Archive for January, 2012


January 30, 2012

In a recent interview in Salon, the filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is quoted, in reference to her new film In Darkness, as follows:

When I read the story I thought it would be great to try to create a taste of Lwow, even without showing the city — to show its spirit. We wanted to film in Lviv, but it was more expensive than Poland.

True, earlier in the paper there is a parenthetical reference to “Lwow, now Lviv,” but to a reader who might have missed it it would not be obvious, from the quoted statement, that the two toponyms (which should actually be written Lwów and L’viv) in the quotation refer to the same city.

I recently also read Aleksandar Hemon‘s novel The Lazarus Project, where the city is called only Lviv (though another city appears in different parts of the narration, taking place in different time periods, under the names Czernowitz and Chernivts). Yet another recent book dealing with the same place, but specifically with its Jewish history is titled A Murder in Lemberg, using the city’s German/Yiddish name.

In fact, the city was generally known in English as Lemberg throughout the 19th, and well into the 20th century. It is so called not only in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) but also in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–1912), in the English-language Baedeker Guide to Austria-Hungary (1905) — all these references are available online — as well as news reports from World War I. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency used it as late as 1929, while during the Soviet period (1941–1990) it used the Russian name Lvov.

What gives? Why this compulsion to change the English names of cities in accordance with the preferred language of whoever is currently in control? We seem to do it only when this language changes. Elsewhere in Europe, in countries whose language has remained the same since the Middle Ages, historic cities often have English names that are quite different from their endonyms. In most cases these names are based on French, with the written form usually being the same as in French (Cologne, Munich, Prague, Belgrade, Seville, Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples) but sometimes slightly modified (Venice, Vienna, Geneva, Saragossa, Athens). In the north of Europe the names are either German-based (Copenhagen) or a hybrid of Germanic (German, Low German, Dutch) and French: Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles), The Hague (Den Haag/La Haye), Warsaw (Warschau/Varsovie), Cracow (Krakau/Cracovie).

Historic cities in the Arab world are also not called in English by their Arabic names but by names that may be based on their Biblical form (Damascus, Tyre)  or on Italian (Tripoli, Aleppo, Cairo).

Why don’t we, then, stick with an easy-to-say German-based name like Lemberg instead of forcing ourselves to pronounce the very un-English combination /lv/ with a palatal /l/ (palatalized as [ʎ] in Russian and Ukrainian)? It’s what I intend to do from now on.


Right and Left

January 27, 2012

I am a man of science, not of faith. This means that when reality conspires to upset a cherished belief, I find myself, however grudgingly, forced to accept the reality and give up the belief.

The reality I am referring to is the current campaign for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, USA. And the belief, which I have held for a long time, is that one of the chief differences between right-of-center and left-of-center politics is that the former is mainly about power, and the latter mainly about ego.

I am talking here about politicians, not the voting public. Voting behavior, I still believe, has a different polarity: that between hope (which leads people to vote left) and fear (which makes them vote right).

But in my experience political leaders on the right have generally sought power in order to further the interests of the right, which are essential those of the wealthy classes. How they would wield that power is almost immaterial, and the trappings of office are secondary. Dick Cheney, we remember, was content to govern the United States from an undisclosed location as Vice President. And those on the right, who like to call themselves conservatives, have always been willing to make alliances with various radical movements in order to attain the power they need. It can be argued whether the leaders on the right in Germany, Spain or Chile knew, when — in the face of a perceived threat from the left — they allied themselves with the likes of Hitler, Franco and Pinochet, that by doing so they were helping to lead their countries into fascism. But they accepted it, as long as their economic interests were served.

On the left, by contrast, compromise for the sake of power does not come easily. Each leader tends to believe that he or she alone has the right formula to promote the cause of the people, and campaigns by the left have tended to founder on the clash of egos. It may well be that ego of Ralph Nader was what lost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election in the US, as did that of Jean-Pierre Chevènement to Lionel Jospin in 2002 in France.

The left’s lasting electoral successes have generally happened when there was one ego big enough to project such charisma that it forced the other egos to coalesce around it. I mean people like John Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau, Willy Brandt, François Mitterrand, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Lula da Silva, Felipe González, or Hugo Chávez. Those are the kind of leaders who can inspire hope, which is what, as I said above, the left needs in order to win. It seemed in 2008 that Barack Obama might be of that mettle, but it has yet to be proved.

But the present Republican primary race has become a battle of alpha-male egos that rivals the best (or worst) that the left has had to offer. Romney and Gingrich seem to be trying to wound each other enough to make them unelectable (as, for example, Gore did to Dukakis in 1988). This is a new paradigm, and I wonder what it bodes for the future.