Inspector Luann returns

May 17, 2018

I’ve just read Elizabeth George’s latest, The Punishment She Deserves. This time I didn’t wait my turn to get it from the library but actually bought the book, brand-new, with dust jacket and all. And I noticed that on that dust jacket, above a misty photograph of Ludlow (England), both the author’s name and the title appear in all lower case. But of course no one will refer to the novelist as “elizabeth george.” And l still don’t understand why the writer who calls herself Bell Hooks and also chooses the all-lower-case format for her title pages is almost universally cited as “bell hooks,” as though referring to some devices from which bells are hung. Esthetic choices of title-page typography do not, in my opinion, trump the rules of English, one of which is that in ordinary writing personal names are capitalized.

But I digress.

I managed to go through the book’s almost 700 pages in a few days. The plot is gripping, with several subplots that seem unconnected at first but finally come together logically.

There are, of course the usual recurring characters: DI Thomas Lynley, DS Barbara Havers, DCS Isabelle Ardery, and the others. Elizabeth George clings to the old naming convention, where women are referred to by first name and men by surname (as I have noted, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin — but not Peter Robinson — have overcome it). And, as usual, the characters’ histories build upon previous novels, but in what I have called Luann time: the events of the preceding novel, published three years earlier, are described as having happened “last year.” Havers is still in her thirties (a character in her late forties is described as having “more than ten years on her”) and Lynley at least appears to be no more than forty: he is seen as “twenty years older” than an eighteen-year-old. (The series, mind you, began in 1988.)

In the customary afterword, George acknowledges her editor, who “set me straight when I went off track in British English.” Not enough, I’m afraid.

I have already commented on George’s pet Americanism, “run interference” (a term taken from American football); it appears twice in this book. A few others crop up: “GPS” for “satnav”; “pressured” for “pressurised”; “Indian” (based on appearance) for “Asian”; and George’s tendency to confuse “due” and “do”: she once wrote “undo” for “undue,” while this time its “make due” for “make do.”

Then there is George’s penchant for eye dialect, intended somehow to reproduce the speech of those who are not toffs like Thomas Lynley and who are quoted, for example, as saying “su’prise”; but of course no English person (except in the West Country) pronounces the first R in surprise; nor would anyone pronounce the phrase problems are as anything like “problems’re”; but there you are.

I also find it jarring to read British spelling with American punctuation, but that’s another matter.

So much for ling-crit. A bigger problem, for me, is the superficiality of Elizabeth George’s acquaintance with British culture. Referring to Thomas Cromwell when Oliver is meant is a small example.

The novel takes place in the small but historic town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, as well as elsewhere in the county and in the neighboring counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire — the territory served by the West Mercia Police, which figures prominently in the action. The area, including its topography and architecture, is described in vivid detail that adds color to the narrative. It’s clear that George explored the places she describes; she also gathered inside information by interviewing the Chief Constable of the WMP, the mayor of Ludlow (who is — though she doesn’t say so — not an executive mayor but merely the chairman of the town council, a body with very limited authority), and the chairman of the gliding club to which three of her characters belong.

One institution that plays a large part in the story, is a college, which George calls West Mercia College (like the police), but whose description as regards location and buildings matches the actual college located in Ludlow, Ludlow College. Several of the principal characters are students at the college; they are 18 or 19 years old, and appear to be in their first year of studies. They also (with one exception) are heavily involved with drinking and sex.

In other words, the college is supposed to strike American readers as something like what they think of as a college. But the reality is different. (No wonder George renamed the college, and did not interview its head.)

Ludlow College is, in fact, a sixth-form college, a school corresponding chronologically (though not academically) to the 11th and 12th grades of American high schools; students who are 18 will actually be finishing the second of its two years (known as lower and upper sixth).

I am not sure that Elizabeth George knows the concept of sixth form, since she seems to confuse the British form with the American grade. In one place, Isabelle Ardery thinks of the children playing in a schoolyard as being in third form, and thus close in age to her own children, who are nine. In another, a twelve-year-old is asked if she remembers her fourth-form teacher.

