Archive for January, 2014

Endo (auto) and exo

January 29, 2014

Endonyms (also called autonyms) and exonyms are names or places, peoples or languages as used, respectively, by insiders (in their own language) and outsiders. Examples are España and (in English) Spain, Apache and Diné, français and French.

In recent decades it has become customary in some Western languages, especially English, to replace traditional exonyms with supposed endonyms for peoples and places that are, in some sense, remote or exotic. Thus, the peoples that I first learned about as Eskimos, Lapps, Bushmen and Gypsies are now called, respectively, Inuit, Saami, San and Roma or Romani. (I have always had trouble with the last of these, because, in my experience, outside the Balkans few Gypsies refer to themselves as Roma when they are not speaking Romani.) The usual excuse for the substitution is that the traditional names are pejorative, either originally (that has been asserted about Eskimo and Bushman, though San may also be pejorative) or by later association, for example by referring to the derivation of the verb ‘gyp’ from Gypsy. But the similar verbs ‘welsh’ and ‘jew’ have not led to the abandonment of Welsh and Jew as ethnic designations, prolbably because they are too familiar.

I have previously written about how the name of the now-Ukrainian city historically known in English as Lemberg has had to go, in English-language media, through Lwów, L’vov and L’viv, none of them easily pronounceable in English. But nobody, to my knowledge, has proposed renaming Copenhagen as København, Munich as München, Warsaw as Warszawa, or even Bangkok as Krung Thep. The only recent renaming in English of well-known places from exonym to endonym (what I will call endonymization) that I’m aware of has happened in India (Calcutta to Kolkata, Madras to Chennai, Bombay to Mumbai), made possible by the fact that English is an official language there. (In the case of Bombay it is specifically the Marathi endonym that has prevailed over the Hindi one.)

The two major endonymizations that happened in the first half of the twentieth century are Constantinople to Istanbul and Persia to Iran. The latter has been quite useful in allowing a distinction between Persians as an ethnicity and Iranians as citizens of Iran, who may be Azeri, Kurdish, Armenian or of any number of other ethnicities. Supposedly, a reason of the change from Burma to Myanmar was to allow a similar distinction between the Burmese ethnic group (also called Bamar) and the Myanma nationality (which includes Shan, Karen, and others); but this doesn’t seem to have taken hold. The change of Siam to Thailand (from one exonym to another) has had the opposite effect: ‘Thai’ is now applied to all the country’s denizens, including those of non-Thai ethnicity (hence ‘Thai Malay‘).

What is striking is how sometimes the exonyms for neighboring nations differ drastically from the endonyms. Take the island of Great Britain: England’s neighbors, Scotland and Wales, are Alba in Gaelic and Cymru in Welsh, while in these languages England is respectively Sassain and Lloegr. Sweden and Finland are respectively Sverige and Finland in Swedish, Ruotsi and Suomi in Finnish. Bohemia is Čechy in Czech, Böhmen in German; Germany (Deutschland) and Austria (Österreich) are respectively Německo and Rakousko in Czech. Greece (Ελλάδα, Elláda in Greek) is Greqia in Albanian; Albania (Shqipëria in Albanian) is Αλβανία (Alvania) in Greek. Note that in the last case the exonyms are similar to those in other languages, except Turkish, which has Yunanistan for Greece and Arnavutluk for Albania.

Morning coffee

January 26, 2014

A few months ago I spent some time in Portugal, and learned that what the Portuguese call breakfast is pequeno almoço or ‘little lunch’ — a literal version of the French petit déjeuner and the Italian piccola colazione. But, in reading hotel reviews on written by Brazilians, I have found that their term for breakfast is café da manhã or ‘morning coffee’. To Brazilians, then, coffee is an integral part of the breakfast concept, as it is to Turks, whose word for breakfast is kahvaltı, a compound of kahve (coffee) and altı (six), possibly meaning (I’m not sure about this) ‘six-o’clock coffee’. Of course, at the Turkish hotels where I stayed breakfast was not necessarily served at six and one had a choice of coffee or tea.

I was a morning tea drinker until I acquired the coffee habit in my twenties. And while I like my tea plain (no milk, lemon or sugar), I like coffee with (a little) milk. But with old age my digestion of milk seems to have slowed down, and if I do any vigorous activity (such as a gym workout) within two hours of drinking coffee with milk, I get an unpleasant sensation in my stomach. My routine is now tea on gym days, coffee on non-gym days.

When I travel I ask for a cappuccino scuro in an Italian-type coffeehouse, or for un cortado in Spain or une noisette in France. In Colombia it’s another matter: there café by itself means ‘coffee with milk’; black coffee is tinto (which normally means ‘red’ as applied to wine), while the intermediate kind that I like is perico in Bogotá and elsewhere, but pintado in Cali. The word perico means ‘parakeet’ and it’s also used to describe scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, huevos pericos. One time, in a café in Cali, I asked for dos pericos, and was about to be served some eggs when I corrected myself and said dos pintados.

Anyway, I am curious if any languages other than Turkish and Brazilian Portuguese have ‘coffee’ as a part of their term for breakfast.

