Archive for the ‘Names’ Category


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.”

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’!




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.


August 5, 2016

In a short while the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will open in the winter of Rio de Janeiro (a tropical winter, to be sure). The two featured events tonight will be the lighting of the flame and the Parade of Nations, where the representatives of the Olympic nations will march in alphabetical order, except that the host country, Brazil, will be last in a show of old-fashioned courtesy, while Greece will be first, being supposedly the first Olympic nation. Well, modern Greece bears about as much relation to classical Greece as the modern Olympics do to those of antiquity, so it seems reasonable.

And the alphabetical order for the remaining nations means that Macedonia will march ahead of Azerbaijan.

Why? Because the athletes of Azerbaijan will march under the Portuguese name of their country, Azerbaijão, while the Macedonians will do so under the name Antiga República Iugoslava de Macedónia, the Portuguese version of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” (FYROM), which is designation under which the country participates in international organizations.

Why did I bring up Azerbaijan? Because, in principle, the naming situation of the two countries is analogous: both were once member republics of a communist-led federation, and both bear the names of larger historical regions of which they form a part but of which a significant part — which includes the historic heart of the region — belongs to a neighboring country — Greece in the case of Macedonia, Iran in the case of Azerbaijan.

But I have never heard of any Iranian objecting to the name “Republic of Azerbaijan”; the relevant Persian Wikipedia page is titled Jomhuri-e Āzarbāijān. The Greek page for the Republic of Macedonia, on the other hand, carries the Greek version of FYROM, fully spelled out, as its title. For the whole FYROM business is the result of a temper tantrum by Greece, as I  already wrote ten  years a go.

The Greeks seem to ignore a practice that their ancient forebears already spoke of, that of synecdoche — the naming of an entity for a larger one that it’s a part of (or, conversely, for a smaller one that’s part of it). In the case of countries, a name like  Republic (or Kingdom or United Statesof X, where X is a larger geographic unit, is not uncommon, United States of America being a prime example. As we know, the USA is often called just America for short, not just by Americans but by others as well, though not usually by Latin Americans, Stephen Sondheim to the contrary notwithstanding. (I am referring to the song in West Side Story.)

There are  also the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which does not include the part of historic Luxembourg that belongs to Belgium; the Republic of Ireland, of which Northern Ireland (belonging to the United Kingdom) is not a part; the Republic of Cyprus, and so on.

I am looking forward to, one of these years, seeing Macedonia march at the head of the M nations, or between Madagascar and Malaysia if the games happen to be held in a country in whose language the name is Makedonia.



May 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I published a post titled “Cities,” and just the other day one titled “M Cities.” Here I go again, with “City.” And they have nothing to do with each other.

In the Unites States, on forms that require someone to fill in their address, the space for street address is almost invariably followed by “City, state, ZIP code.” There is one big exception: federal tax forms, in place of “City,” have “City, town or post office.” But state tax forms, at least in California and New York, have the usual “City.”

This has never been a problem for me. All the places where I have lived in the US have been cities, and in every one of them the name of the post office has been the same as the name of the city. So that there has never been any doubt about writing Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or El Cerrito.

But there are many possibilities where this might not be the case.

First of all, many Americans do not live in cities. They might live in incorporated municipalities that are not called “city” but town, township, borough or village — the federal “town” is, I suppose, a stand-in for any of these — or in unincorporated areas. The post office serving such an area may or may not have the same name as the corresponding locality; sometimes it is, in fact, that of a nearby city, possibly leading a correspondent to believe that the person lives in the city in question. A case in point is the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, whose addresses are listed as Los Angeles.

Next, there is the case of large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that have annexed nearby localities which nevertheless have kept their postal names. In New York, only Manhattan addresses have New York, NY as the “city”; otherwise it’s Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, or any of the various districts that make up Queens. In Los Angeles, the districts of the San Fernando Valley, the western area (West Los Angeles and Westwood) and the harbor area (San Pedro and Wilmington) have their own post offices. Addresses in Hollywood can be either “Hollywood” or “Los Angeles”, and the ZIP-code areas of the separate city of West Hollywood overlap with those of Los Angeles, leading to further confusion. I have often found in online searches for my mother’s house, located in Los Angeles, listed as being in West Hollywood because of a shared ZIP code. Similarly, when I lived in the Thousand Oaks district of Berkeley,  whose ZIP code is shared with the nearby village of Kensington (I call it a village, though the term isn’t used in California, since it’s a small unincorporated area with some limited self-government), I would sometimes get mail addressed to me as though I lived in Kensington. (One time this created confusion with a tax return: Kensington is in a different county from Berkeley and, since at the time the two counties had different locations for mailing tax returns, some clerk at the Internal Revenue Service confused ZIP codes with counties and informed me that I had sent my return to the wrong place.)

