Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

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.


Stress “misrule” expanded

May 4, 2017

When I recently wrote that a kind of default rule for stress in unfamiliar words encountered by English-speakers is to stress the penultimate in words ending in a vowel, I had not come to grips with two major exceptions. (I am not referring to familiar words whose pronunciation is well established, such as America or Africa, which do not obey the rule.)

The first is that, if the penultimate vowel is /i/ (whether spelled i, e, or y, but not ae) and there is no consonant between it and the final vowel, then the stress falls on the antepenultimate, as in words like radio, rodeo (but not when the e is read as /eɪ/), mania, trachea, TokyoRomeo, names ending in -ia (Sonia, Tania, Slovakia, Peoria etc, with some exceptions like Maria, Sophia, Tanzania, and Lucia when given an “Italian” reading, as well as some idiosyncratic surnames like Scalia and Renteria) or –ya (Sonya, Tanya, Marya, Kenya, Libya). Among common words, idea is another exception to the exception; among names, Korea is another; Althea is ambiguous.

The second is that when the penultimate and antepenultimate vowels are separated by more than a simple consonant (even a doubled consonant), while only a simple one separates penultimate and final, then the default stress is also on the antepenultimate. I will discuss this in an upcoming post.

Dreamtown Berkeley

March 30, 2017

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown Berkeley is called — get ready for it — Downtown Berkeley. Until the mid-1990s, however, it was called just Berkeley, and this is still what the signs on the platform say. Not that it matters very much, since the signs can hardly be seen from the train anyway, and passengers must depend for orientation on the (not always very clear) announcements by the drivers. These give sometimes the old, sometimes the new name of the station.

But it is not BART that I mean to write about. It’s my dreams.

My dreams often involve travel, or some other kind of displacement, but the locales and means of travel are invariably surreal — they may involve train or car travel that begins in America and ends in Europe, or air travel between Berkeley and San Francisco. And the “Berkeley” of my dreams is nothing at all like the real Berkeley, any more than my “New York” or “Barcelona” is like its actual self. In my dreams I frequently experience enormous difficulties in getting to the airport and end up missing flights (usually just before waking up). I also often forget where I parked my car (something that happens in real life too).

My dreamtown Berkeley — where I still live in my dreams, despite having moved to El Cerrito nine years ago — is more like a European city, and rather than being part of a compact conurbation it is a separate place with streets leading into rural outskirts.

I was therefore intrigued, when I recently Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, by the focus of its action being a ficticious place called Lark House that is located on the outskirts of Berkeley (at least in the Spanish original, en las afueras de Berkeley — the reference is omitted in the English edition). Moreover, “[t]he property adjoined the bay”; in the real Berkeley there are no private properties adjoining the bay. And the Lark House neighborhood has its own square (plaza del barrio in the original) with a police station and a Starbucks.

Isabel Allende is known as one of the writers associated with the “magical realism” school. Perhaps my dreamtown Berkeley belongs there.

Incidentally, I have yet to read Allende’s El cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), which, as I understand, also has Berkeley as one of its locales. Maybe I can find some more of my dreamtown there.



Accents again

March 30, 2017

In a recent post I wrote about the variety of accents heard on the British TV show Line of Duty. But that was after seeing only the first two series.

When I started watching Series 3, I noticed that the character “Dot” Cotton, who is a detective and a criminal (I’m not giving anything away), and who had earlier sounded like a Londoner, was now speaking like a northerner, a difference that was not remarked on by any other character but that played a part in the plot. (The actor, Craig Parkinson, is a Lancashire native who grew up in London, so I suppose both accents are natural to him.)

The phone calls that “Dot” made in his criminal role continued to be (as he himself, as a detective, said) in “a London or Southeast accent,” and he used the fact to deflect suspicion from himself onto a fellow detective.

I wonder if, the gap between Series 2 and 3 being two years, the producers didn’t think that the audience would notice the change in accent. Since I watched the show on DVD within a short time span, it was blatant to me.

For me there was another unresolved mystery, unrelated to accents. The criminal who was actually Cottan was known to police as “the caddy.” In Series 1, when Cottan was first promoted, he made a speech referring to being encouraged to join the police by someone he had caddied for at a golf club. Why didn’t anyone remember that in the subsequent series?


