Archives for October 2002


I just got back from a performance [NY Times review here] of Antigone by the National Theater of Greece, and a revelatory experience it was. Not revelatory of Sophocles, who barely survived the transmogrification, but of the impassable gap between ancient theater and the modern world. You may think I should have realized this before now, and I may agree with you, but it took the experience of hearing the play in Modern Greek to bring it home to me. Somehow, when I excitedly reserved my ticket a couple of months ago, I had been thinking of it as parallel to seeing the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow do The Cherry Orchard (which pleasure I had last year). As soon as Antigone came onstage and began to speak, I realized my mistake. In place of Sophocles’s somber and unforgettable “O koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara” (OH KOInon AUtaDELphon IZ-MEH-NEHS kaRA), there came the brisk and unmistakably modern “Ismini mou!” This literally means “my Ismene” and is the functional equivalent of simply saying “Ismene!” (in an affectionate sort of way). Now, there’s no way to translate Sophocles’s line into any modern language and have it sound anything but silly: “O common self-sibling head of Ismene!” (Calling someone “head of X” rather than simply “X” is not uncommon in Greek theater; A.E. Housman incorporated it and many similar tropes into his hilarious Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.) Even interpreting it a bit more generously as “Ismene, my full sister, sharer of my (blood, life, what have you)” it’s hard to make it work as an address from one living character to another. But to go the “Hey, Ismene!” route is to lose everything that makes Sophocles Sophocles. It’s as if you were to stage Shakespeare in a modern version which turned “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” into “Damn!” Part of it is the loss of the ancient world, with its blood-pollution, sacrifices, and god-infused thinking; part of it is the loss of poetic theater as a viable genre (comparatively speaking, it’s a piece of cake to translate epic successfully). But what I want to stress here is that there’s no more point seeing Sophocles done in Modern Greek than in English or Japanese; the connection is purely historical—and if you expect more, you will be disappointed.
Unless, of course, you are Greek, in which case you will not realize there is a difference. One thing that astonishes me about modern Greek culture is its insistence on its alleged continuity with Ancient Greece, and part of that is an absurd belief that Ancient Greek was pronounced the same as the modern language—that Sophocles would, like his many-generations-removed descendents, have pronounced Antigone “Andighóni.” I once thought only uneducated people believed this, but then I read an essay by Seferis, one of the most cultured men of the twentieth century, in which he furiously attacked foreigners who pretended that the ancient Greeks used some sort of strange pronunciation, made up out of whole cloth, rather than the authentic speech of the Greeks! I sadly reflected on the ineluctable pigheadedness and vanity of human nature and closed the book with a superior snap.
Addendum: This subject reminds me of the time I was living in New Haven and the Yale classics department put on Euripides’ The Bacchae. I had friends in classics, and as a result I wound up playing the god Dionysos, a most enjoyable experience—I made my own thyrsos and everything. As it happened, one of the women in the cast was about to go to Greece to study, had been learning Modern Greek, and didn’t want to screw up her Sprachgefühl by using ancient pronunciation, so she insisted on reading her part as if it were Modern Greek (which is the way modern Greeks do it). I, in an amazing feat of linguistic prestidigitation, spoke most of the part the ancient way but used modern pronunciation in my dialog with her. And I thumped my thyrsos thwackingly on the ground. A good time was had by all.


In a recent discussion on MetaFilter, someone referred to “the hoi polloi” and someone else (inevitably) said that this was redundant because “hoi means ‘the’.” This whole thing irritates me so much I can’t resist hashing it out here. The basic principle: To speak English correctly, you don’t need to know any other languages. Isn’t that obvious? The problem with “hoi polloi” used to be that everybody who counted had a classical education and thus had Greek drilled into them so thoroughly that “the hoi” sounded redundant to them; Fowler was so upset by this that (although he was generally sensible on the subject of loan words) he recommended that the phrase be eschewed altogether! These days nobody knows Greek, but thanks to Fowler and his epigones everybody “knows” that “the hoi polloi” is wrong, so the anathema gets passed down from generation to generation.
All right, let’s take it a step farther. “Al” in Arabic means ‘the,’ so “the Alhambra” is redundant (‘the the red’) and should be eschewed. Not silly enough for you? How about this: “the Paraguay River” etymologically means ‘the river river river’! That’s right, para means ‘river’ and so does guay. The same is true of “the Yenisei River”; Evenki (y)ene means ‘big river’ and ses means ‘river.’ We are led to the conclusion that either 1) everyone must learn all other languages before daring to speak their own, or 2) “the hoi polloi” is perfectly good English, being the standard usage ever since it was first borrowed. “Hoi polloi” is treated in English as an unanalyzable compound, and that is as it should be.


I’m reading Geert Mak’s Amsterdam (which has nice detailed maps of the city as it was c. 1300, 1575, 1650, and 1980—there’s nothing I like better than a good historical city map), and I ran across the following passage (on p. 78):

For a good deal of the fifteenth century the rest of the Low Countries was plagued by a curious civil war, or rather a war between rival nobles and their adherents, the so-called “Hook and Cod Wars”. Amsterdam tried—successfully, as it turned out—not to get involved in this dispute by simply forbidding its citizens to talk about it. By an order of 26 December 1481, it was officially forbidden for anyone to say: “Thou art a hook” or “Thou art a cod”.

The war itself is curious enough (those interested in finding out more about it can do so here; you can either scroll down to 1349 or do a Find search on “cods”), but the fact that Amsterdam stayed out of it by forbidding people to talk about it is quite amazing. You won’t find a bigger believer in free speech than languagehat, but… it gives to think, as the ponderously facetious used to say.


