IT'S "Divided By a Common Language Day", apparently. A colleague stuck his head in my office to ask, with a puzzled tone, "Do Americans know the word 'ponce'?" I told him no, I didn't reckon most Americans did, unless they were familiar with the British slang. "Why?" He showed me a news article about Robert Gates, the American secretary of defence, sending the USS Ponce to the coast of Libya. We had a laugh, as I told him I was fairly sure the ship's name has two syllables, and was probably named after Juan Ponce de León, who discovered Florida for Spain and was the first governor of Puerto Rico. (I was almost right; it was named after the Puerto Rican city, which was named after the explorer.)
But as we talked it out, wheels within wheels emerged. I remembered Ponce de León Avenue in Atlanta, where I grew up, and the fact that everyone in town called it simply "Ponce", one syllable, like the British slang. I realised that I don't know what the Ponce's sailors call their ship. If it's one syllable, like Atlanta's avenue, we were back to an American warship with a name that suggests a pretentious or effeminate man in Britain. If it's two syllables, the Americans would have to be careful to call it the PON-say, with the Spanish pronunciation of the second vowel, and resist the urge to Americanise to PON-see. Because they would then be sailing the USS "Poncey". This would also make joint manoeuvres with the Royal Navy tricky, as the latter's sailors would be giggling uncontrollably.
Then I found this, from the Associated Press, saying the ship should be called the Pon-SAY. Well, that avoids the giggling problem, but the Spanish name Ponce definitely doesn't have the stress on the second syllable, so I'm not sure I trust the AP on this one. Finally, I discovered on Urban Dictionary that some of the definitions for "ponce" do seem to be written by Americans, so my snap judgment that the slang wasn't used stateside could be at least partly wrong. What a mess. The naming committees over at the Pentagon need to consider a little googling before breaking that champagne across the bow, and leaving a warship stuck with a name that could confuse at best, and embarrass at worst.
JOHN WELLS offers today a few puns that depend on "non-rhoticity". Most English people and nearly all city-dwellers don't pronounce the r after a vowel, but rather the r lengthens the vowel, one of the most notable differences between typical English and American pronunciation. (Many of the other Anglophone countries, but not Canada, are also non-rhotic.) Take this joke:
What do you call a deer with no eyes? —No idea. What do you call a deer with no legs and no eyes? —Still no idea.
The joke works for most Brits and Australians, of course, but there are a few American dialects in which this joke would work too—because they're hyper-rhotic, and "idea" sounds like "idear".
I myself missed the joke Mr Wells mentions in Shaun the Sheep's name. The name of the cute English clay-mation farm animal is a homophone with "shorn" for most Brits. I missed it completely until I heard my wife (a non-native who learned English English as her first accent) explain it to my son. I didn't let on that I hadn't got it the first time. I guess non-rhotics would say that Americans and Canadians have an r-ful sense of humour.
FOR several decades the New York Times Magazine hosted America's most prominent bit of linguistic punditry: the "On Language" column, written by William Safire for most of those years. When Safire died several years ago, the column was taken up by Ben Zimmer, who took on the serious and the silly in language with wit and verve undergirded by a vast amount of knowledge. This blog has often found reason to rely on him. Now the column is no more; the magazine's new editor axed it, along with several other features. Every new editor has the right to a shake-up, but with no disrespect to those others, though, "On Language" was a long-lived and beloved institution, the only place in American journalism where language was given such prominence. Cutting it was a mistake.
Irate readers have started a Facebook page, and even as I was composing this post ("3 minutes ago", says Facebook), word from the group is that Hugo Lindgren, the magazine's new editor, might be wavering, saying that the column is "on hiatus", not dead. If you're going to miss the column, "like" the Facebook page or write the magazine: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NON-APOLOGIES came up in our discussion the other day when talking about the passive voice. Perhaps Charlie Sheen reads Johnson, then, because he showed exactly how it's done in an interview this week. But to raise the level of difficulty, he used three more tools of the non-apology trade as well, and all in the same brief utterance. Well done, Mr Sheen. This is a masterpiece of the genre.
The story: Mr Sheen repeatedly called Chuck Lorre, the creator of Mr Sheen's show "Two and a Half Men", "Chaim Levine". Mr Lorre is Jewish, and his real last name is indeed Levine. Mr Sheen says that Mr Lorre used the name once himself. This, Mr Sheen felt, gave him license to use it himself again and again. Now he's surprised that people are upset. "Somewhat half-heartedly", says the New York Times, he apologised. Not really.
If they feel upset about something that was misinterpreted, I feel terrible about that.
This isn't a half-hearted apology, but a quadruple non-apology.
1) No "if" clause, Mr Sheen, and especially no "if they feel upset". What you said doesn't mean "I'm sorry", because you're conditioning your contrition on someone else's reaction. Don't do that.
2) No "something that was misinterpreted". This is the agent-free passive that doesn't say who did the misinterpreting. "Some feelings are bruised out there. Who's to blame? Beats me." If you're confused, you're not apologising.
3) But it seems you're not confused about who's to blame. The verb "misinterpret" itself points the finger the people who are upset. This one word ruins an entire apology.
4) And finally, skip "I feel terrible about that." When you offend people, it's not about your feelings. Sure, "I feel terrible" can express contrition, but it's also ambiguous, allowing the possible inference "I feel terrible that I got caught."
