Trying to communicate: the best part of your story.

Frequently, people avoid travelling away from tourist focused locations because they’re worried about whether they will be understood, I’d suggest that means they miss out of the best part of the experience.

msadvn recently said on reddit:

The stories of trying to communicate (and hopefully succeeding) might be some of the best parts of your adventure.

Here’s my story:

Kosovo has a very divided population. Due to Stuff and Wars and Sad Things, there are people that speak Albanian and people that speak Serbian. They probably understand and speak the other language as well, but for political reasons they do not, and will not understand.

Anyway, 90% is Albanian speaking so I took an Albanian phrasebook and went travelling to a remote southern village (Brod), high in the mountains!

After walking round the village several times, sticking out like a sore sore thumb, I walk into one of the cafés and attempted an Albanian “Meridita” (“hello/good afternoon!”).

Instantly “nie Albanish. Serbish.” was growled back.

“Shit.” I thought.

“Well, no point using the phrasebook”.

I then tried English. No one spoke English. I tried French. No one spoke French. I tried the bits of Swedish know, unsurprisingly, no Swedish. I tried bits of Russian, and hum, had a lukewarm response – Serbian and Russian are somewhat mutually intelligible and share vocabulary.

Then the guy behind the counter whipped out his laptop, plugged it into this crumbling wall socket and connected to google translate.. and via google translate, we communicated, I explained where I was from, and I was able to organise somewhere to sleep that night, and a guide to take me walking the next day!

I had a great time, and that experience of walking into that café will stay with me for a long time! :)


Linguistics fact: Brod is inhabited by the Gorani people who actually speak the Gorani language/dialect every day.

Swedish Language? Difficult to learn?

I’ve studied French and Russian at school, and for about a year, last year, took Swedish language evening classes.

People always would drop the question “Is it difficult?”.

This is a horrible question to attempt to answer – usually, the language isn’t really what the answer will relate to, rather the learner’s ability and how engaged the learner is with their teacher.

Having said that, (and I must stress that I have experience learning languages before, and a good understanding of linguistics), I think Swedish is really relatively easy for English speakers to pick up. It has a lot of similarities with English in any case, which mean that if you speak (and understand how you speak English), you’ll find things quite easy.

For instance, verbs are really simple – in the present tense, it simply is – “I say, you say, he say, she say, you say, they say, ” – note it doesn’t change at all. In the past tense, it’s simply “I said, you said, he said, she said, you said, they said”…. and so on.

The basics like this are really really easy to get to grips with. I have a feeling that if I knew German (or probably Dutch), then I’d know a good deal of vocabulary already – lots of English words are shared or borrowed – lots of German ones also appear to be similar eg. “hund” = dog (similar to the English word “hound”).

But unlike Russian, which is largely braindeadingly, logical and predictable (if you follow a large set of rules, you can work out precisely what something should be in Russian – for instance if you can say it, you can spell it and vice versa – all words are spelt phonetically), Swedish is more like English. What do I mean?

In English we have a stupid number of exceptions to rules, stupid spellings, nonsensical pronunciations, and other things – this is despite the fact that simple English is relatively easy to understand. So for instance, “knight”, “gnome”, how to pronounce “ough” when used in a word and even “the” can be exceptionally tough on those learning English. I mean think about it, say “the” out loud – why do those letters even represent that sound?

Swedish also has similar idiosyncrasies. Most words are somewhat phonetic – like ours – however, there are notable exceptions – for instance – the Swedish word for “they” is spelt “de”, but pronounced “dom”. Why? Because that’s how it is.

The good news is that some of English’s moronic idiosyncrasies are also duplicated in Swedish, so if you’re a grammar nazi who enjoys correcting your friends’ inappropriate usage of “less” and “fewer”, you can continue in Swedish with “mindre” and “färre“.

Swedish is a relatively easy language to learn for an English speaker, and I suspect that you’ll find learning Swedish, about as hard, if not a bit easier, than any European who has learnt English.

Does anyone know what Xxx’s mean at the end of messages?

As the modern, connected world is largely a world of written language, communicating via the medium of text is pervasive and widely used, like never before in history. This has meant that, for many people language and the etiquette surrounding parts of it, has radically transformed.

Take Smileys.

Smileys are well documented, and actually relatively explicit in meaning – a :) means happy, a :( means sad – there’s little ambiguity involved in the emotion of the person communicating.

In addition, one can sometimes do literal translations from formal to informal – for example – sometimes a happy smiley might be somewhat synonymous with an exclamation mark:

Noone is quite sure what x's actually mean...
No-one is quite sure what x's actually mean...

Formal: I’m looking forward to seeing you!
Informal: I’m looking forward to seeing you :)

But there’s a much older practice than smileys, that continues to baffle me by it’s inconsistent usage and meaning, in today’s connected world.

The practice of adding “kisses” or “x”s to the end of a message is an old old tradition, but it seems to mean wildly different things to different people and I find it confusing to know how to infer the meaning.

The context seems, to me, to hinge largely on who the person is in relation to you, with the content of the message, usually being largely irrelevant.

If someone sends you an SMS saying “How are you? x”, what do you take that “x” to mean?

A gesture of goodwill? An actual kiss? A signal that the message has finished? It means something because a message without the “x” is different.

What about: “See you later. xxx”

There are a variety of things I think I’ve seen “x”s be used to convey:

  • Love and kisses
  • You have reached the end of this message
  • Look after yourself mate
  • I love you so much

There are some clues: the number of x’s is somewhat significant – the likelihood of it being a message of romantic love probably increases with every x, and the maximum limit for ‘family’ love, maybe stops at three x’s?

But that’s a rule of thumb, and doesn’t always seem to be followed – sending many x’s to denote a ‘look after yourself mate’ or a ‘you have reached the end of this message’ is something I’ve seen.

The interesting thing about this is that, if asked whether they append x’s to messages, most people will say “yes”, at least sometimes, but when asked what the informal rules surrounding when/when not to, most people haven’t really got a clue either.

One of the interesting things about language changing is that new rules and conventions come along – it’ll be interesting to see how “x”‘s have culturally adapted to widespread use in the UK, in perhaps 20 years time.

How are you?

When people ask me, off the cuff, something simple like:

“How are you?”

I sometimes find it hard to know how to reply.

Obviously, partly this is an age old “I’m human, you’re human, we’re both alive” statement with no deep meaning, but usually there’s also a genuine feeling of “let me know if you’re seriously upset”.

Usually when asked I’ll respond,

“Good, I think”.

which most people, quite reasonably think is a fairly strange response.

The problem is that I don’t generally think about how I am – if I was upset or happy about something 5 days ago, it won’t be at the forefront of my mind.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in this, and it feels like this one of the bits of our culture that doesn’t really make sense.

TL;DR: I insist on responding accurately to an age-old greeting practice.