A wonderful translation of bland American English executive-speak into more… colorful Brazilian Portuguese (courtesy, of course, of Merm).


The recent obituaries for Allen Walker Read focused on his claims for the etymology of “O.K.” as an acronym for “Old Kinderhook” [or “oll korrect”]; he promoted these claims so assiduously that they have made their way into most dictionaries. But an article by Jim Fay conclusively (in my view) demolishes that etymology, proposing to return to the formerly accepted derivation from Choctaw oke(h), hoke(h). While Fay presses his evidence a bit (“…people of the 1800’s who were interested in the frontier undoubtedly knew of “Yak oke” as a very simple, useful and expressive phrase. The fact that they seldom, if ever, wrote the expression or used it in formal discourse does not mean they did not use it”), he is convincing enough that I have corrected my dictionary accordingly. I have also lost some respect for Read, who seems to have acted in an overbearing way without much regard for truth in this matter. [Via a MetaFilter comment (his first!) by TreeHugger, who has a blog rapid motion; thanks, Jordan!]

[Read more…]


Avva has discovered a request for assistance at the website of the University of Otago (N.Z.) library: they have a number of items they haven’t been able to identify, and have put images on the internet in hopes that others could do better. Of the sixteen items, ten are listed as having been solved (and the solutions are given); the remainder (numbers 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, and 16) are still awaiting identification. It’s not as much fun as it could have been, since the scripts are known (Perso-Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Byzantine Greek)—I had my Languages Identification Guide poised and ready to seek out obscure Southeast Asian alphabets or Native American syllabaries—but anyone who knows Urdu, Arabic, Amharic/Ge’ez, Byzantine Greek, or (perhaps) Coptic should see if they can decipher one or more of them; Otago’s Special Collections Cataloger, Margaret Tripp (her e-mail is at the site), will be eternally grateful to hear from you! (The Armenian page, #10, has already been deciphered by one of Avva’s readers, dodo, and the translation, more or less ‘items of Christian spiritual wisdom for each day of the year,’ has been sent on to Ms. Tripp.)


Read Dutton’s joyous letter.


I’ve just gotten around to reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Trieste in the Sept. 26 NYRB, and there’s an interesting passage on his use of language I thought I’d share here.

Svevo’s home language was Triestine, a variant of the Venetian dialect. To be a writer he needed to master literary Italian, which is based on the Tuscan dialect. He never achieved this mastery. Furthermore, he had little feel for the aesthetic qualities of language and in particular no ear for poetry: to his friend the young poet Eugenio Montale he remarked that it seemed a pity to use only part of the paper when you had paid for the whole of it. P.N. Furbank, one of Svevo’s better translators, labels his prose “a kind of ‘business’ Italian, almost an esperanto—a bastard and graceless language totally without poetry or resonance.” When it first came out, Una vita was criticized for its grammatical errors, for its unwitting dialectal usages, and for the general poverty of its prose….
To a degree the controversy about Svevo’s command of Italian can be ignored as an affair among Italians, irrelevant to outsiders who read Svevo only in translation. For the translator, however, Svevo’s Italian raises a substantial question of principle. Should its defects, which run the gamut from wrong prepositions to archaic or bookish turns of phrase to a general laboredness of style, be reproduced or silently improved? Or, to put the question in converse form, how, without writing a deliberately clotted prose, does the translator get across what Montale called the sclerosis of Svevo’s world, seeping up from his very language?
Svevo was not unaware of the problem. His advice to the German translator of Zeno was to translate his Italian into grammatically correct German but not to beautify or improve it.
Svevo disparaged Triestine as a dialettaccio, a petty dialect, or a linguetta, a sub-language, but he was not being sincere. Much more from the heart is Zeno’s lament that outsiders “don’t know what it entails for those of us who speak dialect [il dialetto] to write in Italian…. With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!” Here Svevo treats the step from the one dialect to the other, from the Triestine in which he thought to the Italian in which he wrote, as inherently treacherous. Only in Triestine could he tell the truth. The question for non-Italians as well as Italians to ponder is whether there might have been Triestine truths that Svevo felt he could never get down on the Italian page.

I love that quote “With every Tuscan word of ours, we lie!”—and I suspect it would resonate with authors attempting to write in literary languages around the world, from Viennese writing in Hochdeutsch to Cairenes writing in Classical Arabic to Javanese writing in Malay.


Der Spiegel‘s cover story this week is on language: its origin and its relation to brain physiology. Unfortunately, the article itself is not online, but the teaser has an interesting set of links on the right (most, but not all, in German).


I would make this yet another addendum to my Kolkata entry below, but I think it deserves the prominence a separate entry provides. Grant Hutchinson has a brilliant rant on the subject of “correct” pronunciations of foreign names, as hilarious as it is spot on. This is a man after my own heart:

Yes, OK, but don’t you think it’s important to say things the way the locals do?

Ah, what a tempting notion that is. Who among us has not come back from some foreign trip intent on saying “yama” for llama, or “Nee-kar-agggh-wa” for Nicaragua, or “Mong-rrrhay-al” for Montreal? (I confess to a dangerous flirtation with “Budapesht” myself.) And who among us was not then kindly mocked by our friends, who pointed out jeeringly (but caringly) that such words were pronounced differently in English, and, since English was the language we had chosen to speak, could we not just speak it properly? Or were we planning on spending the rest of our lives saying “Paree” for Paris?

So to answer your question – no, I think it’s sad and silly to say things the way the locals do if there’s an accepted English pronunciation.

[From The Angry Corrie, “Scotland’s Wet ‘n’ Windy Hillzine,” via Billy Blogs.]