The name above has four letters. (Short vowels aren't usually written in Arabic.) The first, "m" is straightforward. The second is the hardest: it's called 'ayn in Arabic, and a "voiced pharyngeal fricative" by linguists. The best nontechnical description I've heard is imagine the sound hip-hoppers make when saying "a'ight'. You can listen to it here. When names including 'ayn are transliterated, the letter often falls between two vowels: there's an 'ayn in Ba'ath, elBarade'i, and Mu'ammar in all the places indicated with an apostrophe.
The third "m" is pretty straightforward too, but it's doubled (there's a little diacritic sometimes written above it). Hence most transliterations give either Muammar or Moammar. And the final "r" is pretty straightforward.
Why the o/u division? English has two completely distinct vowels here. Arabic doesn't. Classical Arabic has just one vowel, roughly between the two. It's the same vowel in "Osama", which is why some people write "Usama", including the American government. Traditional scholarly practice is to write u, not o. Modern dialects vary a bit.
Bonus: what about his son? Saif, Seif, Sayf and Seyf can all be used to transliterate the first part. It means "sword". His real "first name", though, is Saif al-Islam, "sword of Islam". Many western outlets use merely Saif, as I did in the other day's post, but official Economist style is Saif al-Islam for the son.
(Addendum: To master the 'ayn sound, Graeme Wood and William Granara suggest checking out Mick Jagger singing the name "Angie". I hear a pretty good rendition on the third "Angie", for example.)
GEOFF PULLUM really doesn't like people who abjure the passive voice. And when I say he really doesn't like them, I mean that he has devoted post after post after post on the subject, using language that only just stops short of swearing.
He has one solid point. People who are going round giving grammar advice—particularly on the passive voice—had better well know what the passive voice is. The passive does not mean "a sentence that is squirrely about agency", nor does it have anything to do with physical or metaphorical passivity. "I enjoyed the massage" is semantically pretty passive, butit is grammatically active. "The village was destroyed by my tanks" is pretty vigorous, content-wise, but it isgrammatically passive. "We are forming a committee to investigate these regrettable incidents in order to ascertain their cause so as to avoid them in the future" is weaselly corporate-speak, but it is grammatically active. "The moron who screwed this up is going to be fired so fast there'll be nothing but two smoking shoes left on the floor under his desk" is pretty semantically active, but it contains not one but two passive clauses. Anyone to whom this is news should immediately suspend all grammar punditry and sit down with a grammar book first.
But Mr Pullum dislikes people giving ill-informed grammar advice so much that he goes a bit far. He taunts:
it just isn't true that the passive buries or hides responsibility: if you put the by-phrase in, it lays it on the line prominently. If you leave out the by-phrase then the agent doesn't get specified, but that's often exactly the right way to phrase things, and doesn't imply any deviousness or evasiveness... Do government ministers use more passives in statements after policies fail? Do company chairmen use more passives when profits fall? Do team managers use more passives after games they lost? It sits there as an empirical hypothesis on which somebody (you, maybe?) could write a Master's thesis. But as far as I am aware, that thesis remains to be written.
Mr Pullum is right that many people misunderstand the passive. And he's right that passive clauses can be semantically vivid, while active clauses can be woolly and vague. He admits that he doesn't mind if someone uses "avoid passives" as a flexible bit of style advice rather than a badly understood rule of grammar. But he leaves out something he well knows: the passive voice is the commonest way to avoid mentioning the agent in an English sentence. As such, it's a handy tool for non-apologies and other avoidance-phrasings. Those who recommend against it—The Economist's style book among them—are not all fools. Our advice: avoid the passive, except when you shouldn't. That was Orwell's advice, too: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
NO ONE knows how much longer we'll have to write about Libya's dictator, so now seems a good time to take a crack at his name. Why is the man The Economist calls Muammar Qaddafi spelled so many different ways? A simple version of this question is sometimes phrased "Why can't we write it how they say it? There's got to be a best way."
There are a few problems in turning Arabic into Roman letters.
1) Arabic has sounds that aren't easily renderable in Roman letters without diacritics. The h-sound in "Tahrir" I mentioned the other day requires the International Phonetic Alphabet's ħ to distinguish it from English's h-sound, which Arabic also has. But of course most people aren't going to go to the length of finding and using special characters.
2) Arabic has moved a long way in the 14 centuries since the advent of Islam, but the writing system hasn't. Arabs still write with an alphabet suited to the sounds of classical Arabic, but which lacks many of the sounds used in modern dialects (and names).
3) When transliterating, experts like to try to match one Roman letter to each Arabic letter, so we don't have the Qaddafi problem, and so try to agree that q, for example, will always represent the Arabic letter called qaf, even though it sounds nothing like the English q. But, following on from 2 above, this usually means relying on the written form (which doesn't change) rather than the spoken (which can, from region to region or person to person).
If you were a linguist or other expert, with all of the tools of the trade to hand, you'd day something like "The name
can carefully transliterated as al-Qaḏḏāfī, according to its Arabic spelling, but is pronounced by Libyans as al-Gaddāfī."
This is because
- In classical Arabic, the q beginning his name is pronounced like a k-sound made as far back in the throat as possible. But in many dialects including the main Libyan ones, it's pronounced like a g. So the q/g tradeoff is the one between how it's written and how it's said. K, meanwhile, isn't a great option here. It gets neither the Arabic spelling nor the pronunciation quite right. Kh is worse still. It is used to represent an Arabic sound—just not the one in Qaddafi's name.
- the middle consonant isn't hard to say: in Classical Arabic it's just like the th sound in the English there. (Not like the one in third). But in modern Libyan Arabic, that sound has become a d-sound. So dh represents the spelling, d the pronunciation. Those who want to show that it's doubled in Arabic can opt for dd, as we do.
