What’s this fascination with Germanic languages?

Some people wondered about my fascination with Germanic languages and asked why I didn't branch out to other language families.

It's basically laziness.

I grew up speaking English (and a little of the Holo dialect, most of which has by now vanished from disuse), then studied German in high school and college, and most recently added Swedish in preparation for a trip there.

Swedish was easy to pick up because it nestles nicely between German and English. And that's when I realized that laziness was the key: If you always pick a language close to the ones you already know, it will not be so hard to learn.

So my list of languages follows a chain of closely-related languages, so each one can be used as leverage for the next. Except for Icelandic, which strikes me as "like German, before the Germans decided to simplify their grammar" - that has its own appeal. I saved it for last.

I have colleagues who speak Dutch and Afrikaans, so learning those languages would allow me to confuse and annoy them. Because that's the main reason for learning a language: To confuse and annoy.

(One of my South African colleagues describes Afrikaans as "the language you get when you throw a bunch of Dutchmen into the bush and have them chased by lions for a few hundred years.")

I have a former colleague who has since returned to Denmark. We always teased him about his native country and language when he was around, and he was a good sport about it. He's the one who taught me the phrase "En gang til for prins Knud". I removed Danish from the list of Germanic languages partly to tease him from afar and partly because the strange Danish pronunciation scares me.

But for now, my pan-Germanic ambitions are on hold. As the Swedes out there already know, I've started studying Mandarin Chinese Even though I grew up with a tonal language (Holo has seven tones, as opposed to just the four of Mandarin), I never got very good at pronouncing the tones, even though I can hear the difference easily in most cases. So I'm in the embarrassing position of speaking badly and recognizing it immediately.

Update: With some help from my father, I think I figured out the Mandarin third tone, which was the only one I had been having trouble with. The trick: The way the books explain how the third tone works does not match the way people pronounce it in real life. But the way the books explain it is so deeply ingrained in the way people think about the pronunciation of the tone that they continue to insist that's how it's done even though it isn't.

Comments (28)
  1. Coding Dog says:

    Try to learn Finnish. Everybody says that’s hard language to learn. I think it is easy. I speak Finnish all the time :-D

  2. Name says:

    Do you really want to use the language, or do you just want to understand the grammar?

    In the first case, have a look at


    In my point of view, it’s a nice addon to normal learning.

  3. Russ C. says:

    Good luck your Mandarin!

    Don’t worry about laziness, the Germanic languages can be very beautifull and passionate .. it’s nice to see people still ahve an interest in them as well as the Romantic languages.

  4. Cooney says:

    I always had a yearning for Yiddish in the back of my mind, as it’s supposed to have the most wonderful variety of curses and insults. Only problem is that it’s not terribly popular aas languages go, so I’m not sure how to go about learning it.

  5. Jade Lin says:

    Holo has seven tones, as opposed to just the four of Mandarin

    There are [linguistically] actually seven tones in Mandarin. There are three "neutral" tones: depending on the tone of the preceding character, the neutral is either high-steady, mid-steady or low-steady.

    But native speakers will insist there is only one neutral tone.

    Not to add to your confusion, but the tones in Mandarin (especially if the third tone is involved) will change depending on the tones of the characters around them. Some texts will explain that, some won’t =) And native speaker who isn’t trained to, can’t hear the difference.

    — J.

  6. mike says:

    I found that studying Germanic languages was a great way to learn grammar, by golly. If you don’t learn e.g. German as a native speaker, then by golly you’ll master indirect objects and dependent clauses, like it or not. :-)

    Cooney: it’s unfortunate that Yiddish is a language that has seen its fortunes decline in the last 100 years. It used to be the native language of millions of people, but these days its base of native speakers — people who learn it as a first language — is extremely reduced, limited primarily to pockets in Eastern Europe and in some Orthodox communities.

    You can still find resources for learning Yiddish, though; check in the Jewish community in your city, or look on the web. There’s a great corpus of written work in Yiddish, so once you get some basics, there’s plenty to work with. :-) Finding others to speak with, of course, will not necessarily be easy, alas.

  7. describes Afrikaans as "the language

    > you get when you throw a bunch of Dutchmen

    > into the bush and have them chased by lions

    > for a few hundred years.")

    For some reason I suddenly feel urged to change the name of my blog (currently: The Blogging Dutchmen) ;-)

  8. Zachary Turner says:

    Hmm.. I never had much of a problem with third tone, but second tone was harder for me. Third tone seems to come naturally for me when speaking, you just have to remember to drag it out, it’s longer than, say, 4th tone or something.

    For me, second tone just can’t come out right. It always sounds like third for some reason.

    I also think it’s hard to distinguish between 2nd and 3rd sometimes, especially in quick speech.

    Just curious, what materials are you using to learn Chinese? I haven’t found many good books or anything.

  9. Zachary Turner says:

    Jade Lin,

    Are you serious? Native speakers can’t hear the difference in tone sandhi? Like for example, bu2 yao4 and bu4 xiao3? It sounds totally different, even if you never learned it formally.

  10. Mike Dunn says:

    I really enjoyed studying Mandarin (I took 1 year of it at college, just for fun). Tip for studying characters: Take 3×5 cards and cut them in half to make nicely-sized flash cards. Write the character on one size and the pin yin on the other.

  11. Garth says:

    One of my South African colleagues describes >Afrikaans as "the language you get when you >throw a bunch of Dutchmen into the bush and >have them chased by lions for a few hundred >years.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrikaans for some background on the origins of this language.

    As you can see in the Wikipedia article the language was not only the creation of a "bunch of dutchmen" but also by the slaves and natives in the Cape colony at the time.

