral in their public role.

I think it’s going to take me more than another twelve years to make sense of all this…

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Five more things…

My friend Kavey suggested a new Five Things meme in which you tell someone else what you associate with them, and ask them to elaborate. So, here are the things she came up with for me.

1. (Foreign) Language and Literature

I’ve always loved language in general, and especially the way that the systems of different languages relate to one another. It makes for a complex puzzle of logic, with a degree of illogicality thrown in to keep it interesting. I have done languages not so much to increase my chance of communicating around the world, but more for this systematic / systemic approach and the window it gives you into different thought systems in different cultures.

Doing foreign literature was initially a necessary evil rather than a choice, but I did enjoy aspects of it. Favourite sorts of literature experienced include the Expressionist poetry and drama I did a course on during my BA, and the wonderfully named MA module “Sex, Lies and Manuscripts” in which we looked at medieval antifeminist (and protofeminist) literature from France, Italy and England.

I ended up doing a PhD on medieval German poetry. I’m not too sure how I feel about that at the moment – let’s say that it sometimes has something  albatross-like about it in both conversational and vocational terms – though the title “Dr” comes in handy occasionally.

The best move ever was to do A-level English literature. I cursed it at the time, but it taught me a lot more about my cultural heritage than anything else I have done (with the exception of O-level history).

2. Germany

Germany is where I have lived for the last almost 12 years.

Why? OK, I studied German, but that is only part of the story. There were family connections and school / orchestra exchanges that also influenced me positively when I was growing up, plus we had an excellent German teacher at school, ergo German outlasted French in my education.

Actually moving to Germany was not an entirely conscious choice. In 1997 my PhD scholarship was running out, and my supervisor suggested I go for a teaching job at one of our partner universities, Tübingen. Got the job, breathed a sigh of relief in financial terms, swallowed hard in emotional terms and told myself it was only for two years and that it might look good on my CV…

I’m not going to go into a “what I like / don’t like about Germany” excursus at this point. If anyone wants to know anything specific, you can ask me :)

3. Photography

I had very, very little interest in photography until May 2006. I was recovering from an icky bout of depression at the time and looking for new impetus creatively and socially, plus my then partner was into photography. I tagged along (I choose that expression deliberately) to one of the get-togethers organized by Kavey in London, armed with a point-and-shoot that my Dad had given me, to try to disguise the fact that I was a hanger-on. It was a daunting experience in the sense that I was still somewhat nervous around strangers and the technical talk went over my head at a million miles an hour, but everyone was so lovely and I suddenly found myself on an exciting treasure hunt, looking around for things to take pictures of and takng time to compose my shots. To cut a long story short, I was soon hooked. Here is one of the shots I took that day.

I pursue colour, detail and form in my photography, very much aesthetic goals rather than photojournalistic or purely technical ones. I like my pictures to look like the kind of paintings I like – abstract, expressionist, colourful. Occasionally purists will rail at me for boosting the colours beyond what looks natural. But hey, they are my pictures and they portray what I want to see / be seen.

4. Wales

I guess I’m one of those people who feels a greater attachment to where they are from if they are further away from it. I never felt particularly Welsh when I was living in Wales, but these days I sometimes feel very Welsh, depending on what is going on (be it a rugby match, exposure to some annoying Little Englanders, hearing a particular piece of music or whatever). Don’t ask me to define how this feels – it is neither static nor entirely definable.

It can be tough being a Welsh person in Germany. You find yourself sounding like a broken record when you tell someone for the nth time that no, Wales is not in England. Likely outcomes of this is that they think you are some nutty insular equivalent of a Bavarian separatist, you are a pedant, or you are indelibly marked down in their memory as That Exotic Welsh Person who is wheeled out on social occasions to provide quaint Celtic charm and required to give the Welsh angle on everything under the sun.

I wish I could speak Welsh better, as I said in a recent post here. For the first few years at school, we were subjected to a trendy, apparently antiauthoritarian approach to language teaching that omitted the grammar bit. Disastrous for me, as it meant I couldn’t extrapolate anything and didn’t have my beloved linguistic system to lean upon. The upshot of this was that I was far more resistent to speaking Welsh than to other languages.

5. Teaching

This is going to sound boastful, but I am proud to be a part of the fourth generation of teachers on both sides of my family, and the second generation of university teachers.

Having said that, until I was 26 the one thing I could say with any certainty that I most definitely did NOT want to do for a living was… guess what! The thought of having to be authoritative, knowledgeable and command people’s respect and attention was something I thought I simply didn’t have in me.

And then I ended up in a full-time teaching job in Tübingen, as mentioned above, and to my great surprise loved it from day one. It was a combination of things: the students were around my age so there was a peer-group atmosphere that we all enjoyed rather than a scary hierarchical relationship. They seemed dedicated on the whole, and to my great surprise they seemed largely to appreciate what I did for them, even expressing enjoyment at times. I, meanwhile, was on a very steep learning curve in terms of both subject matter and teaching methods, but I loved the challenge and the feeling that I was imparting knowledge and skills in a subject area that really mattered.

