Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category


March 22, 2017

In a previous post I alluded to the loss of N’Golo Kanté as a possible factor in Leicester City FC’s dismal performance in the season at that time (only five wins in 25 league games), in contrast with their winning the Premier League championship the previous season. This poor record led to the firing of the celebrated coach Claudio Ranieri, who previously had been widely praised for last year’s miracle finish.

But something funny has happened since. Under the management of the unheralded Craig Shakespeare, who had never been anything but an assistant manager (and, for one game, a caretaker manager), the club has won not only three straight League games, but overcame a first-leg loss to Sevilla to win on aggregate and advance to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, the only English team to do so.

I have long been skeptical of the value of “supermanagers” (be they sports coaches, company CEOs, city managers, police chiefs, school superintendents, or university presidents), typically hired by the institution’s governing board amid great fanfare and after a national or international search, and usually based on the candidate’s supposedly stellar performance at another institution.

The hiring of celebrity architects for public buildings falls into the same category.

What such individuals have in common is a talent for self-promotion (I have written about one such specimen here and here, and another one here).

And what I used to find surprising is the ease with which the boards fall for the spiel. After all, corporate and institutional boards, city councils and the like are supposed to be made up of smart people, who — one would think — could see past the bullshit, as glibly as it may be presented.

But I am no longer surprised. They are, I have found, not all that smart. Typically, they have attained their positions as a reward for  some success in life, and this success (often due to luck) has led them to believe that they are smart. So that they are, in fact, under the same self-aggrandizing illusion as the candidates that they interview for management positions.

That makes it hard to see past the self-promotion.


More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!




August 5, 2016

In a short while the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will open in the winter of Rio de Janeiro (a tropical winter, to be sure). The two featured events tonight will be the lighting of the flame and the Parade of Nations, where the representatives of the Olympic nations will march in alphabetical order, except that the host country, Brazil, will be last in a show of old-fashioned courtesy, while Greece will be first, being supposedly the first Olympic nation. Well, modern Greece bears about as much relation to classical Greece as the modern Olympics do to those of antiquity, so it seems reasonable.

And the alphabetical order for the remaining nations means that Macedonia will march ahead of Azerbaijan.

Why? Because the athletes of Azerbaijan will march under the Portuguese name of their country, Azerbaijão, while the Macedonians will do so under the name Antiga República Iugoslava de Macedónia, the Portuguese version of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” (FYROM), which is designation under which the country participates in international organizations.

Why did I bring up Azerbaijan? Because, in principle, the naming situation of the two countries is analogous: both were once member republics of a communist-led federation, and both bear the names of larger historical regions of which they form a part but of which a significant part — which includes the historic heart of the region — belongs to a neighboring country — Greece in the case of Macedonia, Iran in the case of Azerbaijan.

But I have never heard of any Iranian objecting to the name “Republic of Azerbaijan”; the relevant Persian Wikipedia page is titled Jomhuri-e Āzarbāijān. The Greek page for the Republic of Macedonia, on the other hand, carries the Greek version of FYROM, fully spelled out, as its title. For the whole FYROM business is the result of a temper tantrum by Greece, as I  already wrote ten  years a go.

The Greeks seem to ignore a practice that their ancient forebears already spoke of, that of synecdoche — the naming of an entity for a larger one that it’s a part of (or, conversely, for a smaller one that’s part of it). In the case of countries, a name like  Republic (or Kingdom or United Statesof X, where X is a larger geographic unit, is not uncommon, United States of America being a prime example. As we know, the USA is often called just America for short, not just by Americans but by others as well, though not usually by Latin Americans, Stephen Sondheim to the contrary notwithstanding. (I am referring to the song in West Side Story.)

There are  also the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which does not include the part of historic Luxembourg that belongs to Belgium; the Republic of Ireland, of which Northern Ireland (belonging to the United Kingdom) is not a part; the Republic of Cyprus, and so on.