As a matter of fact, “form” is used in England to denote grade in secondary school, which begins at age eleven; thus third and fourth form correspond to ages thirteen and fourteen, respectively (they are also called year 8 and year 9), and sixth form accordingly begins at age 16.

Why does Elizabeth George’s British editor let her get away with these things? I don’t know, but in a way I’m grateful. For I enjoy reading her books, but then I get the additional enjoyment of quibbling about the solecisms.





May 4, 2018

Some years ago, when I was still writing well reasoned, carefully researched essays (unlike the freewheeling blog posts that I compose nowadays), I wrote one (in fact, my very last such effort) about the various uses to which the letter H has been put in different languages that use the Latin alphabet.

With regard to English, I wrote that “the H in ah (and hah), eh (and feh, meh), and uh (and huh) … indicates that the vowel is different from what it would have been without the H.” But I was not specific; what I meant was that ah stands for /ɑ/ or /ɑ:/, eh for /ɛ/, and uh for /ə/or  /ə:/. Thus ah is often used to represent the typical non-rhotic pronunciation of ar (e.g. dahling), and uh for that of er, ir or ur (e.g. Suh for Sir).

I also wrote the following:

Word-final –ah is also found in English, especially in words from Middle Eastern or South Asian languages (for example mullah, hookah, purdah, verandah), originally intended to indicate that this vowel is to be pronounced /ɑ/ rather than neutralized to /ə/, though the effect has generally been lost.

Indeed, in word-final –ah the H is usually ignored; for example, Sara and Sarah, Hanna and Hannah are considered to be different spellings of the same name. (Endings in -iah are an exception: Maria and Mariah are pronounced differently.)

There are a couple of exceptions: the words hurrah and huzzah are indeed pronounced with a stressed final /ɑ:/. Perhaps these examples were in the minds of those who, in the early 19th century, first wrote about the country to the east of India, which they spelled Burmah in order to represent the native pronunciation /bə’mɑ/ (“buh-mah“). But it didn’t work: readers disregarded the h, and the (non-rhotic) English came to call the country “buh-muh”. Eventually the h was dropped from the spelling; according to Google Ngrams, Burma overtook Burmah in the 1970s.

Nowadays /bə’mɑ/* officially designates the name, not of the country, but of its majority ethnic group, also known (in English) as Burmese. But the countries authorities resorted to a different trick in order to preserve the original pronunciation: rather than an h, they put an r at the end, seemingly knowing that English-speakers are more likely to stress a two-syllable word on the second syllable if there is a consonant letter (even if silent) at the end, and so the spelling now is Bamar.

In order to differentiate the name of the country from that of its majority ethnic group (and thus to acknowledge the presence of other ethnicities, such as the Karen, Shan and others), they chose an alternative form, pronounced /mjə’mɑ/, for which they chose(on the same principle)  the spelling Myanmar, with the representing the semivowel /j/, as it often does in English. But it doesn’t usually do so in this setting, with the result that most English-speaking readers interpret it as the vowel /i/ (“ee“) and the word thus gains a third syllable. With trisyllabic words ending in a consonant letter, the overwhelming tendency (as I have discussed) is to stress them on the first syllable, resulting in what is now the most common pronunciation in anglophone media: /’miənmɑ(r)/.

So much for trying to represent native pronunciation in English.


*I can’t show the Burmese writing, the price I’m paying for sticking with Windows 7.

(Semi-)final thoughts

April 23, 2018

The upcoming UEFA Champions League semi-finals will be the first since 2010 in which all four teams are from different leagues. The time before that was in 2004. In that year Porto was one of the semi-finalists. The following year Eindhoven was one. Since then, only teams from the Big Five (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) have made it to the semis, and out of the 52 teams in the last 13 semi-finals (including this week’s) only two have been French  (as against six Italian, nine German, 15 English and 20 Spanish), so maybe it’s really the Big Four.

The second leg of the quarter-finals was exciting, except for Liverpool’s repeated sweep of Manchester City. Both Roma and Juventus managed to overcome their three-goal deficits, with Roma beating Barcelona on away goals and Juventus losing  to Real on a second-half stoppage-time penalty that saw none other than Gigi Buffon, in what was probably his last appearance on a global stage, given a red card.

