Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.


Thoughts about Italian

October 7, 2017

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (that includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with not change of spelling or any other attempt to italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.

Mysteries of Vienna

August 28, 2017

I have been in Vienna only three times in my life, each time for a few days, but my visits have left me with an impression of it as an easy city to get to know, not especially mysterious. It has a well defined city center (the Innere Stadt) and nearly all the major attractions and m (other than the large parks and palaces, such as the Prater, Belvedere and Schönbrunn) are in it or just outside it. At least as regards the city as it has developed since the end of the  Allied occupation (1955), it doesn’t seem to have the kind of seedy underbelly — a great setting for crime fiction — that such cities as London, Paris, Barcelona or Edinburgh have. The Vienna of The Third Man has given way to one that recently has been consistently ranked among the most livable and most prosperous cities in the world.

It is therefore fitting that the series of Vienna-based mystery novels that I have recently been reading has as its locations not dark alleys, slums or Bohemian hangouts, but the best-known tourist attractions of Vienna. The author is Beate Maxian, who besides writing novels is a print, radio and television journalist. The principal crime-solver in the series is, not surprisingly, a young, attractive woman journalist named Sarah Pauli.

The first novel in this series (Maxian had written some crime novels before it) is Tödliches (deadly) Rendezvous (2011); in it the mid-twentyish Sarah, who lives with her younger brother Chris (a medical student/bartender/irresistible seducer of women) since their parents died in a car accident, gets a job as a freelance intern at a (fictitious) major newspaper, the Wiener Bote. She is assigned to assist the prestigious muckraking reporter Hilde Jahn, who is murdered in the course of her investigation. Sarah then takes it over and solves the case, not before almost getting murdered as well. When she gets a permanent job at the paper, it is not as an investigative journalist but as a columnist writing about superstitions, folk beliefs and the like, something she is an expert on (besides being slightly superstitious as well). She also develops a crush on the paper’s publisher, the handsome David Gruber, who had been Hilde Jahn’s lover. The central setting here is the Steinhof hospital, with its famous church built by Otto Wagner.

All the subsequent novels in the series have the landmark location in the title: Die Tote vom (The Dead Woman of the) Naschmarkt (2012); Tod hinter dem (Death Behind the) Stephansdom (2013); Der Tote vom (The Dead Man of the) Zentralfriedhof (2014); Tod in der (Death in the) Hofburg (2015).

The last one mentioned happens to be the first one that I read; I picked it up last April at a bookstore in the Vienna Central Station so that I would have something to read during the four-hour train ride to Prague. By this time Sarah and David are committed lovers (though there is still no mention of marriage), and Chris, instead of bringing a different girl home every night, is in a more-or-less steady relationship with Sarah’s best friend Gabi, a secretary at the paper.

It’s in the preceding one that we learn, from the point of view of one of the criminals (who means to possess her before killing her), that Sarah is quite a desirable woman, with a lovely face framed by dark hair and her usual outfit of jeans and T-shirt covering a slim, shapely body. For she is quite unassuming, using a minimum of makeup and detesting high heels, and during the first stages of her infatuation with David she is unsure of her attractiveness.

I am currently waiting for the following volume, Mord (Murder) in Schönbrunn (2016). The latest one, Die Prater-Morde, has just come out, and I am looking forward to it as well. For I have become addicted to the doings of Sarah Pauli and her companions — not to mention the variegated local color of Vienna — as I am to those of Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks and his Yorkshire, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his Los Angeles.

Unfortunately — not for me but for others — the books are available only in the original German (in a Viennese variant). As I have been reading them I have found myself half-consciously translating them into English in my head. I have even flirted with the idea of writing Frau Maxian with a proposal to actually do so. I have done a bit of translating in my life, but I don’t think I have the time or stamina to do any more of it. But to any German-readers out there who don’t yet know her work: Gutes Lesen!