I am looking forward to, one of these years, seeing Macedonia march at the head of the M nations, or between Madagascar and Malaysia if the games happen to be held in a country in whose language the name is Makedonia.



May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.


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.


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.


January 4, 2016

Yesterday’s game between Everton and Tottenham, last weekend’s final EPL match, was an exciting (enthralling, the commentators said) contest that ended in a 1-1 draw. After the game the camera lingered on the many friendly handshakes and hugs between members of the opposing teams, and especially on the long arm-on-arm walk off the field by Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and the Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen. It so happens that they are both Flemish-speaking Belgians and teammates on Belgium’s national team. But it’s the whole post-game show of friendship, with hugs and jersey exchanges, and the sportsmanlike behavior during the game, with friendly pats following fouls and helping hands for getting opponents up from the ground, that makes soccer such an endearing spectacle.

All that is unthinkable in American sports, and especially football. Here opponents are enemies, not friends, even if professional players on opposing teams had been teammates in college. The gridiron is not a playing field but a battlefield. The quarterback is often referred to as a field general. The University of Miami’s tight end Kellen Winslow II was famously quoted as saying, when he stood above an injured opponent, “I’m a fucking soldier.”

While soccer fans sing, a capella, such songs as You’ll Never Walk Alone or When the Saints Go Marching In, American football fans sing “fights songs” accompanied by military-style marching bands. Texas A&M’s song is actually called War Hymn, and other fight songs urge the teams to “fight on for ol’ SC” or to “march into the fray” or to “mow ’em down”.

The militaristic nature of American football, especially the NFL, is well known and has been copiously commented on; for a few examples, see here, here, and here. It is one of the reasons why I have come to dislike the game.

Spanish by Hill et al.

October 16, 2015

A few years ago I wrote about some linguistic troubles that the mystery writer Elizabeth George had when she tried to make one of her characters Spanish-speaking. It struck me as telling that, among the many grateful acknowledgments appended to her novel, there was not one addressed to anyone who might have helped her with her Spanish.

I have since found that Elizabeth George is, in this regard, far from alone among English-language mystery writers. It is especially striking that Tony Hillerman and Michael Connelly, who have written respectively about New Mexico and Southern California — both places rife with Hispanic people, culture and history — have also been cavalier to the point of ludicrousness when it comes to Spanish. I meant to call attention to some of the blunders at the time I read the books, but somehow didn’t get around to it.

I will make up for it with Reginald Hill, the (English) author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. His novel The Stranger House is a mystery that involve detective work, but it is not crime investigation by actual CID detectives. Rather, it’s about personal quests by a disparate pair of graduate students: an Australian young woman doing mathematics and a Spanish young man doing history.

Early in the book the young man’s name is given as Miguel Elkington Madero. Except that his father was Miguel Madero, while his mother is an Englishwoman named Christine Elkington. He should, therefore — following Spanish and not English naming customs — be Miguel Madero Elkington. While a recent law allows some freedom in the order of surnames, Miguel was born in the late 1970s, so that Hill’s version of the name is an impossibility.

Another linguistic impossibility is Miguel’s nickname, which is given (also early on) as Mig. Spanish words do not end in -g, except English borrowings ending in -ing (such as párking) which is pronounced /in/ or /iŋ/. The ‘hard G’ sound implied by Miguel’s self-introduction cannot occur in Spanish.

Further on in the book there are at least three howlers. Miguel gives himself a more formal introduction as Miguel Ramos Elkington Madero. What in the world is a third surname doing there? Perhaps Hill thinks that a surname can, as in English, be used as a second given name. While some Spanish-American countries allow plenty of latitude in assigning given names, Spain does not, and Ramos is not a possibility.

In a manuscript supposedly written in Spanish, the line ‘Father, forgive me’ is written as Padre me perdona, which means ‘Father forgives me.’ The correct Spanish is, of course, Padre, perdóname.

And Christine Elkington is said to be known in Spain as Donna (not Doña) Cristina.

In his author’s note Hill thanks two Australian editors for helping him get things “right about matters Australian.” There is nothing equivalent about “matters Spanish.” And it shows.



