Archive for the ‘Media’ Category


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.


More on Poland and “Polish”

February 12, 2018

Just as I did with regard to Greece and Macedonia, I feel the need to expand on the flippant remark I recently posted about the stupidity of “refer[ring] (as some Western media do) to Nazi death camps that happened to lie in occupied Poland as ‘Polish'” (as well as that of the resulting Polish reaction).*

Rather than stupid, I should have characterized the reference as ignorant. Ignorant of the fact that, to Poles (as to most peoples east of the Seipel line), “Polish” does not usually mean simply ‘located in the territory of Poland’. The new Polish law is about “protecting the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”, and one must note that the republic and the nation are distinct entities. Unlike the west, where (with some exceptions) nation and citizenry are essentially identical — a concept first formalized by the French Revolution — in the east these are different.

I am a Polish Jew, born in Poland as a citizen thereof, but I am not and have never been a Pole, that is, a member of the Polish nation. Nor were the many other citizens of pre-war Poland whose “nationality” (i.e. ethnicity) was other than Polish, such as Ukrainian, German or Lithuanian. (There are not many of these left.)

Poles hear references to “Polish death camps” primarily as a reflection on the Polish nation. It’s only fair to quote the Polish ambassador to the UK to the effect that the controversial new law “does not protect individual Polish citizens who committed crimes against Jews, nor does it ban anyone – especially the survivors – from speaking about the cruelty and injustice which they experienced.”

It’s also fair to note that the expression “Polish death camp” in Western media was first used as the title of an article written by a Pole, the heroic Jan Karski. The actual wording, however, may well be due to an American editor armed with the ignorance I referred to above.

*The issue is discussed in a Wikipedia page.

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).

“Vikings” in Luann time

February 5, 2018

About a year and half ago I wrote about something I call “Luann time”, meaning a narrative time frame in which the characters age much more slowly than real time. My examples were, first, the eponymous comic strip, and second, the Inspector Lynley novels of Elizabeth George. In  both cases all the characters are fictitious, and the passage of time is measured by publication time, as well as by references to outside events and by the progress of technology.

In the TV series Vikings, many of the characters are historical or semi-historical, so that time may be measured by known historical events. An actual date is given early in the first season, namely the year 793, historically the year of the first recorded Viking raid, on Lindisfarne in Northumbria, England. The raid, as depicted in the show, is led by one of the series’ protagonists, Ragnar Lothbrok, married at the time to another protagonist, Lagertha; their son Bjørn (later known as Bjørn Ironside) is then around twelve years old.

No dates are shown in any subsequent episodes, but we know (as well as such things can be known, from contemporary Chronicles) that the killing of Ragnar by King Ælla of Northumbria, and the subsequent invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army led by Ragnar’s sons, took place in 865. So that by this time Ragnar and Lagertha would be centenarians, and Bjørn an octogenarian.

In the show,  meanwhile, at this time not only is Bjørn shown as being in the prime of life, but so is his mother Lagertha, who is now the the ruling queen of a kingdom in Norway called Kattegat (in reality the name of the body of water between Denmark and Sweden).

Now, the Luann-like distortion of time is far from the only historical distortion practiced by the show’s creator, Michael Hirst. Kings Ælla of Northumbria and Ecbert of Wessex are  presented as ruling throughout the series; in reality Ælla was king for only a few years in the 860s, while Ecbert ruled from 802 to 839, so that most of the series’ events (the later Viking raids on England as well as those on the Continent) in reality took place during the reign of his son Æthelwulf (839–858), followed by four of the latter’s sons (the last of them being Alfred).

But in the show Æthelwulf is ever the prince, with Alfred as his only son (and biologically not even his) by his wife Judith, the daughter of Ælla. The real Æthelwulf did have a wife named Judith, but she was a daughter of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald, and he married her — when she was about 13 — when his sons (by a Saxon noblewoman named Osburh) were already grown.

The political machinations involving the kingdom of Mercia are altogether fictitious, while the fourth kingdom — East Anglia — is completely ignored.

