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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Modern-day Roman Empire

In summer 2011, I took part in the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) summer institute at the university of Colorado. It was an awesome experience, since it was the first time in years that I had visited America, and Boulder, Colorado was a delightful place (mountainous rain notwithstanding). The education was fantastic too, since I enrolled in some fascinating courses and made lots of contact in my professional field. That summer was so full of memorable episodes that I cannot even count them all. There was one particular occasion that stood out, and it was a particular pub-night where I was chatting with three Romance-speakers, one Italian, one Spanish and one Brazilian. Halfway through the evening, we decided to perform a linguistic experiment, since we were all linguistic nerds (!), and that was to test the boundaries of mutual intelligibility of modern Romance languages. We started talking in our own respective Romance language (in my case, I was speaking mainly in Spanish, though constantly moving ‘laterally’ across sister languages by reconstructing linguisitic correspondences and applying/reversing the Comparative Method…!). The remarkable thing was: it worked! We managed to have a long and sustained conversation in our respective Romance languages. We did not understand each other perfectly, and there were oftentimes when we had to pause and repeat the sentence that we had already uttered. Nonetheless, when we spoke at a slower, more emphatic rate, we managed to work out most of what each other was talking about. We were also linguists, so we were able to apply our linguistic training to our comprehension. It is often noted that Spanish and Italian are relatively well understood, as they are both phonetic languages. French and Portuguese are much less intelligible, as they are not phonetically regular. On this occasion, I am happy to recall that the three Romance languages in question (Spanish-Italian-Brazilian Portuguese) were mutually intelligible and we managed to have a conversation in them. It would have been nice to have a French speaker to complete the Western Romance jigsaw, and perhaps to have an Eastern Romance representative to stretch our Romance horizons. Nonetheless, it was an absolutely exhilarating experience for me as a Romance linguist to chat in three mutually intelligible Romance languages with three native speakers. All those who know me know that I am obsessed with Romance languages. I try to speak as much of it as I can, certainly with all my Romance-speaking friends. On that particular evening, I felt like I was living in a modern Roman Empire, as if I were a foreigner having a chat with three Roman citizens who came from different provinces and spoke different dialects of Latin. It is hard to explain my infatuation with Latin/Romance. I picked it up at school and have been obsessed with it ever since. Maybe my Chinese ancestors were a tradesmen/merchants on the Silk Road and came in contact with the Romans and had to learn Latin in order to communicate with them. Those historical interactions passed on to me and I am somehow destined to do research on Latin/Romance. Amazing.

PS I’ll be taking part at the LSA 2017 summer institute this year. To all my linguist friends, hope to see many of you here!

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