Quebec language notes

October 26, 2016

My wife and I have just come back from a ten-day trip to the province of Quebec, a place that we had both meant to visit for many years and had not managed to do until now. We were both enthralled by the beauty of the fall foliage and the charm of the historic old cities — old Montreal, Trois-Rivières and especially Quebec City — but for me there was another point of interest: to explore the bilingualism of Montreal.

I am fascinated by by bilingual societies. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every bilingual society is bilingual in its own way.

I come from a bilingual family. My parents, Polish Jews born respectively in 1905 and 1913, both had Yiddish as their native language. But by time my mother started school Poland had regained its independence (in 1918), so that all of her schooling was in Polish, which soon became her primary language, while Yiddish remained that of my father. In their conversations with each other, as far back as I remember, he spoke in Yiddish and she spoke in Polish. To me, however, they spoke only in Polish, and I did not actually speak Yiddish fluently until I was ten or so, in different circumstances. Consequently, I am not a native bilingual, as are some of my Barcelona friends who cannot recall a time when they didn’t speak both Catalan and Spanish.

According to statistics cited in Wikipedia, only 0.8% of the residents of Greater Montreal reported speaking both English and French “as a first language.” (By contrast, 17% of the people of Brussels speak both French and Dutch at home.) On the other hand, “most of its residents” are said to possess a “working knowledge of both.”

That working knowledge can be quite variable. Except in Westmount and at an Italian restaurant near the airport  in Dorval, nearly all the people we dealt with were francophones (some of whom may have been French), and their English, on the whole, was not very different from what one hears from younger people working in tourist-oriented occupations around the world. I found this surprising, since I thought that these people were far more exposed to English — from their anglophone fellow citizens and from English-language television and radio — than their counterparts elsewhere.

There may have been one or two people that we met who were of the 0.8% — native-sounding in both English and French. Our English-language guide at the Notre-Dame Basilica spoke with an almost perfect North American accent, but gave herself away when she said “we are Monday” (a calque of nous sommes  lundi) when meaning to say “today is Monday.”

Another difference from Brussels is the near-absence of bilingual signage. Even streets whose names are untranslated  English (such as University, McGill College, or City Councillors) are prefixed rue, with no “street” (see here for a Brussels example). Largely anglophone Westmount (now a separate city) gets away with neither rue nor street. All signage on freeways throughout Quebec, even warning signs, is in French only — I wonder how English Canadians driving, say, from Nova Scotia to Ontario, through their own country feel about that. Station announcements in the Montreal metro are in French only. Only federal institutions such as post offices carry bilingual signs consistently.

Once outside Montreal, even in a nearby suburb such as Repentigny, one might as well be in provincial France. Except in tourist-heavy old Quebec and nearby Ile d’Orléans, bilingual menus are less common than in Paris, and seem to be found only in chain restaurants.

I have to confess that I have written two novels, books 2 and 3 of my Wilner Trilogy, whose respective protagonists are Montreal native bilinguals (they are brother and sister), and whose action takes place to a significant degree in Montreal. I wrote these books without ever having been in Quebec, that is, in direct defiance of the “write about what you know” dictum; what details I needed I got from the Web. My visit satisfied me that I made no big blunders. But much of the action takes place in what was then the town of Saint-Laurent (now it’s a Montreal borough), and this is an area that I didn’t have time to visit during this trip. I’ll have to take another one.

More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!



Phonetic alphabets

September 25, 2016

In my post the other day, I wrote that “the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly.” I’d like to elaborate.

By “phonetic alphabet” people usually mean one that represents the sounds of the language faithfully, not like the unruly alphabets of English or French. On Wikipedia, a search for “phonetic alphabet” leads to a disambiguation page that includes a reference to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is not really an alphabet in the usual sense (there is no alphabetic order in it, for one thing) but an open-ended collection of symbols that should actually be called the International Phonetic Code (IPC); this abbreviation would also be helpful in distinguishing the code from the organization responsible for it, also called IPA. The usual meaning of “phonetic alphabet” is discussed on the page titled Phonemic orthography, but that is an unfortunately all-too typical Wikipedia page, representing the often contradictory work of many hands. For example, the Greek digraphs γκ and μπ , representing single sounds, are included as examples in the paragraph discussing the opposite — cases where a single letter may represent a sequence of more than one phoneme. And such important matters as syllabic stress or vowel reduction are not mentioned at all.