If forced to pick, I'd say Qaddhafi represents the Arabic spelling pretty well, and Gaddafi represents the Libyan pronunciation pretty well. (The "al-" is optional. It's always used in Arabic but frequently left out in English. The Economist's style book recommends leaving it out in most names.) Our "Qaddafi" is a bit of a hybrid, but it's not the worst. Stay away from the k's and kh's, though, in any case. Those sounds do exist in Arabic, but not in the name Qaddafi.
LAMEEN SOUAG at Jabal al-Lughat catches Saif Qaddafi, in a speech to Libyans, announcing his intention to forgo written notes and speak "directly" to the people in dialectal Libyan Arabic. We noted something like this before: Zine el Abedine ben Ali surprised viewers by speaking Tunisian dialect in trying to forge a bond with his compatriots during the protests against his government, but it was too little too late—that was his last speech as president. Hosni Mubarak kept things grave and formal with Modern Standard Arabic in his last speeches, perhaps trying to avoid the whiff of desperation around Mr ben Ali's efforts. That didn't work either. So Saif Qaddafi, the son of Libya's dictator Muammar Qaddafi, has tried Mr ben Ali's tactic, sort of:
Today I will speak with you... without a written paper, or a written speech. (N)or even speak to you in the Classical (fuṣħā) Arabic language. Today I will speak with you in Libyan dialect, and address you directly, as an individual member of this Libyan people. And I will speak extempore. Even the ideas and the points are not prepared in advance. Because this is a speech from the heart and the mind.
As Mr Souag notes, this isn't really dialectal Libyan Arabic. I can read it, and I've never studied Libyan—it's only a few Libyan dialectal bits and pieces mixed into an otherwise Modern Standard Arabic passage. (əlyōm would be more like əlyawm in standard Arabic; natakallam is Libyan for the standard Arabic atakallam, and so on.) I'm not sure how this will work for Mr Qaddafi. Libya's problems are certainly more than linguistic. But it's an interesting effort, at the very least.
ERIC BAKOVIC does a nice job breaking down why some people might say prótesters and others, protésters. But he skips over an interesting little transatlantic dimension.
Some noun-verb pairs have different stress patterns: you recórd a récord, and a pérmit permíts you to do something. So it is with protest: the verb, the original word, is protést, "to object to something". The origin in the OED is given as "orig. and chiefly Scottish law", by the way, with the earliest citation in 1429. The noun, meaning "objection", appears about half a century later.
The OED gives only one stress pattern for the British pronunciation of the verb: protést. But the American pronunciations are given as protést and prótest both. I think Mr Bakovic is right that the second verb is something that you do as a group, often connected to a political grievance. "The lady doth protést too much" versus, at least in many American mouths, "Libyans are prótesting the 42-year-long rule of their dictator." The second, prótest, is probably back-formed from the noun prótest.
On to "protesters". Agentive nouns usually require just adding the -er suffix, so a blogger is someone who blogs. As for stress, it will be added to the verb (and its stress pattern): recórder, not récorder. So I suspect that this mental rule will, therefore, produce protésters for those who have only protést as a verb (and if the OED is right, this groups would be chiefly British). If you have the verb prótest in your vocabulary, meaning "to express a larger grievance, and especially a political or economic one, usually as part of a group", you'll say prótesters. But if you're in this later group, you probably keep two verbs, not one. "The lady doth protést too much" would call to mind Shakespeare. "The lady doth prótest too much" would describe an activist trying to shut down the local community college for offering insufficient vegan options in the cafeteria.
SINCE Johnson mused recently on English in Singapore, I was looking forward to "India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here", a "Letter from India" by Manu Joseph in the New York Times. Unfortunately, it has some nice detail, but is unusually one-sided for the normally cautious newspaper. Yes, English is everywhere in India, near-universal in the upper classes and crucial to getting the best jobs there, after getting higher education in it. So why don't they just be done with it and adopt English as the national language, asks Mr Joseph? He doesn't seem to have been able to find someone who could give a basic answer to that question. The only quoted proponent of non-English is Raj Thackeray, a Mumbai politician "enraged" by the encroachment of English on Marathi in his city (though he sends his son to an English-language school).
Since it goes unanswered in the article, I'll give that question a stab myself, while confessing my utter lack of qualification as an American working on a British newspaper who doesn't speak an Indian language. Indians don't adopt English as a national language, I imagine, because it's not their national language: it's an extraordinarily useful auxiliary language, but it was imported from halfway around the world via centuries of colonialism that are not a beloved memory in India. Because India has many large and proud language communities, and many more small ones that face extinction. Or, put more briefly, because language choice isn't sheer pragmatism. We should abhor language "rage" like that of Mr Thackeray (especially when it comes to beatings; good grief). But the answer to that cannot simply be "oh, get over yourselves and your silly little languages"—especially when those languages are in fact rather large. Marathi has about as many native speakers as German does.
India, fortunately, is more enlightened than most countries. In its idealised form, it has a three-language policy: students learn their regional or state language, Hindi and English over the course of their educations. In practice, though, there are many holes. Hindi-speaking natives are supposed to take another Indian language, but some study Sanskrit, a classical language, to the annoyance of speakers of India's many living languages. And even a three-language policy will leave many languages threatened in hugely multilingual India; K. David Harrison claims discovery of a language unknown to outsiders until just last year. But at least India is trying to take advantage of English while preserving some diversity; the trickiness of that balancing act would have made a better story than condescension to Marathi and the rest.
