Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.



October 18, 2017

When Mariano Rajoy, the primer minister of Spain, sent armed police to violently suppress the (admitted illegal) referendum on independence conducted by the government of Catalonia, he was following the standard playbook of a right-wing leader.

As I’ve written before, the main difference, in opinion, between left-of-center and right-of-center politics is that the former is based on hope and the latter on fear.

The hope is that things will get better for people. But to inspire such hope a charismatic leader is necessary, and nearly all electoral victories of left-of-center parties happen when such a leader is present. (I list examples in the cited post.) When, on occasion, a left-of-center party wins without one, its success is ephemeral, as shown by the French Socialist Party under François Hollande.

The fear is that the some “other” threatens the people. The “other” may be another country or set of countries, or some ethnic, political or cultural minority.

Sometimes the fear is factually based — that is, the threat may be real. As a popular button in the sixties had it, even paranoids have real enemies. In that case the people usually seek a leader seen as competent to deal with the threat (Churchill in 1940 is a good example).

But often the threat is manufactured, whether spontaneously or as a part of propaganda serving some special interest. It may be ascribed to a country against which there already exists a prejudice, to domestic groups associated with such a country (“foreigners”), or to groups somehow seen as suspects (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, freemasons, “radicals” of any stripe, and so on). In those cases the fear is wholly irrational, and mere competence is not enough; what people look for in a leader is an image of strength.

What conveys such an image may vary. High military rank obviously fills the bill: witness Eisenhower (when the threat was communism) or de Gaulle (Algerian nationalism). Without such a qualification, leaders must improvise. By virtue of his bullying personality, Donald Trump has convinced a significant portion of the American people that he has the “toughness” to protect their country from China, Muslims and immigrants.

What, then, is a mild-mannered civilian politician to do? Ronald Reagan provides an example: he earned his image of strength when, as governor of California, he sent the the highway patrol and then the national guard to put down “radical” student demonstrations in Berkeley.  Later, as president of the United States, he refused negotiations with the the striking air-traffic controllers’ union and abruptly fired them.

Currently, Putin, Erdoğan and Duterte are examples of right-leaning leaders who earned their tough images by violent crackdowns against Chechens, Kurds and drug dealers, respectively.

Rajoy, who is now (like Reagan)  consistently refusing negotiations, is merely following their example. When the time comes for new elections, he can boast of his strength in putting down separatists.

Thoughts about Italian

October 7, 2017

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (that includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with not change of spelling or any other attempt to italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.

Mysteries of Vienna

August 28, 2017

I have been in Vienna only three times in my life, each time for a few days, but my visits have left me with an impression of it as an easy city to get to know, not especially mysterious. It has a well defined city center (the Innere Stadt) and nearly all the major attractions and m (other than the large parks and palaces, such as the Prater, Belvedere and Schönbrunn) are in it or just outside it. At least as regards the city as it has developed since the end of the  Allied occupation (1955), it doesn’t seem to have the kind of seedy underbelly — a great setting for crime fiction — that such cities as London, Paris, Barcelona or Edinburgh have. The Vienna of The Third Man has given way to one that recently has been consistently ranked among the most livable and most prosperous cities in the world.

It is therefore fitting that the series of Vienna-based mystery novels that I have recently been reading has as its locations not dark alleys, slums or Bohemian hangouts, but the best-known tourist attractions of Vienna. The author is Beate Maxian, who besides writing novels is a print, radio and television journalist. The principal crime-solver in the series is, not surprisingly, a young, attractive woman journalist named Sarah Pauli.

The first novel in this series (Maxian had written some crime novels before it) is Tödliches (deadly) Rendezvous (2011); in it the mid-twentyish Sarah, who lives with her younger brother Chris (a medical student/bartender/irresistible seducer of women) since their parents died in a car accident, gets a job as a freelance intern at a (fictitious) major newspaper, the Wiener Bote. She is assigned to assist the prestigious muckraking reporter Hilde Jahn, who is murdered in the course of her investigation. Sarah then takes it over and solves the case, not before almost getting murdered as well. When she gets a permanent job at the paper, it is not as an investigative journalist but as a columnist writing about superstitions, folk beliefs and the like, something she is an expert on (besides being slightly superstitious as well). She also develops a crush on the paper’s publisher, the handsome David Gruber, who had been Hilde Jahn’s lover. The central setting here is the Steinhof hospital, with its famous church built by Otto Wagner.

