Category Archives: languages (general)

Sir William Jones on Sanskrit



“The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident.”

— Sir William Jones, The Third Anniversary Discourse for The Asiatick Society of Bengal (1786)


The brilliant linguist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) was a member of Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club.


posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

It pays to study another language.

“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” (He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own.)

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen (1833)

I did my German homework in the wee small hours of the early morning today. Actually, I gave up around 2 or 3 a.m. halfway though, and told myself, I’ll finish in the morning. German grammar is more complicated than I anticipated. Doing drills in any foreign language is tedious, I always tend to put off the homework until the last minute. Foreign language exercises are like physical exercise: beneficial but monotonous and therefore wearisome.


Which is not to say that I do not enjoy the class. It’s just the opposite. We are down to three students. The language institute will keep a course open as long as there is a minimum of three students.

The chemistry among us students and with our instructor, Peter, is great. I get to the class somewhat jaded in the morning, and then am fully engaged and energized in class. But, language study takes mental effort, and after an hour and half, I am restless and mentally tired.


I learned so much today in just one class. Here are examples, in sequential (chronological) order, as they came up during the hour and a half long class.

Our instructor, Peter, began with the conjugation of the verbs geben (to give) and lessen (to read). I love morphology. It fascinates me to see how words change depending on their function and the grammatical structure. I recall, for example, when studying Russian, that I was intrigued by learning the subjunctive in Stillman and Harkins’s Introductory Russian Grammar:

If he knew the truth, he would have been angry.

Если бы он знал правду, он был бы зол.

Yesli by on znal pravdu, on byl by zol.

Yesli (if) by (a particle signifying subjunctive) on znal (he knew) pravdu (the truth), on (he) byl by (would have been; the past tense of the verb to be with the particle by; how odd it sounded to me) zol (angry).


Our German instructor (today) conjugated lessen and wrote the past perfect and past participle forms on the board.

las (simple past) … NOTE: no helping verb, as in French j’ai lu but same as Spanish yo leí, where there is also no helping verb.

gelernt (read, past participle; as in, have you read?)

I love to study the particulars of languages such as in these examples. For me, it’s equivalent to the pleasure some boys used to take (as I recall) tinkering under the hood of a car, or that one so inclined might take in examining the inside of a watch.


Our instructor, Peter, told us that es gibt in German means there is. Then, he gave us an example: In New York gibt es Freiheitsstatue. I was very pleased to learn the word for Statue of Liberty in German. Peter explained the derivation: Freiheit (freedom or liberty) and statue.


The phrase halten das Leben einfach (to keep life simple) was used as an example.

This resulted in a discussion not concerned with German per se. Is einfach an adverb or an adjective? The class seemed to think, at first, that the answer was adjective. Peter seemed to agree. I raised my hand and said I thought it was hard to say. Peter agreed. I thought about it some more and raised my hand again. I said that I was pretty sure that it was an adverb. Peter said it depends about how one thinks about the word einfach in this case, how is it being used? I agreed with him, but said, morphologically speaking, that it was functioning as an adverb. One could say It’s best to lead a simple life in which case simple is an adjective, but if one says keep life simple, the word simple is functioning as an adverb; it answers the question, how? Peter said that was right.

All of this arising from an introductory German lesson.


Peter said another verb such as führen could be used in the above example:
ein gutes Leben führen (to lead a good life).

This led to a discussion of the noun Führer (leader); Hitler was der Führer. Guess what! I knew from context what der Führer meant, but did I know the literal meaning? No. Shows the value of studying what would seem to be very basic subjects.


To illustrate some point of vocabulary or usage, Peter mentioned the title of a German novel: Im Westen nichts Neues. He had a vague acquaintance of the novel, has never read it. I got excited and said that it was All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. (Peter did not know the book’s English title.)

(I wrote a paper on All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. My English teacher, Mr. Tighe. liked it. I said that what made the novel’s “anti-war message” so compelling was the unobtrusiveness of the main character: Paul Bäumer.)


In the class, we are working on direct (accusative case) and indirect (dative) objects.
For purposes of demonstration, Peter wrote the following sentence on the board:

Ich töte Kuh für dich. (I am killing the cow for you.)

Cow in German is feminine.

If you are using the pronoun, you would say, Ich töte sie — I kill her, not it.

In German, the word for bull, Stier,  is masculine, but there is a word, Rind, which is neuter (das Rind), for beef or cattle.

The whole class got involved in a discussion, which provoked much laughter, of how German nouns got their gender. I had never thought about this. Tür (door) is feminine. Peter said he thought it might have had something to do with the idea of receptivity if one thinks of a door as an entranceway. One of the class members, a woman, said she thought it might be that a door is something the woman of the house might, in olden days, open, since she was likely to be home.

Peter pointed out that in some languages (Spanish el sol), sun is masculine, but Sonne (sun) in German is feminine. He thought the reason is that the word in German might have been associated with fecundity or generativity (giving warmth), whereas the Spanish, for example, thought of the sun as being regal, a sort of king of the sky.

What will the language police do about all these “gendered“ nouns?

Somehow, at this point in the class, a compound German word that was introduced by Peter came up: Kurzzeitgedächtnis (short-term memory). A cool word, indeed.


The sentence Ich habe ein Buch für sie gekauft (I bought a book for her) was introduced as an example of a direct with indirect object construction. Peter said that Buch (book) was the direct object and that für sie (for her) was the indirect object. I said that I thought that was not quite correct and that, in this example, für sie is a prepositional phrase (I think adjectival). Whereas, I said, if the sentence was I bought Mary a book (as opposed to a book for Mary), there is a clear indirect object (Mary) and direct object (book).


Peter wrote the German word for case (as in grammatical case) on the board: Fall. (The German word Fall can have multiple meanings besides case, such as a fall or decline.) And then the word der Sünderfall (sinners’ fall): the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve.

– Roger W. Smith

   February 1, 2020



February 8, 2020


I had another German class this morning, and have some things to add (including random things not course-related).

As noted above, making discoveries in foreign languages is exciting for me. I recently learned that mac in Irish means son. So, MacDonald means Donald’s son.

In German class this morning, Peter used the sentence Ich trinke Kaffee die ganze Zeit (I drink coffee all the time) as an example. There was a discussion (Peter posed the question) about the phrase  die ganze Zeit. Peter put his schema TMP on the board — for time-manner-place. Peter thought it answered the question, when? (meaning T, time). I said no, it answers the question how (M)? Another student, Alina, agreed with me.

Peter used the sentence Der Kuchen schmeckt gut (The pie tastes good) as an example. If one wants to say it tastes good, the German becomes Er schmeckt gut. — with a masculine pronoun (er), not neuter; whereas in English pie is neuter and it is used. I thought to myself, gender is biologically intrinsic and embedded in many languages. Why can’t the language police accept that?

Peter said we should go over the die Hausaufgabe (homework, feminine). I love the ingenuity of German compound words. I just came across something in my reading about how Iroquois languages are known for beautiful compounds.

Peter wrote the following sentence on the board: Die Demokraten haben nich gegen Trump. (The Democrats have nothing against Trump.) He was covering the use of the accusative in German with certain prepositions.Peter said that the meaning of the sentence (devoid of knowing the context) was ambiguous. It could mean either: (1) the Democrats have nothing against Trump (no grievances — they are fine with him); or, alternatively (2) they have (found) nothing evidence-wise — have come up with nothing — that they can use against him.