HOW do you describe a phenomenon that is global in its impacts, yet must be addressed locally? A phenomenon that is difficult, if not impossible, to detect clearly at a single place in time? That's the linguistic challenge that has confronted climate activists for decades. Forget the science and geopolitics of the issue. What name can communicators use to communicate the scope and severity of the challenge at hand?
Over the years, environmentalists have tried several different phrases, with varying degrees of scientific and political usefulness: “global warming”, which conservatives like to use when it’s snowing somewhere; “climate change”, which Frank Luntz, a GOP spin doctor, prefers because it sounds “less frightening than 'global warming’”; “global weirding”, which is what Thomas Freidman supports and therefore possibly to be avoided, and many more. Al Gore gave perhaps the best description of the threat when he called it simply an “inconvenient truth” in his popular documentary by the same title.
The public is now aware of the issue. But the record global temperatures set last year make clear that naming a problem is quite different from solving it. The remaining challenge for “climate hawks”, as some environmentalists have taken to calling themselves, is to convince or confront politicians and businessmen, who still question whether the world has a climate problem. In that pursuit, the Guardian’s Leo Hickman worries that environmental activists have again gotten side-tracked in linguistic debates.
Just what the climate debate doesn't need: a new moniker for those who do not accept the mainstream scientific view of anthropogenic climate change. According to environmental activists planning a day of protests across the US [on February 15th], "climate crank" is set to be the latest name added to the growing list – self-appointed, or otherwise – which already includes sceptic, denier, contrarian, realist, dissenter, flat-earther, misinformer, and confusionist....I'm left wondering whether this new exercise in name-calling will only serve to distract from the important task at hand.
Mr Hickman is right to be wary of yet another label to add to the already crowded climate lexicon, but he underestimates the importance loaded terms can have in American politics.
Look at the nation’s exploding national debt. In an interview with NPR, David Stockman, a member of President Ronald Reagan's fiscal team, blamed the country’s debt woes in part on the success politicians have had in vilifying what were previously two necessary facts of American life: taxes and entitlement reform.
The parties have poisoned those terms, OK? As far back as when I was budget director in the early '80s the Democrats have mounted attack on any effort to look at Social Security, to maybe means test it or reform the program so the cost would grow at a lower rate. And that became the third rail of politics and Republicans have been kind of shuddering in their boots ever since about that.
And then the Republicans turned around and made revenue raising toxic. And have campaigned, you know, from one end of the land to the other on the evil of tax raising, even though anyone with common sense knows that you have to pay your bill sooner or later, and if you're not going to cut spending, which the Republicans have been unwilling to do to date.
One could even argue that this toxic tax taxonomy helped the GOP kill the cap-and-trade bill. They rebranded that market-based approach, first deployed by President George H. W. Bush to reduce acid rain, as a “cap-and-tax scheme”. Due in part to relentless conservative attacks on climate science and economics, Americans who expressed concern about climate change fell from 79 percent, in the days after "An Inconvenient Truth" was released, to 63 percent, when Senate Republicans and conservative Democrats used the cover of the “cap-and-tax” language to defeat the bill.
Environmentalists efforts to fight spin with spin seem to have spun out of control. The Twitter hashtag created to publicize Tuesday’s event, #climatecranks, was used in nearly equal measure by both Mark Hertsgaard, the environmental correspondent for the Nation who coined the phrase and led the action, and an opponent of greenhouse-gas regulations, who co-opted it to heckle him. And America’s “fair and balanced” network was also quick to belittle the activists' efforts. “Global Warming Nuts Try to Ambush Sen. Inhofe...Fail”, jeered the Fox News headline.
Climate activists have the science on their side, but American conservatives are winning the war of words. And as the rhetoric heats up, so too does the planet.
A FRIEND and former colleague just moved to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He e-mails today to say "Some PR data firm announced my move to BWeek this morning, and so far I've gotten THREE different congratulatory emails from three different PR reps named Jessica."
We've discussed PR in-group language before: my dislike of the ubiquitous "reach out", and data showing that every PR firm's client is the unique top leading best leader in solutions. In the "reach out" post I noted that the profession is largely staffed by young women. If we accept that most will be college graduates, we're talking about a pretty narrow slice of America: women born between (say) 1975 and 1985 with college educations, probably clustered in big media markets in the northeast and on the west coast. Names clump around all of these factors—sex, age cohort, socioeconomic class (for which education is a proxy) and geography. Three flacks named Jessica in a single day isn't much more surprising than flipping a coin heads five times in a row; it raises an eyebrow at first, but less so when you think about the maths.
But one thing that Mr Zimmer notes—a contest to make Mr Mubarak's name a verb—is going to be hard in Arabic, and this game may have to be played in English. In English, it's easy to make anything a verb: simply put whatever word you like in verb position. I pwn you, Google Mountweazels Bing, go Cheney yourself, and so forth. Conjugation isn't hard; just add "s" or "ed" where needed.
Arabic has a much more elaborate verb paradigm. As I mentioned yesterday, native Arabic words are built around a three-letter root with a general area of meaning. (ktb="writing", slm="peace", and so on). To make verbs (and other forms), you prefix, suffix and insert various consonants and vowels from well-established patterns. These can be simple (kataba, "he wrote") or complicated (yaktatibouna, "they make a copy"). Arabs can create new three-letter roots from unusual sources; I read the other day of yblisi, "he wounds", in Moroccan Arabic. Can you guess the source? French blesser, from which the Moroccans abstracted a faux-Semitic root, bls, and ran it through the paradigm.
