Guy Voets

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I opted for scientific studies at the university, but I could never deny my fascination with languages, idioms, etymology, the spoken and written word. Whenever I visit a region where another language is spoken, I try to pick up some words, for basic survival, to say hello and thank you in the local lingo. The experience is always similar: you gain immediate credit with the people when you do some effort to communicate with them in their language. I abhor those arrogant and stupid tourists who presume that anybody has to understand what they are demanding in English, German or French. I picked up words in Greek, Swedish, Arabic, Thai... that remain somewhere in my memory, even many years after visiting the countries where they are spoken.

Because I was a little bit 'contrary' when I was younger, I preferred English over French (because my father taught French at the teachers' school). I guess that my mastery of both languages is now equal, and besides I developed notions of German, Spanish, and recently got quite proficient in (Brazilian) Portuguese. I always liked to compare the West-European languages, their similarities and differences, the 'false friends' that make that you are misunderstood when you thought you made sense... I am interested in these 'operators' that make the sound of a language and differentiate it from its (Roman or German) neighbours. Just an example: the suffix -tion in French or English becomes -ción in Spanish, -ção in Portuguese, -tie in Dutch. Speaking of my native Dutch: when my spouse started to learn the language of her new home region, it became apparent to us that Dutch is a rather difficult language, with more exceptions than rules, with difficult pronunciations and syntax. I always believed that Dutch was quite simple, a cross between German and English with some French mixed in. Well no, it has all its tortuous specialities and particularities. Differentiation in dialects and idioms is also astonishing, certainly for someone who comes from a country of 160 million people, where a person from one part can quite easily understand the language as it is spoken 1000 and more kilometers away. In Belgium, in the 1950's, you could determine the exact geographic origin of a person from the way he spoke, just like a oenologist can tell you the year and chateau of a burgundy wine after taking a few sips.

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