Linguistic Overload

I studied Latin and French in school, and oddly, despite having lived in Paris, the Latin seemed just as useful. In France and French Canada, people right away found me out for what I was and switched to speaking English. My attraction to big cities has really gotten in the way of my immersion into languages. In any case, I can mostly speak French, read Latin, and stumble along in pidgin Spanish, though I usually lean on Michelle for Spanish skills. Between the two of us, we can usually read any Romance language. Germanic languages are tougher, but still largely doable with enough time. Our language skills, native and learned, are either among the Indo-European-Germanic (English) or Indo-European-Romance (French, Spanish, etc.) family groups. So naturally, we decided to live in places where literally none of these skills would apply.

We will encounter three different language families: Turkic (1), Uralic (1), and Indo-European (3). Of the Indo-European, we will hear two separate subfamilies: Balto-Slavic (2), and Hellenic (1). Thankfully, we will only encounter two different alphabets.

So what are we going to do? Honestly, we are planning to speak a lot of English. It seems like a bit of a cop out, but English is now the travelers’ lingua franca, with due apologies to French. Children are taught English from a very young age, in cities where tourism is a large industry English is almost necessary, and it seems that most people choose English as the most useful second language to learn. In case we’re caught short, which we certainly will be from time to time, we can fall back on some technological aids. We will have on our portable devices the old faithful, Google Translate. We will also have a cool visual app called Word Lens, which I think proves Clarke’s adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And finally, we will have what I think is the coolest of the bunch: iVoice Translator, which you can speak into in any language and which will speak back to you in another. My grandfather, who is a native Dutch speaker, helped me test it out, and it works very well.

In case you’re really interested, what follows is an fuller explication, complete with a verdict on how likely we are to become reasonably proficient in the languages:

1. Turkey – In Turkey, they speak Turkish. This seems obvious, but the thorough Turkishness of Turkey is a recent phenomenon, having been largely Greek and Greek-speaking for much longer. Both the country of Turkey and the Western-Turkic language of Turkey are named after the Turkish people, who migrated from the Eurasian steppes nearly 1000 years ago. Not only is Turkish not within our areas of expertise, it’s completely of a different language family. It is a Turkic-Oghuz language and unlike the languages we know, it is considered extensively agglutinative. Verdict: we have no hope.

2. Czech Republic – On the plus side, we are back to the Indo-European with Czech. On the minus side, Czech is neither Germanic nor Romance; it is Indo-European-Balto-Slavic. It has several transformative diacritical marks, and it often includes clusters of consonants and words entirely without vowels. Verdict: very little hope.

3. Hungary – Well, we’re back out of the Indo-European family again. Very much like Turkey, where the Turkic languages developed elsewhere (the Altaic region for Turkic) and were “imported” with the nomadic people, the Hungarian language was developed elsewhere and introduced into Eastern Europe during the arrival of the Hungarian people into the Carpathian Basin, which is largely consubstantial with the borders of modern Hungary, plus northern Serbia and a few parts of western Romania and northeastern Croatia. The Hungarian language is Uralic-Finno-Ugric, and has much in common with the native languages of northern Finland to western Siberia. Roughly a quarter of the language includes Slavic loan words, but still, I think we’ll be entirely out of our depth here. Verdict: we have no hope.

4. Croatia – Here again we come back to the Indo-European and the Balto-Slavic. Whatever we learned (or didn’t) in the Czech Republic may be useful here, although Czech is a Western Slavic language and Croatian a Southern Slavic one. On the plus side, we can also use whatever we learn here in much of the rest of the Balkans, since Croatian is mutually intelligible with Bosnian, Serbian, Herzegovinian, and Montenegrin. Still, we have a hard road ahead. Verdict: very little hope.

5. Greek – Modern Greek is an Indo-European-Hellenic language, and it uses its own alphabet. As one of the most ancient languages we know, Greek has gone through several transformations. Homeric Greek is different from Koine Greek is different from modern Greek. While I can read the Greek alphabet and, because of many derivations to English, decipher a few words here and there, I’m not a Greek speaker. However, since I’ve been practicing, I think this one may be the one worthy of the most optimism. Verdict: a slight, flickering light of hope.

Final verdict: we will speak quite a bit of English.


  1. […] living in Turkey, I know very little Turkish. (If you’d like to know more about our language situation, check out “Linguistic Overload&…) My knowledge of the Turkish words for palace, church, museum, and the like really don’t tend to […]


  2. […] in a country whose language you don’t speak can be a bitter pill to swallow, and sometimes it can be hard to carry off. Frankly, languages […]


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