Spanish names, again

August 27, 2017


A number of years ago — in 2000 — I wrote an essay about Spanish names, concerned with the misunderstanding of Spanish naming customs often shown by non-Hispanic writers. This post is about something else: the names that Spanish soccer players are known by.

It’s well known by soccer fans that Brazilian players are almost never called by their full names or surnames. At the moment, the only ones I can think of who is at least partially so known are Dani Alves (his full name is actually Daniel Alves da Silva), Coutinho (actually Philippe Coutinho Correia), Casemiro (Carlos Henrique José Francisco Venâncio Casimiro) and Thiago Silva (Thiago Emiliano da Silva). The others are usually known either by a forename — which may double, like David Luiz or Roberto Carlos, or a diminutive, like Rafinha or Ronaldinho — or by a nickname (Pelé, Bebeto, Tostão, Garrincha, Kaká). What I mean by “known by” is the name printed on the jerseys and normally referred to by game commentators.

With Hispanic players (both Spanish and Hispano-American) the pracice varies. But what’s fairly consistent is that when a player’s surname is one of one of the common –ez names then he will use only the forename or a nickname: Raúl (González), Míchel (José Miguel González), Chicharito (Javier Hernández), Xavi (Xavier Hernández), Pedro (Rodríguez), James (Rodríguez), Alexis (Sánchez), and many others.

Occasionally a player with a not-so-common surname will also choose to be known by a nickname: Joselu (José Luis Sanmartín), Koke (Jorge Resurrección Merodio), Isco (Francisco Román Alarcón), or else by a forename, like Adrián (San Miguel). Sergi Busquets has “Sergio” on his jersey but he is generally known as Busquets.

But for some reason, the  Spanish-named players in the first category who play in England don’t have their name choice respected by British sportscasters, with a few exceptions. Pedro is usually called Pedro, but Chicharito is almost invariably Javier (usually mispronounced) Hernández, Alexis is Sánchez, Ayoze is Pérez, Sandro is Ramírez. I wish I understood why this is so.

Sagan and Peloton

July 16, 2017

The peloton at this year’s Tour de France isn’t quite the same without Peter Sagan in it. That is, as the TV commentators would say it, the peloton (PELLah-tawn) without Sagan (suh-GAHN). (Contador goes along with peloton.)

Carl Sagan, of course, was Sagan (SAY-gun), but he was American, and everyone knows that this isn’t how a foreigner’s name would be pronounced. Never mind that in Slovak it’s Sagan (SAH-gahn); in standard Slovak, as in Czech, all words are stressed on the first syllable. The same is true of Hungarian, but of course Gabor (Hungarian bor) is pronounced Gabor.

Peloton follows the “misrule” that I wrote about recently. Its two parts are well illustrated by news reports associated with the Donald Trump Jr. scandal: the two names Agalarov and Veselnitskaya are usually heard as Agalarov and Veselnitskaya.

Sagan represents another part of it, which I had not included before:  two-syllable words ending in a consonant whose pronunciation is not generally known tend to be stressed on the last syllable, unless the ending is that generally associated with first-syllable stress, such as  a single –s, -er, -en, -in, -man or -son.

I’m preparing a list of examples, which I will comment on shortly.

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.

Multiple Houses of Cards

June 30, 2017

I have only recently been struck by the extent to which multiple has taken over as a favored synonym of many, numerous and several. The typical dictionary definition of multiple  as an adjective is “consisting of, having, or involving several or many individuals, parts, etc.”; only a few give it as a synonym of many, but among these few is the OED, which gives citations going back to 1642. So it isn’t as recent as I thought. It is not, however, entirely a recency illusion on my part; a glance at Google Ngrams shows a conspicuous rise in the use of multiple in the course of the 20th century, while many, numerous and several  have declined or remained flat.

While I don’t use it much myself, I like the way multiple covers many and several, and, since the boundary between these two is vague and subjective, it comes in handy when the number is in this fuzzy zone. In what I am going to discuss the number if four, and the items are the different versions of House of Cards.


