Take me out to the ball game

For the first time in a long time, I find myself eagerly anticipating a football game. Well, having some interest in it, at least…

Of course, the fact that it’s Gaelic football (and I’m still buzzing from a recent trip to the Emerald Isle) may have something to do with it.

This afternoon is the final of the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, which is being contested by Dublin and Mayo. I’m not sure whether to support the Dubs (because I’ve been to Dublin a few times and have at least one fairly good friend from there) or Mayo (because they have nice red and green uniforms which remind me slightly of the Welsh flag). Ultimately I’m not too bothered who wins it but I hope I’ll get a chance to catch some highlights of the game later on, though I’m unlikely to see the whole match.

Gaelic football seems to me to lie somewhere between rugby (a game I love, though I don’t generally follow it all that closely) and association football, aka soccer (a game that doesn’t particularly interest me at all) in terms of its rules and playing style – it uses a round ball (like soccer) and seems to have a bit more kicking than rugby but also allows carrying the ball and is a bit more of a contact sport than soccer, though less than rugby. One interesting feature is that not only are there several different ways to score (like in rugby, though in this case it’s scoring goals by kicking the ball into a fairly small goal area defined by two upright posts and a crossbar or scoring points by kicking or fisting it over the crossbar) but the goals and points scores are recorded separately, e.g. 1-7 would mean a single goal and 7 points; a goal is worth 3 points so that particular score would equal 10 points (a score of 1-7 would beat 0-9 but not 0-11; I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that 1-7 and 0-10 would count as a tie, in which case I think the game would usually be replayed). I’ve only watched a very small amount of Gaelic football so far but I found it quite exciting to watch.

There are several other Gaelic games but the other big one is hurling. I’d say this interests me even more than Gaelic football. The two games are actually quite similar in many respects (e.g. they are played on the same size pitch, both with teams of 15 players, and use the same scoring distinction between goals and points) but hurling is played with sticks and a smaller ball. I have heard hurling described as “a cross between hockey and murder”.

The final of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship took place a couple of weeks ago between Tipperary (who won) and Kilkenny (the previous victors; apparently these two teams and Cork dominate hurling, while there’s a much broader spread in the football world). I watched and enjoyed highlights of that match. I also watched the whole of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship last week; this time Kilkenny beat Cork (the winners for the past two years). In case you were wondering, camogie is the women’s equivalent of hurling (a game played only by men) and is essentially the same apart from a few minor rules differences.

Also in case you were wondering, there is also an All-Ireland Senior Women’s Football Championship, which is due to be taking place next Sunday (I can’t remember the teams involved) and, as with hurling and camogie, there are a few minor differences in rules (though, in this case not in name) between men’s and women’s football.

Lest you think this is turning into a sports blog, I should finish with a couple of linguistic observations.

Firstly, as you will have observed, the titles of the Gaelic football championships don’t actually mention the word Gaelic. I gather that in Ireland, the word “football” on its own is usually taken to mean Gaelic football, just as the bare term is used to mean soccer in the UK (and other parts of the world where it is the dominant football code) or American football in the USA and either Australian-rules football or rugby league in Australia (I gather there are some areas where one is significantly more popular than the other), etc. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples in non-sporting contexts of words where the same generic term is used in different parts of the world to refer to different specific cases (presumably usually the most dominant one in that place), although I can’t immediately think of any clear examples other than football. A non-geographical example would be the use of the word “bass” to refer to tubas in the brass band world, whereas it would refer to double basses in an orchestra or (most likely) a bass guitar in a rock group. The moral of the story is that context is king.