The problem is that you can't abstract a nonce root from Mubarak, because it already has an honored and traditional one: brk, or "blessing". "Mubarak" means "blessed", mubaraka is a congratulation or well-wishing, and so on. You could say "abaarakak, Mubarak!", or "I congratulate you, Mubarak!", and play with the brk root and Mubarak's name in many other ways. But it certainly wouldn't be straightforward to "make Mubarak a verb" in Arabic, because it's already a verb (or, more properly, the passive participle of a verb).
Incidentally, many Egyptians in Tahrir Square don't seem to be getting the White House's increasingly pointed messages telling Mr Mubarak to head for the exit; yesterday on CNN I saw a few more who still seem to think Barack Obama is supporting the dictator 100%. That would make for some puns. As Mr Zimmer wrote several years ago, "Barack" comes from the Swahili "baraka"—blessing, borrowed from the Arabs. Take it away, Egyptian punsters.
Update: See the excellent comments on how Mubarak might after all be made into a productive Arabic root.
UNMERCIFULLY, The Economist works straight through the Chinese New Year. Most of Hong Kong however, including the office tower in which we keep our bureau, closes for a four-day weekend. So for a change of pace, I worked from home, in a decidedly traditional village, 45 minutes from the main business district. As I had learned a year ago, soon after I moved to greater China, this village is a noisy place to spend the New Year—think gongs and firecrackers, day and night—but also festive, friendly and colourful.
And a punny place too? The punniest place I’d ever imagined? What a difference a year of studying Chinese makes. As it turns out, corny visual puns are the order of the day, or the entire first month, of chūnjié, the spring festival. Nearly every bit of decoration, food and gesture seems to be infected in some way with punnery. I had long thought of myself as being tolerant, when it comes to puns anyway. But this particular form, the heterographic homophone, can quickly turn into something like Chinese water torture [sic].
Start with the orange trees, which are everywhere. Really they’re tangerines (or “mandarins”, but let’s set that word aside) which is important. They’re pretty, standing at nearly every door’s threshold and on village corners, short or tall, with straight trunks, waxy green leaves and bursting with bright fruit. I bought one last year, thinking it was in season. I was disappointed at how quickly it died. But I had missed the point. The joke goes like this: tangerines are are 橘, pronounced jú or júzi in Mandarin Chinese. (That accent mark means that the syllable is pronounced with a rising tone.) So it sounds something like jí, which is how you pronounce 吉, which means “good luck”. The sounds are different in Cantonese, the local tongue, but the pun works the same way.
This formula can be applied ad infinitum to explain nearly every visible or edible emblem of this holiday. Chrysanthemums are everywhere and they look fine. That’s not the point. They are 菊花, júhuā. Get it? My secret Santa at the office new year party gave me a pair of embroidered fish ornaments, which would’ve looked cute on a Christmas tree. But their purpose is to be “double fish” or double 魚, shuāngyú, which sounds like 雙餘, which means “double bounty”. This goes on and on.Chinese is brimming with puns in part because it has so few sounds. There are only 400-some syllables in the first place, which can be intoned in four or five ways each, at a maximum. But that understates the potential for mischief. Most special about the Chinese language to the mind of this rank beginner is that every single syllable is susceptible to semantic interpretation. I believe that my colleague, who thinks that the Chinese could abandon their characters in favour of a phonetic writing system, is missing something important here, but I am happy to leave that heady debate to the experts. (See, for example, “Protocols of Designing Pun Rebuses: Revisiting the Triple Interface of Image, Morphology, and Phonology”. I’m on holiday.)
The lion dancers (pictured at the top of this post) sashay to loud musical accompaniment from house to house through the village, stopping to collect lai see, red envelopes with banknotes tucked inside, before devouring a head of romaine lettuce hanging from a bamboo stick. Why romaine? Because that’s , or shēngcài, which sounds something like 生財, which means “making money”.
Speaking of wealth there’s a character that shows up everywhere, year round, but especially this week. It’s 福, pronounced fú, meaning “wealth” or “good fortune”. But now I’m seeing it turned upside down. There’s a ramshackle gambling den on my street whose fú sign has always hung upside down; I thought it had slipped. But they’re just playing with 福. Fúdàole, or 福倒了, means literally “fortune upside down”. It also happens to sound just like 福到達, or “fortune has arrived.” (Perversely, the gambling den has righted its sign, just this week, but I guess the same pun works in reverse.) Golden images of bats adorn older doorframes. These could be called 金蝠, jīnfú, which sounds like “golden fortune”, though my Beijinger tutor denies it.
No one offered me a dish of golden fried bat, and I have nothing against romaine lettuce, but it was at the special holiday menu that I had my fill of this wordplay. My local noodle shop had a special sheet of expensive New Year’s delicacies to choose from, this week only. A couple of them were even good, but most were perplexing: lots of leafy greens, because “-vegetable” is always going to sound like “-money”, but also the 髮菜, a moss that grows on grassroots and is not very edible at all but does sound like “make money”, and oyster fermented in soya, not for flavour’s sake but so that it can be háochĭ, which sounds like characters that mean “well being”. There must have been 30 items on this menu, and only by dint of the crap shoot were any worth eating. (Local friends warned me.)