Among learners of English, complaints about the non-phoneticity of the English alphabet are often heard from those whose primary language is Italian or Spanish. And indeed, the alphabets that they learned as children can be called phonetic, but only halfway. Specifically, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly but not reader-friendly, while the Spanish one is the opposite.

What I mean by “writer-friendly” is that someone familiar with the rules can, on hearing Italian speech, write it down correctly. The only exception I can think of is the presence of in the strong forms (all persons singular and third person plural) of the verb avere, distingushing ho, hai, ha and hanno from o, ai, a and anno.

On the other hand, when reading written Italian one doesn’t know, first of all, on what syllable the stress falls, unless its the last (in which case the vowel carries an accent mark). Nor does one know whether or is to be pronounced as open or closed, or whether sz or zz is to be read as voiced or unvoiced. Consequently, the Italian alphabet is not reader-friendly.

Spanish is the opposite. Someone trying to write down spoken Spanish but not thoroughly versed in the language will not know when to write a silent h; whether the phoneme /x/ before or i is to be written g or j; whether (outside northern and central Spain) /s/ is written sz or (before e or ic; or whether to write b or v. Many Spanish surnames have changed their spelling on crossing the ocean: Chaves, Cortés and Valdés, for example, became Chávez, Cortez and Valdez, respectively.

But reading Spanish correctly, according to any one regional standard, presents no problem. Syllabic accent follows strict rules, and no letter represents more than one sound, except x in proper names of non-Spanish origin (such as México or Xola or Xàtiva ), which one needs to learn.

So let me get back to Macedonian cyrillic. Macedonian, unlike other South Slavic languages, has fixed syllabic stress — on the penultimate in two-syllable words and the antepenultimate in longer words. It has, unlike Serbocroat, no long and short vowels. Unlike Bulgarian, vowels sound the same whether stressed  or not. It has neither digraphs nor the opposite (that is, single letters representing two sounds, like Bulgarian [or Russian] щ,  ю and я). It seems perfect to me.







September 14, 2016

It can often be said, in the case of three languages (say X, Y and Z) of the same family, that Y is “between” X and Z. For example, as stated in Wikipedia (with several references given), “Dutch is closely related to German and English and is said to be between them.” Such “betweenness” is roughly symmetric, in the sense that Y has some features in common with X and others with Z, in addition to having some that are shared with neither. It can, more over, be refined further: Frisian can be said to be between Dutch and English, and Low German between Dutch and German. In a similar way, Catalan is between French and Spanish, while Occitan is between Catalan and French, and Aragonese is between Catalan and Spanish.

But there are some language threesomes that are asymmetric in a peculiar way: Y is like X on one level, and like Z on another. More specifically, X and Y are, historically, one and the same language, but because of a political and/or geographic separation between their territories, and a corresponding association with the territory of Z, Y sounds much more like Z than like X. Also, while the traditional vocabulary of Y is the same as that of X, its modern vocabulary is more like that of Z.

The two examples that first struck me, because of their similarities, are Portuguese-Galician-Spanish and Bulgarian-Macedonian-Serbian. The time scales of the political connections are different: Galicia has been under Spanish (Castilian) rule since the 13th century, while Macedonia (the present Republic) was under Serbian control or influence only during the 20th century. But the effects are similar.

Fundamentally, Portuguese and Galician are the same language — modern descendants of the medieval language that is now called Galician-Portuguese — with some of the same grammatical peculiarities (such as the personal infinitive) that differentiate it from other Romance languages, and in their written forms (aside from the different orthographies, to be discussed below) they look much the same.

But Galician sounds like Castilian Spanish; except for having /ʃ/ (which is spelled x) in place of /χ/, the phonology is the same (the realization of word-final /n/ as [ŋ] is a feature of several Spanish dialects, including Andalusian and Caribbean). All sibilants are unvoiced, so that where Portuguese has /ʒ/ Galician has /ʃ/, and where Portuguese has /z/ Galician has /s/ or /θ/. And most importantly, all vowels, stressed or not, are pronounced crisply as in Spanish and unlike Portuguese, in which unstressed vowels are reduced (/o/ or /ɔ/ to /u/, /e/ or /ɛ/ to /ɨ/, /a/ or /ɐ/ to  [ə]). When one hears Galician spoken, it often takes a while to realize that what is heard is not Spanish. And while in principle speakers of Portuguese and of Galician should be able to understand each other, when the great Portuguese singer Amàlia Rodrigues appeared on Galician television, she preferred to reply in Spanish to the Galician-speaking host.