Nowadays, of course, the students are younger (!) and the atmosphere in class perhaps not quite so matey, but I value the fact that students tend to comment on the positive, motivating atmosphere in my classes, and they seem to continue to enjoy what I do (within reason – there are boring bits that I still need to work on). It’s a hugely rewarding job for me.

What about you?

If you’d like to leave a comment on this post, I’ll be happy to nominate five things that I associate with you, which you can then expound upon in your own blog (or we can find some other solution, if you don’t have a blog :)). Also, if there are other things you associate with me more strongly than these things, I’d be intrigued to know and would be happy to comment on those.

Do please provide a link to your blog if you do your own version of these five things.

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From the pens of students

Students are full of lovely surprises with their interpretations of British culture. Here is a compilation of some of the choicest recent offerings (obviously without attribution, and condensed in a few places).

On British opposition to the idea of a channel tunnel:

“It would be an opportunity for ‘strange creatures’ to enter Britain.”

On political affiliation:

“The Labour Party is not particularly Communist-orientated these days.”

“The Tories get their votes from people who have an interest in the consistency of the actual order of things.”

On the changing profile of the Welsh language:

“Until the 1960s Welsh was only spoken by older people because it had been forbidden to speak.”

On Cornish pasties (as a possible early form of crossover cuisine?):

“[...] the calzone-like wraps that were eaten in the North by the miners”.

On the red rose as the symbol of Labour:

“Be careful: roses have crumbs and can hurt you (make sure you wear thick gloves if you are fuzzy).”

I do love this job…

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Hiraeth a hwyl

Note to casual readers: you won’t find anything profound here, just an account of my lovely weekend.

Hiraeth is a special Welsh word which means longing and a touch of homesickness, though it is, curiously, sometimes viewed as a positive, energizing feeling, while hwyl is analogous to the Irish word craic, i.e. good fun and entertainment. (Oh, and a means “and” in Welsh… sorry to end the paragraph with such a plebeian point…)

Well, this last weekend was a very pleasant mixture of the two. I’d arranged to meet my cousin and her husband in Switzerland, as they were enjoying a short break combined with a tour by her choir. She’s had a very rough few months, which made it all the more important to me that we should manage to meet up, having only coincided at weddings and funerals in recent years.

They met me off the train in Zurich and we went for a leisurely coffee and an initial catchup on personal and family news. After stowing my bag at the station (which took forever, as the cash machine had given me a single large-denomination note that it was impossible to change in the machines provided, and then the locker was extremely picky about the various coins we fed it), it was time to make for a meeting with other choir members, consisting of a boat tour with a sit-down lunch on Lake Zurich. The view of the Alps at the southern end of the lake was breathtaking, even though it was a somewhat hazy day. And lunch was a good opportunity to get to know some of the others on the trip.

When we got off the boat we went for a leisurely walk through the old town, and after more food and a lovely glass of wine I had time to explore on my own while the others had a rehearsal or other plans. This was great – I really didn’t know how I would feel exploring a strange place on my own, but it was entirely positive. I struck up conversations with a few people and took pictures of them – two Ukrainians and an American playing chess in the open air, and a woman with the most amazing platform sandals, among others.

After that I went to the choir concert, which was where the hiraeth kicked in. They performed a wide range of works, including Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Mozart’s Ave Verum, which I have either played or sung in the past and really love, and there were lots of Welsh songs, including the archetypical rugby anthem Cwm Rhondda (“feed me now and ever more (ever mooooore)”). It was just lovely.

Later we had some organizational problems with about 40 of us trekking the streets of Zurich in search of liquid refreshment and no one with a real plan, let alone a reservation, so it was definitely no room at the inn time initially. People dispersed somewhat as a result, but about 15 of us repaired to a beer garden and had a grand time there, regaling the other visitors with four-part singing after the live cover band had finished. It was SO amazing to be part of this – I’ve so missed this spontaneous part-singing that seems to occur on all sorts of occasions in Wales. And it was a lovely group of people and I felt so totally at home, even though I’d only known two of them initially.

On Sunday we got up, had breakfast and headed for Lucerne via a scenic route. Five of us in the car, a full load. And then after a wee bit of walking around, it was time for lunch, and we had a wonderfully leisurely couple of hours down at a restaurant on the waterfront. Again, lovely people, and I felt sad leaving them all afterwards. After a bit more walking around, visiting churches, bridges, shops and other points of interest, I got the train back home.

It was really hard leaving my cousin and her husband, especially as I’d slept badly (again) the night before and had to fight tearfulness almost the whole day, but on the way back on the train I had a growing sense of looking forward to being at home again. And now I have this sense of having had a lovely time and of having really experienced a lot of new things, as well as meeting and enjoying talking to a lot of lovely people.

The upshots of the weekend:

1. It was FANTASTIC to spend time with my cousin and her husband.

2. Even though I didn’t know anyone else from the group beforehand, I had a wonderful time talking to them and enjoying their company as well as the things we had in common.

3. I came back reassured that I could make independent travel and enjoy myself, which I hadn’t been convinced of before, having been way too dependent on being in a relationship in order to travel.

4. I’m joining a choir, first rehearsal tomorrow…

Watch this space for more…

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