The pomelo is a good-luck fruit, year round, and if that’s because of a pun I don’t want to know it. I was not displeased to learn that recent efforts to cross-breed the pomelo with the tangerine—so as to make a “big 橘”, dàjú, or “big luck”—have resulted in such a tough and bland fruit that vendors don’t bother selling it. Not even for New Year’s.
Many years ago, when I studied Arabic intensively at the American University in Cairo, I was bewildered initially because for the first couple of months I learned only the past tense. That’s the basic tense in Arabic, and so in any Arabic conversation I was locked into the past.The Obama administration seems equally caught in the past, in ways that undermine the secular pro-Western forces that are Egypt’s best hope. I hope the White House learns the future tense.
Mr Kristof seems to have had a rather bad Arabic teacher. It's true that that the shortest form of an Arabic verb is the third-person male past tense. The three-letter root k-t-b, with its general meaning of "writing", has the simplest verb form kataba, "he wrote." So verbs are typically listed in this form in the dictionary. Since short vowels in Arabic aren't written, this means that the dictionary entry would just be ktb.
As it happens I was reading about the Arabic grammatical tradition yesterday. Traditional Arabic analysis is unsurprisingly different from traditional western grammar (typically based on Greek and Latin), and even more different from modern syntax, post-Chomsky. It wouldn't surprise me if Mr Kristof's teacher hadn't learned that since kataba ("he wrote") is the shortest form, it was the atomic or ur-form, and that the past was therefore "the basic tense", an analysis that wouldn't make it through a graduate seminar in western linguistics. The fact that Mr Kristof's teacher dwelt on the past "for the first couple months" is worse.
But I'd chalk this up to a holdover of traditional, slightly misguided Arabic grammatical analysis. (And the analysis of English in centuries past has gifted us, too, a few mistaken beliefs we've yet to shake off, a post for another day.) I wouldn't take even the humorously rhetorical step of saying "the Obama administration seems equally caught in the past" based on this little anecdote of Mr Kristof's dud Arabic teacher. As it happens, we agree with Mr Kristof on Egypt. But sometimes grammar is just grammar and a mistake is just a mistake.
INDIA has very old links with the Arab world, and with Persia. For hundreds of years starting in the 11th century, large parts of northern India were ruled by dynasties with roots in that part of the world; the language of the Mughal court was Persian, and so on. This is all well-known, as is the existence of many loan-words from Farsi, Arabic and Turkish in Hindi/Urdu, the lingua franca of much of northern India and Pakistan.
But as a Hindi-speaker, even though you know, in theory, that Hindi is full of words borrowed from Arabic and Farsi, you don’t always know which words they are; and you tend not to think of a word’s provenance when you use it. There are words I was aware of, like kanun (law, from the Arabic qanuun, itself borrowed from the Greco-Latin "canon"), siyasai or siyasat (politics), akhbar (newspaper; in Arabic, it means "news"); jumuriyat ("democracy" in Urdu; in Arabic, a jumhuriya is a republic and the jumhur is the citizenry or polis); but these are "big" words, which I knew were borrowed in much the same way that an English-speaker knows that big words like "democracy" and "republic" are Greek or Latin in origin.
So it is still always a jolt to suddenly hear a word you recognise from everyday speech in the middle of a speech or monologue in a language you otherwise don’t understand at all. Lately, I’ve been having this feeling as I watch coverage of the protests in Egypt. I’ve never thought about the etymology of the Hindi word bas (pronounced, roughly, like “bus”), which means something like “that’s all”, or “enough”. I do, however, hear a lot of protestors using it in exactly the same way. It’s intriguing to think that this, one of the most common words of everyday Hindi, might have come to us from Arab traders, soldiers or conquerors nearly a millennium ago. It seems likely; I cannot think of a Sanskrit root.
My favourite discovery so far involves the two main agricultural seasons in South Asia; these are known as the Kharif (post-monsoon sowing, autumn harvest) and Rabi (winter sowing, spring harvest). These terms are constantly used in discussions about agriculture and the economy. Yet somehow, I had never asked myself their origin. Looking for the meaning of another word, I stumbled across a basic Arabic vocabulary list. And that is where I discovered that the Arabic words for autumn and spring are khareef and rabee’, respectively. Which, of course, makes perfect sense, now that I know.
It happens the other way around too. I was once with a Palestinian friend who had recently arrived in Delhi. At one point, in the middle of a characteristically heated exchange with an auto-rickshaw driver over the condition of his meter, she turned to me and said “Is he speaking Arabic half the time? I feel like I understand every fifth word.”
BEN SCHOTT's blog flags the NYT "Bits" blog's story about "Hiybbprqag": one of a number of nonsense search queries Google created to see if Microsoft's search engine, Bing, was copying Google's results. Sure enough, says Google, search for "Hiybbprqag" in Bing and you get the same results Google planted in its own systems. Microsoft furiously denies that Bing copies Google.
"Hiybbprqag" is, in fact, one of my favourite things, another word delightful in concept and even more so to say: a Mountweazel. The New Yorker explains:
Turn to page 1,850 of the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia and you’ll find an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled “Flags Up!” Mountweazel, the encyclopedia indicates, was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die “at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”If Mountweazel is not a household name, even in fountain-designing or mailbox-photography circles, that is because she never existed. “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of the volume’s editors, said the other day. “If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”
Mapmakers do it too, with "trap streets", false streets designed to catch other mapmakers copying. But "trap street" is no fun, and "Hiybbprqag" is, sadly, unpronounceable. I hope people use and encourage the excellent "Mountweazel" as the general term for this kind of trick.