The other observation is the etymology of the word “camogie”, which seems to bear no relation to the word “hurling” despite the two sports having much the same relationship to each other as (men’s) and women’s (or ladies’, as it seems to be officially called) Gaelic football (and as far as I know, camogie is never – at least officially – referred to as “ladies’ hurling”). I gather that, although the modern games only date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, their roots, and especially that of hurling, are quite ancient. The stick used for hurling is known in English as a hurley (hence the name of the sport) and in Irish as a camán; as in English, the Irish name for the sport was related to that of the stick and it was called camánaíocht (I think that -aíocht is roughly the equivalent of “-ing”), although this has mutated to iománaíocht in modern Irish. One of the differences between the men’s and women’s games is that the latter is played with slightly smaller sticks (and balls) and, in Irish, the women’s stick is called a camóg (the -óg bit being a fairly common diminutive suffix in Irish; i.e. it’s a “small hurley”) and hence the game was called camógaíocht. Whereas the men’s game (presumably due to its much older roots) developed a completely separate name in English, the women’s game just borrowed the Irish name and anglicised it to “camogie” (and, unlike the men’s version, has also kept its original form in Irish).

I’ve no idea of the etymology of either “hurley” or camán, but you have to stop somewhere. And so I shall.

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Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.

 

A little Chinese with me

This month I will mostly be learning Irish and Chinese.

That is, the relatively small proportion of my time which is spent on languages other than Welsh and English (both of which I use on a regular basis) will be mainly divided between these two languages.  I’ve looked at both languages several times in the past, and continued to find quite fascinating, but never got very far with either of them.

At the start of October, I decided to set myself a challenge of doing a bit of Irish every day for a month, largely with a view to getting a handle on singing in the language.  While I wasn’t quite as systematic in my approach as I set out to be, I did manage to give myself a bit of exposure to Irish every day throughout the month, whether it was working through lessons in one or more of the Irish textbooks I’ve acquired over the years, watching Irish language TV programmes online (on the TG4 website) or listening to lots of songs in Irish and attempting to sing a few of them.

In fact, the month has gone so well that I’ve decided to try to keep my Irish going for a bit longer on a more-or-less daily basis.  Rather than go for intensive study, I’m just trying to do a little bit at a time and let it gradually seep into my brain.  It’s a bit different from how I’ve tried to study languages in the past but may turn out to be an effective method.  Even if I never become fluent in speaking Irish, I’ve already managed to get a lot more enjoyment out of Irish songs than I had without understanding the language at all, so it certainly hasn’t been a wasted effort.

One thing I learned fairly recently is that the way (or at least, a way) to say “I speak [insert name of language]” in Irish is Tá [language] agam, which literally means “There is [language] with me”.  For example, I could truthfully say Tá Breatnais agus Béarla agam (I speak Welsh and English) and Tá beagán Gaeilge agam (I speak a little Irish).  Alternatively, I could say Tá mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge (I am learning Irish).  Sadly, as yet, I can’t say very much else, but it’s getting there slowly.

Originally my plan, assuming the successful completion of my one-month Irish challenge, was to put that language on a back burner for a while and choose another language to concentrate on instead for November, then another one for December, etc.  As mentioned, I decided to keep going with Irish until I’ve got a slightly firmer grip on it but, never one to be content with doing just one thing for too long, I’ve decided to simultaneously make a start on the language I had selected for this month’s study, namely Chinese (specifically, Mandarin).

This has a reputation for being a fearsomely difficult language to learn, although I think the main difficulties are to be found in the tonal nature of the language and the writing system.  Grammatically, it seems to be relatively straightforward, although quite (excitingly) different from any other language I’ve studied.

The tone system is often taken to mean that the same word means different things depending on how you say it.  For example, quite famously, the word ma can mean either mother or horse (or a couple of other things), distinguished only by the tone (ma with a high level tone is “mother”; I can’t remember off-hand which tone is used for “horse”).  Actually, it’s better to think of them as completely separate words and this is how they would, apparently, be viewed by native Chinese speakers.  The tone of each word has to be learnt as part of the word itself, but really that should be no more problematic than learning the gender or inflection of words in other languages.  The fact that I have a fairly musical ear should help quite a bit too.

