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Conan, Natural Linguist?


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#21 SkiSwope

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 07:13 AM

Good comments, all. Interesting discussion.

I am about to move to Switzerland (from the US) and am currently learning to speak German. I was recently told that the Swiss speak their own kind of "Swiss-German" which is actually so different from German that is is difficult for "normal" German speakers to understand.

I immediately thought of how difficult it might be for, say, someone from inner-city Los Angeles, someone from Manhattan NY, and a Creole from the Bayou country of Louisiana to sit in a room and actually understand one another. They all speak English and they're all from the US, but they have such vastly different accents, speech patterns, and even vocabulary.

Taking that into account, I think it might be glossing over too much to think that because Conan was a northerner and descended from similar Germanic tribes as those in Asgard and Nordheim that he'd have no trouble communicating in their tongue. That's like saying if you're from Sicily that you'd be able to get along fine in Mexico since Spanish & Italian both draw from the same Romantic root language.

Conan does more than that, though. He gets by fine in the Hyborian version of India, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe which all have VASTLY different languages, vocabularies, and even alphabets. Furthermore, he's actually able to READ some of these languages, which is stunning given that he comes from an oral tradition himself and the literacy rates in the Classical and Dark Ages was virtually unheard of among commoners.

That said, I fully understand that a language barrier would simply get in the way of most stories. It just made me curious, that's all. If someone actually had to explain why Conan is adept at acquiring new languages, how would they do it?

You guys have come up with some good answers to that. :)

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#22 Jason

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 11:31 AM

I just finished reading Country of the knife which is an el Borak REH yarn and in it he specifically states that like all men who live by their wits, they can pick up languages rapidly and easily, basically as a means of survival. That's not a direct quote but I guess that's one way for REH to overcome the language / cultural barrier.

#23 Jery

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 02:25 PM

I am about to move to Switzerland (from the US) and am currently learning to speak German.  I was recently told that the Swiss speak their own kind of "Swiss-German" which is actually so different from German that is is difficult for "normal" German speakers to understand.


This is true. Beside when you want live long in Switzerland you should speak their dialect. Otherwise - as I heard - they will not accept you as their citizen. But most of them should speak also Hochdeutsch B)


To Conan:

He was just a - among other things - linguistical genius! :D
The Cimmerian made no attempt to match wits and intrigue with Thutmekri and his Shemitish partner, Zargheba. He knew that if Thutmekri won his point, he would insist on the instant banishment of his rival. There was but one thing for Conan to do: find the jewels before the king of Keshan made up his mind, and flee with them.
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#24 korak

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 07:25 PM

skiswope writes- Furthermore, he's actually able to READ some of these languages, which is stunning given that he comes from an oral tradition himself and the literacy rates in the Classical and Dark Ages was virtually unheard of among commoners.


It is true that the literacy rates in our own ancient history were quite low, but I would not automatically assume that the literacy rates in the Hyborian Age are that low. That is an assumption about Howard's fantasy world. Some passages in his stories indicate that at least in the cities of Hyboria, there is a higher level of civilization, coming close to the renaissance levels of the 1500's. Before that, in Kull's days, Valusia was said to make Rome at her height look like a village of mud huts. So I think that Howard, himself a very literate person, would naturally inject some literacy into his fantasy world.

Admittedly, the Cimmerians were probably not-- one good reason for a bright mind like Conan to grow bored with that hillbilly lifestyle and set out to explore the world. The question is, when did Conan first learn the basics of reading? During the days when he first came to the city to be a thief? Who taught him? Did he, like Tarzan, teach himself to read, by listening in the squares to the orators, and by stealing primers and other books?

#25 Kortoso

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 11:04 PM

Generally speaking, people who learn a second language before they're about 16 have a much easier time than others of learning a third and fourth language. Apparently a space (?) is reserved in the brain for additional languages.

#26 Ironhand

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Posted 06 May 2005 - 01:59 AM

I wrote an outline for a story about how Conan learned to read. Kane has seen it, but of course, I can't post it here. It's very different from Milius' version of how Conan learned to read.
"Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man...!" - Conan, in "Shadows in Zamboula", by Robert E. Howard
"... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." - "Beyond the Black River", by Robert E. Howard

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#27 korak

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Posted 06 May 2005 - 03:28 AM

ironhand writes- It's very different from Milius' version of how Conan learned to read.


He learned to read in CTB? When? I do not recall anything like that.