And then we have neighboring cities where an area of one city is served, for the convenience of the Postal Service, by a post office located in the other city. An example of this is half a mile from my house, where San Pablo Avenue divides El Cerrito on the east from Richmond on the west, but both sides of the avenue are served by the El Cerrito post office. There are thus businesses on the Richmond side that not only have an El Cerrito address but even put “El Cerrito” in their names; but they are not in El Cerrito.

Also, the eastern portion of the Berkeley campus of the University of California lies within the city of Oakland, but of course the university’s installations in that area, including the Lawrence Berkeley (sic!)  National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, carry the university’s Berkeley address and are thought of by most people as being in Berkeley.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail has created the concept of “post town” to cover all addresses, it being understood that the post town is not necessarily the same as the actual town (or city or borough or whatever) where the address is located. How about “postal city” to cover the same need in the US?








February 29, 2016

It seemed strange. Leonardo DiCaprio, last night’s winner of the best-leading-actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, appeared in the clip shown from the movie (which I haven’t seen) to have the linguistic skill to have mastered an indigenous American language. But when, in his thank-you speech, he named the director with whom he must have spent many months in close contact, he could not pronounce the word Iñárritu; ignoring the tilde and the acute accent, he came out with something like “innerEEtoo”, which sounds more Star-Wars-ish than Basque.

When the director won his award, he was presented as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which is how he has been credited for the past couple of years; before that he used his full name in the Spanish fashion, Alejandro González Iñárritu. But nowadays he is often referred to (for example, in the latest issue of the The New Yorker) even more simply as Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this eventually becomes his credit name; middle initials aren’t all that frequent in Hollywood, and then mainly if the first and last names are rather common (Edward G. Robinson, Michael J. Keaton…).

If that happens, then he wouldn’t be the first Hispanic artist (I mean one from a Hispanic country, not a “Hispanic American”) to drop his very common paternal surname (of the type ending in -z)  in favor of his more uncommon maternal one. Antonio Banderas was originally José Antonio Domínguez Banderas (though he used the shortened form from the beginning of his career). Pablo Ruiz Picasso became Pablo R. Picasso and then Pablo Picasso. (Picasso, incidentally, is an italianized form of the Spanish Picazo, taken on by a maternal ancestor who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples, under Spanish rule at the time.)

The -z names, mostly ending in -ez but occasionally in -az (Díaz) or -iz (Ruiz) are originally patronymics; they are often glossed as “son of” but there is nothing in the form to indicate that, and they have from the beginning been used for daughters as well; for example, the daughter of Rodrigo Díaz El Cid were named Cristina and María Rodríguez. (Note: I am writing these names in the modern Spanish way, with an acute accent on the penultimate syllable; these would not have been there before 1900 or so, and I think it’s anachronistic, for example, to write — in English — the name of the New Mexico senator Dennis Chavez, whose family had been American for many generations, as Chávez.)

The -z ending seems to come from the Goths, who spoke a Germanic language, and in all likelihood represents the -s possessive common to all Germanic languages. These names are therefore equivalent to English surnames like Williams, Davis and Jones, typically native to southern England and Wales, as distinct from the Scandinavian-influenced -son names in northern England and Scotland.

While the -z names are, along with García, among the most common in Hispanic countries, one rarely finds them on the jerseys of soccer players from those countries; one is much more likely to find a given name or a nickname, such as Raúl (González), Alexis (Sánchez), James (Rodríguez), Pedro  (Rodríguez), Chicharito (Javier Hernández). Míchel (Miguel González) and many others.  In Spain, many footballers (like their Brazilian counterparts) like to be known by their nicknames (Isco, Koke, Juanfran) even if their surnames are not of the common type, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Hispanic America.


More on Saudis

February 2, 2016

The English historian Suzannah Lipscomb, in her BBC Documentary Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home, frequently  uses “the Tudors” to mean the people of Tudor England, not just the Welsh family that ruled over them. But the reference is meant to specify the historical period in which they lived, as distinct from English people at other times. I doubt that she would refer to her present-day compatriots as “the Windsors.”

In a like manner, “the Soviets” is often used to mean the people of the Soviet Union and not to the councils (ranging up to the Supreme Soviet) which governed them.

