Archive for March, 2012


March 27, 2012

On reviewing my latest post I noticed two things that had not occurred to me as I was writing it.

One was that whenever I did not refer to Elizabeth George by her full lname (or, at least, her author name) I called her Ms. George. On the other hand, when I wrote about Ian Rankin, I called him Rankin. I evidently have not yet absorbed the by-now-not-so-new convention of referring to women simply by their surnames. It is, of course, a journalistic convention, not a novelistic one: George herself (there, I did it!) refers to Thomas Lynley as Lynley, but to Barbara Havers as Barbara. And its common use in journalism (outside the New York Times, which maintains Mr. and Ms.) can be confusing, as when in an article about Hillary Clinton, in which there may be references to her husband, she is called simply Clinton.

I also wrote that Elizabeth George “showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture,” letting it go at that, without citing examples. An example came my way the next day, as I was reading Ruth Rendell’s The Vault. Here a key element of the plot is the use of the French word punaise as a mnemonic for a person’s PIN, since punaise supposedly means ‘pin.’ But the primary meaning (that is, the first meaning that will come to a French person’s mind) of punaise is ‘bug’ (specifically ‘bedbug’); a secondary meaning is ‘pin’ of the kind that in Britain is known as drawing pin, in America thumbtack, but the general word for ‘pin’ is épingle. And just before this book I had read Rendell’s Portobello, one of whose characters has a mother who is a Muslim from Assam and whose language is not Assamese or Bengali or Sylheti but Hindi, a language practically unknown in Assam (see Wikipedia).

Even supposedly cosmopolitan, world-traveling British writers, like E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or John le Carré, often betray in their writings the likelihood that they spend most of their time abroad chatting with other Brits. Le Carré, for example, worked as a diplomat in Germany, and yet his knowledge of German language and culture shows considerable lapses. And George Orwell, who wrote Homage to Catalonia, didn’t know Catalan.

American writers, by and large, have not exhibited these symptoms. Hispanic culture, for example, has been portrayed by some of our greatest writers, from Washington Irving and Helen Hunt Jackson to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and Katherine Anne Porter, and in reading their works one feels that their knowledge of the culture, or at least the subcultures they wrote about, is thorough.

An exception comes to mind in Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, where the digressions on Spanish and Latin American culture and history are a sorry mess, surprising from someone who spent most of his life in the half-Hispanic city of Albuquerque, and enough to almost (but not quite) make me doubt the authenticity of his Navajo lore.

Elizabeth George spent most of her life in California, another place with a large Hispanic population, so I would expect her (meticulous researcher that she is, to gather from her forewords and afterwords) to know better. My guess is that she deliberately botched the Spanish in order to seem more British.


Spanish, by George

March 21, 2012

Last year I published a post, titled English, by George, about some lapses in Elizabeth George’s otherwise highly successful endeavor (endeavour, as she would put it) to write her set-in-Britain Inspector Lynley mysteries as if she were herself English. Those lapses, some of which I listed in the cited post, I can only call Americanisms.

I have just finished Elizabeth George’s last Lynley novel, Believing the Lie, and I can report that, in a fast but not sloppy reading of its 600+ pages, not one such Americanism jumped out at me. Instead, she showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture.

Ms. George seems to have fine a fine ear for the varieties of language spoken by indigenous English folk of different classes and regions. Her occasional Scottish characters, on the other had, speak a kind of stereotypical Scots that one rarely hears in Scotland. (She makes other mistakes about Scotland, for example supposing — in This Body of Death — that a crime committed in the Highlands would be investigated by the Glasgow-based Strathclyde Police rather than the Northern Constabulary.) For her West Indian characters she writes a kind of eye dialect that doesn’t really reflect an accent, only that it’s somehow different.

In the new novel, one of the dozen or so central characters (yes!) is an Argentinean woman named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres. It’s the kind of name one would expect in a second-rate comedy skit making fun of Spanish names, not in a serious novel.

Let me discuss the various parts of the name. To begin with, Del Torres is grammatically impossible as a Spanish name, since the contraction del is singular masculine, while Torres is plural feminine. De la Torre is a standard Spanish surname, as is simply Torres, and De las Torres is possible, but not what Ms. George chose. (Note: the initial d is capitalized when the name stands by itself, but not when it immediately follows another part of the full name.) A Web search for Del Torres turns up Americans with Del and Torres as first and last names, respectively, and a supposed place in Costa Rica called Bajos del Torres which, on further inspection, turns out to be Bajos de Torres (a neighborhood in the Uruca District of San José). And, of course there are also tracts in Florida with Del Torres as part of the name, just like Seinfeld‘s Del Boca Vista.

