Archive for December, 2017

Happy holidays!

December 24, 2017

In English, there are two-word phrases that have different meanings, depending on which word is stressed. The meanings may even be opposite: a near-miss is “almost a miss” — that is, a hit that is close to being a miss — while a near miss is a miss that is near (close to) the target but is still a miss.

For another example, a French major is an officer in the French army, while a French major is an undergraduate student of French language and literature.

And, more relevantly, a wish of “a happy new year” is one for the whole upcoming year (as in the song We wish you a merry Christmas), while “happy New Year” (or “New Year’s”) refers to the celebrations around New Year’s Day.

I have always interpreted “happy holidays” to be, primarily, shorthand for “merry Christmas and happy New Year”, though other holidays people may celebrate around the season — Boxing Day, Saint Stephen’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Epiphany — may be implied obliquely. (The inclusion of Hanukkah is iffy, since it often occurs well before the Christmas season, and there is no Jewish tradition of “happy Hanukkah” wishes.)

The insistence of Fox News, Donald Trump and the Christian right on the replacement of “happy holidays” with “merry Christmas” is not so much the end of a nonexistent “war on Christmas” but the beginning of a WAR ON NEW YEAR and, secondarily, on such Christian (especially Catholic) holidays as Saint Stephen’s and Epiphany as well.

 

 

 

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Prepositions

December 20, 2017

As a PBNN (primary but not native) anglophone (with English being, chronologically, my fourth primary language) I have an instinctive tendency to compare aspects of English with corresponding ones in other languages that I know.

In particular, I have observed that English is relatively looser with prepositions than other languages, and that there is a good deal of variation in the use of prepositions for specific meanings.

I learned early on that wait on and wait for are verbs with distinct meanings. And yet the use of the former with the meaning of the latter is quite common, and seems to be quite old, at least in some regions (the OED gives a citation from 1694).

I also learned that, while for sale means ‘available to buy’, on sale usually means ‘for sale at a reduced price’. But I often see notices from performance organization announcing TICKETS ON SALE NOW, though upon checking I discover that they are sold at the regular price.

And then there is the American sportscaster’s on, as in “he’s got twelve wins on the season”, where standard English would have “over the season” or “in the course of the season”.

But on isn’t the only preposition that seems to be replacing others. There are two shifts that I have noticed recently, though they may be older than I think.

One: nowadays I usually here announcers on classical-music stations describing a composition as being from, rather by by, its composer. This, interestingly enough, brings English in line with German (von) and Romance (de/di), though it may be a coincidence.

Two: I often hear or read about an organization being based out of such-and-such a place, rather than based in it. This seems strange, since I interpret based as meaning ‘having its base’, and a base would be in a place, not out of it. My guess for this shift is as follows: if an entity has agents operating away from its base, such agents are often referred to as operating out of the location of the base, and based out of is a conflation (a frequent phenomenon in English) of based in and operating out of.

 

Capitals

December 19, 2017

Every so often, some American on the left side of the political spectrum gives Donald Trump grudging credit for something positive. Recent examples include Stephen F. Cohen, in The Nation, acknowledging the Trump administration’s moves toward better relations with Russia, and Daniel Wirls, on The Conversation, writing that “Trump’s right about one thing: The US Senate should end its 60-vote majority.”

When I first heard that Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I had similar feelings. After all, I thought, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel: it’s where all of its government institutions are, and isn’t that what a capital is? I’ve always been bothered by journalists using Tel Aviv as a synecdoche for Israel, especially when the government was meant. And so I thought that Trump’s “recognition of reality” was to the point.

But then I head a second thought. Maybe it’s too much to insist on one city being the capital of a country. Look at the Netherlands: for all practical purposes the capital is the Hague, and yet the constitutional capital is Amsterdam. In fact, Wikipedia has a list of countries with multiple capitals, and while Israel is not on the actual list, its situation is discussed in the section following it.

Since all the foreign embassies to Israel are in or around Tel Aviv, we might call this city the diplomatic capital, and acknowledge Jerusalem as the political capital.

I know, “political capital” has another meaning, but that’s English for you!

 

They

December 14, 2017

During the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?

Yellow ribbon

December 8, 2017

Las Sunday, as my wife and I were watching Manchester City achieve its second consecutive 2-1 victory with a late winning goal (in the previous game, that goal, by Raheem Sterling, came in the last five seconds of stoppage time), we noticed that Pep Guardiola, City’s Catalonian coach, was sporting a yellow ribbon on his lapel. We were both intrigued, and Pat quickly looked it up in Wikipedia, to discover that “the yellow ribbon started being used in late October 2017 by Catalan separatists as a symbol of the two members of the secessionist organizations ANC and Omnium accused of rioting, sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and imprisoned to avoid destruction of evidences or escape” and that “Pep Guardiola, notorious follower of the separatist cause, has been seen wearing it”.

I find Pep’s advocacy of Catalonian independence puzzling, though it’s in keeping with the hundreds of estelades displayed by the fans of FC Barcelona, where Pep spent most of his career as a player and achieved fame as a coach.

For I can’t help wondering what would happen to Barça — or, for that matter, to the other Barcelona football club, RCD Espanyol — if Catalonia were to become independent?

In theory, it might be possible for these clubs to remain in the Spanish league system, analogously to the way Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer and Welsh teams in the English league system. (Wales is not independent in the political world but it is so in the soccer world.) But these are agreements between the soccer federations of friendly neighbors. Considering that the very basis for any possible Catalonian independence is hostility toward Spain, this possibility is null.

Since the putative referendum of October 1, many hundreds of businesses have moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s economy. But football clubs are not like the movable franchises of North American sports, where the Cleveland Rams can become to Los Angeles Rams and, after moving to Indianapolis and Saint Louis, the Los Angeles Rams once again. They are firmly established local institutions, and none more so than those that are not “clubs” in name only but are true membership organization, of which Barça is one of the few remaining examples (Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are others, with the Green Bay Packers as the only American instance).

And so FC Barcelona would, in the event of independence, become the leading club of a strictly Catalonian league. (La Lliga?) Could it still be one of the world’s iconic entities, with its team colors worn by young and old around the globe? Not likely. No team outside Europe’s Big Five (England, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) can nowadays attain (or, in all likelihood  retain) such a position. Catalonia’s population is less than those of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands. But the days when teams like Porto or Benfica or Sporting or Panathinaikos or AEK or Anderlecht or Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord could reach the late stages of the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup) seem to be over. The last time such a team appeared in the final was Porto (coached by José Mourinho) in 2004 (they won). This year Porto is the only one from this set of leagues  to have made into the knockout phase.

And who would replace Real Madrid as Barcelona’s archrival? It could only be its derby rival,  RCD Espanyol.

This club has had its present name only since 1995; before that it was RCD Español. The initials RCD stood for Real Club Deportivo (royal sports club), the title having been granted by king Alfonso XIII; it was then Catalanized to Reial Club Deportiu, though deportiu is not actually a Catalan word — the correct word is esportiu — but keeping the initials was deemed more important than linguistic purity. The club was originally founded in 1900 (as Sociedad Española de Foot-Ball) under the leadership of the son of an Andalusian-born physician and politician who, as rector of the University of Barcelona, was notorious for his opposition to the Catalan language. The club, though at first composed mostly of Catalans (of the upper class), thus became a symbol of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the same way that FC Barcelona became one of Catalanism.

What, then would be the role of Espanyol in an independent republic of Catalonia? It would certainly no longer be royal, to be sure. Would it still be espanyol? If so, in what sense?

I don’t know.