Languages are equal parts beautiful to crazy. I think that’s why I love to study them: you get to learn so much about a culture and a method of communication, but you also get to see the completely bizarre results of language evolution.
I was recently browsing Imgur (warning: only click on that link if you want to waste hours of your day) and stumbled upon a post regarding how sentences in various languages can, to both native and non-native ears, sound and look like a mistake in writing/speech, but be perfectly permissible in the language. After seeing these and doing a bit more research, I’ve collated some of these unusual phrases below with an explanation for each.
All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life.
Let’s start with English. It’s an odd language filled with grammatical irregularities, but the four “had’s” in this sentence make complete sense. If at first you don’t understand it, try saying it out loud. If not, try putting a comma after the first two.
To make this a little clearer, you can substitute some of the words to keep the meaning the same but the transmission of the meaning easier (e.g. find some synonyms): replace the second “had” with “possessed,” and the fourth with “produced” or “resulted in,” therefore creating the phrase All the faith he had possessed, had produced no effect on the outcome of his life.
The grammatical reason why this produces confusion is due to the a conjugation in English called the past perfect, and we use it to describe past events that are ‘completed.’ It’s easier when we say things like “I had talked” or “I had listened,” but as this had (known as an auxiliary verb) matches the main verb in the past participle (“to have” becomes “had”) then we end up with “had had.” Put two clauses together and you get “had had had had.”
Weird, right? To see an even more peculiar version of this, have a go at this grammatical puzzle…
The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (施氏食獅史)
This is a poem/riddle spoken in Mandarin Chinese*. Some wonderful person has created a YouTube video of this which can better exemplify why this is so peculiar…
For those who haven’t studied or heard much Mandarin before, it all sounds like the same sound over and over… something between “shi” and “sher.” Even those who have studied this pretty complex language for a while would find the nuances tricky to mimic.
Several asian languages have a complex system of tones, and Mandarin falls into this category; vowels in syllables can be pronounced in various ways in order to change the meaning of the word/symbol. Think of the tones a little like how we would pronounce “oh” in English: in the question form (Oh?) the vowel tone rises gradually, and in the exclamation form (Oh!) the tone falls sharply.
That is pretty much what is happening here, with the exceptions that it is a lot more subtle in Mandarin, and the tones aren’t a matter of emotion but a matter of meaning. It just so happens that this sounds like the same word repeated, but the combinations of tones create a rich and varied riddle that, again, makes perfect grammatical sense in Mandarin.
Is des des des, des des des sei soll?
This is a phrase written in (I believe?) Viennese German that in English translates to “Is this the D-flat that you meant?” This was recorded in conversation from a player in the Vienna Philharmonic speaking to his (or her) conductor, asking about a note on the score.
My knowledge of this dialect is tiny, but from what I can gather in its similarities to German, it’s pretty much a word for word translation. However, I’m not sure why there is a second set of “des’s” … is it for emphasis or am I missing something? If there are any speakers of Viennese German (or German, or anyone who can spot the pattern!) who can inform me of the structure, leave a note in the comments!
In my next post, I intend on looking at sentences that are made up either entirely of vowels or entirely of consonants, and how you might go about pronouncing them!
* This poem has this effect when spoken in a more classical form of the language. If it were done in modern day vernacular, there would be much more variation and the effect would not be noticable.