Now, the conjunction y (‘and’) was once commonly used between the first (paternal) and the second (maternal) surname in Spanish, but is now largely obsolete; for example, the son of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset went by José Ortega Spottorno. The y is sometimes inserted when it helps to avoid confusion, as, for example, when the first surname has the same form as a possible forename. Thus, if the famous physiologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal had not used y, he might have been taken for someone with Santiago Ramón as his given names; similarly for Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, José María Gabriel y Galán, and others.

But, most importantly, most Hispanics don’t present themselves with their double surnames outside of official circumstances, and Argentineans least of all, perhaps because a great many of them are of non-Spanish descent. I have known a good many Argentineans in person, and many more by reputation. and only one person I knew used the double name: his name was Carlos García, and his desire to be distinguished from the thousands of other Carlos Garcías was understandable. If you look at Wikipedia’s long list of famous Argentineans, you will find that a bare handful have two surnames listed, and only one of them (Vicente López y Planes, 1785–1856) used y.

There is another factor to consider: there is a certain mystery about the character named Alatea Vasquez y del Torres, and I have to say, without revealing too much of the plot, that a change of identity is involved. It seems very unlikely that such a character, on leaving Latin America, would keep the full official Spanish version of her name, even if she had used it before, which is also unlikely. Of course the fact that she did so makes it possible for Barbara Havers (with Winston Nkata’s help) to trace Alatea’s background on the Internet, with the result that her parents are found to be Esteban Vega y de Vasquez and Dominga Padilla y del Torres de Vasquez. If those (with some corrections) were in fact the parents’ names, then Alatea would be Vega Padilla, not Vasquez y del Torres, and her mother’s name would end in de Vega, not de Vasquez. (Argentineans have clung, more than others, to the tradition of appending a man’s paternal surname, preceded by de, to his wife’s name; witness Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.)

As I said, all this would be fine in a comedy skit. As would be the name of Alatea’s hometown, Santa Maria de la Cruz, de los Angeles, y de los Santos. (Never mind that Spanish doesn’t use the serial comma, except to prevent ambiguity.) But not in a would-be realistic novel.

And then there is the matter of Alatea’s English. While we are told at the outset that she has a strong accent, and on at least one occasion that she can’t come up with the English word for something (though we are not told what the Spanish word might be), there is no indication of any Spanish influence in either the direct dialogue in which she participates, or in her thoughts as given in indirect speech. No eye dialect, no how do you say it in English, no grammatical lapses. The detectives’ attempts to contact her family show that no one in Santa Maria etc. speaks English, and Alatea seems to have had no higher eductaion, with her sojourn in anglophone territory (first Utah, then England) being relatively brief. So how, then, did she acquire the impeccable English of Elizabeth George’s upper-class characters?

It’s an added mystery, with no solution provided.

Kröger, Kroger, Kroeger

March 17, 2012

It must be some four decades since I saw François Truffaut’s film The Bride Wore Black (1968), but there is a trivial detail that remains in my memory: the fact that, while the action takes place in France and the characters are French, they have mostly English-looking names such as Corey, Fergus and Bliss. The reason is that the movie is based on a novel by the American writer Cornell Woolrich, and Truffaut, for some idiosyncratic reason, decided to keep the original names in spite of transplanting the action into France. He did not do the same with another Woolrich adaptation, Mississippi Mermaid (based on Waltz into Darkness), even though the novel’s main character already has a French name, Louis Durand – in the film he is Louis Mahé.

The detail from The Bride Wore Black came to mind when I recently saw another French Film, Queen to Play (2009) by Caroline Bottaro. (The French title is Joueuse, meaning ‘player,’ but the English translation misses the all-important feminine gender of the original.) It is about an uneducated working woman (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) in Corsica who is taught to play chess by a mysterious stranger (played by Kevin Kline), an American known as Dr. Kröger. And it’s the incongruity between name and nationality that brought back the Truffaut detail.

Americans, for one thing, are not normally called ‘doctor’ in their private lives unless they are practicing physicians, dentists or, possibly, pastors, and the Kevin Kline character gives no indication of being any of these; he just seems to be some sort of scholar. (I am a Ph.D. in Engineering Science, but it would never occur to me to present myself as Dr. Lubliner, nor would it, I daresay, to my professional colleagues.)

