Languages, part 1

Posted on January 26, 2017 with tags . Part 1 of a 1-part series on languages. See the previous or next posts.

I do enjoy writing blog posts, but sometimes time is lacking, other times inspiration. As I was eating dinner today, I was lost in thoughts and my eyes stopped on the documentation from a certain medication for coughing (the thing almost noone reads, like EULAs). I was surprised quite surprised with the text that I said “well, some blog posts on languages might be interesting”.

Background: My mother tongue is Romanian. While growing up and learning foreign languages, I considered only the utilitarian aspect of languages, but as I get older (not old, older! ☺), I find human languages more and more interesting.

Back to the subject: this being Switzerland, most everything is written in German, French and Italian (in this order of frequency). German is still a foreign language to me (let’s say I get by, but not nicely), French is the fancy high class cousin, and Italian… Well Italian is a special case. When I first saw Italian on TV (a newscast while travelling in Italy) I was shocked at how much one can understand without learning Italian in any way (much, much more than German after years of trying). So Italian language is quite close, and usually one understands a third to half; this is both spoken (less in common language, more in official language) and in writing.

In this particular case, the instructions of use say (sorry for typos, manually copying):

In casi rarissimi possono manifestarsi reazioni di ipersensibilità grave con tumefazione del viso, difficoltà respiratoria (dispnea) e diminuzione della pressione arteriosa.

What was surprising here was not the list of side effects (hah), but that this short phrase is 98% identical to the translation in Romanian; not only words, but also phrase structure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before:

În cazuri rare se pot manifesta reacții de hipersensibilitate gravă cu tumefacție a feței, dificultate respiratorie (dispnee) și diminuare a presiunii arteriale.

Not all the words are identical, but even the one that is obviously different (it. ‘del viso’, ro. ‘a feței’) is easily translatable as ‘visiune’ in Romanian means ‘to see’, so the link is clear. This phrase structure is also quite a natural way to say the things in Romanian.

I was then curious to see the French version, which is:

Dans de très rares cas, [the medicine] peut déclencher de violentes réactions d’hypersensibilité s’accompagnant d’un gonflement du visage, de détresse respiratorie e d’une chute de tension.

French is usually quite different from Romanian that one has to learn it (for quite a while, especially for grammar) in order to be proficient in it, but here you can make also word-by-word translation (transposition?) that doesn’t lose the meaning:

În cazuri tare rari, [the medicime] poate declanșa violente reacții de hypersensibilitate acompaniate de o umflare a feței, de ???? respiratorie și de ???? a tensiunii.

Basically here we have two non-equivalent words, and a bit more wierd phrase structure—it sounds more like coloquial speech than written language—but for French is also surprisingly close. You’d invert some of the adjective-noun pairs (fr. ‘violentes réactions’ is understandable in Romanian as ‘violente reacții’, but it sounds very poetical and you’d usually write it as ‘reacții violente’).

The next phrase is no longer that similar, but the one after is again obviously identical:

Se osserva effetti collaterali qui non descritti, dovrebbe informare il suo medico, il suo farmacista o il suo drogerie.

which is:

[Dacă/If] se observă effecte colaterale care nu sunt descrise, trebuie informat medicul vostru, farmacistul vostru sau [xxxx - no real equivalent].

And the French is also identical, modulo again ‘droguiste’:

Si vouz remarquez de effets secondaires qui ne sont pas mentionnés dans cette notice, veuillez en informer votre médecin, votre pharmacien ou votre droguiste.

which is:

Dacă remarcați efecte secundare care nu sunt menționate în această notă, informați medicul vostru, farmacistul vostru sau al vostru [xxxx].

This is even closer; ‘votre’ is more similar to ‘[al] vostru’ than ‘suo’, and the phrase structure is much more natural - this is exactly how you’d write it in ‘native’ Romanian, whereas the Italian is not (I had to add the ‘if’ to make it parseable). The ‘vous’ in ‘vouz remarquez’ is ‘voi’ in Romanian, but doesn’t need to be added as it would be redundant; but it doesn’t confuse the phrase. The ‘veuillez en informer’ doesn’t have a 1:1 translation (it would be written as ‘vă rugăm să informați’), but is still understandable; a false friend translation would be ‘vedeți să informați’/see to inform/voir informer.

Why is this all surprising? Because Romanian has a significant amount of words of Slavic origin (~11% in overall vocabulary, 15% in most commonly used 2500 words) and some from other nearby countries (Turkey, Greek, some Hungarian and German). At a stretch, it’s even possible to write simple but complete sentences entirely with words from Slavic origin, as I learned from this interesting youtube video. Also, our accent is almost always confused with Russian, not with Italian or French.

So to get to a summary: normally you see sentence elements that are similar or identical, but not entire sentences, and definitely not phrases. What made the three languages here keep, in this particular case, not only similar but almost identical words and also almost identical phrase structure? Is it the subject (medicine)? Maybe. Is it a random fluke? If so, I don’t remember seeing it before. Do I just see similarities where there are none? Possibly ☺, but at least I thought it worth mentioning; it was quite surprising to me. Did my brain get confused by too many languages and I misinterpreted words that don’t really exist (e.g. I was sure that ‘vizajul’ is a Romanian word, but upon checking, it isn’t…)? Also possible.

In any case, for me it was a good subject for a blog post. Now let’s not go near Spanish and definitely not near Portuguese…