Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Kanté / Conte

February 3, 2017

I don’t remember which soccer commentator it was who said, some time last summer — after Leicester City surprisingly won the Premier League championship while Chelsea, the previous year’s winner, finished in 10th place — that Leicester’s most valuable player was not the high-scoring Jamie Vardy (24 goals) or Riyad Mahrez (17 goals), but the newly signed N’Golo Kanté, with only one goal scored.  It was his tackles and interceptions that impressed observers.

And look what’s happening this season: Kanté is now playing for Chelsea, in first place by a large (perhaps insurmountable) margin, with Leicester currently wallowing in 16th. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Except that the addition of Kanté isn’t the only big change for Chelsea. There is also his near-namesake (in English pronunciation) Antonio Conte, replacing as coach the controversial José Mourinho, about whom I wrote here and here, and who is now managing Manchester United with less-than-brilliant results.





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

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Second to Italy

November 9, 2016

A few days ago, in an article in Salon, I came across an interesting bit of information.

In a study measuring the level of political knowledge among citizens of Western countries, the United States came in second to last. The last one was Italy.

So it’s only fitting that Italy was ahead of the US in choosing as its leader a corrupt, narcissistic, lecherous real-estate developer and entertainer.

It’s likely that Trump’s administration will follow the example of Berlusconi’s in many ways: policies that will help enrich himself even further; good relations with the likes of Putin, Erdoğan and Netanyahu; and so on.

Incidentally an explanation of why Trump won despite most polls showing him as losing may be the Johnson factor. Those same polls gave Gary Johnson, on the average,  about 6% of potential votes, but when the choice was narrowed to Clinton vs. Trump, these votes seemed to split evenly between the two candidates. But in reality it seems that of those voters who told pollsters that they would vote for Johnson, the Trump half ended up voting for Trump, while the Clinton half stayed with Johnson.


September 7, 2016

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Of course, he introduced the dictum with “it has been said that” (though no other written source for it has ever been found), and he prefaced it by saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.”

Still, the basic sentiment is one that I have felt all my life. But now I’m beginning to wonder.

It seems as if democracies — at least the large ones — have stopped functioning. Consider:

  • Brazil: a notoriously corrupt Congress has removed from office, on the flimsiest grounds, a legally elected President.
  • Britain: a poorly planned referendum has led to a reckless vote for Brexit, creating havoc in the country and around the world.
  • France: local councils have passed stupid laws regulating beachwear.
  • Spain: two elections have produced a Congress incapable of forming a government, and now new elections are scheduled with the same parties.
  • USA: the candidacy of Donald Trump is beginning to look serious.

Countries that are democracies on paper but have become de facto dictatorships (India, Russia, Turkey) are another matter.

There is another quote about democracy, falsely attributed to Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The problem, then, is not with democracy per se but with the “average voter,” who may be prone to vote based on some emotion (fear, pride, hatred) that may have nothing to do with the actual issues. The only remedy I can think of for this kind of voting is education in critical thinking. And of course that’s the last thing that the political and economic elites want for the people. Just think, people might think critically when listening to advertising! Heaven forbid!

Annals of respelling

September 1, 2016

Some seven months ago, Salon published a piece by someone named D. Watkins, titled “No, white people, you still can’t say the N-word: That word belongs to black people and our culture now — not yours.” For some reason Salon continues to carry the link to this piece in its Voices column, in which most of the others are only a few days old.

I never read the piece. I was quite put off by the idea inherent in the title — the notion that a word can “belong” to a particular group of people. What it implies that white kids studying Latin must not say aloud the masculine singular of the word for ‘black’.

For that is (as I have already written) exactly what niger is. From about the 16th century on it was used by English-speakers, alongside the Spanish-Portuguese negro, to designate a dark-skinned person from Africa south of the Sahara. As long as literate people were expected to know some Latin, they would know that the was to be pronounced as short. But at some point in the 18th century schools attended by the practical-minded middle and working classes stopped teaching Latin, and so the word began to respelled with an added g so that it would be pronounced correctly, to rhyme with bigger and not with tiger (at least in English — it seems to have been different in Scots). It’s the respelled version that has morphed into “the N-word”; but D. Watkins refers to saying it, not writing it.

