Over the last few weeks, we have shared with you some of the material we would normally tell you about at an open day. Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French and Co-Director of Outreach, gave us a video overview of what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford… but do the current students agree?
We asked three current undergraduates to tell us a little bit about their experience of studying languages with us: Dalveen is in her first year studing Spanish and Linguistics; Alex is in his second year studying French and History; Charlotte also studies French and History and is in her final year. Here they give us a glimpse of what Oxford has been like through their eyes.
Linguistics is an increasingly popular area of study amongst our undergraduates, with some opting to study the subject as one half of a ‘joint schools’ degree (a degree where you combine two subjects e.g. ‘Modern Languages and Linguistics’), while others study it within their Modern Languages degree as an optional paper. But, for most people, linguistics is not something they will have had a chance to study at school and the subject will be brand new to them when they start at university.
So what exactly is linguistics? Fortunately, our colleague from the Faculty of Linguistics, Dr Jamie Findlay, has recorded an introduction to the subject. Check it out below and, if you like what you hear, perhaps consider incorporating linguistics into your degree…
This post was written by Sarah Wadsworth, a first-year Spanish & Arabic student at St Anne’s College.
“What’s the hardest thing about studying Golden Age Spanish?” my friend says, repeating the question I asked her, pretending to think. She laughs. “The fact that all the words sound the same. They all begin with ‘al’!”
Gross overestimation it undoubtedly is, but in considering the lexicon of just one Spanish text – in this case, Cervantes’ novela Rinconete y Cortadillo – I can see where she’s coming from. Words like ‘almojarifazgo’, ‘alcabala’ and ‘almofía’ abound even in this short story that we study in first year. It’s something we have both noticed, the prevalence of a little syllable which in turn speaks to a wider history of language transference.
For almost 800 years, there was Arabic social and cultural hegemony from Andalusia to Toledo and even into southern France at the Moorish empire’s peak in the 8th century. Though the Reconquista (‘Reconquest’) would eventually return power to the Catholic monarchs with the surrender of Granada in 1492, the effects of centuries of linguistic transference were already evident, a consequence of history that still echoes in so many Spanish words. The influence of Arabic is visible both in the esoteric terms mentioned above and in more vernacular language, as is demonstrated by the Spanish word “hasta” (meaning “until”) and its Arabic cognate “حَتَّى” or “ḥatta”. The place names Andalucía and Almería are also of Arabic origin; they are just two of the hundreds of Arabic names for various regions, cities, towns and villages across the Iberian Peninsula.
From the Moorish characters of numerous Spanish ballads to the magnificent architecture of the Alhambra, it is a past that continues to resonate in both Spanish literature and the language itself. But the modern twist on the tale? Given the emigration of Arabic speakers to Latin America from the 19th century onwards, there are now significant Middle Eastern communities in the New World too, like that in the Colombian city of Barranquilla. There are those with roots in both cultures who have risen to fame – the singer Shakira is just one notable example. The linguistic connections between Arabic and Spanish seem as potent today as they were more than 600 years ago.
by Maddison Sumner, a second-year student in French and Linguistics at Lady Margaret Hall
Linguistics is not often a subject that you can study before you come to university, but that does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that it isn’t one of the most interesting and fulfilling subjects that you can study. Usually, if you’ve figured out that words and language and the way they work are all things that you’re interested in, you can find lots of online resources that give you some background knowledge that you can bring with you to university should you decide to undertake a degree with some sort of linguistics in it. I am going to show you just one of my favourite parts of linguistics here.
If I asked you: ‘What did you have for breakfast?’, what would you answer? You’d tell me what you had for breakfast this morning, wouldn’t you? Why did you assume that I meant this morning, and not yesterday afternoon? Or the morning of March 8th, 2006? And what if you told me that you really needed some apples, and I said to you ‘there’s a shop around the corner!’ Why would you be annoyed with me if you got to this shop and found out it wasn’t a grocery shop but a shoe shop? It’s because as humans, we have what a linguist named Grice named Conversational Maxims. There are a few, but one of them is basically that we assume everyone we speak to will be relevant with their contribution to the conversation. When I asked you about breakfast, you assumed I was talking about a morning, because we eat breakfast in the morning, and you assumed I was talking about this morning specifically, because that would be relevant – I would have specified if I wanted to know about 2006! The same goes for the shop situation – I wouldn’t have even contributed to the conversation if the shop wasn’t going to be relevant in solving the problem you presented when you told me you needed apples. All of this is a part of linguistics called Pragmatics, which deals with meaning in context. It’s really interesting and fun to research if you’re intrigued – I would suggest looking up the pragmatics of politeness!
As you can see, linguistics isn’t just all about grammar and verb tables (although, if you love grammar and verb tables, there’s plenty of stuff for you to dig into as well!). Linguistics is an incredibly diverse subject and is so fun to study if you take the time to look at it in some detail.
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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