What’s a Skein?

Most English-speaking knitters are familiar with the word ‘skein’ as a bunch of coiled yarn that has to be wound into a ball before it can be used. In trying to find the French word for skein using WordReference.com (my favorite online French-English dictionary), another knitter and I found two translations: écheveau (de fil…) and vol d’oiseau. The first translation makes perfect sense in the context of knitting. The second however, refers to the flying of birds, which is understandably confusing.

I recently learned, courtesy of Wikipedia, that the word ‘skein’ also refers to a group of geese, ducks, or other wildfowl that are in flight (entry). Another site also provides this and other examples of relatively unusual names for groups of birds.

This post refers to:

WordReference.com’s translation of ‘skein.’

Wikipedia’s disambiguation of ‘skein.’

Bird group names.

German rant: Two-way prepositions

Prepositions in German are an intriguing sort of torture. Prepositions on their own are often bad, since they rarely translate directly into other languages. Just try it with a handful of French and English ones.

German adds to this problem however, by tying prepositions to cases. There are prepositions which take the accusative case, prepositions which take the dative case, and prepositions which take either the accusative or the dative depending on whether there is motion. And if it confuses you to read that, just try putting it to use in a sentence.

English is blissfully simple in comparison.

The Awful German Language

I’ve been taking German since September, and it’s finally started to ‘click’ for me. The language does have an incredibly complex grammar. The following quote is from Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language.”

The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the OTHER HALF at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance.

The quote is also reproduced in my German workbook, since we’re now learning about separable and inseparable prefixes.

German grammar really is full of surprises. It’s remarkably different from English grammar, which seems more similar to French and Spanish. Yet English is considered a Germanic language. I, for one, and still confused as to how, but perhaps knowing more about Old and Middle English will help.

Still, if nothing else, studying German is a good intellectual exercise, and a good lesson in how languages, even closely related ones, can vary.