Werner Herzog Lists All the Languages He Knows–and Why He Only Speaks French If (Literally) a Gun’s Pointed at His Head

If you’ve explored the filmography of Werner Herzog, you’ve heard him speak not just his signature Teutonically inflected English — often imitated in recent years, though never quite equaled — but German as well. What else does he speak? In the clip above, the Bavarian-born director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo responds thus to the question of exactly how many languages he has: “Not too many. I mean, Spanish, English, German… and then I spoke modern Greek better than English once. I made a film in modern Greek, but that’s because in school I learned Latin and ancient Greek.”

The list doesn’t end there. “I do speak some Italian. I do understand French, but I refuse to speak it. It’s the last thing I would ever do. You can only get some French out of me with a gun pointed at my head” — which is exactly what happened to him. “I was taken prisoner in Africa” by “drunk soldiers on a truck,” all of them “fifteen, sixteen years old, some of them eight, nine years old,” armed and taking dead aim at him. “That was very unpleasant,” not least due to the lead soldier’s insistence that “on nous parle français ici.” And so Herzog finally “had to say a few things in French. I regret it. I shouldn’t have done it.”




But speaking, in Herzog’s world, isn’t as important as reading. “I read in Spanish and I read in Latin and I read in ancient Greek and I read in, er, whatever,” he told the Guardian in a more recent interview. “But it doesn’t matter. It depends on the text. I mean, take, for instance, Hölderlin, the greatest of the German poets. You cannot touch him in translation. If you’re reading Hölderlin, you must learn German first.” This alongside an appreciation of “trash movies, trash TV. WrestleMania. The Kardashians. I’m fascinated by it. So I don’t say read Tolstoy and nothing else. Read everything. See everything. The poet must not avert his eyes.”

It you want to become like Werner Herzog — well, best of luck to you (though he has created a “rogue film school” and currently stars in a Masterclass). But if you want to follow his lead in this specifically linguistic respect, you can start from our collection of free online lessons in 48 languages. There you’ll find material to start on everything from Spanish to modern as well as ancient Greek. Also included is French, Herzog’s bête noire, as well as Latin, which in the Guardian interview he calls his third language. German, which also figures into our collection, turns out not to be Herzog’s native language: “My mother tongue is Bavarian. Which is not even German, it’s a dialect.” With his filmmaking activities curtailed by world events, perhaps he’d consider producing a series of lessons?

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

“I tried to get Latin canceled for five years,” says an exasperated Max Fischer, protagonist of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, when he hears of his school’s decision to scrap Latin classes. “‘It’s a dead language,’ I’d always say.” Many have made a similarly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remember, Max’s educational philosophy overturns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the cancellation to make conversation. “That’s a shame because all the Romance languages were based on Latin,” she says, articulating a standard defense. “Nihilo sanctum estne?” Max’s reply, after Miss Cross clarifies that what she said is Latin for “Is nothing sacred?”: “Sic transit gloria.”

From ad hoc and bona fide to status quo and vice versa, all of us know a little bit of Latin, even the “dead language’s” most outspoken opponents. But do any of us have a reason to build deliberately on that inherited knowledge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but “Three Reasons to Study Latin (for Normal People, Not Language Geeks).”




As its host admits, “I could tell you that studying Latin will set you up to learn the Romance languages or give you a base of knowledge for fine arts and literature. I can tell you that you’ll be able to read Latin on old buildings, hymns, state mottoes, or that reading Cicero and Virgil in the original is divinely beautiful.” But the number one reason to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your language acquisition skills.

