Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Inspector Luann returns

May 17, 2018

I’ve just read Elizabeth George’s latest, The Punishment She Deserves. This time I didn’t wait my turn to get it from the library but actually bought the book, brand-new, with dust jacket and all. And I noticed that on that dust jacket, above a misty photograph of Ludlow (England), both the author’s name and the title appear in all lower case. But of course no one will refer to the novelist as “elizabeth george.” And l still don’t understand why the writer who calls herself Bell Hooks and also chooses the all-lower-case format for her title pages is almost universally cited as “bell hooks,” as though referring to some devices from which bells are hung. Esthetic choices of title-page typography do not, in my opinion, trump the rules of English, one of which is that in ordinary writing personal names are capitalized.

But I digress.

I managed to go through the book’s almost 700 pages in a few days. The plot is gripping, with several subplots that seem unconnected at first but finally come together logically.

There are, of course the usual recurring characters: DI Thomas Lynley, DS Barbara Havers, DCS Isabelle Ardery, and the others. Elizabeth George clings to the old naming convention, where women are referred to by first name and men by surname (as I have noted, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin — but not Peter Robinson — have overcome it). And, as usual, the characters’ histories build upon previous novels, but in what I have called Luann time: the events of the preceding novel, published three years earlier, are described as having happened “last year.” Havers is still in her thirties (a character in her late forties is described as having “more than ten years on her”) and Lynley at least appears to be no more than forty: he is seen as “twenty years older” than an eighteen-year-old. (The series, mind you, began in 1988.)

In the customary afterword, George acknowledges her editor, who “set me straight when I went off track in British English.” Not enough, I’m afraid.

I have already commented on George’s pet Americanism, “run interference” (a term taken from American football); it appears twice in this book. A few others crop up: “GPS” for “satnav”; “pressured” for “pressurised”; “Indian” (based on appearance) for “Asian”; and George’s tendency to confuse “due” and “do”: she once wrote “undo” for “undue,” while this time its “make due” for “make do.”

Then there is George’s penchant for eye dialect, intended somehow to reproduce the speech of those who are not toffs like Thomas Lynley and who are quoted, for example, as saying “su’prise”; but of course no English person (except in the West Country) pronounces the first R in surprise; nor would anyone pronounce the phrase problems are as anything like “problems’re”; but there you are.

I also find it jarring to read British spelling with American punctuation, but that’s another matter.

So much for ling-crit. A bigger problem, for me, is the superficiality of Elizabeth George’s acquaintance with British culture. Referring to Thomas Cromwell when Oliver is meant is a small example.

The novel takes place in the small but historic town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, as well as elsewhere in the county and in the neighboring counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire — the territory served by the West Mercia Police, which figures prominently in the action. The area, including its topography and architecture, is described in vivid detail that adds color to the narrative. It’s clear that George explored the places she describes; she also gathered inside information by interviewing the Chief Constable of the WMP, the mayor of Ludlow (who is — though she doesn’t say so — not an executive mayor but merely the chairman of the town council, a body with very limited authority), and the chairman of the gliding club to which three of her characters belong.

One institution that plays a large part in the story, is a college, which George calls West Mercia College (like the police), but whose description as regards location and buildings matches the actual college located in Ludlow, Ludlow College. Several of the principal characters are students at the college; they are 18 or 19 years old, and appear to be in their first year of studies. They also (with one exception) are heavily involved with drinking and sex.

In other words, the college is supposed to strike American readers as something like what they think of as a college. But the reality is different. (No wonder George renamed the college, and did not interview its head.)

Ludlow College is, in fact, a sixth-form college, a school corresponding chronologically (though not academically) to the 11th and 12th grades of American high schools; students who are 18 will actually be finishing the second of its two years (known as lower and upper sixth).

I am not sure that Elizabeth George knows the concept of sixth form, since she seems to confuse the British form with the American grade. In one place, Isabelle Ardery thinks of the children playing in a schoolyard as being in third form, and thus close in age to her own children, who are nine. In another, a twelve-year-old is asked if she remembers her fourth-form teacher.

As a matter of fact, “form” is used in England to denote grade in secondary school, which begins at age eleven; thus third and fourth form correspond to ages thirteen and fourteen, respectively (they are also called year 8 and year 9), and sixth form accordingly begins at age 16.

Why does Elizabeth George’s British editor let her get away with these things? I don’t know, but in a way I’m grateful. For I enjoy reading her books, but then I get the additional enjoyment of quibbling about the solecisms.





May 4, 2018

Some years ago, when I was still writing well reasoned, carefully researched essays (unlike the freewheeling blog posts that I compose nowadays), I wrote one (in fact, my very last such effort) about the various uses to which the letter H has been put in different languages that use the Latin alphabet.