AN ANGLICISME is one of the most egregious sins a child at a French school can commit: language is butchered in translation. The English spoken here in Brussels is replete with evidence to that effect. Eurocrats speak of “acquiring via distance communication”, having a “common orientation”, and writing a “non-paper”. But translation can also be enriching: look no further than Sweglish.
When Swedes hope for good luck, they don’t cross their fingers, they hold their thumbs. It’s more solid and therefore more effective. If a Swede wants you to hurry up he might suggest you stop snailing around. And a Swede who is round under his feet is drunk (and therefore having difficulty walking).
The French tendency to use the word “commission” when they mean “committee” is a horn in the side (Sweglish for “annoying”) for many Anglophone eurocrats. But I’m holding my thumbs that English-speakers everywhere stop snailing around and adopt these particularly exquisite Swedish expressions as their own. The Swedish version of “to kill two birds with one stone” is “to kill two flies with one swat”. Indeed, this does seem eminently more sensible. “I mean,” to quote my Swedish friend, “why would you kill two birds with a stone?”
I'VE JUST heard David Kirkpatrick, in a short video from the New York Times, describe the central locus of the Egyptian protest movement: "Tarir Square", or something like that. This isn't to fault Mr Kirkpatrick, because he's obeying the rules of English phonology. English has an h sound, of course, and you say it when you say "horse" or "Hosni". But one rule of English phonology—virtually every English speaker knows this, but very few know they know it—is that an [h] can't come at the end of a syllable. We have words like ah and oh, of course, but they're pronounced [a:] and [o:].
Arabic has a different set of phonological constraints (no letter "p", for example, which is why the borrowed word parliament comes out barlaman). But Arabs can end a syllable in one of two different h-like sounds, one pronounced far back in the throat (a pharyngeal, in the lingo), sounding raspy to an English-speaker. One handy description I've heard of this sound is "imagine blowing a candle out with your throat." This is distinct from another h-sound much like English's, and also distinct from a third, more truly fricative sound, usually translated kh, like the last sound in Bach. Got it?
That first h-sound is the one in names like Ahmed. Since we don't have that sound, English-speakers often approximate it with the Bach sound, and people who can't do that will then fill in a k-sound, which is a neighbor to [kh]. This is why you can hear some English-speakers refer to an Ahmed as "Akhmed" or even "Akmed".
The other option is to leave the h-sound out entirely, and that's what some people do with "Aamed". It's also what Mr Kirkpatrick did by saying "Tarir" for "Tahrir"—it's just too weird for most English-speakers to say the [h] at the end of a syllable. If you're unafraid of looking a bit like those journalists who try too hard to sound authentic, try it, and free yourself from your phonetic constraints in the name of Tahrir—"liberation".
HERE'S something I hadn't known: first, that some people consider the use of anyways to mark an ill-educated boob (I'd have just thought it casual). Second, according to Gabe at Motivated Grammar, that anyways is an "adverbial genitive", and so in this form is grammatically equivalent to sometimes and always. I'd never thought about how that s got there, but now I see that that genitive s is just a grammatical sibling of the possessive 's in Mary's house. Why did always become mandatory, sometimes become two-way ("sometime" for the adjective, as in "a sometime grammar pundit", and "sometimes" for the adverb, as in "I pontificate on grammar sometimes"), and anyway become a prescriptivist shibboleth? Gabe doesn't know, and I don't either, but there are the facts. The linguistic fact is that there's nothing wrong with anyways, but the sociological suggestion is that you should use anyways only in the company of people who already know you aren't an ill-educated boob.
iyad_elbaghdadi Joke of the day: Egypt state TV says that "demonstrators are shouting slogans in English and Hebrew". #Egypt #Jan25 #Tahrir #Spin
Really? Stranded Israeli tourists joining the protests? Egyptian government provocateurs trying to undermine the demonstrations? Neither, it emerges. An al-Jazeera journalist, Gregg Carlstrom, had taken this picture of a young Egyptian protester, of which he tweeted:
glcarlstrom One guy in Tahrir had a "get out Mubarak" sign in Hebrew. "A message for Netanyahu," he said.
It's actually Arabic, "azouk Mubarak", written in Hebrew characters. Now that's what I call killing two birds with one stone.
(Note: commenters are right. I misread it. It is Hebrew, and it says azov Mubarak - "leave, Mubarak".)
MY COLLEAGUE Babbage grapples with some truly enormous numbers in a recent post about changes to the Internet's addressing system, which is running short of unique identifiers to assign to the billions of devices that are now connected. The new system expands the list of possible internet addresses enormously, to 2128 (or about 1038 in slightly more familiar notation). Adjectives are utterly inadequate for conveying the scale of this number, but Babbage has a go nevertheless:
Two raised to the 128th power is an astronomical number. In decimal terms, it is roughly 340 billion billion billion billion—or, as Martin Levy of Hurricane Electric likes to say, “more than four quadrillion addresses for every star in the observable universe.”
Astronomy has long been humanity's go-to subject when it comes to contemplating the truly enormous. But actually, if 2128 is so much more vast than the number of stars in the observable universe (1015 times more vast*, or 4,000,000,000,000,000 in long-hand notation), then even the name "astronomical" is rather inadequate.
This brings to mind a quote from the famous physicist Richard Feynman, referring to the prevalence of big numbers in economics:
There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.