And language acquisition isn’t just the skill of learning languages, but “the skill of learning other skills.” It teaches us that “thoughts themselves are formed differently in different languages,” and learning even a single foreign word “is the act of learning to think in a new way.” Study a foreign language and you enter a community, just as you do “every time you learn a new profession, learn a new hobby,” or when you “interact with historians or philosophers, interact with the writers of cookbooks, or gardening books, or even writers of software.” Latin in particular will also make you better at speaking English, especially if you already speak it natively. Not only are you “unavoidably blind to the weaknesses and strengths of your native meaning carrying system — your language — until you test drive a new one,” the more complex, abstract half of the English vocabulary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promises wisdom. Not only can it “train you to conceptualize one thing in the context of many things and to see the connections between all of them,” it can, by the time you’re understanding meaning as well as form, “grow you in big-picture and small-picture thinking and give you the dexterity to move back and forth between both.” Just as you are what you eat, “your mind becomes like what you spend your time thinking about,” and the rigorously structured Latin language can imbue it with “logic, order, discipline, structure, precision.” In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sellers builds on this idea, calling the study of Latin “one of the most effective ways of building strong fundamentals in students and preparing them for the future.” Among the timeless benefits of the “eternal language” Sellers includes its ability to increase English “word power,” its “mathematical” nature, and the connections it makes between the ancient world and the modern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the average school curriculum than it is now, but the debates about its usefulness have been going on for generations. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 classroom film above, covers a wide swath of them in ten minutes, from reading classics in the original to understanding scientific and medical terminology to becoming a sharper writer in English to tracing modern Western governmental and societal principles back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an economical language that can pack a great deal of meaning into relatively few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expression sound weightier — it gives a certain gravitas, we might say.

If all these arguments have sold you on the benefits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch “How Latin Works” for a brief overview of the history and mechanics of the language, as well as an explanation of what it has given to and how it differs from English and the other European languages we use today. You might then proceed to the free Latin lessons available at the the University of Texas’ Linguistics Research Center, previously featured here on Open Culture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you’ll see and hear it everywhere. You might even ask the same question Max Fischer poses to the assembled administrators of Rushmore Academy: “Is Latin dead?” His motivations have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad reasons to learn a language, living or otherwise.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

When did language begin? The question is not an easy one to answer. There are no records of the event. “Languages don’t leave fossils,” notes the Linguistic Society of America, “and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.” The scant evidence from evolutionary biology does not tell us when early humans first began to use language, only that they could 100,000 years or so ago.

However, the question also depends on what we mean by language. Before the linguistic technologies of grammar and syntax, hominids, like other mammals today and a good number of non-mammals too, had a wordless language that communicated more directly, and more honestly, than any of the thousands of ways to string syllables into sentences.




That language still exists, of course, and those who understand it know when someone is afraid, relieved, frustrated, angry, confused, surprised, embarrassed, or awed, no matter what that someone says. It is a language of feeling—of sighs, grunts, rumbles, moans, whistles, sniffs, laughs, sobs, and so forth. Researchers call them “vocal bursts” and as any long-suffering married couple can tell you, they communicate a whole range of specific feelings.

“Emotional expressions,” says UC Berkeley psychology graduate student Alan Cowen, “color our social interactions with spirited declarations of our inner feeling that are difficult to fake, and that our friends, co-workers and loved ones rely on to decipher our true commitments.“ Cowen and his colleagues devised a study to test the range of emotion vocal bursts can carry.

The researchers asked 56 people, reports Discover magazine, “some professional actors and some not, to react to different emotional scenarios” in recordings. Next, they played the recordings for over a 1,000 people, who rated “the vocalizations based on the emotions and tone (positive or negative) they thought the clips conveyed.”

The researchers found that “vocal bursts convey at least 24 distinct kinds of emotions.” They plotted those feelings on a colorful interactive map, publicly available online. “The team says it could be useful in helping robotic devices better pin down human emotions,” Discover writes. “It could also be handy in clinical settings, helping patients who struggle with emotional processing.” The study only recorded vocalizations from English speakers, and “the results would undoubtedly vary if people from other countries or who spoke other languages were surveyed.”

But this limitation does not undermine another implication of the study: that human language consists of far more than just words, and that vocal bursts, which we likely share with a wide swath of the animal kingdom, are not only, perhaps, an original language but also one that continues to communicate the things we can’t or won’t say to each other. Read the study here and see the interactive vocal burst map here.

via MetaFilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the English Language


There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

The word dates back to the very beginning of modern Japan, the Meiji era (1868-1912) and has its origins in a pun. Tsundoku, which literally means reading pile, is written in Japanese as 積ん読. Tsunde oku means to let something pile up and is written 積んでおく. Some wag around the turn of the century swapped out that oku (おく) in tsunde oku for doku (読) – meaning to read. Then since tsunde doku is hard to say, the word got mushed together to form tsundoku.