The orthography of Galician, too, is based on that of Spanish: it has ll and ñ where Portuguese has lh and nh, where Portuguese has ç (Galicians don’t fully agree on whether the name of their country should be written Galicia, Galizia or Galiza), and án or ón where Portuguese has ão.

By the same token, Macedonian and Bulgarian are fundamentally the same; indeed, until the beginning of the 20th century Slavic Macedonians thought of themselves as Bulgarians, including the famous Miladinov brothers, considered the pioneers of Macedonian literature, whose collection of Macedonian folk songs was published as “Bulgarian Folk Songs”; to some Bulgarians, to this day, Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect. The two languages share distinctive grammatical features not found in other Slavic languages, such as the definite article and the absence of noun cases and of infinitives.

But the phonologies are quite different. Bulgarian has vowel reduction that is quite similar to that of Portuguese, while Macedonian has the five crisp vowels of Galician and Spanish, as well as Serbocroat. It has regular stress (paroxytone in disyllabic words, proparoxytone in longer ones), while in Bulgarian it is variable (including oxytone).

The threesome is completed, then, with Serbocroat, or more specifically Serbian. The Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet is based on that of Serbian, not Bulgarian (which is more like that of Russian), so that in place of Bulgarian й, ю and я (for /j/, /ju/ and /ja/, respectively) Macedonian has ј,  ју and  ја. It also has the Serbian ligatures љ (for /l/), њ (for /ɲ/), as well as џ (for /d͡ʒ/); and it uses — uniquely — ѕ for /d͡z/, so that it has no need for digraphs. In fact, the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly; and if someone wishes to learn a Slavic language with no prior exposure to any of them, I believe that Macedonian would be the easiest by far.

Except for the fact that Serbian has long and short vowels, it and Macedonian sound very much alike. I am not fluent in either one, and one time, in a taxi in Skopje, it took me a while to realize that the driver was a Serb, speaking in his language. The Macedonian and Serbian film industries use each other’s actors freely, and what is probably the world’s best-known Serbian song, Ramo Ramo (which has been performed by U2), was composed and introduced by a Macedonian.

Let me add a third case, so that I will end up with a threesome of threesomes: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. More specifically, since once cannot really speak of Norwegian language, I will refer to “standard” Eastern Norwegian (standard østnorsk), as spoken in and around Oslo and in most Norwegian films and television series, which is quite close to the Bokmål standard.

This language is, in fact, derived from Danish, which for many centuries was the official language of Norway and, in a norwegianized way, the spoken language of its upper crust; where it is now spoken generally, it has displaced the original Norwegian dialects (the old Oslo dialect is said to have died out in the 1970s).

The norwegianization of the standard has been gradual, and even now the Danish and Bokmål versions of the same text will appear very similar. For one thing, unlike Galician/Portuguese and Macedonian/Bulgarian, there are no drastic differences in orthography: the characters æ and ø were not replaced by their Swedish equivalents ä and ö, since Sweden, despite ruling Norway during the 19th century, did not meddle into Norway’s tangled language controversies. Nor did Swedish, as far as I know, influence Norwegian vocabulary, unlike Galician and Macedonian, which get much of their “modern” vocabulary from Spanish and Bulgarian, respectively. For ‘train,’ for example, Galician uses the Spanish tren, not the Portuguese comboio, and Macedonian uses the Serbian voz, not the Bulgarian vlak. But from watching Scandinavian crime shows one knows that Norwegian police is politie as in Danish, not polis as in Swedish.

But spoken Eastern Norwegian has very little in common with the actual phonetics of Danish, and it sounds much more like Swedish. In a film or television series in which two or all three of the languages are spoken, one can always spot the Danish-speakers, but it’s much harder to tell the Norwegians from the Swedes on the basis of sound alone. The Norwegian Liv Ullman made her career mainly in Sweden, while the Swede Stellan Skarsgård has been a star in Norwegian cinema.