Pullum rides again

January 26, 2014

Geoffrey K. Pullum is an eminent Scottish-English-American linguist. He taught at UC Santa Cruz for many years, and is now Professor of General Linguistics and Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. He is a coauthor (with Rodney Huddleston) of the controversial (and very expensive) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), described in Wikipedia as “a book that presents a comprehensive descriptive grammar of English,” and a contributor to Language Log, an online forum of linguists who, scientists that they are, can be generally classified as descriptivists. That is, they seek to describe language as it is actually used and not prescribe how it should be used. One of the categories of posts on Language Log is in fact called “prescriptivist poppycock,” and Geoff Pullum’s posts are frequently filed under it. He can get on his high horse and be quite vituperative when writing about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which he has called “that vile little book”) or George Orwell’s  essay Politics and the English Language, and nothing angers him more than these authors’ advice to “avoid the passive.”

Well, maybe something does anger him more: it’s when writers (especially journalists), possibly brought up on this advice without fully understanding it, apply the word passive — calling it passive construction, passive voice, or even passive tense(!)to discourse in which the verbs are not actually in what grammatically is known as the passive voice. In a post published two days ago, he cited one journalist’s reference to a passage in another journalist’s article as “a lovely passive construction” and then proceeded to analyze the passage in question, finding that of the 23 verbs contained in it not one was passive. He has written an essay titled Fear and loathing of the English Passive in which the matter is discussed (see, I fear not the passive!) at length.

But to all appearances Geoff Pullum, who seems to have a very good sense of humor, doesn’t see the irony in a descriptivist like him railing against language change. The fact is that, at least in journalistic language, passive seems to have morphed from its grammatical meaning to something vaguely associated with a relatively impersonal form of discourse, modeled perhaps on the Nixonian “mistakes were made” (which actually is in the passive). It so happens that English has no regular form of impersonal construction: it has neither the impersonal pronoun like on in French or man in German, nor does it have the subjectless reflexive like Spanish, Italian or Slavic, so that the English equivalent of on parle français, man spricht deutsch, se habla español, говорится по-русски and the like is English [is] spoken. And so it seems that a generalization of passive to mean ‘impersonal’ is natural language evolution, somewhat like the way gridlock (originally the kind of traffic blockage that happens in a street grid when stopped vehicles obstruct intersections) has come to mean any kind of traffic jam, as when, in connection with the Fort Lee lane-closure scandal, we have heard about “gridlock on the bridge.”

But I have not heard any complaints from traffic engineers about media misuse of the term gridlock.  Nor do I hear kvetching form mathematicians, astronomers, physicists or seismologists when people use least common denominator, light-year, quantum leap or epicenter with meanings quite remote from their technical ones. Perhaps this is because specialists in technical or scientific disciplines are aware that common language is in a different realm from technical language. Mathematicians, for example, have borrowed words like field, group or ring and given them technical meanings, and to mechanicians (like me) the words forcepower, strength and energy (which are virtually synonymous in ordinary language) have precise and different meanings.

It seems to be different with linguists, perhaps because they deal with language per se. They seem to forget that the word linguist itself originally meant ‘someone who knows several languages’ (thus in Shakespeare and still in popular use as well as in official use in the armed forces) and resent its being applied to anyone but them. Linguistics has also given grammar a meaning far more restrictive (though they don’t always agree on what that meaning is) than what it originally meant: the study of a formal literary language, typically for the benefit of learners of said language who don’t speak it (because it’s either a dead language or a foreign one). And traditionally books on grammar, even those of living languages (beginning with Nebrija‘s grammar of Spanish), have dealt with such things as orthography and punctuation; it’s not a coincidence that the word is related to the Greek word for writing. But when people refer to spelling or punctuation mistakes as grammatical ones, linguists like Geoff Pullum get peeved.

Geoff Pullum, alone among the Language Log contributors, does not allow comments to his posts. He often displays an I’m-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrong attitude, as in his recent defense of CGEL’s  categorization of because as preposition (everyone else considers it a conjunction). And so I expect him to go on railing about misuse of passive or grammatical and other sins against linguistics. I don’t mind: he writes entertainingly, and he can own up to mistakes (as he did today). Go get ’em, Geoff!

Italian, by George?

January 4, 2014

Happy new year, dear readers, and welcome to the third installment (or at least the first part of it) of my “by George” series, following the linguistic misadventures of the novelist Elizabeth George. In the first installment I detailed her lapses in reproducing British English, while in the second I discussed the mess she made trying to represent Spanish names.

Elizabeth George’s latest novel, Just One Evil Act, has just appeared, and the reviews I have read have been underwhelming, even from self-acknowledged long-time fans like Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle. Two oft-mentioned complaints are that book is overlong (700+ pages in hardcover) and that it contains a great deal of untranslated Italian dialogue.

Because of the first complaint I don’t feel too eager to read the book just yet. But the second one makes me want to, at least, browse through it. I know Italian — not as well as British English and Spanish, but well enough (I think) to be able to tell whether the dialogue is of the kind that would actually be spoken by Italians, or the kind that might be concocted from a crash course (perhaps with the help of a duly acknowledged but not necessary helpful editor). When I’ve had a chance to look at the book, I will post (I promise) the second part of this installment.