Archive for the ‘Language’ Category


March 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yet more on “Polish death camps”

February 16, 2018

In contradiction to what I wrote the other day, I have discovered (thanks to a reference in the relevant Wikipedia page), that an explicit use of the expression “in Polish death camps” (w polskich obozach śmierci) is found in Zofia Nałkowska‘s 1946 book Medaliony , though a little later in the same section there occurs w obozach Polski (‘in Poland’s camps’), which in the English translation is also rendered as “in Polish camps”.

Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) was a prominent figure in post-war Poland, not only as a writer and public intellectual but in politics as well. Several cities in Poland have streets named for her. Will she, then, be posthumously charged with a crime against the reputation of the Polish nation and the Republic of Poland?

And am I a criminal in Poland for citing these references?

British TV history

February 11, 2018

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

Bulgarian and Macedonian

January 17, 2018

When I wrote about Colombia’s musical diversity in my last post, I neglected to mention that, in addition to its many own regional styles, Colombia is quite hospitable to outside music as well. Salsa is popular everywhere, but especially in Cali. Bogotá is a hotbed of Mexican mariachi music, while the Argentine tango is at home in Medellín (it was where Carlos Gardel gave his last performance before the plane in which he was leaving crashed with another at the airport). And, of course international pop, rock and jazz are as popular as anywhere, though they weren’t so when I lived there in 1977. When Elvis Presley died, all four of Bogotá’s rock bands joined for a memorial concert at the bullring.

But while these musical styles are acknowledged as being external, the llanero music of Venezuela is, as I mentioned, regarded as a part of Colombia’s heritage, including sometimes a change of lyrics as I described in the post. I remember once getting into an argument with a Colombian acquaintance who insisted that a certain well-known Venezuelan song (I think it was Moliendo café) was Colombian (this was before such a question could be easily resolved with the help of a portable device).

I found some similarities between Colombia’s attitude toward llanero music and Bulgaria’s toward that of Macedonia (meaning what is historically known as Vardar Macedonia, now the Republic of Macedonia). I am familiar with the subject because of my lifelong (or at least adult-life-long) addition to Balkan folk-dancing.)

First of all, there are some historical parallels. Colombia and Venezuela were once together as part of Spain’s New Granada, and Venezuela briefly belonged to Colombia after independence. Similarly, Macedonia belonged to the Bulgarian empire before becoming a part, along with present-day Bulgaria, of the Ottoman empire’s eyalet of Rumelia, and was briefly a part of independent Bulgaria before being returned to Ottoman rule. Until about a century ago Slavic Macedonians regarded themselves as Bulgarians (though nowadays such an identification is vehemently rejected), while the inhabitants of southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia) continue to identify themselves as both Bulgarians (ethnically) and Macedonians (historico-culturally), and this is how many Bulgarians still think of Macedonian Slavs. A young Bulgarian woman in Plovdiv once told me that when a professor from Skopje gave a lecture (in Macedonian) at her university, the students thought that he was speaking funny Bulgarian.

To this day, Bulgaria and Macedonia share national heroes (such as Goce Delchev and Jane Sandanski), just as do Colombia and Venezuela (such as Simón Bolívar).

And, interestingly, Blagoevgrad hosts a pan-Macedonian festival, just as Villavicencio hosts a llanero one.

With regard to music, Bulgarian regard Macedonian music and dance (especially what is known as lesnoto) as part of their folklore. They don’t Bulgarianize the content of Macedonian songs (which are replete with references to the river Vardar and places in Macedonia), but they do adapt the language. For, unlike the common Spanish of Colombia and Venezuela, Macedonian and Bulgarian are, at least in their standard form, similar but different languages, as I have discussed here (when it comes to actual speech there is a dialect continuum), though the difference is lessened in singing, since the distinctions in syllabic stress and vowel quality become insignificant.

As one example, when the Macedonian song Oj ti pile is sung by Bulgarians it is generally done in Bulgarian, as More pile. One exception is the great Kostadin Gugov, a specialist in Macedonian songs, who makes a point of singing the original Macedonian version.

To summarize:

There is a llanero culture, which Venezuelans consider uniquely theirs, while Colombians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from Venezuela to make it more so.

There is a Slavic* Macedonian culture, which “Macedonians” (Slavs of the Republic of Macedonia) consider uniquely theirs, while Bulgarians regard it as a part of their national culture, and sometimes adapt the contributions from the Republic to make it more so.

*I am leaving out the Greek, Albanian and Aromanian (Vlach) elements of Macedonia.

Colombian and Venezuelan

January 11, 2018

Of late I have been listening — mainly via YouTube — to quite a few Colombian and Venezuelan songs. And what drove me to it was a subtle point of Spanish grammar.