#28 Dragon Girl

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Posted 06 May 2005 - 04:10 AM

I guarantee it wasn't by reading "See Jane run!" :D
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#29 Swiftsteel

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Posted 06 May 2005 - 05:56 AM

Conan learned to read in CTB during the scene where he is caged by Redhair and put to stud with the Oriental noblewoman. To quote Mako's narrative:

"Languages and writing were made available...the poetry of Khitai...the philosophy of Soong...and he also came to know the pleasures of women, when he was bred to the finest stock." :D

As for the original topic in and of itself, I would say that one's dependance upon learning other languages hinges alot upon one's proximity to other cultural groups. As North Americans (I'm assuming most of us here are based in North America) we tend to view the idea of multilingualism as something of a Promethean exercise in mental toil when in fact, elsewhere, the majority of peoples in the world most likely take such a skill for granted, so prevalent is it - by necessity - where they live. We live in either Canada, or the U.S. (again...a general assumption I am making) which are both Anglo-Saxon-based capitalist/consumer cultures where English is the dominant spoken tongue. We don't need to know how to speak any other language. Not so elsewhere. In both Europe and Asia, and Africa where there are numerous smaller countries, all closely linked with one another both culturally and politically, and geographically it is essentially a necessity for the average person to have at least a working, if not fluent knowledge of around two to three languages by adolescence. Thus, by example most French probably have a fairly decent grasp of English, German, and Italian as well as their native tongue, just as I imagine a great many Chinese likely grasp not only one or two dialects of their own language but possibly also Mongolian, Korean, etc. I'm sure things were no different in centuries past either. The Hyborian Age would, of course be likewise comparable.

In North America, where - let's face it - English really is almost the only language one has to know, we have become linguistically lazy by comparison. Sure, obviously there are other languages spoken both in the U.S. and Canada; namely French, Spanish, and in some parts, Chinese...but really, again let's be brutally honest...not having a knowledge of those languages isn't exactly going to hold one back from anything over here. If anything, the onus still falls upon everyone else to speak English in pretty much every social, political, and work-related situation. At the end of the day, an individual's or culture's proclivity for multilingualism is more or less dictated by location and nothing more.

Edited by Swiftsteel, 06 May 2005 - 06:01 AM.


#30 korak

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Posted 06 May 2005 - 07:09 PM

It is kind of amazing that in the entire western hemisphere, you could go from Alaska all the way down to Peru and be able to get by with only two related european languages. In the old world you'd be lucky to go for a couple hundred miles...

#31 Strom

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Posted 07 May 2005 - 01:14 AM

Funny story - When I was in the US Marine Corps I was stationed at the airbase in Yuma, Arizona. One night (like many nights) we crossed the border into Mexico and partied it up. This raven-haired girl with a flower in her hair caught my eye and from then on the rest of the night was a haze. I woke up by myself in some crazy motel with just holes in the walls for windows. I got up and looked thru the hole and saw a three-legged dog limping across a dirt road and I remember thinking, "Wonder what happened to his leg?"...

I was completely broke and very hung over and extremely thirsty. Since I had no idea where I was, I just started walking. Eventually, I came to an intersection where a Mexican police officer was directing traffic. I had studied Spanish at an advanced level in high school and I thought, "Yes! I can now put all those years of study to use" and calmly walked up to the police officer and said "Donde esta el Estadios Unidos?" and prepared to translate his reply. The officer looked at me and said in perfect English "The United States? Just follow this road for 3 miles." I had to laugh as I thought, 'All that studying and the one time I could of utilized what I learned in a desperate situation and the guy not only knows English but didn't even attempt to answer me in Spanish!" :lol:

The adventure did not end there but that's another story! B)

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#32 Amra

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Posted 12 May 2005 - 03:08 PM

Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters with which it was covered. In his roaming about the world the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.

From Jewels of Gwahlur
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REH-A Witch Shall Be Born - Amra The Lion.com

#33 Kortoso

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Posted 13 May 2005 - 02:04 AM

Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters with which it was covered. In his roaming about the world the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.

From Jewels of Gwahlur

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I appreciate your quoting sources. :)

#34 Buxom Sorceress

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Posted 13 May 2005 - 03:56 AM

Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters with which it was covered. In his roaming about the world the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian's linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.

From Jewels of Gwahlur

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

great quote!
thanks for your research efforts.