In the beginning was the novel by Michael Dobbs, published in 1989, and in the end the American TV series, begun in 2013 and recently renewed for a fifth season. In between came the British TV miniseries (1990) and a revised version of the novel (2013).

As with many phenomena of popular culture, I am a latecomer to this one as well. A few years ago I saw reruns of a few episodes of the BBC series; as far as I can remember, I was somewhat intrigued, but not enough to make a point of watching the whole thing. It is only this year that, since several (multiple?)  of our friends and acquaintances have mentioned it, we decided to watch the American series from the beginning. At the same time I set out to read both versions of the book.

Before comparing them, let me refer to Michael Dobbs’ afterword to the revised version, where, among other things, he tells us of the book’s genesis. He seems to have begun writing it a few weeks after the June 11, 1987, general election in the United Kingdom, in which Margaret Thatcher was returned to the prime ministership for a third consecutive term. Dobbs, who had been her chief of staff, was told by the Deputy Prime Minister that “[t]here’s a woman who will never fight another election.” While the prediction proved true, it was not until November of 1990 that her party forced her out of office. Dobbs, however, imagined that would happen sooner, and he put the plot of his novel in what John Le Carré (in A Small town in Germany) calls the “recent future”, most likely 1992, which is when the next general election would be due (and in fact did take place), though the correspondence of dates and days of the week is that of 1993 — probably a mistake by Dobbs, who admits to having finished three bottles of wine before beginning to write.

In the book, then, instead of the real John Major having completed a year and a half in office before winning the election (though by a reduced margin), the fictional Henry Collingridge has had four years, and also wins reelection, by an even smaller margin. In Dobbs’ imagination, then, Margaret Thatcher must have resigned in 1988. And while the book wasn’t published till 1989, and the BBC series was shot in 1990, the plot’s implied dating didn’t change. It’s an interesting coincidence (or was it?) that Thatcher’s resignation happened just as the BBC series was airing.

The afterword also tells us that the prospect of the American series starring Kevin Spacey was, for Dobbs, an “opportunity of reworking the  novel — no great changes, no one who read the original will think it a different book, but the narrative is a little tighter, the characters more colorful, and the dialogue perhaps crisper.”

The differences in narrative, characters and dialogue between the original and the revision are, to me, that in the latter they are those characteristic of scripted television, while in the former they are more like those involving real people. Indeed, in many respects the revision reads like a novelization of the BBC series, which was written by Andrew Davies, a man with vast experience in screenwriting but, unlike Michael Dobbs, none in politics or journalism; it so happens that the primary protagonists of both novel and series are a politician (Francis Urquhart) and a journalist (the beautiful young Mattie Storin).

One recurring feature of both the British and the American TV series is the stream of Richard-the-Third-ish asides to the camera by Francis Urquhart/Underwood, which I have found annoyingly gratuitous. They are not to be found in the original, but the rewrite incorporates them in the form of epigraphs at the beginning of each short chapter (the original is not divided into chapters) and an epilogue at the end.

And I cannot understand how Michael Dobbs can claim the change in the character and the story of Mattie Storin is not a “great change”. Both versions start with a section describing Mattie’s waking. In the original there is an explicit reference to her experience of “sex as a single girl”;  the revision replaces this by a remembrance of  resisting  the advances of a “creep”. The original section ends as she “thr[ows] back the duvet and clamber[s] out of bed”; the revision adds to this the discovery that her underwear drawer is bare and  a search for a pair of knickers.

In both versions Mattie gets into trouble with her editor, Greville Preston, but develops a working relationship with the deputy editor, John Krajewski. In the original this relationship leads to a passionate affair; in the revision she has one with Francis Urquhart instead.

In the original it is in the course of a discussion with John that she figures out the foul means (including murder) that FU has employed in his drive for the primer ministership, and she confronts him about his misdeeds in a climactic meeting on the  roof of Parliament. He cynically admits them, believing that it would be a matter of her word against his, but after she tells him that she has recorded their talk he throws himself off the roof.