All the subsequent novels in the series have the landmark location in the title: Die Tote vom (The Dead Woman of the) Naschmarkt (2012); Tod hinter dem (Death Behind the) Stephansdom (2013); Der Tote vom (The Dead Man of the) Zentralfriedhof (2014); Tod in der (Death in the) Hofburg (2015).

The last one mentioned happens to be the first one that I read; I picked it up last April at a bookstore in the Vienna Central Station so that I would have something to read during the four-hour train ride to Prague. By this time Sarah and David are committed lovers (though there is still no mention of marriage), and Chris, instead of bringing a different girl home every night, is in a more-or-less steady relationship with Sarah’s best friend Gabi, a secretary at the paper.

It’s in the preceding one that we learn, from the point of view of one of the criminals (who means to possess her before killing her), that Sarah is quite a desirable woman, with a lovely face framed by dark hair and her usual outfit of jeans and T-shirt covering a slim, shapely body. For she is quite unassuming, using a minimum of makeup and detesting high heels, and during the first stages of her infatuation with David she is unsure of her attractiveness.

I am currently waiting for the following volume, Mord (Murder) in Schönbrunn (2016). The latest one, Die Prater-Morde, has just come out, and I am looking forward to it as well. For I have become addicted to the doings of Sarah Pauli and her companions — not to mention the variegated local color of Vienna — as I am to those of Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks and his Yorkshire, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his Los Angeles.

Unfortunately — not for me but for others — the books are available only in the original German (in a Viennese variant). As I have been reading them I have found myself half-consciously translating them into English in my head. I have even flirted with the idea of writing Frau Maxian with a proposal to actually do so. I have done a bit of translating in my life, but I don’t think I have the time or stamina to do any more of it. But to any German-readers out there who don’t yet know her work: Gutes Lesen!


Spanish names, again

August 27, 2017


A number of years ago — in 2000 — I wrote an essay about Spanish names, concerned with the misunderstanding of Spanish naming customs often shown by non-Hispanic writers. This post is about something else: the names that Spanish soccer players are known by.

It’s well known by soccer fans that Brazilian players are almost never called by their full names or surnames. At the moment, the only ones I can think of who is at least partially so known are Dani Alves (his full name is actually Daniel Alves da Silva), Coutinho (actually Philippe Coutinho Correia), Casemiro (Carlos Henrique José Francisco Venâncio Casimiro) and Thiago Silva (Thiago Emiliano da Silva). The others are usually known either by a forename — which may double, like David Luiz or Roberto Carlos, or a diminutive, like Rafinha or Ronaldinho — or by a nickname (Pelé, Bebeto, Tostão, Garrincha, Kaká). What I mean by “known by” is the name printed on the jerseys and normally referred to by game commentators.

With Hispanic players (both Spanish and Hispano-American) the pracice varies. But what’s fairly consistent is that when a player’s surname is one of one of the common –ez names then he will use only the forename or a nickname: Raúl (González), Míchel (José Miguel González), Chicharito (Javier Hernández), Xavi (Xavier Hernández), Pedro (Rodríguez), James (Rodríguez), Alexis (Sánchez), and many others.

Occasionally a player with a not-so-common surname will also choose to be known by a nickname: Joselu (José Luis Sanmartín), Koke (Jorge Resurrección Merodio), Isco (Francisco Román Alarcón), or else by a forename, like Adrián (San Miguel). Sergi Busquets has “Sergio” on his jersey but he is generally known as Busquets.

But for some reason, the  Spanish-named players in the first category who play in England don’t have their name choice respected by British sportscasters, with a few exceptions. Pedro is usually called Pedro, but Chicharito is almost invariably Javier (usually mispronounced) Hernández, Alexis is Sánchez, Ayoze is Pérez, Sandro is Ramírez. I wish I understood why this is so.

My two cents’ worth

August 9, 2017

Before the Great Recession hit, in 2008, I dabbled in the stock market. Not very successfully: I though I had scored a coup when I sold Netflix in 2007 after a 15% gain (my stock would have appreciated forty-fold if I still had it). But I thought I would try — nearly everyone did.

Once I realized that the financial advisers to whom I had been paying a fee, win or lose, did not provide any more wisdom than tossing a coin, I decided to do my investing online, and I opened an account at Charles Schwab. When I got rid of the stock I had held (mostly at a loss) I opened what was billed as a “high-yield” savings account. The label stuck to the account as the yield dropped. Meanwhile I noticed that there were online banks paying considerably higher interest. So I closed my Schwab accounts, or thought that I had.