The other semi-finals, those of the FA Cup, were less dramatic. My Spurs disappointed once again; after a first-half goal by Eriksen they let themselves be dominated by Manchester United in the second half, and Harry Kane was as useless has he has generally been since coming back from his injury. He was nowhere to be seen in midfield action, and in his semi-fixed position near the opposing goal he flubbed several chances on good crosses. I was hoping that I might cheer the Spurs on against Chelsea (who won easily as expected) when I am on a stopover in England on finals day (which also happens to be the day of the “royal wedding”), but I’m afraid I’ll have to root for Chelsea — any team against one coached by the execrable José Mourinho.

Spurs have been disappointing in league play as well, since Kane’s return. Their winning streak was snapped when they lost to Manchester City 3-1 (their only goal being also by Eriksen) and they only managed a 1-1 draw with 13th-place Brighton (their one goal was, to be fair, by Kane).

But in general soccer has been fun to watch, with mostly close games, since I first wrote about it.

Good Friday

April 10, 2018

Today is not Good Friday — or any Friday — but it’s the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.  And none other than Hillary Clinton published an article about it in The Guardian.

While she mentions her and Bill’s attendance at a Christmas tree lighting in 1995, and the participation of a number of women in the preparations leading to the agreement, she does not mention the man without whose negotiating skills the agreement would probably not have happened: George Mitchell.

When Mitchell,, from Maine, retired from the Senate — where he had been majority leader — in 1995, President Bill Clinton named him the United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, and it was under his leadership that the agreement took place.

But Mitchell’s tenure as majority leader included the period during which Clinton tried to introduce a national healthcare system, and it’s very likely that someone with the skill to overcome decades of bloody hostility in Northern Ireland might have had some success. Mitchell even declined an appointment to the Supreme Court in order to take on this challenge.

But it was not to be. Bill Clinton made his wife the point person in the healthcare fight. And we know the sad result.

No wonder Hillary Clinton doesn’t care to mention George Mitchell.


Close encounters

April 9, 2018

Over the past several weeks, almost all the soccer games that I had been looking forward to, both in the EPL and in the Champions League, turned out to be uninteresting one-sided romps. Even might Manchester City didn’t just lose to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final, but lost by 3-0.

It all changed this past weekend. Of the ten EPL matches played, five were draws and the other five were won by one goal, including some dramatic comebacks like the Manchester derby, in which City were coasting 2-0 at half-time only to be overcome by United’s three goals in the second half. And these results happened even in such disparate encounters as Chelsea (5th place) vs. West Ham (14th), 1-1; Arsenal (6th) vs. Southampton (18th), 3-2; and Stoke (19th) vs. Spurs (4th), 1-2. It was hard to get away from the TV.

I hope that this trend continues in the Premier League. In the Champions League, on the other hand, the only thing that will make this week’s second-leg matches interesting is one-sided romps by the losing sides of the first leg (Man City, Roma and Juventus, all behind by three goals; I’m not expecting much from Sevilla against Bayern in Munich, though they trail by only one goal).

And I’m looking forward to the FA Cup semi-final between my Spurs and the team managed by a man whom I once compared to Donald Trump.


My Spurs

April 8, 2018

The other day, as I was filling out an online form that required a security question, the first suggested question was, “Of what sports team are you a fan?” Almost without thinking I put down “Spurs”.

Why? Well, I have been following the English Premier League religiously since its telecasts became available in the USA. And, in talking with other such followers, I discovered that one is expected to be a supporter of some specific team, and something instinctively drew me to Tottenham Hotspur. One reason was that it’s the only major London team (and I couldn’t see myself supporting one outside London) not owned by some foreign billionaire or other, whether American (Arsenal) or Russian (Chelsea). Besides, Tottenham’s owners are Jews like me, and there is an old tradition of the team being supported by the Jews of London, to the extent that the fans have taken on the slur “Yids” as a badge of pride.

