Archive for February, 2016


February 29, 2016

It seemed strange. Leonardo DiCaprio, last night’s winner of the best-leading-actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, appeared in the clip shown from the movie (which I haven’t seen) to have the linguistic skill to have mastered an indigenous American language. But when, in his thank-you speech, he named the director with whom he must have spent many months in close contact, he could not pronounce the word Iñárritu; ignoring the tilde and the acute accent, he came out with something like “innerEEtoo”, which sounds more Star-Wars-ish than Basque.

When the director won his award, he was presented as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which is how he has been credited for the past couple of years; before that he used his full name in the Spanish fashion, Alejandro González Iñárritu. But nowadays he is often referred to (for example, in the latest issue of the The New Yorker) even more simply as Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this eventually becomes his credit name; middle initials aren’t all that frequent in Hollywood, and then mainly if the first and last names are rather common (Edward G. Robinson, Michael J. Keaton…).

If that happens, then he wouldn’t be the first Hispanic artist (I mean one from a Hispanic country, not a “Hispanic American”) to drop his very common paternal surname (of the type ending in -z)  in favor of his more uncommon maternal one. Antonio Banderas was originally José Antonio Domínguez Banderas (though he used the shortened form from the beginning of his career). Pablo Ruiz Picasso became Pablo R. Picasso and then Pablo Picasso. (Picasso, incidentally, is an italianized form of the Spanish Picazo, taken on by a maternal ancestor who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples, under Spanish rule at the time.)

The -z names, mostly ending in -ez but occasionally in -az (Díaz) or -iz (Ruiz) are originally patronymics; they are often glossed as “son of” but there is nothing in the form to indicate that, and they have from the beginning been used for daughters as well; for example, the daughter of Rodrigo Díaz El Cid were named Cristina and María Rodríguez. (Note: I am writing these names in the modern Spanish way, with an acute accent on the penultimate syllable; these would not have been there before 1900 or so, and I think it’s anachronistic, for example, to write — in English — the name of the New Mexico senator Dennis Chavez, whose family had been American for many generations, as Chávez.)

The -z ending seems to come from the Goths, who spoke a Germanic language, and in all likelihood represents the -s possessive common to all Germanic languages. These names are therefore equivalent to English surnames like Williams, Davis and Jones, typically native to southern England and Wales, as distinct from the Scandinavian-influenced -son names in northern England and Scotland.

While the -z names are, along with García, among the most common in Hispanic countries, one rarely finds them on the jerseys of soccer players from those countries; one is much more likely to find a given name or a nickname, such as Raúl (González), Alexis (Sánchez), James (Rodríguez), Pedro  (Rodríguez), Chicharito (Javier Hernández). Míchel (Miguel González) and many others.  In Spain, many footballers (like their Brazilian counterparts) like to be known by their nicknames (Isco, Koke, Juanfran) even if their surnames are not of the common type, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Hispanic America.



February 9, 2016

It occurred to me, as I was riding a stationary bike at my gym this morning, that there have been three times when I have been deeply disappointments by decisions made by political leaders whom I had admired.

One was a long time ago, in the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman gave General Douglas MacArthur the go-ahead for crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea, plunging the US into another three years of needless war. Truman realized his mistake, and tried to make up for it by firing MacArthur, but it was too late.

The second was in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the deposed Shah of Iran, to come to the United States for medical treatment — a decision that led to the Iran hostage crisis and ultimately the election of Ronald Reagan.

The third was in 2008, when Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing of his campaign and opened himself up to Wall Street. The consequences are still with us.

These disappointments seem to be happening at 29-year intervals. What will happen in 2037? I will then be 102 years old (my mother’s age now). Best not to think about it.


February 2, 2016

I don’t know if there is a special name for those writers, mainly English, who transcribe sounds as though RP (Received Pronunciation), especially its non-rhoticity, were the only way that English is spoken.
They include the lexicographers who give the RP value to pronunciations but write it not between brackets — […] — as befits a phonetic transcription but between slashes — /…/ — as though it were phonemic.
They include cryptic-crossword setters for whom geyser, geezer and Giza are necessarily homophones.
They include all those who write hesitation sounds as er or erm and nut uh or um, and who transcribe sardonic laughter as har-har not hah-hah.
They include the bureaucrats, British and Burmese, who put r into Burma and Myanmar. In Burmese these are two variants of the same name, and neither has anything like an r sound in it.
And they include A.A. Milne, who, despite his partly Scottish ancestry, chose the transcribe the bray of his eponymous donkey as Eeyore instead of Eeyaw (the American version of which would be Heehaw).
So I will make up a name for them: I will call them arrhoticists.

More on Saudis

February 2, 2016

The English historian Suzannah Lipscomb, in her BBC Documentary Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home, frequently  uses “the Tudors” to mean the people of Tudor England, not just the Welsh family that ruled over them. But the reference is meant to specify the historical period in which they lived, as distinct from English people at other times. I doubt that she would refer to her present-day compatriots as “the Windsors.”

In a like manner, “the Soviets” is often used to mean the people of the Soviet Union and not to the councils (ranging up to the Supreme Soviet) which governed them.

But it is quite common to see and hear the people of “Saudi” Arabia, and not only members of the royal family, called Saudis. Much of the time, when discussion focuses on the effects of the regime on the people, this designation may be justified, although I think “Saudi Arabians” would be better (as would Soviet Russians if the discussion is restricted to Russians). But in general, just as I wrote recently about the name of the country, I think they should be called just Arabians. The other inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemenis, Kuwaitis etc. — have demonyms of their own.