As with other Japanese words like karaoke, tsunami, and otaku, I think it’s high time that tsundoku enter the English language. Now if only we can figure out a word to describe unread ebooks that languish on your Kindle. E-tsundoku? Tsunkindle? Visit our collection of Free eBooks and contemplate the matter for a while.

The illustration above was made when Redditor Wemedge asked his daughter to illustrate the word “Tsundoku,” and she did not disappoint.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in July 2014.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his art blog Veeptopus.

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.




Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Speak French Before & After Attending Middlebury’s Immersion Program

The many fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, longtime Atlantic correspondent and author of books like The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me (not to mention his more recent role as a writer of Black Panther comics), know a thing or two about the trials and tribulations he went through to become one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, but fewer of them know how intense a battle he’s waged, over the past few years, on the side: that of mastering the French language in his 30s and 40s.

“I’m taking an hour a week to try to teach myself French,” Coates wrote on his blog at The Atlantic in the summer of 2011, explaining that his wife “went to Paris five years ago and loved it. She wants me to go back with her, and I want to go. But I refuse to do so until I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. This isn’t about impressing the French — I expect my accent to mocked — it’s about how I interpret the world. Language is a big part of it.” After starting to dig into the Foreign Service Institute’s French materials (available free in our language-learning collection), he crossed out the word week in “an hour a week” to replace it with day, already sensing, no doubt, the unexpected demands this particular language would make on him.




“‘Et alors’ is similar to our ‘So what?’ But ‘Et Alors’ doesn’t simply sound different, it feels different, it carries another connotation, another music,” he wrote in an early 2012 follow-up. “I don’t know if that means anything to people who don’t write professionally, but for me it means a ton.” It seems only right, he concluded, “that a writer should explore languages and try to spend time with as many as he or she can. That I should arrive at such an obvious conclusion at this late date is humbling.” And so he pressed steadfastly on, memorizing French vocabulary words and grammatical structures, taking classes, meeting with a tutor, and after receiving his first passport at the age of 37, studying and practicing in real Francophone places like Paris and Switzerland.

Coates stepped up to a higher level of French skill — and a much higher level of French challenge — when he signed up for Middlebury College’s seven-week French immersion program, throwing himself into an environment of much younger and “fiercer” classmates without the possibility of leaning on his native language. When he sat down for the four-minute video interview at the top of the post before shipping out to Middlebury, he later revealed, “there were several moments when I didn’t even understand the question.” No such problems when he sat for another short conversation after the seven weeks, captured in the video just above: “What changed most at Middlebury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard.”

Though Middlebury clearly helped push him forward, Coates doesn’t seem to consider participation in such a program a requirement for even the ambitious French learner. Maintaining the right attitude, however, is non-negotiable: “I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study — the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little.” Grappling with French has taught him, among other life lessons he’s written about, “that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn’t ‘When will I master the subjunctive?’ It’s ‘Did I put in my hour of study today?'”

How you feel about your process of study, Coates emphasizes, “it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the ‘feeling’ that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the ‘feeling’ of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care.”

After less than a year of studying French, Coates found, his brain had begun to “hunger for that feeling of stupidity” that comes from less-than-satisfactory comprehension. “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it,” he wrote in a more recent reflection on his ongoing (and now surely lifelong) engagement with French. “Everyone should do it every ten years or so.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

Whistled language is a rare form of communication that can be mostly found in locations with isolating features such as scattered settlements or mountainous terrain. This documentary above shows how Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, conducts field studies among speakers of a Chinantec language, who live in the mountainous region of northern Oaxaca in Mexico. The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico has recorded and transcribed a whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec between two men in different fields. The result can be seen and heard here.

The most thoroughly-researched whistled language however is Silbo Gomero, the language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands). In 2009, it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The UNESCO website has a good description of this whistled language with photos and a video. Having almost died out, the language is now taught once more in schools.

Note: This post first appeared on our site back in 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.

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