September 9, 2016

Bollywood, as is well known, is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood.

But since Bombay (based on the Hindi form of the city’s name) is now officially Mumbai (the Gujarati and Marathi name), it’s surprising that the Gujarati Narendra Modi, who governs India as a semi-dictator, hasn’t decreed that Bollywood be changed to Mulliwood.

I am joking. There is no reason why changes in official toponymy should necessarily affect common usage. Cats are still Persian, Siamese or Burmese, not Iranian, Thai or Myanmarese. And my favorite tea, from Sri Lanka, is still called Ceylon tea.

Except at Peet’s Coffee and Tea. And that’s my fault.

Many years ago, when Peet’s was just a little neighborhood shop in Berkeley, I noticed in its window displays of Sulawesi coffee and Ceylon tea. I went inside and said to Mr. Peet, who was not busy at the time, “If you call Celebes coffee Sulawesi, shouldn’t you call Ceylon tea Sri Lanka?”

“You are right,” he said. And the next day the display was changed.

Except that I was joking.


September 7, 2016

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Of course, he introduced the dictum with “it has been said that” (though no other written source for it has ever been found), and he prefaced it by saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.”

Still, the basic sentiment is one that I have felt all my life. But now I’m beginning to wonder.

It seems as if democracies — at least the large ones — have stopped functioning. Consider:

  • Brazil: a notoriously corrupt Congress has removed from office, on the flimsiest grounds, a legally elected President.
  • Britain: a poorly planned referendum has led to a reckless vote for Brexit, creating havoc in the country and around the world.
  • France: local councils have passed stupid laws regulating beachwear.
  • Spain: two elections have produced a Congress incapable of forming a government, and now new elections are scheduled with the same parties.
  • USA: the candidacy of Donald Trump is beginning to look serious.

Countries that are democracies on paper but have become de facto dictatorships (India, Russia, Turkey) are another matter.

There is another quote about democracy, falsely attributed to Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The problem, then, is not with democracy per se but with the “average voter,” who may be prone to vote based on some emotion (fear, pride, hatred) that may have nothing to do with the actual issues. The only remedy I can think of for this kind of voting is education in critical thinking. And of course that’s the last thing that the political and economic elites want for the people. Just think, people might think critically when listening to advertising! Heaven forbid!


September 5, 2016

Salon has finally removed from its Voices column the obnoxiously titled seven-month old piece that I referred to in my last post. In its place is another piece by the same author, D. Watkins, with another long title: “Colin Kaepernick’s brave decision: An open letter to the 49ers quarterback.” The subtitle is apparently a quote from the letter, addressed to “Dear Brother Kaepernick”: “You will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali …”

I have my own opinion about the self-proclaimed greatness of Muhammad Ali. (For one thing, I never understood why he chose for his name that of a 19th-century Albanian ruler of Egypt.) But I have no doubt that refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, with the attendant risk of prison, was an act of great courage

Kaepernick’s heroic act was remaining seated while the Star-Spangled Banner was played before the beginning of a football game. While standing for the playing of national anthems is a worldwide tradition, to my knowledge there is no law requiring it. The reactions to Kaepernick’s sitting have been entirely in the realm of public opinion, ranging from outraged condemnation to enthusiastic approval (as in Watkins’ case). The main consequence for Kaepernick personally has been a tidal wave of publicity; the jersey bearing his name and number was at first being burned on camera but is now among the best-selling in America. And while his lackluster performance last season led him to lose his starting position and be potentially up for sale, he now seems to have cemented his position with the 49ers, with its guaranteed $13 million a year good until 2020.

The singing of the national anthem at league games is a peculiarly American institution. Because the anthem is so difficult to sing by the public, it is usually performed by a soloist, typically by a pop singer in their own style, so that even those who have the vocal range and would like to sing along find it hard to do so. The tradition seems to have begun in baseball during World Was II, though there have been stories about the Chicago Cubs using it in the 1920s as a way of boosting attendance.