It's a good point, and economics can provide some slightly more familiar analogies to people grappling with large numbers than trying to contemplate entire galaxies. The internet's present address system, for instance, is good for about 4.3 billion unique addresses. That's a difficult number to wrap your head around, but some idea of its scale can be achieved when you realise that, if you converted internet addresses into dollars, there would less than a buck each for every person on the planet, and the United States government would spend the whole lot in about ten and a half hours.
Sadly, even economics shrinks into insignificance when faced with a number on the scale of 2128.The economic fortunes of planet Earth are measured in the mere trillions (ie 1012), an almost invisibly tiny speck next to the virtually endless quantities of internet addresses soon to become available. But while Mr Feynman's chosen alternative to astronomy might not be up to the task, he is right that we could use some better analogies. Does anyone have any ideas?
*I'm aware that in those countries that still use the "long scale", a "quadrillion" refers to 1024. But as our style guide reminds us, The Economist is a short-scale newspaper.
HOSNI MUBARAK has given a strangely defiant speech in which he asserted that Egypt's uprising would not have happened if he hadn't given the people so much freedom of expression, among other things. On a rhetorical level, I think I'd caution him against blaming too much freedom right about now.
But this being the language blog, I noticed something slightly more technical: Mr Mubarak avoided Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia's gambit of giving his speech in dialectal Arabic. (It should be noted briefly that nobody speaks the modern standard Arabic as a native language. Each region has a distinct dialect, really a modern language descended from Arabic roughly like Spanish from Latin. But the modern standard is still almost always the choice for formal occasions like political speeches.) That was the first time Mr ben Ali had done so. He was clearly reaching for a Tunisian nationalism and fellow-feeling in speaking like the people do in their homes and on the streets. It failed.
Mr Mubarak, by contrast, went for a gravelly and grave speech in modern standard Arabic. (Dubbed into English here, and in Arabic here.) His predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser was known for using Egyptian colloquial in speeches, but Mr Mubarak was having none of it last night. Perhaps he felt like Mr Ben Ali's last move looked desperate. In any case, we'll remain glued to this fascinating and fast-moving story.
THOUGH it is not uncommon to find a small country with more than one official language, Singapore is still an unusual case. Among four official languages, Malay is the symbolic national language, English the working language, and Mandarin the language representing the island’s ethnic Chinese, even though it is not the "mother tongue" for most. Clear?
Add Tamil as the fourth official language, a range of Chinese languages and ‘Singlish’, the distinctive creole that blends elements of official languages along with a number of other tongues, and you have the recipe for a tasty linguistic soup. All the more interesting for existing in a country of fewer than 5m people once derided by a Taiwanese deputy foreign minister as "only as big as a piece of snot".
As with many things Singaporean, language is an area that has been subject to tight government control. At the recent launch of his latest book, "Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going", Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and now "minister mentor", outlined how English, then a minority language, came to be the city-state’s working tongue:
We decided to opt for English as a common language and it was the only decision which could have held Singapore together. If we had Chinese as a common language, national language, we would have split this country wide apart, and we would be foolish to have Malay or Tamil.
Mr Lee argues that placing language policy at the centre of nation-building—demanding that English was to be learnt by all students, along with their “mother tongue”—was, and remains, central to the Singapore’s survival. In the bland modernity of today’s Singapore, it is easy to forget that its independence was preceded by violent race riots, and that the choice of a neutral language as a common tongue was needed for a new state with pronounced divisions and few natural advantages other than its location.
But a corollary of this thrust for unity and economic benefit was that the government targeted Singlish and Chinese languages, like Hokkien and Teochow. These were considered to interfere with learning Mandarin and Standard English, and their use in the media was consequently heavily restricted. As a result, while Singlish, Hokkien and others may continue to be used in informal or family settings, or in the popular podcasts by mrbrown—and may even be used by officials or in government campaigns—their usage has fallen. One in five Chinese Singaporeans now speak non-Mandarin Chinese at home, compared with almost 80% 30 years ago. With English and Mandarin shaping up as the dominant tongues of the 21st-century, Singapore’s language policy may be proven right, but could still cost it one of the richest parts of its identity.
WHAT has happened to the language of diplomacy? It is reported in London that William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, has been shocked by the poor spelling and jargon-infested English he finds in notes from his diplomats. Conservative commentators, such as Charles Moore of the Spectator, detect a broader slippage of good manners and education across the civil service. That may be so—Mr Moore, an unusually polite man by the standards of his trade—is shocked to learn that Labour ministers rarely sent letters of thanks after official visits, leaving younger civil servants at a loss when asked to draft such notes for their new, Conservative bosses.
Friends of mine inside the Foreign Office concur with this gloomy assessment of their youngest colleagues, who—though bright and often expensively educated—struggle to write English with clarity, let alone flair.
I wonder if blaming the juniors is entirely fair. My experience is that even rather grand figures in the world of foreign policy have been steeped in jargon and human resources gibberish for ages. I was recently at a private meeting for diplomats and foreign policy types (I had better not say where). It was a festival of what one ambassador I know calls "bullshit bingo", with certain buzzwords coming up again and again.
The worst? "Going forward" has infected the world of diplomacy just as thoroughly as the world of business, as has talk of "stakeholders". I am alarmed at the rise and rise of "piece", as in "when it comes to the trans-Atlantic relationship, we need to focus on the energy piece, and not just the strategic piece." For that matter, "strategic" now seems to mean little more than "important". I am told that "granular" is increasingly popular, and means the opposite of "big picture".
I have yet to recover, though, from a comment made about a recent international summit. It was, we were told, marked by few "benchmarkable deliverables."
In this blog, named after the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, our correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world