It turned out that, at the time I closed the accounts, there was some accrued interest that had not yet been paid into the account. The amount? $0.02. Yes, two cents. And I received a check for that amount.

I didn’t bother depositing the check but kept it around as a novelty. I didn’t think it would matter.

But matter it did. Since the check had not been cashed in 180 days, I received a letter telling me that it had expired, and, in a separate envelope, another check.


In the interest of not wasting paper and ink, I will deposit this one.

GOT and me

August 9, 2017

Not a day seems to go by without some news item about the phenomenon known as Game of Thrones, whether it’s about its plot, its fans, its cast members, or a comparison of some person with one of its characters.

I don’t watch GOT. I did, briefly, during the first season, because I had access to HBO as part of a temporary subscription package (my real interest was in a show airing on Showtime at the time, The Borgias). But I lost interest when I realized that I had been watching it under a misapprehension.

This had happened before, as I have written: In 2001 I watched 24, falsely believing to be a Canadian satire on American paranoia in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As to Game of Thrones, it seemed to be that it was historical fiction set in Britain around the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons and Britons coexisted. I based this belief on settings clearly reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with no apparent signs of Christianity, and on the mix of Germanic-sounding and Celtic-sounding names. There were also references to seven kingdoms (the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?), the northern wall (Hadrian’s?) and the wild people of the north (Scots and Picts?).

But I was lost once the Dothraki showed up. It gradually struck me that what I was watching was unmitigated fantasy. I like fantasy, if it’s rigorous (I’ll explain that some other time), but this was not. And so I let the subscription lapse once The Borgias was finished. And even when I renewed it, twice, for the second and third, HBO did not tempt me.

Sagan and Peloton

July 16, 2017

The peloton at this year’s Tour de France isn’t quite the same without Peter Sagan in it. That is, as the TV commentators would say it, the peloton (PELLah-tawn) without Sagan (suh-GAHN). (Contador goes along with peloton.)

Carl Sagan, of course, was Sagan (SAY-gun), but he was American, and everyone knows that this isn’t how a foreigner’s name would be pronounced. Never mind that in Slovak it’s Sagan (SAH-gahn); in standard Slovak, as in Czech, all words are stressed on the first syllable. The same is true of Hungarian, but of course Gabor (Hungarian bor) is pronounced Gabor.

Peloton follows the “misrule” that I wrote about recently. Its two parts are well illustrated by news reports associated with the Donald Trump Jr. scandal: the two names Agalarov and Veselnitskaya are usually heard as Agalarov and Veselnitskaya.

Sagan represents another part of it, which I had not included before:  two-syllable words ending in a consonant whose pronunciation is not generally known tend to be stressed on the last syllable, unless the ending is that generally associated with first-syllable stress, such as  a single –s, -er, -en, -in, -man or -son.

I’m preparing a list of examples, which I will comment on shortly.

Jerry Nelson

July 16, 2017

Last week I had the sad pleasure of participating in Nelsonfest, a symposium celebrating the many achievements of Jerry Nelson in observational astronomy, especially the Ten-Meter Telescopes at the Keck Observatory, to which I made a small contribution (well, actually two).

It was a pleasure because it was gratifying to meet many people for whom, as for me, working with Jerry was a stimulating, edifying and enjoyable experience. It was sad because Jerry had died about a month earlier, and so what had been meant as a series of technical presentations became mingled with reminiscences.

Jerry was one of those fortunate few who conceived a radical idea and then were able to carry it to full fruition, overcoming intellectual opposition, financial uncertainty and technical challenges. He did so by convincing people with the sheer force of his ideas. There was no ego at play.

Unlike many famous technological innovators who advance their plans by force of personality, depending on their subordinates for most of the details but taking credit for their work (the likes of Gustave Eiffel, David Sarnoff or Steve Jobs), the ideas for the Ten-Meter Telescope were Jerry’s, but he was, if anything, overly generous in giving credit to his collaborators, starting with the key notion of the segmented mirror produced by means of stressed-mirror polishing, for which I derived the formal theory. (It may not be generally known that the Eiffel Tower was not designed by Eiffel but by two engineers and an architect working for his company, whose patent rights he bought out.)

Jerry was sui generis, and his like may not be found again, especially in this age of pygmies masquerading as tech giants.


Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.