And Kröger is, of course, a distinctly German name. There are a great any Americans with surnames of German origin, but an American whose surname was originally Kröger would, in all likelihood, be Kroger or Kroeger.

When I checked the film’s credits, I noticed that was based on a novel by a writer with the clearly German name Bertina Henrichs. Aha! I said to myself. He was German in the original, and Mme. Bottaro kept the name!

No such luck. It turns out that while Bertina Henrichs is indeed German, she lives in France and wrote the book in French. Moreover, the action takes place on the Greek island of Naxos, and all the characters are Greek, including the man who teaches the heroine to play chess – an old high-school teacher of hers, named Kouros.

Transplanting the action from one Mediterranean island to another, specifically one where people speak French (very few Corsicans under 70 or so still speak Corsican), is an obvious choice for a French filmmaker. And changing the teacher into a stranger who seems closer to the woman in age than an old high-school teacher would have been gives their relationship a sexual tension it wouldn’t otherwise have. But why an American with an über-German name?

On further investigation it turns out that Caroline Bottaro is also German by birth. Perhaps she had a high-school teacher named Dr. Kröger (in Germany it’s quite common for Gymnasium teachers to be called Dr. So-and-so). And perhaps she had meant the character to be German, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity of casting a star like Kevin Kline. And since the script was already written, she didn’t feel like revising it with respect to a detail that only a stickler like me would care about.

Anyway, back to a point I already made: names of German origin are extremely common in the United States, but if they have an umlaut in the original form, it is not kept. Immigrants with umlauted surnames generally took one of three options.

The most radical option was to anglicize the name, either by replacing it with a cognate English name (so that König became King, Grün became Green), or by respelling it so that it looked English: Schäfer → Shafer, Schröder → Shrader, Kühner → Keener. Of course, this option is not limited to names with umlauts, and so many a Schmidt became Smith, Koch became Cook, as well as Klein → Kline or Cline, Bach → Baugh, Hauser → Houser or Howser, Obermeyer → Overmire, Pfeiffer → Phifer, Sieferle → Siverly (my wife’s surname). Some names were only partly anglicized, most notably Steinway (from Steinweg) and Eisenhower (from Eisenhauer).

The second option was simply to drop the umlaut. That’s how we get people named Schafer, Hofstadter, Schroder, Muller, Buhler. The droppers’ names, like the anglicizers’, are expected to be pronounced according to such rules as English might have, which means that with a name like Moller (originally Möller) it isn’t obvious whether it should rhyme with ‘holler’ or with ‘roller.’ But such uncertainty is not limited to names with dropped umlauts. My name can be read in at least four ways, and there are just as many ways of avoiding the ‘cock’ pronunciation of Koch, while announcers for the 2004 Summer Olympics had to distinguish between Mia Hamm (‘ham’) and Paul Hamm (‘hahm’). Nor is it, of course, limited to German names. Even British names have not always kept their sound on crossing the Pond.

The third option, the most conservative one, is to replace the umlaut with an added e – an option that exists in German as well (for example Goethe) – leading to Schaefer, Boehner, Goetz, Weyerhaeuser, Mueller. This option is most problematic with regard to pronunciation. For ae there is a tradition, probably derived from the use of this digraph in Scots, of treating it like a “long a” (though not in Latin words). Thus if someone is descended from an immigrant named Dätz (pronounced in German like ‘dets’) who was a dropper and is therefore named Datz, the name will sound like ‘dats,’ but if the immigrant ancestor was an e-adder — so that  name is spelled Daetz — it will probably be read like ‘dates’; aeu (originally äu, sounding like ‘oy’) is usually treated the same as au and pronounced ‘ow’. For oe there is no rule at all – witness ‘shoe,’ ‘goes,’ ‘does’ (verb), ‘coed,’ ‘subpoena,’ not to mention ‘foehn‘ and ‘loess’ (originally Föhn and Löss) – and ue is ambivalent as well (‘sues,’ ‘suet’). And so people named Goetz may be variously known as gets, goats or gates, while Mueller may be muller, mewler or miller.

With the advent of computer printing, diacritics are no longer a problem, and Hispanic Americans, in particular, have made a point of reclaiming them. In California there are, at present, politicians named Hernández, Pérez, Núñez and Gascón. But Americans with a German background have by now been almost been completely absorbed into the Anglo-American population – my wife, for example, did not know about the German origin of her name – and I don’t expect anyone named Dr. Kröger to be ever taken for an American. Except, perhaps, in a French movie.