Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


December 23, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor died the other day, and in all the audio media that I’ve heard her surname has been pronounced with a stress on the last syllable. It’s actually pronounced, as Wikipedia puts it, GAH-bor ([ˈɡaːbor] in IPA) since it’s a Hungarian name, and in Hungarian all words are stressed on the first syllable.

It reminds me of László/Ladislav/Ladislao Kubala, the great soccer player of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Hungarian Slovak; that is, a citizen of Hungary but ethnically Slovak, not Magyar. The first-syllable stress is something that Hungarian shares with the otherwise unrelated Czech and Slovak, so that his name would be pronounced KOO-bah-lah ([‘kubala]) in Slovak and KOO-baw-law (North American aw, [‘kubɒlɒ]) in Hungarian.

But in Spain, where he spent most of his life (notably as the star of FC Barcelona in the 1950s), he was called [ku’βala], since the Spanish default stress for words ending in a vowel is on the penultimate. This is what can be heard in Joan Manuel Serrat’s song about him (which is in Catalan, so that the last [a] is somewhat reduced).

Kubala began to play soccer professionally as a teenager in Hungary during World War II. After the War, when the Communist regimes legitimized ethnic nationality according to the Soviet model, he decided to identify as a Slovak and moved to Slovakia (then a part of newly reunited — after being split by Nazi Germany — Czechoslovakia), where he played for Slovan Bratislava and the Czechoslovakian national team, and married a Slovak girl (his coach’s sister) with whom he promptly had a son named Branko.

For Eastern Europeans, one’s ethnic national identity often trumps the civic. When I was a child I thought that this was peculiar to Jews (I have always thought of myself as a Polish Jew, never as a Pole), but soon learned that it was common to most peoples east of the Seipel line. Some thirty years ago I met a woman in Mexico, a fellow tourist who at first told me that she was Yugoslavian; it turned out that she was a Slovene from Trieste — a citizen of Italy — but didn’t think of herself as Italian.

Kubala did, as a matter of fact, return to Hungary for a while, where he played for a local Hungarian club and the Hungarian national team, but soon defected to the West. He played for a makeshift team, coached by his brother-in-law, that was called Hungaria, named not for modern Hungary but the old polyethnic Hungarian kingdom. He was also signed by Torino, at the time considered the best team in Europe, and by sheer chance missed being on the plane, carrying the rest of the team, that crashed into the mountains.

As I mentioned above, he ended up in Spain, and was given Spanish citizenship by Franco himself, who used him for propaganda extolling the superiority of Francoism to Communism. And he played for Spain’s national team as well. No wonder he called himself a “cosmopolitan.”


December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.


November 25, 2016

Quebec language notes

October 26, 2016

My wife and I have just come back from a ten-day trip to the province of Quebec, a place that we had both meant to visit for many years and had not managed to do until now. We were both enthralled by the beauty of the fall foliage and the charm of the historic old cities — old Montreal, Trois-Rivières and especially Quebec City — but for me there was another point of interest: to explore the bilingualism of Montreal.

img_1688   img_1737  img_1754 

I am fascinated by by bilingual societies. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every bilingual society is bilingual in its own way.

I come from a bilingual family. My parents, Polish Jews born respectively in 1905 and 1913, both had Yiddish as their native language. But by time my mother started school Poland had regained its independence (in 1918), so that all of her schooling was in Polish, which soon became her primary language, while Yiddish remained that of my father. In their conversations with each other, as far back as I remember, he spoke in Yiddish and she spoke in Polish. To me, however, they spoke only in Polish, and I did not actually speak Yiddish fluently until I was ten or so, in different circumstances. Consequently, I am not a native bilingual, as are some of my Barcelona friends who cannot recall a time when they didn’t speak both Catalan and Spanish.

According to statistics cited in Wikipedia, only 0.8% of the residents of Greater Montreal reported speaking both English and French “as a first language.” (By contrast, 17% of the people of Brussels speak both French and Dutch at home.) On the other hand, “most of its residents” are said to possess a “working knowledge of both.”