  12. Jade says:


    > Native speakers can’t hear the difference in tone sandhi? Like for example, bu2 yao4 and bu4 xiao3? It sounds totally different, even if you never learned it formally.

    Oh, nono. I was talking about the difference between the three different neutral tones.

    For example, the "de0" in "wo3de0" (mine) versus "ta1de0" (his) versus "nin2de0" (yours [formal form]).

    — J.

  13. Johan Thelin says:

    Because that’s the main reason for learning

    > a language: To confuse and annoy.

    Odd, I thought it was to be able to communicate :)

  14. Brian says:

    Do you intend to learn to read/write Mandarin, or just speak it? I started studying Mandarin with a set of CD’s a few weeks ago, and I’ve been in Shanghai since Wednesday. I’ve been told that my pronunciation is good, but I can’t say very much yet.

  15. Zachary Turner says:

    Learning to read and write it is not actually as hard as I thought it would be. There’s (generally) only one way to pronounce each character, so reading is pretty easy. Writing is harder, but still doable. For some reason I find it much easier to read and write in Chinese than in Japanese. In Japanese there are sometimes 20 (I’m not joking) ways to read a single character. The only way to know how to read it in a certain context is by looking at the characters around it and saying to yourself "well the only thing out of the 20 possibilities that makes sense in this context is word Y, so it must be word Y".

  16. Aarrgghh says:

    "En gang til for prins Knud"?! Huh? Babelfish doesn’t know from Danish.

  17. Dan Maas says:

    When I was learning Mandarin I always thought of the third tone like dribbling and shooting a basketball – down, then up.

    IMHO the current teaching methods of Chinese writing to foreigners are terrible. Rote memorization did not work for me. What I did instead was learn the components, not just the radicals but the phonetics as well. There are over a hundred, but once you know them it becomes MUCH easier to analyze unfamiliar characters into familiar, meaningful parts. (something like 70% of all characters are radical/phonetic pairs). Once I had this "system" in place it was easy to learn most common vocabulary.

    If you have a choice in the matter, learn Chinese writing from a foreign teacher, not a native Chinese, because Chinese will invariably use rote memorization! I don’t think most educated Chinese adults are even aware of the radial/phonetic system.

    (if I didn’t have the job I have now, I’d probably try to write a textbook for teaching Chinese characters to adult learners)

    Even with this system you will have to start out with memorization to get the first 100-200 characters, plus some of the common ones that are impervious to analysis. I highly recommend John DeFrancis’ series of readers (the big thick red books) to get you "over the hump." These books are great because they consist of running text with very carefully designed repetition. (you are guaranteed to encounter each new character N times in the M following chapters). So all you need to do is read the books cover-to-cover, and you will get all the repetition you need, without having to back-track.

  18. Henrik says:

    Good luck on learning chinese mandarin!

    I’ve just finished my exchange year in Taiwan, and learned a lot of mandarin – It is not difficult! (IMHO a lot easier than German to learn, and I am a native Norwegian speaker).

    About the tones… well, they are a mess, it is difficult to learn, especially to remember which one to use ;) Characters on the other hand is something I find rather easy… just spend some time when you are bored or otherwise, reading books that actually explains why the characters looks like it does… it helps a lot. If you really want to learn chinese fluently, go to a chinese speaking country, you learn FAST; I’ve been here for about 11 months, and I speak fairly fluent mandarin in addition to be able to write quite a bit too. IMHO Taiwanese mandarin sounds a lot better (and softer) than its mainland equivalent. :)


  19. Mike Dunn says:

    I was originally fascinated by the writing system, that’s what originally interested me in the language.

    For anyone studying it now, here’s a Word doc (29K) you can print out that’s a grid of boxes perfect for practicing getting your characters all the same size :)


  20. Because that’s the main reason for learning a language: To confuse and annoy.

    Wow, really?

    So what’s the trick about the correct pronuncation of the third tone? How to say it correctly? Can it be explained in words at all?

  21. LS says:

    Germanic Languages? Laziness? I guess it is the first time I hear somoen trying to learn Germanic Languages out of laziness… It is like saying you will run a marathon because you are too lazy to learn to swim

  22. Chad Knudson says:

    I took Norwegian in college and found it to be very easy to learn. I ended up with a client who was a linguist, and he taught me a bit about some other languages. Icelandic is basically Norwegian of 1,000 years ago.

  23. ekrajb says:

    Du skulle prøve dansk..det er et rigtigt godt sprog. Jeg har haft tysk i skolen siden 7. klasse og jeg hader det sprog (ikke folket, kun sproget).

    Mange siger, at dansk er svært at udtale, det tror jeg er sandt. Vi staver ikke ordene på den måde de udtales og vi siger ofte ikke endelserne.

    .."rød grød med fløde"

  24. Raymond Chen says:

    Alexey: I did find one textbook that explained the third tone in a manner that more closely matches reality. The third tone is pronounced in one of several ways, depending on context, and *none* of which matches what most textbooks say.

    "Textbook" pronunciation: Start medium-low, go lower, then rise to medium-high. Nobody does this even though they insist that they do.

    "Reality" pronunciation 1: Start low, hold; do not rise. Used if next syllable is tone 1, 2 or 4.

    "Reality" pronunciation 2: Start in middle, then quickly rise. Used if next syllable is tone 3. (But never used more than twice in a row.)

    "Reality" pronunciation 3: Start low, hold, then rise to medium-high. Used at the end of a phrase.

    At least that’s what I took away.

  25. Markus K says:

    It seems that third tone is almost spoken like first tone, only much lower. Forget about lower-and-raise, if you mumble it in a bass voice as deep as you can make it then it sounds like third tone (at least here in the northeast).

  26. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is searching for radio hosts.

  27. A grammatical error that I see far too often.

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