A misrule of stress

March 13, 2017

A few years ago I watched a BBC historical documentary about ancient York and I was startled to hear the cultured-sounding narrator (obviously an actor trained to sound cultured) pronounce the second name of the emperor Septimius Severus as though were “sever us” (/’sɛvərəs/), since every reference gives the pronunciation as /sə’vɪərəs/  (“severe us”). I wondered where that had come from.

I am a long-time participant in international folk-dancing, and among the dances I liked to do are many from the Republic of Macedonia, with names such as kostursko, nevestinsko and ovčepolsko oro. The boldface syllables are the ones that are stressed, since stress in Macedonian is very regular: in native words of three or more syllables, the stress is always proparoxytone, that is, on the antepenultimate syllable. And yet almost everyone in the folk dance community says these words as paroxytone, that is, stressed on the penultimate, as if they were Polish (another language with regular stress, but with a different rule); this includes people who learned these dances from the famous Macedonian dance teacher and musician Pece Atanasovski, whose name they usually say as Atanasovski.

English is a language with notoriously irregular stress. Not only is not obvious from the written form of a polysyllabic word where the stress might be, but often there are different stress patterns for the same word. Sometimes the stress is different when the word is a noun and a verb (such as protest); sometimes the difference is transatlantic (as in café or contribute, or names such as Bernard, Maurice, Barnett or Burrell); and sometimes there is simply no agreement for a given word, such as address, detail, insurance and many others.

But when it comes to Latin words — by which I mean words taken directly from Latin, with no change in spelling — there is an old rule that such words, even if pronounced in the traditional “Anglo-Latin” way (with letters read according to their usual English values — the way well-known Latin names, words and phrases are usually pronounced, as well as Latin terms in law, medicine and astronomy), the original Latin stress is preserved. There is a caveat here: there are words of Latin origin  that came into Middle English from Old or Middle French and in the evolution into modern English recovered their Latin spelling. Examples include senator and liquor, which in Middle English were senatour and licour, oxytone (stressed on the last syllable) as in French. U.S. English has a great many such words — favor, honor, vigor and the like — which in British English have kept their medieval -our ending. Such words, if they have more than two syllables, don’t necessarily follow the rule.

According to this rule, then, there is no excuse for Severus. But the rule seems to have given way, in recent times — I don’t know how recent — to another one, applied as a kind of default to foreign-looking words that are relatively unfamiliar, namely that words ending in a consonant are read as proparoxytone, and those ending in a vowel are paroxytone.

The first part of this rule (which should be called a misrule) explains not only Severus but also such common words as abdomen (Latin abdōmen) or acumen (Latin acūmen); Donald Trump was unfairly (for a change!) ridiculed for saying the latter in the traditional way (as I do). Beyond Latin, it explains the common proparoxytone (mis)pronunciations of such names as Esteban, Vladimir, Wallander, Marnez (as heard from British soccer announcers), Istanbul, Stalingrad; and Hanover is the standard English form of Hannover.

The second part of the rule explains the usual pronunciations of incognito and patina (not stamina, which in common enough use to have kept its traditional stress, as are such words as Africa and America), where, oddly enough, the stressed i sounds like “ee” (as though the words were Spanish or Italian) and not the usual “long i” sounds in Anglo-Latin words (such as vagina). People who told me about the movie Ex Machina usually pronounced the second word as “masheena”

It also explains the common English pronunciations of  paprika, basmati and a great many Italian place and personal names such as Pesaro, Brindisi, Stefano, Cesare, Pecora — all proparoxytone in Italian — and Podestà (oxytone). In the movie Big Night, in which the main characters were supposedly Italian immigrants, the word timpano was pronounced timpano. The Irish surname Costello is invariably pronounced Costello in America (to be sure, the most famous Americans with that name — Lou and Frank — were not Irish and were not originally named Costello). Sofia, the name of the capital of Bulgaria (Sofiya in Bulgarian) is usually pronounced like the name Sophia. And then there’s karaoke, usually pronounced like “carry-okie.” Not to mention Bacardí, pronounced Bacardi (even in its own commercials) despite the prominent acute accent on its labels.


There are some exceptions to both parts of the rule, which I have yet to explore fully. I will write about them when I have done so.