That working knowledge can be quite variable. Except in Westmount and at an Italian restaurant near the airport  in Dorval, nearly all the people we dealt with were francophones (some of whom may have been French), and their English, on the whole, was not very different from what one hears from younger people working in tourist-oriented occupations around the world. I found this surprising, since I thought that these people were far more exposed to English — from their anglophone fellow citizens and from English-language television and radio — than their counterparts elsewhere.

There may have been one or two people that we met who were of the 0.8% — native-sounding in both English and French. Our English-language guide at the Notre-Dame Basilica spoke with an almost perfect North American accent, but gave herself away when she said “we are Monday” (a calque of nous sommes  lundi) when meaning to say “today is Monday.”

Another difference from Brussels is the near-absence of bilingual signage. Even streets whose names are untranslated  English (such as University, McGill College, or City Councillors) are prefixed rue, with no “street” (see here for a Brussels example). Largely anglophone Westmount (now a separate city) gets away with neither rue nor street. All signage on freeways throughout Quebec, even warning signs, is in French only — I wonder how English Canadians driving, say, from Nova Scotia to Ontario, through their own country feel about that. Station announcements in the Montreal metro are in French only. Only federal institutions such as post offices carry bilingual signs consistently.

Once outside Montreal, even in a nearby suburb such as Repentigny, one might as well be in provincial France. Except in tourist-heavy old Quebec and nearby Ile d’Orléans, bilingual menus are less common than in Paris, and seem to be found only in chain restaurants.

I have to confess that I have written two novels, books 2 and 3 of my Wilner Trilogy, whose respective protagonists are Montreal native bilinguals (they are brother and sister), and whose action takes place to a significant degree in Montreal. I wrote these books without ever having been in Quebec, that is, in direct defiance of the “write about what you know” dictum; what details I needed I got from the Web. My visit satisfied me that I made no big blunders. But much of the action takes place in what was then the town of Saint-Laurent (now it’s a Montreal borough), and this is an area that I didn’t have time to visit during this trip. I’ll have to take another one.

More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!



Phonetic alphabets

September 25, 2016

In my post the other day, I wrote that “the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly.” I’d like to elaborate.

By “phonetic alphabet” people usually mean one that represents the sounds of the language faithfully, not like the unruly alphabets of English or French. On Wikipedia, a search for “phonetic alphabet” leads to a disambiguation page that includes a reference to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is not really an alphabet in the usual sense (there is no alphabetic order in it, for one thing) but an open-ended collection of symbols that should actually be called the International Phonetic Code (IPC); this abbreviation would also be helpful in distinguishing the code from the organization responsible for it, also called IPA. The usual meaning of “phonetic alphabet” is discussed on the page titled Phonemic orthography, but that is an unfortunately all-too typical Wikipedia page, representing the often contradictory work of many hands. For example, the Greek digraphs γκ and μπ , representing single sounds, are included as examples in the paragraph discussing the opposite — cases where a single letter may represent a sequence of more than one phoneme. And such important matters as syllabic stress or vowel reduction are not mentioned at all.

Among learners of English, complaints about the non-phoneticity of the English alphabet are often heard from those whose primary language is Italian or Spanish. And indeed, the alphabets that they learned as children can be called phonetic, but only halfway. Specifically, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly but not reader-friendly, while the Spanish one is the opposite.

What I mean by “writer-friendly” is that someone familiar with the rules can, on hearing Italian speech, write it down correctly. The only exception I can think of is the presence of in the strong forms (all persons singular and third person plural) of the verb avere, distingushing ho, hai, ha and hanno from o, ai, a and anno.

On the other hand, when reading written Italian one doesn’t know, first of all, on what syllable the stress falls, unless its the last (in which case the vowel carries an accent mark). Nor does one know whether or is to be pronounced as open or closed, or whether sz or zz is to be read as voiced or unvoiced. Consequently, the Italian alphabet is not reader-friendly.

Spanish is the opposite. Someone trying to write down spoken Spanish but not thoroughly versed in the language will not know when to write a silent h; whether the phoneme /x/ before or i is to be written g or j; whether (outside northern and central Spain) /s/ is written sz or (before e or ic; or whether to write b or v. Many Spanish surnames have changed their spelling on crossing the ocean: Chaves, Cortés and Valdés, for example, became Chávez, Cortez and Valdez, respectively.

