Archive for June, 2014


June 23, 2014

There is a certain similarity between the decolonization of Africa in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the breakup of the USSR in 1991. In both cases, new sovereign states were formed on the precise territories of existing political divisions — the colonies in one case and the Soviet Socialist Republics in the other — with no adjustment of borders to account for ethnic imbalances.

The Western European powers that colonized Africa, of course, did not really care about “tribal” identities, except when it was convenient for them, as when the Belgians preferred to have the native administrators in Rwanda and Burundi (I’m using the present-day forms of the names, for simplicity’s sake) be Tutsi rather than Hutu. Traditionally Somali districts that had been previously incorporated into Ethiopia or Kenya, for political or administrative reasons, remained that way. In what is now Nigeria, existing political entities with vastly different cultures and histories were merged, at first (in 1900), into the two colonies of Northern and Southern Nigeria, and then (in 1914), into one Nigeria. Many of the bloody civil wars and other conflicts that have raged in Africa ever since can be attributed to this colonial disregard of ethnic identities.

In the Soviet Union it wasn’t quite like that, at first. Each of the SSRs was formed as the homeland of its leading ethnic nation, with provisions for minority nationalities, so that, in principle, the borders between them were reasonably representative of ethnic divisions. But the central role played by the Russian nation in the government of the Union made it desirable for the Kremlin to introduce Russians into the non-Russian republics, both as members the ruling elites (nomenklatura) and as settlers in large numbers (continuing a trend begun under the tsars). The current situation in Ukraine, where a large swath of territory inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians (and not merely Russian-speakers, many of whom are ethnic Ukrainians) was absorbed into the sovereign state replacing the Ukrainian SSR, is the direct outgrowth of this stubborn clinging to already-existing borders.


June 15, 2014

It’s Bloomsday again (well, not quite yet in California, but certainly in Dublin), and I want to add my personal little contribution to the tributes being paid to James Joyce and his Ulysses all over the media.

I read Ulysses in one sitting, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York on a DC-6 in the 1950s (the flight took about nine hours then). I laughed all the way across the continent — I found it to be the second-funniest long book I had ever read, after Don Quixote. What made me laugh was, above all, Joyce’s way with the English language, to the extent that I still consider, after all these years (and one or two rereadings), the English language to be the book’s true protagonist.

I have since read two other books that I also feel to be books about language: Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur about French, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante‘s Tres Tristes Tigres about Spanish.

One of these days I’ll try to expand on what I mean.

Brat Worsts Cantor

June 12, 2014

It so happened last night that my wife Pat and I had bratwursts (the little Nuremberg ones) for dinner last night. We first had them when we visited Nuremberg in the course of a long trip through central Europe in 2001, and they memory made us go the photo albums from that trip (at the time we were not married yet and kept separate albums) and relive some of its highlights.

Shortly after dinner we sat down to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where the first bit of news to be discussed was the defeat of Eric Cantor by Dave Brat. And an obvious headline occurred to me: Brat Worsts Cantor.

A few minutes ago I googled “Brat Worsts” expecting to find such a headline somewhere, but all I find was “brat worsts” as a misspelling of “bratwursts”. When I tried “Brat Worsts Cantor” I got nothing!

Have headline writers forgotten about the verb “worst”? It’s in all the dictionaries I have access to (‘to gain the advantage over; defeat’ — AHD; ‘to get the advantage over; defeat or beat’ — Collins; ‘to defeat; beat’ — Random House Kemerman; ‘to get the better of; defeat’ — MWCD). Or have pun headlines gone out of style?

Not for me, they haven’t.

Friendlies and previouslies

June 7, 2014

During the weeks leading up to the FIFA World Cup, the various national teams — whether or not they have qualified for the Cup — play against one another in matches that are known as friendlies. A friendly (short for ‘friendly match’) is the equivalent of what in North American sports is called an exhibition game, that is, one that is not played as part of a competition.

While friendly as an adjective goes back to Old English, the OED dates its first appearance as a noun (pluralized, as a matter of fact) to 1885. In English — unlike many other languages, European and other — an adjective cannot be automatically be turned into a noun. It is usually done by ellipsis: in a noun phrase made up of an adjective and a noun, after some time the noun is dropped. While past appears as an adjective around 1300, it didn’t become a noun (meaning ‘past time’ or ‘past tense’) till after 1500 (preterit was used before that, alongside present and future — these were already nouns in French before being borrowed into English). Temporary can be short for ‘temporary worker’ or ‘temporary crown’ (in dentistry). Danish means ‘Danish pastry.”

Glossonyms (names of languages) may also be thought of as belonging to this category, with “English” short for “English language (or tongue),” but many glossonyms of this type (English, French, Welsh, Danish) go back to Old English, so that the ellipsis is not a conscious one.

Then there are certain ethnic or “racial” designation: black, white, Hispanic… One does not usually say “a black” or “a white,” but “a Hispanic” is not uncommon, and they are pluralized as nouns (blacks, whites, Hispanics). Other ethnonyms (by which I mean not only ethnic but also national, regional or continental designations) may function as both nouns and adjectives, especially those ending in -an (American, German, Italian, Mexican, Asian…), but these are based on the Latin -anus (-ana, etc.) and the nominalization of the adjective already took place in Latin, where it is the norm. Ethnonyms without special endings (such as Greek, Navaho, Yoruba) usually serve as both nouns and adjectives, but here the noun came first, and in English it’s the adjectivization of nouns that is the norm.

Other than such elliptical transformations, an adjective (invariably preceded by the) can be used as a plural noun denoting the class of people characterized by it: the Chinese, the English and the Irish; the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless; The Beautiful and Damned, The Naked and the Dead

The fact that in other languages adjectives can be freely used as nouns can be confusing to translators. In García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad there appears a character, based on a real person, called El sabio catalán. Here both sabio and catalán can be either adjectives and nouns, but the intent is for the former to be a noun meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’ and the latter to be an adjective meaning ‘Catalan’ or ‘Catalonian’ (from Catalonia). But the hapless translator, Gregory Rabassa, translated it as the wise Catalonian. While the prototype, Ramon Vinyes, was known to be a literary scholar, there is no record of any special wisdom on his part. (This is only one of Rabassa’s many gaffes.)

So much for adjectives. Rarer still is the nominalization of adverbs. There are, of course, yesterdays and tomorrows (both quite old), but not many others.

I have recently found the need to nominalize the adverb previously. By this I mean a segment of a multi-episode television show, coming before the current episode, in which the preceding action is summarized by combining clips from a previous episode (or episodes). Invariably one reads the legend — or hears an announcer saying — “previously on [name of show]”. If there is a name for this kind of segment (the converse of a trailer, as it were), I don’t know it. So I have taken to calling it a previously. “They’re showing the previously!” I might say to my wife. And of course she knows what I mean.