Archive for March, 2018


March 25, 2018

I have often been critical of some versions of the Latin alphabet that have been adapted in the last 200 years or so for various languages. For example, I didn’t know why the makers of the Albanian alphabet decided to use ç for /t͡ʃ/ (as in Turkish) rather than ch, since in all other cases an added h serves to convert alveolar sibilants to postalveolar ones: sh, xh, zh. According to Wikipedia, “ç was chosen over ch since c with cedilla could be found on every typewriter, given its extensive use in Romance languages.” This seems strange: only French, Portuguese and Catalan use ç, and English, Spanish and German typewriters certainly don’t have it.

I have also had critical things to say about some of the choices made in Atatürk’s Turkish alphabet (especially the use of ı, which invariably becomes i, and İ, which becomes I, when transcribed by foreign media), and of Hanyu Pinyin, with its strange uses for  x and q. In both cases transcriptions abroad lead to mispronunciations. It seems as if the creators of these alphabets gave no thought to how they would appear to users of other languages, and how that would affect Turks and Chinese abroad.

I had a different bone to pick with the Serbocroat alphabet originally created by Ljudevit Gaj. Since Gaj (who, despite his German-speaking background, was a Pan-Slavist) borrowed several caron-bearing characters from the  Czech/Slovak alphabet (čš and ž), I wondered why he hadn’t also taken ě  to denote the cases in which the different variants of Serbocroat (ekavian, ijekavian and ikavian) had e, je or ije, and i, respectively, and thus the three variants would have had a unified orthography. (Today, standard Serbian is ekavian, while standard Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin — even when called, as many Montenegrins do, “Serbian” — are ijekavian.)

By accident I ran across a Croatian publication from the 1840s (a decade after the publication of Gaj’s alphabet, and continuing into the 1850s) which does just that. On the very title page one sees the word umětnost (“art”), which would be umetnost in Serbian and umjetnost in the other three.

Wikipedia confirms that historically the use of ě “was very widespread, but today it is only found in scientific and historically accurate literature.” Why?

As I commented in an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, “Slavs like their orthographies to be phonetic, and to Slovaks such contrasts as mouka versus múka (flour) or cukr versus cukor (sugar) have been enough to convince them that they form a distinct nation from the Czechs.” And so with Serbs and Croats, with their tragic tradition of mutual hostility: they would rather preserve the differences than strive for common ground.




March 8, 2018

Some decades ago I noticed an advertisement for a bar-restaurant that touted, among its offerings, “solid drinks.”

I was more literal-minded then than I am now, and I had a tendency to say, to anyone who might see the ad and listen to me, “aren’t drinks supposed to be liquid, not solid?”

I continue to see “solid drinks” in online reviews of bars; it doesn’t bother me anymore. Curiously, a century ago the term “solid drinks” was used in the trade literature of the American drugstore business, denoting non-alcoholic drinks that were not carbonated and had some other qualities (I’m not sure which) that distinguished them from other drinks.

“Solid drinks” is, to be sure, an oxymoron; but it’s also an example of the use of a word with an intended meaning (in this case, probably something like “strong”) that is, in context, incompatible with the literal meaning. I have not found a term of art for this use, so I decided to coin one: contraliteralism.

Another example is “legendary” or “legend” applied to real people or events.

The best-known example, which has by now been thoroughly discussed, is, of  course,  “literal” or “literally” used as a figurative intensifier, as in “she literally lost her head” or “it was a literal hell.”

While it’s something I don’t use, I have come to accept it.