Category Archives: Culture and News for Linguaphiles

Learn Italian and a bit of Italian Music History Along the Way

L’italiano è la lingua della musica!” You can probably figure out at least two of those words (even if you never tried to learn Italian) and come up with a basic understanding of what the sentence means:  Italian is the language of music.  You were able to make that out because a majority of English words derive from Latin, and of all the modern Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin.

Pianoforte or Fortepiano?

You can learn to speak Italian con brio (lively) and pronounce it piano or forte, but always con passione.  No matter your native language, with few exceptions, these words or phrases, describing how music should be played, are in Italian.  Learn Italian A nodding acquaintance with music notation will reveal a generous list of Italian expressions that you may already know. Many of the words will be a ready-made list that will go a long way in increasing your vocabulary while helping you learn Italian.  Just considering these two words, piano and forte, it’s a good starting point as you learn other meanings of these terms in different contexts.  In addition to “softly,” in everyday Italian piano also means “slow.”  Forte is “loud” and it also means “strong.”  Around the turn of the 18th century, the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new keyboard instrument. Unlike the harpsichord, it could produce a sound from loud to soft, so someone decided to call it a fortepiano. Later it was changed to pianoforte. It flows better in Italian. Now you know that just calling it “piano” is only half the story.

Learn Italian for speaking and singing too!

You may already know that singers who want to have a career in opera, or in musicals where a more developed voice is required, start by learning Italian and singing old Italian arias.  You may think this is because a lot of operas are in Italian – yes, Italians invented opera – but that is not the reason.  The vowel sounds in Italian, though similar to vowels in other languages, are not articulated exactly the same way. Italian has the purest of vowel sounds.  They are all produced in the front, closer to the nose and lips, and not from the back of the throat.  That notion of speaking or singing “forward” is called in maschera in Italian. Yes, you probably guessed “mask,” and you are right.  If you think of those Venetian masks that cover the upper part of the face and part of the forehead, than you have the idea of where to produce the sound so that it is projected more clearly.  Learning Italian will naturally lead you to speak or sing “from the mask.” Along with proper breathing, learning to pronounce Italian will help develop this technique.  It won’t guarantee you’ll be an opera singer, but you will be enjoying forming those vowels and feel as if you were making music already.

So now you have discovered that while learning Italian, you not only learn a new language, but you also learn quite a bit of Italian culture and history.  And you also know why “L’italiano è la lingua della musica.”

Poisson D’Avril – Learn French

What helps make learning a foreign language possible at first is the cognates, the words or phrases that are similar to or the same as words in English.  Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchAccording to Paul Pimsleur, while French was never actually joined with English, historical cross-pollination means that American newcomers to French can guess the meaning of 30% or more of a random list of words.    (Paul Pimsleur, How to Learn a Foreign Language, 2013, p. 11) Poisson D'Avril - Learn French

What is fishy, however, is when the language you are learning seems arbitrary, when the cognates don’t quite match.   An early memory of one such fishy linguistic misnomer is poisson rouge, the French term for a goldfish, which is literally a “red fish.”  It drove me nuts.  (I’ll admit that most real goldfish you see in their bowls are more red than anything else, and that gold, as used in English, is the term that is actually furthest from an accurate description of the patina of these denizens of the domestic depths.)

Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchHowever, the big fishy surprise was yet to come:  these self-same inhabitants of cloudy octagonal bowls all across the US, were, for one day in April, the center of the comedy stage in France and Italy, the wet and cold rulers of a world turned on its fins.

It turns out that the holiday known as April Fool’s Day on our side of the Atlantic is known as Poisson d’Avril when celebrated by the French and Pesche d’Aprile when celebrated in Italy.  (Judging from the absence of great vintage post cards on-line, the Italians may have come to this more recently than the French.)

Poisson D’Avril Tradition

Poisson D'Avril - Learn FrenchThe tradition of a day for pranks and pranksters on or about April 1, has existed as far back as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: See “The Vain Cock” where Chanticleer is tricked by a fox. (Wikipedia).

The most benign version of a Poisson d’Avril gag nowadays involves tagging one’s friends and mates with the image of a fish taped to their back, without them noticing — the aim being for the fish to stick as long as possible without the persons noticing that something is fishy around them.

Poisson D'Avril Grownup w/ fish on back

Poisson D’Avril

Poisson D'Avril Kids w/ fish on back

Learn Russian Culture: Cold & Flu Cures

Wintertime is the season of sickness, when colds and the flu run rampant through the population (the perfect time to learn Russian tucked under the covers!).  With their bitterly cold, endless winters, the Russians know this better than anyone, and have perfected an assortment of effective treatments to ward off sneezing, coughing, fevers, and sore throats without resorting to a doctor or pharmacy visit.  If you are going to learn Russian, knowing some classic home remedies will surely impress any native speaker.

Learn Russian Remedies & Cures

Learn Russian Culture : Cold & Flu Cures

Learn Russian Culture : Cold & Flu Cures

The first thing that everyone thinks of when “home remedies” and “Russians” are mentioned in the same sentence is, of course, vodka—and there is some truth to that.  If you are feeling the beginning of a cold, a shot of vodka with pepper or garlic will help kill the germs. Garlic, with its powerful antibacterial and immune system-boosting effects, is widely used for homeopathic purposes in Russia, helping with everything from colds to toothaches to open wounds. If the thought of straight vodka and raw garlic doesn’t appeal to you, the vodka can also be taken in hot tea with honey before bed. Before you fall asleep, for extra warmth, make sure to wrap yourself in a few extra blankets, sprinkle some mustard powder in your socks, and learn this Russian saying:  derzhi golovu v holode, zhivot v golode, a nogi- v teple.  (Keep your head cool, your stomach empty, and your feet warm.)
If you wake up the next morning feeling crummy despite these preventative measures, it’s time to break out the big guns.  Congested?  Hacking cough?  Get ready for the most tried and true of Russian decongestants: mustard plasters.  Made of a mixture of dry mustard, flour, and water, then spread on a cloth and applied over the chest or back, these help draw out all the gunk in your system, and reinvigorate your circulation.  They do tend to get uncomfortably hot after a while (think blistering), so don’t plan to leave them for more than half an hour.  Fortunately, half an hour is just enough time for you to boil a big pot of potatoes.  Remove them from the heat, throw a towel over your head, and breathe the steam for a while.  Potato steam is better than plain boiled water steam because it gets and stays hotter, plus you have potatoes to eat later on (if you can avoid coughing on them).  After your steam and plaster treatment, be sure to continue to consume vast quantities of tea with honey and lemon.  To mix it up, you can also try hot orange juice- never cold!

With any luck, the cold will have vanished—or at least been scared into submission by these most uncompromising home remedies.  So next time you feel the sniffles coming on, reach for the potatoes and garlic instead of the Dayquil, and heal yourself the old Russian way.