Elsewhere in the world the anthems are sung or played primarily at international events. In telecasts of international soccer matches it’s common to see the players singing their anthem with great enthusiasm (unless it’s an unsung one, like Spain’s Marcha Real). In those cases, I suppose, the failure to sing (or at least mouth) the anthem would be comparable to Kaepernick’s sitting. And I have noticed that two members of the German team, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, never sing the anthem. I don’t know why.


Annals of respelling

September 1, 2016

Some seven months ago, Salon published a piece by someone named D. Watkins, titled “No, white people, you still can’t say the N-word: That word belongs to black people and our culture now — not yours.” For some reason Salon continues to carry the link to this piece in its Voices column, in which most of the others are only a few days old.

I never read the piece. I was quite put off by the idea inherent in the title — the notion that a word can “belong” to a particular group of people. What it implies that white kids studying Latin must not say aloud the masculine singular of the word for ‘black’.

For that is (as I have already written) exactly what niger is. From about the 16th century on it was used by English-speakers, alongside the Spanish-Portuguese negro, to designate a dark-skinned person from Africa south of the Sahara. As long as literate people were expected to know some Latin, they would know that the was to be pronounced as short. But at some point in the 18th century schools attended by the practical-minded middle and working classes stopped teaching Latin, and so the word began to respelled with an added g so that it would be pronounced correctly, to rhyme with bigger and not with tiger (at least in English — it seems to have been different in Scots). It’s the respelled version that has morphed into “the N-word”; but D. Watkins refers to saying it, not writing it.

It makes me think of other cases of respelling for the sake of conformity with pronunciation, eventually leading to a new word.

The first Jews who settled in medieval Venice came from Germany, and the district where they settled was near a foundry, getto in Italian (pronounced with a “soft g”), which gave the area its name. But the Jews pronounced the word the German way, with a “hard g”, and this pronunciation eventually took over as the district’s name, so that the Italians obligingly added an h to indicate the new pronunciation. Ghetto thus became a new word, meaning ‘Jewish district’, and spread to other places in Italy, having lost its association with the foundry.

Another Italian word is casino, meaning ‘brothel’ (it has a few figurative meanings as well). But because gambling was one of the activities that went on in brothels, the French borrowed the word to mean primarily a gambling establishment, and this meaning has become universal. The French, of course, stress the word on the last syllable, and so the Italians borrowed it back with the French pronunciation, and spell it casinò.

The respelling of proper names is a much broader field, and I will stick to one case. The surname Picasso was originally Picazo, fairly common in Spain. But one of the artist’s maternal ancestors served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by Spanish monarchs) and respelled his name to make it easier for his Italian comrades to pronounce. Oddly, he kept the Italianized spelling when he returned to Málaga.


August 27, 2016

I have, for a long time, found myself immune to the appeal of actresses and/or comediennes who happen to be half-Jewish blondes.

I think it’s because of the way they try to be both sexy and funny, but somehow the sexy and funny aspects of their personas seem to come from different places (the  blond and the Jewish, respectively?), so that (to me)  they fail to come through as real women.

By contrast, a half-Jewish brunette like Julia Louis-Dreyfus manages to be sexy in a funny way and funny in a sexy way; she is who she is (just like an all-Jewish brunette such as Sarah Silverman, or, for that matter, an all-Jewish blonde like Natasha Lyonne).

Now, another half-Jewish brunette, Lena Dunham, doesn’t manage to be either, but I’m not sure she means to.

Disappointments II

August 15, 2016

I few months ago I published a post in which recounted some political disappointments I’ve experienced in the past. I now have some current ones to report.

I am disappointed in Donald Trump. In the course of his controversy with the family of Captain Khan, he might have said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero ‘cause he was killed. I like people who weren’t killed.” But he didn’t say it.

More, seriously, I am also disappointed that so many on the Democratic left have expressed misgivings, if not worse, about Hillary Clinton on the sole basis of her mixed record as a Washington insider. I wish they would think back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was chosen by John F. Kennedy to be his Vice President precisely because he was the ultimate Washington insider, against the opposition of supposedly liberal groups such as labor unions. But when LBJ became President, he turned out to be the most progressive one this country has ever had. So, as I’ve written before: Give Hillary a chance.

I could add that I’m disappointed with the Rio Olympics, at least with their coverage by NBC, except that I really am not; it’s pretty much what I had expected.