When the Mutally Unintelligible is Intelligible

6 Jun

Aw heck, I just like the word “intelligible”. Always kinds of sounds like its tying your tongue in knots when you’re saying it. Ties my fingers in knots typing it.

I was preparing myself for the upcoming Disney/Pixar film Brave, which follows a young Scottish lass and she tries to save her family from an ancient curse. Everyone already knows how much I love Disney movies, and anything claiming to be set pretty much anywhere in history (fictional, magical, medieval Scotland? You’ve got me pinned down, Pixar!), so naturally (or if you’re German, naturlich, which is like one of their favorite phrases, as far as I can tell) I’m excited for this movie, which comes out June 22nd. Seeing the preview, I noticed that Pixar has decided to go with voice actors who have (or are using) Scottish accents, which in my opinion is a pretty bold move. I mean, the movie is primarily aimed at a market of American children, so Pixar appears to be pretty confident about those kids’ ability to understand one of the more difficult English-language dialects (which, at times isn’t really English at all). I consider myself fairly talented at understanding accents and dialects (I watch the BBC all the time, that should do it, right?), but even I was having some trouble following what the characters were saying in the minute-long preview.

So I decided to brush up on my “och aye”s and do some researching into Scottish accents on the good old internet (and any number of novels set in Scotland). Whilst doing that, I came across the phrase “Och aye, I ken it,” which means something along the lines of “yeah, I know”.

And then it hit me. Try to say it with a Scottish accent. If that is a challenge, go google it and see if you can come up with a soundbite of it. Now, German speakers, can you back me up here- doesn’t it sound a lot like “ich kenne es”, which would translate directly (if not really awkwardly) into “I know it”. Grammarians, bite your tongues, since I know that it wouldn’t be the native German speaker’s way of saying “yeah, I know”, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still translate with the same meaning. Anyways, a German speaker listening to Scottish English isn’t going to think it’s entirely sensible anyways, so I doubt they’ll hold the grammar against you. Still- think about it- the languages aren’t as mutually unintelligible as you might think! A German and a Scot might be able to understand eachother, if only for that one phrase! Isn’t that cool?! I’m just sitting here trying to imagine that situation.

I’m not a linguist, but if I was, I would greatly enjoy speculating why or how those two phrases in separate languages might sound similar. (The linguists, they are clever folks, I’m sure they could find a real explanation that isn’t just “hey, it’s a coincidence.”) As for me, I’m going to root for some sort of 8th century Anglo-Saxon connection.

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One Response to “When the Mutally Unintelligible is Intelligible”

  1. jwrosenzweig July 2, 2012 at 1:13 AM #

    I’m not a linguist, but I can tell you that “ken” in Scottish and “kennen” in modern German are definitely sisters: “kennen/kennan/kennjan/etc.” has been a verb associated with knowing in Germanic tongues going back to Gothic and beyond. It looks as though—so saith the OED—Old English acquired “ken” from Old Norse, rather than from Old High German, but the basic relationship you were envisioning is there. “it” also took a similar path—from the Gothic “ita” it became “hit” in Old English and now “it, while in German it slowly moved to “es” in German today. As to just how Gothic connects to both languages, and the larger movements and patterns in Germanic languages, well, I suppose we’d both better read a bit on the topic. 🙂 Certainly I’m not sure what more to say on the matter. I hope this helps!

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