A wordsmith's holiday

Some friends in Berlin wanted to visit southern Spain – al Andalus, as it was known during the time of the Moors, when it was one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. When I was invited along, I couldn't say no.

We were a polyglot group of five, and we thought and talked a lot about language. For one thing, we kept noticing all those "al" words in Spanish, derived from Arabic: not just in place names like "alcazar," the fortress, but "alameda" (variously Englished as a "tree-lined avenue" or "poplar grove") or "almendras" (almonds). The Spanish "algodon" on the label on my bath towel made me think "cotton," and its equivalents in other languages must derive from Arabic, a hunch my dictionary confirms.

Some other pages from my notebook:

1. An amazing-but-true literary factoid: Washington Irving, the creator of Ichabod Crane and Rip van Winkle, spent many years in the diplomatic service. He was posted to Spain when the Alhambra, the famous Moorish palace-fortress-garden complex, was in a state of genteel disrepair that made it easy for him to get an apartment there more or less for the asking.

Of course, I had to buy a copy of his book about all this, "Tales of the Alhambra."

"It was published in 1832? And you can still read it?" asked one of my fellow travelers. "Hasn't the language changed too much?"

No, I assured him. Language changes, but not that fast. Many texts even older are still very much alive in the language. There's Shakespeare, Milton, and so on.

And yet, once I plunged into Irving, I was struck by how much the language has changed. Different spellings ("Moslem" vs. today's more common "Muslim"), different idioms, and odd forms like "traditionary" to mean simply "traditional."

2. In Córdoba, another tale of the speed of language: Mosques are traditionally decorated with calligraphic inscriptions – so elegant, and yet so opaque to those who don't know the language. I couldn't resist flipping through the books on calligraphy in the gift shops, though. A take-away from one of them: The rhythm of the dip pen is essential to slowing down the scribe. No hasty scribbles here, as with the ballpoint or rollerball, much less the frenetic thumb-thrusts of a young man trying to wangle a date via BlackBerry.

3. Berlin: Englisch über alles on the U-Bahn and elsewhere: The TV monitors providing little news bits on the subway list the day's stock-market winners and losers as "Tops" and "Flops."

Not far from the Reichstag building, I noticed three nearby shops called, respectively, "Coffee to Go," "Perfect Skin," and "Good Pasta." Only some hours later did I realize that "pasta" isn't exactly a native English word.

Paradoxically, though, I was also impressed by how many newcomers seem to be picking up German – not just Eastern Europeans but Africans and Asians, sometimes even with a Berlin accent.

4. Conciseness counts: German's reputation for ungainly long words is by no means undeserved. But I'm contrarian enough to like to collect German expressions more concise than their English counterparts. On this trip, I found one in a magazine in which an Asian woman artist was described as a Wahlberlinerin, a Berliner by choice. One's "Wahlheimat" is the city or town where one chooses to live, rather than one's birthplace. Part of the conciseness, alas, is lost to the feminine ending: Berlinerin.

It was a great couple of weeks. But then it was time for this Wahl-Bostonian to get back to the airport and fly home.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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