There is also the fact that Tottenham Hotspur has a presence in the place where I live: the El Cerrito Futbol Club (ECFC) calls itself Tottenham Hotspur East Bay, and banners bearing the iconic rooster can be seen all along San Pablo Avenue. (I don’t know what the connection is between ECFC and the actual Tottenham club. When I asked if they had any Harry Kane jerseys at their stand at last year’s El Cerrito’s Fourth of July celebration, they didn’t know what I was talking about.)

It happens that my self-identification as a Spurs fan began in 2014, around the time Harry Kane became a full-time member of the team, and became quite enthusiastic about him as his spectacular goal-scoring career took off. Some of his shots seemed worthy of a Messi or a Ronaldo.

(Speaking of Ronaldo, the TV commentators of last week’s quarter-final match between Juventus and Real Madrid were nonplussed by the fans in Turin applauding Ronaldo’s acrobatic goal, saying that it was highly unusual. But maybe not so unusual in Italy. In 1970 I happened to be in a bar in Venice watching the “match of the century”  in which Italy held a 1-0 lead from the 8th minute until the 90th, when Schnellinger scored a goal for Germany to tie the game. The Italians in the bar, to my great surprise, did not groan in disappointment but applauded, saying è ben meritato (it’s well deserved), since Germany really did outplay Italy in the second half.)

Back to Kane: over the past year I have become rather disenchanted with him. He is an opportunistic striker, like Jamie Vardy. He does not participate much in attacks. His record in assists is dismal: only two so far this season (alongside 24 goals), while other top scorers like Salah (29 goals) and Agüero (21 goals) have 9 and 6, respectively, and as far as I recall the two assists were accidental, not the beautiful crosses that Kane’s teammate Christian Eriksen provides. While Kane did provide the winning goals in Spurs’ two 1-0 EPL victories in February (against Arsenal and Crystal Palace), he was quite unproductive in the home loss of the second leg of the Champions’ League match against Juventus, and since his injury in the Bournemouth match (in which he also failed to score) the team has won every much, with Dele Alli and especially Eriksen providing the scoring.

Eriksen is, in fact, a first-rate striker (particularly when playing for Denmark) as well as a brilliant midfielder. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s game at Stoke in which he scored two goals to win the match 2-1, but in the video replays they seem beautifully done, the first from a fine assist by Dele, the second from a free kick, in which Kane appears to have tried to help with his shoulder but the ball seems to have gone in without touching him. In what seems to me a case of poor sportsmanship, Kane has demanded credit for the goal, yet another contribution to my disenchantment with Kane.

For me, henceforth, the face of my Spurs is that of Christian Eriksen.




March 25, 2018

I have often been critical of some versions of the Latin alphabet that have been adapted in the last 200 years or so for various languages. For example, I didn’t know why the makers of the Albanian alphabet decided to use ç for /t͡ʃ/ (as in Turkish) rather than ch, since in all other cases an added h serves to convert alveolar sibilants to postalveolar ones: sh, xh, zh. According to Wikipedia, “ç was chosen over ch since c with cedilla could be found on every typewriter, given its extensive use in Romance languages.” This seems strange: only French, Portuguese and Catalan use ç, and English and German typewriters certainly don’t have it.

I have also had critical things to say about some of the choices made in Atatürk’s Turkish alphabet (especially the use of ı, which invariably becomes i, and İ, which becomes I, when transcribed by foreign media), and of Hanyu Pinyin, with its strange uses for  x and q. In both cases transcriptions abroad lead to mispronunciations. It seems as if the creators of these alphabets gave no thought to how they would appear to users of other languages, and how that would affect Turks and Chinese abroad.

I had a different bone to pick with the Serbocroat alphabet originally created by Ljudevit Gaj. Since Gaj (who, despite his German-speaking background, was a Pan-Slavist) borrowed several caron-bearing characters from the  Czech/Slovak alphabet (čš and ž), I wondered why he hadn’t also taken ě  to denote the cases in which the different variants of Serbocroat (ekavian, ijekavian and ikavian) had e, je or ije, and i, respectively, and thus the three variants would have had a unified orthography. (Today, standard Serbian is ekavian, while standard Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin — even when called, as many Montenegrins do, “Serbian” — are ijekavian.)