With regard to English, I wrote that “the H in ah (and hah), eh (and feh, meh), and uh (and huh) … indicates that the vowel is different from what it would have been without the H.” But I was not specific; what I meant was that ah stands for /ɑ/ or /ɑ:/, eh for /ɛ/, and uh for /ə/or  /ə:/. Thus ah is often used to represent the typical non-rhotic pronunciation of ar (e.g. dahling), and uh for that of er, ir or ur (e.g. Suh for Sir).

I also wrote the following:

Word-final –ah is also found in English, especially in words from Middle Eastern or South Asian languages (for example mullah, hookah, purdah, verandah), originally intended to indicate that this vowel is to be pronounced /ɑ/ rather than neutralized to /ə/, though the effect has generally been lost.

Indeed, in word-final –ah the H is usually ignored; for example, Sara and Sarah, Hanna and Hannah are considered to be different spellings of the same name. (Endings in -iah are an exception: Maria and Mariah are pronounced differently.)

There are a couple of exceptions: the words hurrah and huzzah are indeed pronounced with a stressed final /ɑ:/. Perhaps these examples were in the minds of those who, in the early 19th century, first wrote about the country to the east of India, which they spelled Burmah in order to represent the native pronunciation /bə’mɑ/ (“buh-mah“). But it didn’t work: readers disregarded the h, and the (non-rhotic) English came to call the country “buh-muh”. Eventually the h was dropped from the spelling; according to Google Ngrams, Burma overtook Burmah in the 1970s.

Nowadays /bə’mɑ/* officially designates the name, not of the country, but of its majority ethnic group, also known (in English) as Burmese. But the countries authorities resorted to a different trick in order to preserve the original pronunciation: rather than an h, they put an r at the end, seemingly knowing that English-speakers are more likely to stress a two-syllable word on the second syllable if there is a consonant letter (even if silent) at the end, and so the spelling now is Bamar.

In order to differentiate the name of the country from that of its majority ethnic group (and thus to acknowledge the presence of other ethnicities, such as the Karen, Shan and others), they chose an alternative form, pronounced /mjə’mɑ/, for which they chose(on the same principle)  the spelling Myanmar, with the representing the semivowel /j/, as it often does in English. But it doesn’t usually do so in this setting, with the result that most English-speaking readers interpret it as the vowel /i/ (“ee“) and the word thus gains a third syllable. With trisyllabic words ending in a consonant letter, the overwhelming tendency (as I have discussed) is to stress them on the first syllable, resulting in what is now the most common pronunciation in anglophone media: /’miənmɑ(r)/.

So much for trying to represent native pronunciation in English.


*I can’t show the Burmese writing, the price I’m paying for sticking with Windows 7.


March 25, 2018

I have often been critical of some versions of the Latin alphabet that have been adapted in the last 200 years or so for various languages. For example, I didn’t know why the makers of the Albanian alphabet decided to use ç for /t͡ʃ/ (as in Turkish) rather than ch, since in all other cases an added h serves to convert alveolar sibilants to postalveolar ones: sh, xh, zh. According to Wikipedia, “ç was chosen over ch since c with cedilla could be found on every typewriter, given its extensive use in Romance languages.” This seems strange: only French, Portuguese and Catalan use ç, and English, Spanish and German typewriters certainly don’t have it.

I have also had critical things to say about some of the choices made in Atatürk’s Turkish alphabet (especially the use of ı, which invariably becomes i, and İ, which becomes I, when transcribed by foreign media), and of Hanyu Pinyin, with its strange uses for  x and q. In both cases transcriptions abroad lead to mispronunciations. It seems as if the creators of these alphabets gave no thought to how they would appear to users of other languages, and how that would affect Turks and Chinese abroad.

I had a different bone to pick with the Serbocroat alphabet originally created by Ljudevit Gaj. Since Gaj (who, despite his German-speaking background, was a Pan-Slavist) borrowed several caron-bearing characters from the  Czech/Slovak alphabet (čš and ž), I wondered why he hadn’t also taken ě  to denote the cases in which the different variants of Serbocroat (ekavian, ijekavian and ikavian) had e, je or ije, and i, respectively, and thus the three variants would have had a unified orthography. (Today, standard Serbian is ekavian, while standard Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin — even when called, as many Montenegrins do, “Serbian” — are ijekavian.)

By accident I ran across a Croatian publication from the 1840s (a decade after the publication of Gaj’s alphabet, and continuing into the 1850s) which does just that. On the very title page one sees the word umětnost (“art”), which would be umetnost in Serbian and umjetnost in the other three.

Wikipedia confirms that historically the use of ě “was very widespread, but today it is only found in scientific and historically accurate literature.” Why?

As I commented in an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, “Slavs like their orthographies to be phonetic, and to Slovaks such contrasts as mouka versus múka (flour) or cukr versus cukor (sugar) have been enough to convince them that they form a distinct nation from the Czechs.” And so with Serbs and Croats, with their tragic tradition of mutual hostility: they would rather preserve the differences than strive for common ground.



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.