It makes me think of other cases of respelling for the sake of conformity with pronunciation, eventually leading to a new word.

The first Jews who settled in medieval Venice came from Germany, and the district where they settled was near a foundry, getto in Italian (pronounced with a “soft g”), which gave the area its name. But the Jews pronounced the word the German way, with a “hard g”, and this pronunciation eventually took over as the district’s name, so that the Italians obligingly added an h to indicate the new pronunciation. Ghetto thus became a new word, meaning ‘Jewish district’, and spread to other places in Italy, having lost its association with the foundry.

Another Italian word is casino, meaning ‘brothel’ (it has a few figurative meanings as well). But because gambling was one of the activities that went on in brothels, the French borrowed the word to mean primarily a gambling establishment, and this meaning has become universal. The French, of course, stress the word on the last syllable, and so the Italians borrowed it back with the French pronunciation, and spell it casinò.

The respelling of proper names is a much broader field, and I will stick to one case. The surname Picasso was originally Picazo, fairly common in Spain. But one of the artist’s maternal ancestors served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by Spanish monarchs) and respelled his name to make it easier for his Italian comrades to pronounce. Oddly, he kept the Italianized spelling when he returned to Málaga.

Disappointments II

August 15, 2016

I few months ago I published a post in which recounted some political disappointments I’ve experienced in the past. I now have some current ones to report.

I am disappointed in Donald Trump. In the course of his controversy with the family of Captain Khan, he might have said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero ‘cause he was killed. I like people who weren’t killed.” But he didn’t say it.

More, seriously, I am also disappointed that so many on the Democratic left have expressed misgivings, if not worse, about Hillary Clinton on the sole basis of her mixed record as a Washington insider. I wish they would think back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was chosen by John F. Kennedy to be his Vice President precisely because he was the ultimate Washington insider, against the opposition of supposedly liberal groups such as labor unions. But when LBJ became President, he turned out to be the most progressive one this country has ever had. So, as I’ve written before: Give Hillary a chance.

I could add that I’m disappointed with the Rio Olympics, at least with their coverage by NBC, except that I really am not; it’s pretty much what I had expected.


July 26, 2016

I seem to have appointed myself as a linguistic critic of English-language novels, an activity that I have decided to call ling-crit.

It started with a discussion of what I called yanking, the Americanization of the vocabulary of British mystery novelists. It went on to pointing out inadvertent Americanisms in the set-in-Britain novels of Elizabeth George (which in general are meant to use British vocabulary and spelling). From there it went to examining the peculiar difficulties that English-language writers have with rendering Hispanic culture (the Spanish language itself, naming customs, and so on) realistically, starting (once again) with Elizabeth George and going on to others.

I have just read James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The House of the Rising Sun. Its main character is named Hackberry Holland, but, though Wikipedia lists the book in the Hackberry Holland series, he doesn’t seem to be the same character as in the other books in the series, but perhaps his grandfather or great-grandfather. This book’s action takes place between 1891 and around 1920, and Hackberry is not a young man even then.

There is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue, the action taking place mostly in Texas and Mexico, and all in all the Spanish is not bad; either Burke knows Spanish or a competent editor’s hand was involved.

What did strike me is the surprising number of linguistic anachronisms in English, surprising for a writer who is almost my age and who has taught creative writing. Here is a sampling:

  • A house in Mexico, observed in 1916, is called Victorian. Even an American observing such a house wouldn’t call it that at the time. According to Google Ngrams, “Victorian house” doesn’t show any use before 1927.
  • In 1916 there is a reference to Gauguin. The chances of a lifelong Texan being acquainted with the artist at the time are infinitesimal.
  • In 1891 we find normalcy. As is well known, the word was not used in American English until Warren Harding did so in 1920.
  • There is a reference to flak in 1915, a word that was coined (in German) in the 1930s.
  • Sometime around 1920 we find Malaysian, which of course should have been Malayan; Malaysia did not exist before 1963.

What has happened to the art — if it ever was there — of copy-editing?