[oh , + it contains a **giant** quote aswell.]
cheers *** :)

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#35 Cadogan

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Posted 13 May 2005 - 11:55 AM

I would say that one's dependance upon learning other languages hinges alot upon one's proximity to other cultural groups. As North Americans (I'm assuming most of us here are based in North America) we tend to view the idea of multilingualism as something of a Promethean exercise in mental toil when in fact, elsewhere, the majority of peoples in the world most likely take such a skill for granted, so prevalent is it - by necessity - where they live. Thus, by example most French probably have a fairly decent grasp of English, German, and Italian as well as their native tongue,

At the end of the day, an individual's or culture's proclivity for multilingualism is more or less dictated by location and nothing more.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Swiftsteel is spot on. As an American living in Europe for nigh unto a year now, I am completely flabergasted at the number of multi-lingual people running about; and even more astonished that it is taken for granted by the populace here.

MANY, MANY people speak their own tongues plus English, and I personally know about half a dozen folk that speak between 3 and 5 languages. (And I don't have that wide of a social circle.)

A linguist friend of mine tells me (and I'm going to paraphrase terribly because I'm not smart enought to remember half of what he said!) that people who learn another tongue when they are young somehow keep that ability in their brain working, and find it much easier to learn even more languages.

I, on the other hand have mastered only the ability to order a beer! "Ein biere, bitte!" B)
"But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood, restless harbringers of violence and bloodshed, knowing no other path..." - Robert E. Howard "A Witch Shall Be Born"

#36 Amra

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Posted 13 May 2005 - 11:59 AM

Aye, it does contain a giant quote Bux, I missed that one! Good eye o' Buxom one!
"But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood, restless harbingers of violence and bloodshed, knowing no other path."
REH-A Witch Shall Be Born - Amra The Lion.com

#37 texas pict

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 04:48 PM

I know this is an old thread, but it's a topic I have pondered on.

I grew up in Texas, in a rather xenophobic household. I joined the army at the age of 21, and ETSed at the age of 39. I returned home to the family ranch, and here I stay. I am now thinking about my army time, as two of my sons are headed off to Ranger school.

I left home speaking English, and not knowing much about foriegners. During my time in service, I travelled (a lot, 82nd Airborne, 75th Rangers, 10th Mountain), and was curious about the people and places I saw. I made a point of interacting with the locals (as much as possible), and seeing what I could.

While I'm no linguist, and my accent was "John Wayne-ish" when speaking other languages, I could communicate. I left the army able to chat up a girl (not the best sort), or interact with the local authorities (not all of them pleasent) in: Spanish, German, Korean, French, and to some extent Italian. I could also read enough of all those languages to get the gist of what was being said.

If I could do it, I'm sure a merc like Conan would have had no problems. Speaking the language, and understanding the culture, is very important to a combat arms soldier. Knowing what the locals are saying, and what may cheese them off, will save your rear. Most "foriegners" also seemed to be more friendly and cooperative, if you tried to communicate with them in their local tongue. Some would bust out with their high school English, if you tried to show them you had bothered learning some of their language.

#38 John Maddox Roberts

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 06:48 PM

The lingua franca theory makes sense. In the ancient Mediterranean world you could go anywhere and communicate with just about anyone if you spoke Greek. Almost all Romans were bilingual with Greek as their second language. On the other hand, some people just have a gift for languages. In the 19th Century, Sir Richard Burton was known for this facility. He could attain fluency in any language in a few days, and within weeks he could speak it like a native. He disguised himself as an Arab and made the pilgrimage to Mecca, despite the fact that Arabic is a notoriously difficult language for a Westerner to learn. Burton's contemporary, Sir Harry Flashman, has the same facility, and I suspect George MacDonald Fraser gave him that knack for the same reason as Howard - it makes his adventuring much easier when he talks to the locals instead of having to go through an interpreter.

Edited by John Maddox Roberts, 10 February 2007 - 08:28 PM.


#39 tocs100

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 07:48 PM

....BuSos writes-
hey KORAK, thanks for your revelation [to me] about Howards PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY.
that is amazing, + explains a lot more to me!
did REH have any other remarkable /rare special abilities?

Yes, he did. He was really a genius at writing great American literature! :lol:


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#40 PainBrush

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Posted 11 February 2007 - 09:23 AM

I never noticed this topic before that I remember , thought I had read them all by now .

I, on the other hand have mastered only the ability to order a beer! "Ein biere, bitte!"

Hmmm , I know very little German , but after about 5 , 6 , 7 Biers , in my regular Engrlish Langruage when I order another it shoundsh pretty shimilar to " Ein Bier Bittt............." - I get the meanest looks from the barmaids or waitresses here , maybe I should move to Germany..........

Edited by PAINBRUSH, 11 February 2007 - 09:24 AM.

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So THIS is civilization ??!??!......

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