But reading Spanish correctly, according to any one regional standard, presents no problem. Syllabic accent follows strict rules, and no letter represents more than one sound, except x in proper names of non-Spanish origin (such as México or Xola or Xàtiva ), which one needs to learn.

So let me get back to Macedonian cyrillic. Macedonian, unlike other South Slavic languages, has fixed syllabic stress — on the penultimate in two-syllable words and the antepenultimate in longer words. It has, unlike Serbocroat, no long and short vowels. Unlike Bulgarian, vowels sound the same whether stressed  or not. It has neither digraphs nor the opposite (that is, single letters representing two sounds, like Bulgarian [or Russian] щ,  ю and я). It seems perfect to me.







September 14, 2016

It can often be said, in the case of three languages (say X, Y and Z) of the same family, that Y is “between” X and Z. For example, as stated in Wikipedia (with several references given), “Dutch is closely related to German and English and is said to be between them.” Such “betweenness” is roughly symmetric, in the sense that Y has some features in common with X and others with Z, in addition to having some that are shared with neither. It can, more over, be refined further: Frisian can be said to be between Dutch and English, and Low German between Dutch and German. In a similar way, Catalan is between French and Spanish, while Occitan is between Catalan and French, and Aragonese is between Catalan and Spanish.

But there are some language threesomes that are asymmetric in a peculiar way: Y is like X on one level, and like Z on another. More specifically, X and Y are, historically, one and the same language, but because of a political and/or geographic separation between their territories, and a corresponding association with the territory of Z, Y sounds much more like Z than like X. Also, while the traditional vocabulary of Y is the same as that of X, its modern vocabulary is more like that of Z.

The two examples that first struck me, because of their similarities, are Portuguese-Galician-Spanish and Bulgarian-Macedonian-Serbian. The time scales of the political connections are different: Galicia has been under Spanish (Castilian) rule since the 13th century, while Macedonia (the present Republic) was under Serbian control or influence only during the 20th century. But the effects are similar.

Fundamentally, Portuguese and Galician are the same language — modern descendants of the medieval language that is now called Galician-Portuguese — with some of the same grammatical peculiarities (such as the personal infinitive) that differentiate it from other Romance languages, and in their written forms (aside from the different orthographies, to be discussed below) they look much the same.

But Galician sounds like Castilian Spanish; except for having /ʃ/ (which is spelled x) in place of /χ/, the phonology is the same (the realization of word-final /n/ as [ŋ] is a feature of several Spanish dialects, including Andalusian and Caribbean). All sibilants are unvoiced, so that where Portuguese has /ʒ/ Galician has /ʃ/, and where Portuguese has /z/ Galician has /s/ or /θ/. And most importantly, all vowels, stressed or not, are pronounced crisply as in Spanish and unlike Portuguese, in which unstressed vowels are reduced (/o/ or /ɔ/ to /u/, /e/ or /ɛ/ to /ɨ/, /a/ or /ɐ/ to  [ə]). When one hears Galician spoken, it often takes a while to realize that what is heard is not Spanish. And while in principle speakers of Portuguese and of Galician should be able to understand each other, when the great Portuguese singer Amàlia Rodrigues appeared on Galician television, she preferred to reply in Spanish to the Galician-speaking host.

The orthography of Galician, too, is based on that of Spanish: it has ll and ñ where Portuguese has lh and nh, where Portuguese has ç (Galicians don’t fully agree on whether the name of their country should be written Galicia, Galizia or Galiza), and án or ón where Portuguese has ão.

By the same token, Macedonian and Bulgarian are fundamentally the same; indeed, until the beginning of the 20th century Slavic Macedonians thought of themselves as Bulgarians, including the famous Miladinov brothers, considered the pioneers of Macedonian literature, whose collection of Macedonian folk songs was published as “Bulgarian Folk Songs”; to some Bulgarians, to this day, Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect. The two languages share distinctive grammatical features not found in other Slavic languages, such as the definite article and the absence of noun cases and of infinitives.