Specifically, the Colombian songs are of the genre known as vallenato, and the Venezuelan ones of llanero. I have long been a fan of both.

Llanero music is that of the Llanos or plains that make up more than a quarter of Venezuela’s territory and whose culture — focused on cattle and horsemanship — is seen by Venezuelans as typifying their country, embodied in the classic novel Doña Barbara (by Rómulo Gallegos, the first democratically elected president of Venezuela) and in the song Alma llanera (a joropo), which is considered Venezuela’s unofficial second national anthem.

I have never been in Venezuela, but when I was in graduate school I had a friend from there, who taught me to dance the joropo and introduced me to the beautiful interplay of harp, maracas, cuatro and singing.

I got to know and love vallenato music when I lived in Bogotá in 1977. The music is characteristic of the Caribbean coastal region, but in the 1970s (after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 and the founding of the Vallenato Legend Festival in 1968) it became popular throughout Colombia. But it is still one of a great many of the country’s regional musical styles.

Colombia is arguably the most diverse Hispano-American country. Geographically it has the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the Amazon and the Andes, volcanoes and plains. Culturally there are different mixes of European, African and indigenous influences in different regions. (The vallenato is one such mix, with the European accordion, the African drum or caja and the indigenous guacharaca.) There are even more different varieties of Spanish spoken there than elsewhere; it’s the one Hispanic country where I am not usually taken for a foreigner, because my accent may be taken as being from some other part of Colombia.

I mentioned the plains of Colombia. They are, in fact, adjacent to those of Venezuela, in the department (the Colombian equivalent of province or state) of Meta, whose capital Villavicencio is located on the department’s very edge, where the plains meet the Andes, but its culture is fully that of the Llanos, virtually the same as Venezuela’s. I got to hear llanero music live when I visited there in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most famous llanero song, internationally, is Caballo viejo, though its best-known renditions are in more of a salsa-like or pop style, unlike the purely llanero original of Simón Díaz. But my favorite is Campesina, which I first heard sung by a Colombian llanero group in Bogotá.

In the version I heard, the last line of the song’s lyrics is “y adorna con tu hermosura a la tierra colombiana“, which struck me as not quite grammatical.

Spanish has the peculiarity that when direct object of a verb is a person or persons, it is treated as an indirect object, with the preposition a. This makes it possible, when the direct object is, say, the name of the country, to distinguish between its meanings as, on the one hand, the land, and on the other hand the people or some entity representing the people (government, armed force, sports team). Thus, “Germany occupied Poland” is Alemania ocupó Polonia, but “Germany defeated Poland” is Alemania derrotó a Polonia. But la tierra colombiana is land, not people.

The mystery was solved for me when I discovered, by searching the song out on YouTube, that the song is actually Venezuelan, and the line in question is “y adorna con tu hermosura la tierra venezolana“, without the ungrammatical a, which the Colombians added to make up for the missing syllable.

Now, what was it that led me to listening to vallenato? The accident of finding a vallenato version. of Caballo viejo.

And, incidentally, listening to the song led me back to my old song-translating ways, and I’ve made an English version of it.

Happy holidays!

December 24, 2017

In English, there are two-word phrases that have different meanings, depending on which word is stressed. The meanings may even be opposite: a near-miss is “almost a miss” — that is, a hit that is close to being a miss — while a near miss is a miss that is near (close to) the target but is still a miss.

For another example, a French major is an officer in the French army, while a French major is an undergraduate student of French language and literature.

And, more relevantly, a wish of “a happy new year” is one for the whole upcoming year (as in the song We wish you a merry Christmas), while “happy New Year” (or “New Year’s”) refers to the celebrations around New Year’s Day.

I have always interpreted “happy holidays” to be, primarily, shorthand for “merry Christmas and happy New Year”, though other holidays people may celebrate around the season — Boxing Day, Saint Stephen’s, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Epiphany — may be implied obliquely. (The inclusion of Hanukkah is iffy, since it often occurs well before the Christmas season, and there is no Jewish tradition of “happy Hanukkah” wishes.)

The insistence of Fox News, Donald Trump and the Christian right on the replacement of “happy holidays” with “merry Christmas” is not so much the end of a nonexistent “war on Christmas” but the beginning of a WAR ON NEW YEAR and, secondarily, on such Christian (especially Catholic) holidays as Saint Stephen’s and Epiphany as well.





December 20, 2017

As a PBNN (primary but not native) anglophone (with English being, chronologically, my fourth primary language) I have an instinctive tendency to compare aspects of English with corresponding ones in other languages that I know.

In particular, I have observed that English is relatively looser with prepositions than other languages, and that there is a good deal of variation in the use of prepositions for specific meanings.