Doyle’s accent

September 21, 2015

One of the most entertaining features of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, about a police detective working in Toronto in the years around 1900, is the appearance of some of the more colorful historical personalities of the period, including Thomas Edison, Emma Goldman, Winston Churchill, Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, in particular, makes several visits to Toronto and becomes friends with Murdoch. He is played by an actor named Geraint Wyn Davies who is (what else?) Welsh-born but who has divided his acting career — much of it Shakespearean — between Canada and England. What struck me was that Davies portrayed the Edinburgh-born as speaking with the standard accent (called RP) of the educated English. I wondered about that.

I found out that Doyle went to school, from age 9 to 16, at a Jesuit institution in Lancashire, England, and so it stood to reason that, if only out of conformity, he might have adopted an English accent. (In my own case, when I first came to Los Angeles at the age of 15½, I spoke English with something very much like RP, but it didn’t take me very long to sound like a Californian.) While he went back to Edinburgh for university, he soon thereafter moved to southern England and stayed there for the rest of his life.This information allayed my concerns about Doyle’s accent.

I have just watched the ITV series Arthur and George, starring Martin Clunes (of Doc Martin fame) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here Clunes, a lifelong Londoner who spoke pure RP as Doc Martin, plays Doyle with a soft Scottish accent (for which he received coaching). There has been a lot of lively discussion in Britain about this aspect of his performance, including some criticism, but several Scots have commented on the seeming Edinburgh authenticity of his speech. But is it authentic Doyle?

There is, in fact a clear answer to this last question: a filmed interview with Doyle (who is the only one on camera) is available on YouTube. There is very little that is Scottish in Doyle’s speech; the “long o” (as in ‘Holmes’), “long a” (as in ‘name’) and “long i” (as in ‘time’) are decidedly southern English, though ‘chance’ and ‘look’ sound more northern (Lancashire?). His prevocalic r, however, has a distinctly tapped or flapped quality (one not usually heard in Edinburgh any longer). Whether this is a Scotticism or a vestige of older RP, it’s hard to know.

It’s surprising that neither Davies nor Clunes took the trouble to listen to the recording and adopt its speech features; it’s something British actors are supposedly good at.

Yankin’ Rankin justified

September 21, 2015

Half a decade ago I wrote a post in which I complained about the Americanizing of vocabulary in the US editions of British detective novels, and specifically in those of Ian Rankin. The most appalling example I cited was in The Naming of the Dead, writing that “[a]pparently… not only was every instance of mobile phone replaced by cell phone, but the word mobile itself, commonly used in Britain as an abbreviation for mobile phone, became simply cell,” so that “…[w]hen the text reads ‘he left his cell’ it is not at all clear if the reference is to getting out of the lockup or not taking the mobile phone.”

I was also happy to note that no such “yankin'” was done in the following novel, Exit Music, which at the time seemed to be the last of the Rebus novel. Fortunately for us fans, Rankin has continued writing about John Rebus.

I recently read an early Rankin novel, a non-Rebus one titled Bleeding Hearts which was published in 1994 under the pseudonym Jack Harvey. It was not the original edition but an equally British reissue printed in 2000.

An American edition of the novel was published by Little, Brown in 2006. I have not seen it yet, and I don’t know if it was “yanked.” But consider this: a large part of the action takes place in the United States, and many of the characters are Americans. Rankin seems to have paid a lot of attention to the geography of the places where things happen, which is described in overwhelming detail. But he has an American, speaking to other Americans, say things like “tin-opener,” “tinned chilli,” “rucksack,” “balaclava” and “the NSC [National Security Council] are…” (He may have mixed up NSC with NSA.) Here’s where some judicious yankin’ Rankin might be justified.

Addendum: I have now seen the American edition, and in fact “tinned chilli” became “cans of chili” and “rucksack” is now “backpack.” But not only when spoken by Americans, but by Brits as well. So it’s back to the same old yankin’.