But the phonologies are quite different. Bulgarian has vowel reduction that is quite similar to that of Portuguese, while Macedonian has the five crisp vowels of Galician and Spanish, as well as Serbocroat. It has regular stress (paroxytone in disyllabic words, proparoxytone in longer ones), while in Bulgarian it is variable (including oxytone).

The threesome is completed, then, with Serbocroat, or more specifically Serbian. The Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet is based on that of Serbian, not Bulgarian (which is more like that of Russian), so that in place of Bulgarian й, ю and я (for /j/, /ju/ and /ja/, respectively) Macedonian has ј,  ју and  ја. It also has the Serbian ligatures љ (for /l/), њ (for /ɲ/), as well as џ (for /d͡ʒ/); and it uses — uniquely — ѕ for /d͡z/, so that it has no need for digraphs. In fact, the Macedonian alphabet is the closest that I know of to a perfectly phonetic one, being both reader-friendly and writer-friendly; and if someone wishes to learn a Slavic language with no prior exposure to any of them, I believe that Macedonian would be the easiest by far.

Except for the fact that Serbian has long and short vowels, it and Macedonian sound very much alike. I am not fluent in either one, and one time, in a taxi in Skopje, it took me a while to realize that the driver was a Serb, speaking in his language. The Macedonian and Serbian film industries use each other’s actors freely, and what is probably the world’s best-known Serbian song, Ramo Ramo (which has been performed by U2), was composed and introduced by a Macedonian.

Let me add a third case, so that I will end up with a threesome of threesomes: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. More specifically, since once cannot really speak of Norwegian language, I will refer to “standard” Eastern Norwegian (standard østnorsk), as spoken in and around Oslo and in most Norwegian films and television series, which is quite close to the Bokmål standard.

This language is, in fact, derived from Danish, which for many centuries was the official language of Norway and, in a norwegianized way, the spoken language of its upper crust; where it is now spoken generally, it has displaced the original Norwegian dialects (the old Oslo dialect is said to have died out in the 1970s).

The norwegianization of the standard has been gradual, and even now the Danish and Bokmål versions of the same text will appear very similar. For one thing, unlike Galician/Portuguese and Macedonian/Bulgarian, there are no drastic differences in orthography: the characters æ and ø were not replaced by their Swedish equivalents ä and ö, since Sweden, despite ruling Norway during the 19th century, did not meddle into Norway’s tangled language controversies. Nor did Swedish, as far as I know, influence Norwegian vocabulary, unlike Galician and Macedonian, which get much of their “modern” vocabulary from Spanish and Bulgarian, respectively. For ‘train,’ for example, Galician uses the Spanish tren, not the Portuguese comboio, and Macedonian uses the Serbian voz, not the Bulgarian vlak. But from watching Scandinavian crime shows one knows that Norwegian police is politie as in Danish, not polis as in Swedish.

But spoken Eastern Norwegian has very little in common with the actual phonetics of Danish, and it sounds much more like Swedish. In a film or television series in which two or all three of the languages are spoken, one can always spot the Danish-speakers, but it’s much harder to tell the Norwegians from the Swedes on the basis of sound alone. The Norwegian Liv Ullman made her career mainly in Sweden, while the Swede Stellan Skarsgård has been a star in Norwegian cinema.






September 9, 2016

Bollywood, as is well known, is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood.

But since Bombay (based on the Hindi form of the city’s name) is now officially Mumbai (the Gujarati and Marathi name), it’s surprising that the Gujarati Narendra Modi, who governs India as a semi-dictator, hasn’t decreed that Bollywood be changed to Mulliwood.

I am joking. There is no reason why changes in official toponymy should necessarily affect common usage. Cats are still Persian, Siamese or Burmese, not Iranian, Thai or Myanmarese. And my favorite tea, from Sri Lanka, is still called Ceylon tea.

Except at Peet’s Coffee and Tea. And that’s my fault.

Many years ago, when Peet’s was just a little neighborhood shop in Berkeley, I noticed in its window displays of Sulawesi coffee and Ceylon tea. I went inside and said to Mr. Peet, who was not busy at the time, “If you call Celebes coffee Sulawesi, shouldn’t you call Ceylon tea Sri Lanka?”

“You are right,” he said. And the next day the display was changed.

Except that I was joking.