In the revision Mattie is still in the throes of her crush on Francis when she meets him on the roof, and it is only from something he says that she solves the mystery. And after his confession he throws her, not himself, off the roof, and goes on to become prime minister. This, of course, retrospectively paves the way for the two sequels that Dobbs wrote as novels and Davies as TV series.

A small but telling difference is in the name of the newspaper that Mattie works: in the original it’s the real Daily Telegraph; in the revision (and the TV series) it’s the fictitious Chronicle, in the time-honored tradition of TV shows.

Another small but not particularly telling one: Urquhart’s wife, originally Miranda, gets the cartoonish name Mortima in the revision. In both version she is largely conspicuous by her absence, unlike television’s Elizabeth, who plays a prominent part.

Next: some comments about the Netflix series.

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.

Google Maps and stress

May 29, 2017

To continue where I left off: Mapsy’s reading of northern Italian place-names and street names, beginning at Malpensa airport, was unremarkable until we got to Bergamo, which I heard as “Bergamo”. At first I thought of this as confirmation of the “misrule” that I recently wrote about, namely that the tendency of English-speakers is to stress unfamiliar vowel-final words on the penultimate syllable. But on second thought it didn’t seem right: I don’t think most Americans would say “Bergamo”. If anything, the opposite might be true, as in the case of Guernica (the Spanish spelling of the Basque place-name Gernika), which I mostly hear as Gernika. Most English-speakers I hear stress such names as Attica, Ankara, Serpico correctly, while angina (traditionally /ænˈʤaɪnə/) is often heard as /’ænʤənə/.

The extended misrule, then, seems to be 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. Mapsy’s Bergamo, then, would seem to be an anomaly, as is the usual American (but not British) pronunciation of paprika, and the timpano that was heard in the move Big Night.  But then the usual pronunciation of Capri as Capri is another anomaly.

Traveling with Google, again

May 7, 2017

I spent the month of April traveling in Europe with my wife, as usual with the help of Google Maps. I was pleased to discover that GM now locates Prague in Czechia, something that I have long been advocating as the informal name of the country officially called the Czech Republic, the same as Slovakia instead of Slovak Republic, France instead of French Republic, and so on. I was also pleased to find out that, unlike two years ago, GM now knows that the RER B line in Paris runs not only south but also north, and is the direct way to get from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle Airport. GM doesn’t seem to know the buses in Paris yet, but give it time. Everywhere else, it has them down, and the vaporetti in Venice as well.

When it comes to giving time estimates, though, GM is hampered by its seemingly two-dimensional vision of the world. That is, it disregards the fact that in navigating through multimodal stations (or even entering or leaving simple ones) one often has to move vertically by several levels on stairs, escalators and elevators, all of which take time which GM does not calculate.  The same applies, in GM’s  time estimates for walking, to waiting at stoplights. I have usually found driving times, on the other hand, to be surprisingly accurate.

But my main topic is the spoken turn-by-turn navigation that I have been increasingly relying on for driving and walking in unfamiliar locations. I call the disembodies female voice GPSy (pronounced like gypsy) or Mapsy.

In using GPSy locally in the Bay Area, my wife and I have sometimes at chuckled at some of her quirky pronunciations, such as, when referring to San Rafael, saying the second part as a three-syllable word (like the name Raphael) rather than the two-syllable version (/rəˈfɛl/) that is common here.

But, on a trip to Quebec last year, I discovered a lot more. The revelation came when a street in Quebec City called 1re rue (Première rue) was called “one-ree roo”.  It became obvious that Mapsy reads foreign names — by design, I am sure — as an American unfamiliar with the local language would read them.

I understand from Wikipedia that Mapsy’s voice is electronic. How it is generated — let alone how it’s programmed to read place-names, especially foreign ones — is a mystery to me Maybe Mark Liberman knows.

But I intend to use Mapsy’s pronunciation to explore more ramifications of what I have called the “misrule” of stress. In my next post, probably.