The Chinese writing system is, unquestionably, complex but it is also quite fascinating.  Fortunately there is a standardised romanisation system (pīnyīn) that means you don’t necessarily have to master the written language in order to get a good handle on spoken Chinese.  I am aiming to have a go at learning to read and write the characters as well as to understand and use the spoken language.

More so than most languages, I suspect Chinese is one that benefits hugely from having a teacher rather than trying to learn solely from books and other self-study materials.  Fortunately my friend Simon, who runs the Omniglot website as well as the Bangor Language Learners’ Conversation Group (formerly known as Bangor Polyglots), is a fluent Chinese speaker (having done it, along with Japanese, for his degree) and, since we are usually meeting at least twice a week at the moment, he will be able to give me a hand with the language.  He’s also lent me a couple of textbooks that I will be using in addition to my own resources for Chinese study this month.

I’m certainly not expecting to be fluent in Chinese or Irish by the start of December but I hope to have a better grasp of both languages by then than I do now (which shouldn’t be too hard).  I’ll then have to decide whether to stick to these two languages or move onto something else, either revisiting another language that I’ve looked at in the past or trying something completely new and different.  Perhaps I’ll see if I can get going a system whereby I have two main languages on the go each month, replacing one of them every month (i.e. I’d do Chinese and something else, perhaps Italian, in December then, say, Italian and Swahili in January and perhaps Swahili and a bit more Irish in February, etc.)?

Sláinte – better late than never!

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day.  As I said the other day, this is a good month for Celtic patron saints, with Ireland being the third Celtic nation in as many weeks to celebrate its saint’s day. I was busy for most of the day so I didn’t get very much opportunity to mark the occasion, although I did listen to a bit of Irish music in the evening (including some wonderful traditional piping by Finbar Furey and an album by the Bumblebees, a lovely bunch of ladies with whom I once had the pleasure of playing at a jam following a gig they did over in Caernarfon several years ago).

Today I have been continuing the same audio theme by listening to more of my reasonably extensive collection of Irish music.  This is mostly folk music based, but it ranges from quite traditional stuff (such as solo fiddling by Paddy Canny and some truly beautiful singing (mostly in Gaelic) by Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola) to somewhat more modern interpretations (for instance, the Mary Custy band, which has drums and everything!).  The classical music world is represented by a set of four Irish dances by Malcolm Arnold, which are based on folk dances (he also did sets of English, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish dances, though sadly I forgot to listen to the latter the other week).  In the true Irish spirit of not taking oneself too seriously, I also slipped Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad (an exploration of all the cliches of the genre which has to be the most hilarious murder ballad of all time) in there.

Probably one of the most esoteric bands in my collection of music with Irish connections is the Russian band Белфаст (that’s “Belfast”, for those of you who don’t read the Cyrillic script). I first discovered this band on last.fm about 18 months ago, where they had (and still have, at the time of writing) several tracks available as free downloads.  The genre of their music is described as “rockapaddy”, a term I’ve never encountered elsewhere that apparently means an Irish-oriented mix of Oi, punk and rock.  I’ve no idea what Oi is supposed to be but I can certainly detect punk and rock influences in there.  Some of their stuff is quite Irish flavoured, although some of it sounds more country & western to me.  In any case, it’s quite fun to listen to.

This evening I hope to be going to another meeting with the Bangor polyglots.  At least one member of the group speaks fluent Irish (while I have a very limited command of the language), so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the languages spoken about (or, indeed, spoken) tonight.  I may also depart from my usual choice of Wychwood or Jennings beers and have a pint of Guinness or Magners, or some other beverage from the Emerald Isle, depending on what is available.

In case you were wondering about the patron saints of the other Celtic nations (apart from Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, whose saints have featured recently in this blog), Brittany has St Anne (traditionally recognised as the mother of Mary and hence grandmother of Jesus), who is celebrated in July, and Scotland has St Andrew, whose feast is on 30th November.  I was unable to discover from Wikipedia (the font of much, but not quite all, knowledge) anything about the patron saint of the Isle of Man.