Threesomes

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.

 

 

 

 

Mulliwood

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.

Democracy

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!

Anthems

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.

HJBs

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.

Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.

FSROA?

August 5, 2016

In a short while the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will open in the winter of Rio de Janeiro (a tropical winter, to be sure). The two featured events tonight will be the lighting of the flame and the Parade of Nations, where the representatives of the Olympic nations will march in alphabetical order, except that the host country, Brazil, will be last in a show of old-fashioned courtesy, while Greece will be first, being supposedly the first Olympic nation. Well, modern Greece bears about as much relation to classical Greece as the modern Olympics do to those of antiquity, so it seems reasonable.

And the alphabetical order for the remaining nations means that Macedonia will march ahead of Azerbaijan.

Why? Because the athletes of Azerbaijan will march under the Portuguese name of their country, Azerbaijão, while the Macedonians will do so under the name Antiga República Iugoslava de Macedónia, the Portuguese version of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” (FYROM), which is designation under which the country participates in international organizations.

Why did I bring up Azerbaijan? Because, in principle, the naming situation of the two countries is analogous: both were once member republics of a communist-led federation, and both bear the names of larger historical regions of which they form a part but of which a significant part — which includes the historic heart of the region — belongs to a neighboring country — Greece in the case of Macedonia, Iran in the case of Azerbaijan.

But I have never heard of any Iranian objecting to the name “Republic of Azerbaijan”; the relevant Persian Wikipedia page is titled Jomhuri-e Āzarbāijān. The Greek page for the Republic of Macedonia, on the other hand, carries the Greek version of FYROM, fully spelled out, as its title. For the whole FYROM business is the result of a temper tantrum by Greece, as I  already wrote ten  years a go.

The Greeks seem to ignore a practice that their ancient forebears already spoke of, that of synecdoche — the naming of an entity for a larger one that it’s a part of (or, conversely, for a smaller one that’s part of it). In the case of countries, a name like  Republic (or Kingdom or United Statesof X, where X is a larger geographic unit, is not uncommon, United States of America being a prime example. As we know, the USA is often called just America for short, not just by Americans but by others as well, though not usually by Latin Americans, Stephen Sondheim to the contrary notwithstanding. (I am referring to the song in West Side Story.)

There are  also the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which does not include the part of historic Luxembourg that belongs to Belgium; the Republic of Ireland, of which Northern Ireland (belonging to the United Kingdom) is not a part; the Republic of Cyprus, and so on.

I am looking forward to, one of these years, seeing Macedonia march at the head of the M nations, or between Madagascar and Malaysia if the games happen to be held in a country in whose language the name is Makedonia.

 

Hackberry

July 26, 2016

I seem to have appointed myself as a linguistic critic of English-language novels.

It started with a discussion of what I called yanking, the Americanization of the vocabulary of British mystery novelists. It went on to pointing out inadvertent Americanisms in the set-in-Britain novels of Elizabeth George (which in general are meant to use British vocabulary and spelling). From there it went to examining the peculiar difficulties that English-language writers have with rendering Hispanic culture (the Spanish language itself, naming customs, and so on) realistically, starting (once again) with Elizabeth George and going on to others.

I have just read James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The House of the Rising Sun. Its main character is named Hackberry Holland, but, though Wikipedia lists the book in the Hackberry Holland series, he doesn’t seem to be the same character as in the other books in the series, but perhaps his grandfather or great-grandfather. This book’s action takes place between 1891 and around 1920, and Hackberry is not a young man even then.

There is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue, the action taking place mostly in Texas and Mexico, and all in all the Spanish is not bad; either Burke knows Spanish or a competent editor’s hand was involved.

What did strike me is the surprising number of linguistic anachronisms in English, surprising for a writer who is almost my age and who has taught creative writing. Here is a sampling:

  • A house in Mexico, observed in 1916, is called Victorian. Even an American observing such a house wouldn’t call it that at the time. According to Google Ngrams, “Victorian house” doesn’t show any use before 1927.
  • In 1916 there is a reference to Gauguin. The chances of a lifelong Texan being acquainted with the artist at the time are infinitesimal.
  • In 1891 we find normalcy. As is well known, the word was not used in American English until Warren Harding did so in 1920.
  • There is a reference to flak in 1915, a word that was coined (in German) in the 1930s.
  • Sometime around 1920 we find Malaysian, which of course should have been Malayan; Malaysia did not exist before 1963.

What has happened to the art — if it ever was there — of copy-editing?