By accident I ran across a Croatian publication from the 1840s (a decade after the publication of Gaj’s alphabet, and continuing into the 1850s) which does just that. On the very title page one sees the word umětnost (“art”), which would be umetnost in Serbian and umjetnost in the other three.

Wikipedia confirms that historically the use of ě “was very widespread, but today it is only found in scientific and historically accurate literature.” Why?

As I commented in an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, “Slavs like their orthographies to be phonetic, and to Slovaks such contrasts as mouka versus múka (flour) or cukr versus cukor (sugar) have been enough to convince them that they form a distinct nation from the Czechs.” And so with Serbs and Croats, with their tragic tradition of mutual hostility: they would rather preserve the differences than strive for common ground.



March 8, 2018

Some decades ago I noticed an advertisement for a bar-restaurants that touted, among its offerings, “solid drinks.”

I was more literal-minded then than I am now, and I had a tendency to say, to anyone who might see the ad and listen to me, “aren’t drinks supposed to be liquid, not solid?”

I continue to see “solid drinks” in online reviews of bars; it doesn’t bother me anymore. Curiously, a century ago the term “solid drinks” was used in the trade literature of the American drugstore business, denoting non-alcoholic drinks that were not carbonated and had some other qualities (I’m not sure which) that distinguished them from other drinks.

“Solid drinks” is, to be sure, an oxymoron; but it’s also an example of the use of a word with an intended meaning (in this case, probably something like “strong”) that is, in context, incompatible with the literal meaning. I have not found a term of art for this use, so I decided to coin one: contraliteralism.

Another example is “legendary” or “legend” applied to real people or events.

The best-known example, which has by now been thoroughly discussed, is, of  course,  “literal” or “literally” used as a figurative intensifier, as in “she literally lost her head” or “it was a literal hell.”

While it’s something I don’t use, I have come to accept it.

Yet more on “Polish death camps”

February 16, 2018

In contradiction to what I wrote the other day, I have discovered (thanks to a reference in the relevant Wikipedia page), that an explicit use of the expression “in Polish death camps” (w polskich obozach śmierci) is found in Zofia Nałkowska‘s 1946 book Medaliony , though a little later in the same section there occurs w obozach Polski (‘in Poland’s camps’), which in the English translation is also rendered as “in Polish camps”.

Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) was a prominent figure in post-war Poland, not only as a writer and public intellectual but in politics as well. Several cities in Poland have streets named for her. Will she, then, be posthumously charged with a crime against the reputation of the Polish nation and the Republic of Poland?

And am I a criminal in Poland for citing these references?

More on Poland and “Polish”

February 12, 2018

Just as I did with regard to Greece and Macedonia, I feel the need to expand on the flippant remark I recently posted about the stupidity of “refer[ring] (as some Western media do) to Nazi death camps that happened to lie in occupied Poland as ‘Polish'” (as well as that of the resulting Polish reaction).*

Rather than stupid, I should have characterized the reference as ignorant. Ignorant of the fact that, to Poles (as to most peoples east of the Seipel line), “Polish” does not usually mean simply ‘located in the territory of Poland’. The new Polish law is about “protecting the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”, and one must note that the republic and the nation are distinct entities. Unlike the west, where (with some exceptions) nation and citizenry are essentially identical — a concept first formalized by the French Revolution — in the east these are different.

I am a Polish Jew, born in Poland as a citizen thereof, but I am not and have never been a Pole, that is, a member of the Polish nation. Nor were the many other citizens of pre-war Poland whose “nationality” (i.e. ethnicity) was other than Polish, such as Ukrainian, German or Lithuanian. (There are not many of these left.)

Poles hear references to “Polish death camps” primarily as a reflection on the Polish nation. It’s only fair to quote the Polish ambassador to the UK to the effect that the controversial new law “does not protect individual Polish citizens who committed crimes against Jews, nor does it ban anyone – especially the survivors – from speaking about the cruelty and injustice which they experienced.”

It’s also fair to note that the expression “Polish death camp” in Western media was first used as the title of an article written by a Pole, the heroic Jan Karski. The actual wording, however, may well be due to an American editor armed with the ignorance I referred to above.

*The issue is discussed in a Wikipedia page.