I learned early on that wait on and wait for are verbs with distinct meanings. And yet the use of the former with the meaning of the latter is quite common, and seems to be quite old, at least in some regions (the OED gives a citation from 1694).

I also learned that, while for sale means ‘available to buy’, on sale usually means ‘for sale at a reduced price’. But I often see notices from performance organization announcing TICKETS ON SALE NOW, though upon checking I discover that they are sold at the regular price.

And then there is the American sportscaster’s on, as in “he’s got twelve wins on the season”, where standard English would have “over the season” or “in the course of the season”.

But on isn’t the only preposition that seems to be replacing others. There are two shifts that I have noticed recently, though they may be older than I think.

One: nowadays I usually here announcers on classical-music stations describing a composition as being from, rather by by, its composer. This, interestingly enough, brings English in line with German (von) and Romance (de/di), though it may be a coincidence.

Two: I often hear or read about an organization being based out of such-and-such a place, rather than based in it. This seems strange, since I interpret based as meaning ‘having its base’, and a base would be in a place, not out of it. My guess for this shift is as follows: if an entity has agents operating away from its base, such agents are often referred to as operating out of the location of the base, and based out of is a conflation (a frequent phenomenon in English) of based in and operating out of.



December 14, 2017

During the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?

Yellow ribbon

December 8, 2017

Las Sunday, as my wife and I were watching Manchester City achieve its second consecutive 2-1 victory with a late winning goal (in the previous game, that goal, by Raheem Sterling, came in the last five seconds of stoppage time), we noticed that Pep Guardiola, City’s Catalonian coach, was sporting a yellow ribbon on his lapel. We were both intrigued, and Pat quickly looked it up in Wikipedia, to discover that “the yellow ribbon started being used in late October 2017 by Catalan separatists as a symbol of the two members of the secessionist organizations ANC and Omnium accused of rioting, sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and imprisoned to avoid destruction of evidences or escape” and that “Pep Guardiola, notorious follower of the separatist cause, has been seen wearing it”.

I find Pep’s advocacy of Catalonian independence puzzling, though it’s in keeping with the hundreds of estelades displayed by the fans of FC Barcelona, where Pep spent most of his career as a player and achieved fame as a coach.

For I can’t help wondering what would happen to Barça — or, for that matter, to the other Barcelona football club, RCD Espanyol — if Catalonia were to become independent?

In theory, it might be possible for these clubs to remain in the Spanish league system, analogously to the way Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer and Welsh teams in the English league system. (Wales is not independent in the political world but it is so in the soccer world.) But these are agreements between the soccer federations of friendly neighbors. Considering that the very basis for any possible Catalonian independence is hostility toward Spain, this possibility is null.

Since the putative referendum of October 1, many hundreds of businesses have moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s economy. But football clubs are not like the movable franchises of North American sports, where the Cleveland Rams can become to Los Angeles Rams and, after moving to Indianapolis and Saint Louis, the Los Angeles Rams once again. They are firmly established local institutions, and none more so than those that are not “clubs” in name only but are true membership organization, of which Barça is one of the few remaining examples (Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are others, with the Green Bay Packers as the only American instance).

And so FC Barcelona would, in the event of independence, become the leading club of a strictly Catalonian league. (La Lliga?) Could it still be one of the world’s iconic entities, with its team colors worn by young and old around the globe? Not likely. No team outside Europe’s Big Five (England, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) can nowadays attain (or, in all likelihood  retain) such a position. Catalonia’s population is less than those of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands. But the days when teams like Porto or Benfica or Sporting or Panathinaikos or AEK or Anderlecht or Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord could reach the late stages of the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup) seem to be over. The last time such a team appeared in the final was Porto (coached by José Mourinho) in 2004 (they won). This year Porto is the only one from this set of leagues  to have made into the knockout phase.

And who would replace Real Madrid as Barcelona’s archrival? It could only be its derby rival,  RCD Espanyol.

This club has had its present name only since 1995; before that it was RCD Español. The initials RCD stood for Real Club Deportivo (royal sports club), the title having been granted by king Alfonso XIII; it was then Catalanized to Reial Club Deportiu, though deportiu is not actually a Catalan word — the correct word is esportiu — but keeping the initials was deemed more important than linguistic purity. The club was originally founded in 1900 (as Sociedad Española de Foot-Ball) under the leadership of the son of an Andalusian-born physician and politician who, as rector of the University of Barcelona, was notorious for his opposition to the Catalan language. The club, though at first composed mostly of Catalans (of the upper class), thus became a symbol of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the same way that FC Barcelona became one of Catalanism.

What, then would be the role of Espanyol in an independent republic of Catalonia? It would certainly no longer be royal, to be sure. Would it still be espanyol? If so, in what sense?

I don’t know.




On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.