And then there is Rollo, who in the show is Ragnar’s brother and, after betraying him (not for the first time) by going over to the Franks, is given the duchy of Normandy by king Charles (presumably Charles the Bald, since he identifies himself as Charlemagne’s grandson) and marries Charles’s daughter Gisla, begetting several sons with her.

The real Rollo (originally Rolf or Hrolfr) ruled Normandy from 911 to 927; he may or may not have married a princess named Gisela (a daughter of Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald’s grandson), but the mother of his children was a Frankish noblewoman named Poppa.

All this quibbling aside, Vikings is a compelling drama, and my wife and I watch it devoutly. But we have wondered if it really belongs on the History Channel.



January 20, 2018

I want to make a very brief comment about the Aziz Ansari “affair”.

The woman who make the allegations about Aziz Ansari’s not-quite-gentlemanly behavior did so pseudonymously.

Since Ansari acknowledged the incident (and apologized for it), he obviously knows her identity. But he has not revealed it.

I think that’s rather gentlemanly of him.


December 19, 2017

Every so often, some American on the left side of the political spectrum gives Donald Trump grudging credit for something positive. Recent examples include Stephen F. Cohen, in The Nation, acknowledging the Trump administration’s moves toward better relations with Russia, and Daniel Wirls, on The Conversation, writing that “Trump’s right about one thing: The US Senate should end its 60-vote majority.”

When I first heard that Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I had similar feelings. After all, I thought, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel: it’s where all of its government institutions are, and isn’t that what a capital is? I’ve always been bothered by journalists using Tel Aviv as a synecdoche for Israel, especially when the government was meant. And so I thought that Trump’s “recognition of reality” was to the point.

But then I head a second thought. Maybe it’s too much to insist on one city being the capital of a country. Look at the Netherlands: for all practical purposes the capital is the Hague, and yet the constitutional capital is Amsterdam. In fact, Wikipedia has a list of countries with multiple capitals, and while Israel is not on the actual list, its situation is discussed in the section following it.

Since all the foreign embassies to Israel are in or around Tel Aviv, we might call this city the diplomatic capital, and acknowledge Jerusalem as the political capital.

I know, “political capital” has another meaning, but that’s English for you!


When Harry met…

November 29, 2017

In all the media frenzy around the engagement between Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle, I have yet to see a reference to the recent movie King Charles III, in which a fictionalized Prince Harry falls in love with a black woman. The play that the film was based on was first produced in 2014, well before Harry met Meghan.

Looks like life imitating art, innit? To be sure, the woman in the play (Jessica Edwards) is working-class English black (and a republican to boot), while Meghan Markle is glamorous American blackish. And the fictionalized Harry gives up Jess in order to remain a royal, while the real one is going to marry Meghan. But still…


October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)


GOT and me

August 9, 2017

Not a day seems to go by without some news item about the phenomenon known as Game of Thrones, whether it’s about its plot, its fans, its cast members, or a comparison of some person with one of its characters.

I don’t watch GOT. I did, briefly, during the first season, because I had access to HBO as part of a temporary subscription package (my real interest was in a show airing on Showtime at the time, The Borgias). But I lost interest when I realized that I had been watching it under a misapprehension.

This had happened before, as I have written: In 2001 I watched 24, falsely believing to be a Canadian satire on American paranoia in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As to Game of Thrones, it seemed to be that it was historical fiction set in Britain around the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons and Britons coexisted. I based this belief on settings clearly reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with no apparent signs of Christianity, and on the mix of Germanic-sounding and Celtic-sounding names. There were also references to seven kingdoms (the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy?), the northern wall (Hadrian’s?) and the wild people of the north (Scots and Picts?).

But I was lost once the Dothraki showed up. It gradually struck me that what I was watching was unmitigated fantasy. I like fantasy, if it’s rigorous (I’ll explain that some other time), but this was not. And so I let the subscription lapse once The Borgias was finished. And even when I renewed it, twice, for the second and third, HBO did not tempt me.

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.