But it is quite common to see and hear the people of “Saudi” Arabia, and not only members of the royal family, called Saudis. Much of the time, when discussion focuses on the effects of the regime on the people, this designation may be justified, although I think “Saudi Arabians” would be better (as would Soviet Russians if the discussion is restricted to Russians). But in general, just as I wrote recently about the name of the country, I think they should be called just Arabians. The other inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemenis, Kuwaitis etc. — have demonyms of their own.

Sicilian terrorism? Islamic mafia?

January 22, 2016

In preparing for an upcoming trip to Sicily, I have been struck by number of places in the island — streets, squares, schools, stadiums even the Palermo airport — that are named for Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who so bravely prosecuted the leaders of the Sicilian Mafia and who were killed in what can be justly called acts of terroristm: Falcone by a motorway explosion, Borsellino by a car bomb.

Once upon a time it was not necessary to modify “Mafia” with “Sicilian.” Mafia-like organizations in other parts of Italy had their own traditional names — Camorra, Ndrangheta — and those in other countries had designations of their own (e.g. “the Mob” in the US, with its specifically Italian-originated segment also known as “la Cosa Nostra”). But these days one hears so much of Russian, Albanian and other “mafias” that it does become necessary to say “Sicilian Mafia.”

But I’ve never heard any objection to this designation as being somehow insulting to the Sicilian people, or to Sicily as a place. It is well known that most of the Mafia’s victims have been Sicilians, including the aforementioned Falcone and Borsellino.

It seems strange, then, that many well-meaning people object to the term “Islamic Terrorism” as insulting to Muslims or to Islam.

In fact, criminal gangs like al-Qaida, Daesh (aka IS, ISIL or ISIS), al-Shobab, the Taliban and Boko Haram — who may at times be in conflict with one another but pursue the same cause — are reminiscent of the various “families” (cosche) that make up the Mafia. They are motivated by (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism in the face of the West and other forms of Islam, similarly to the way the cosche were originally motivated by Sicilian patriotism in the face of the centralized Italian state and those Sicilians who favored it. And in both cases the ideology has served as a cover for the recruitment of criminal-minded young men with predictable results.

So let’s not shrink from calling Islamic terrorism what it is.

(Saudi?) Arabia

January 7, 2016

Saudi Arabia has been in the news a lot lately. And what I hear in oral news reports is, first, a variety of pronunciations of “Saudi” (/sɔːdiː)/, /’sdi:/, /sa’u:di:/) and, second, a certain laziness in giving the kingdom its full name, so that one hears “the Saudis” or just “Saudi”, which is actually an adjective. It reminds me of the time when Madagascar was officially called République Malgache (as a calque of République Française), which was translated into English as “Malagasy Republic” and led American journalists to call the country “Malagasy”.

Why is the name of the ruling dynasty an integral part of the country’s name? Shouldn’t the UK, then, be called the United Windsor Kingdom? Well, dynasties change, don’t they?

Jordan is officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but we don’t call it “Hashemite Jordan”. In fact, the Arabic names of the two Arab kingdoms are exactly parallel: Jordan is Al-Mamlakah al-Urduniyah al-Hashimiyah and Saudi Arabia is Al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah, which is officially translated as “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” but could just as well be “Saudi Kingdom of Arabia”. So why don’t we just call it “Arabia”?

A possible answer may that the kingdom does not occupy the whole land known as the Arabian Peninsula, or simply Arabia. But, as I have written before, the name of a state — especially when preceded by “Republic (or Kingdom or United States or Grand Duchy) of…” — is often the same as that of a larger territory that it’s a part of (a usage known as synecdoche). The Republic of Ireland (which officially often calls itself simply “Ireland”) does not occupy all of the island of Ireland, only a large part thereof (five-sixths), just as Saudi Arabia occupies a large part (two-thirds) of the peninsula. The Republic of Macedonia (pace the Greeks) occupies only a small part of historic Macedonia, and of course the United States of America is a small part of what is geographically known as America, which has been pluralized to “the Americas” in order to differentiate it from “America” as a synonym for the US. (In Dutch, going the other way, de Nederlanden (the Netherlands) was singularized to Nederland when Belgium split off.) There are a good many other examples.

Besides, the Arabian Peninsula is rarely, nowadays, referred to as Arabia, anyway. If necessary, it could also be called “the Arabias”, since in Roman days the peninsula was divided into three regions: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea, and there are many historical references to “the three Arabias”.

So, for myself, I will henceforth refer to what is now the Saudi kingdom (but may in the future be transformed into another, hopefully better, regime) as Arabia. My decision will probably influence people no more than does my calling the Czech Republic simply Czechia, though I’m far from alone in this last regard.