Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

GOT and me

August 9, 2017

Not a day seems to go by without some news item about the phenomenon known as Game of Thrones, whether it’s about its plot, its fans, its cast members, or a comparison of some person with one of its characters.

I don’t watch GOT. I did, briefly, during the first season, because I had access to HBO as part of a temporary subscription package (my real interest was in a show airing on Showtime at the time, The Borgias). But I lost interest when I realized that I had been watching it under a misapprehension.

This had happened before, as I have written: In 2001 I watched 24, falsely believing to be a Canadian satire on American paranoia in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As to Game of Thrones, it seemed to be that it was historical fiction set in Britain around the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons and Britons coexisted. I based this belief on settings clearly reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with no apparent signs of Christianity, and on the mix of Germanic-sounding and Celtic-sounding names. There were also references to seven kingdoms (the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?), the northern wall (Hadrian’s?) and the wild people of the north (Scots and Picts?).

But I was lost once the Dothraki showed up. It gradually struck me that what I was watching was unmitigated fantasy. I like fantasy, if it’s rigorous (I’ll explain that some other time), but this was not. And so I let the subscription lapse once The Borgias was finished. And even when I renewed it, twice, for the second and third, HBO did not tempt me.

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Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.

Addendum to “Google Maps and stress”

June 20, 2017

In asserting that “vowel-final words with a single consonant between the final and penultimate vowels, but a doubled one or a cluster between the penultimate and antepenultimate, are more likely to have the stress on the antepenultimate,” I made an over-hasty generalization. It is clear that when the word has an ending that’s perceived as characteristically Italian (e.g. ina/i/o, ona/i/o, ola/i/o, ara/i/o) or Spanish (e.g. ito/a, azo/a) then this ending will be stressed, on the penultimate, regardless of any preceding consonant cluster: Martina/i/o, Portola (Spanish Portolá), and so on.

Supermanagers

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’!

 

 

FSROA?

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.

 

But

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.

Iñárritu

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.

Football

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.