Archives for January 2018

Peevery unto Death.

I saw Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1994 movie «Утомлённые солнцем» (Burnt by the Sun; video) in a theater shortly after it came out; as I recall, I found it impressive but didn’t understand much of what was going on. Now that I’m reading about the Terror of the late 1930s, I thought I’d take a look at it online, and was struck by a linguistic feature of the very opening (the first four minutes, before the titles). A man who we later learn is an NKVD operative named Mitya arrives at his apartment (in the House on the Embankment) and is greeted by his servant Philippe, whose native language is French and who occasionally slips into that language (prompting an irritated “I told you to always speak Russian!”). Philippe starts reading aloud from a copy of Pravda, and Mitya corrects his mispronunciations, usually a wrong stress (“НЕсколько, not неСКОЛько!”). Then Mitya takes out a revolver, removes all the bullets but one, and places it at his temple, continuing to correct the reading. Just before he pulls the trigger (spoiler: it doesn’t fire), he says “часть!” (Philippe had read the Russian word for ‘part’ as част, with unpalatalized -t). Now that’s what I call dedication — spending what might be your last moment on earth correcting someone’s pronunciation.

How Does Azerbaijani Sound to Turks?

An interesting Quora discussion:

Bulent Cetin:

Sometimes it sounds funny, due to the difference in vocabulary and emphasis.

Though it can be understood. Modern Turkish, and the most used accent “Istanbul Accent” is highly corrupted since the Ottoman era with gazillions of Arabic and Persian words. As far as I know Azeri Turks use the Turkmen dialect of Oguz Turkish, which contains more words of purely Turkic origin.[…]

Kozan Soykal:

They are the same language with some differences in how words are used. For example, Azerbaijani verb for (a plane) landing is the Turkish verb for (a plane) crashing.

The experience is perfectly understandable Turkish, suddenly interrupted by such a different use of a word that breaks that rhythm. Note that this is the same structure as jokes (in any language) – a straight story with a sudden twist at the end.

So Turks find listening to Azerbaijani fun – it’s sounds like an endless stream of jokes. That it’s not intended to be so makes if even funnier.

Tolga Han:

It never sound to me funny.

Turkish people are very egocentric about this issue. They are laughing when an Azerbaijani saying ‘Qapı'(door) to football target , but they dont realize they are calling the same thing ‘Kale’(castle).

Or they are get angry when an AZE call to bus a ‘Maşın’. They are grumbling that about the Russian influence on the Azerbaijani Turkish. But they dont think they called it ‘Otobüs’ . It is completly from French.

Those are just the top three responses; there are 21 so far, and it’s a lot of fun to get this kind of impressionistic picture of how people react to a closely related language. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Menu Translations.

Emily Monaco writes for the always interesting Atlas Obscura about Why Menu Translations Go Terribly Wrong:

When I first came to Paris, I was confronted with a strange problem: I couldn’t understand restaurants’ English menus, even when I knew the French dishes. From “chicken in her juice” to “chicken wok way” and “baba with old rum,” menu translations ran the gamut from slightly-dirty to just plain surreal.

It wasn’t until I became a culinary translator myself that I realized just how hard this job is. I had assumed that laughable menu translations were the result of restaurant managers and chefs (with limited language skills) making mistakes. But even for fluent experts, food and menus are uniquely challenging to translate. (The results can be hilarious: We asked Atlas Obscura readers to tell us some of the best mistranslations they’ve seen, and you can admire them in this article’s images.)

She lists some of the obvious problems, then says:

But even someone with a firm grasp of both languages can find themselves stumped when confronted with certain menu items. This is especially true, notes Marrakech-based food and travel writer Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, because some food words just “don’t exist in English, or the words that are closest don’t really adequately explain what something is.”

She points to Moroccan mechoui, which, she says, “means slow-roasted sheep, but it’s not roasted in the way that it would be anywhere else.” The same issue arises with the international varieties of fermented dairy: Should it be “strained yogurt cheese” or labneh? Should quark be called a “German fresh cheese”? A similar question was posed in France when kale was reintroduced by Kristen Beddard of the Kale Project in 2012—should servers and menus call it chou plume, a pretty name that means “feathered cabbage,” chou frisé non pommé, a technically correct if lengthy term meaning “curly, non-knobbed cabbage,” or chou kale—an Anglicism that ended up becoming the norm?

A related problem is that food names or terms often have positive associations in one culture, but nowhere else. Cubans love ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish whose name literally translates to “old clothes”), Mexicans enjoy tacos sudados (literally “sweaty tacos”), and Moroccans are all about roasted sheep head. In Croatia, bitter flavors are valued, while in many countries, calling a dish or drink bitter is an insult.

Don’t miss the “three possible translations for the classic French comfort food dish, ile flottante,” and of course don’t miss the images, which have some terrific specimens. I apologize if all this makes you hungry; I’m now jonesing for the ropa vieja of my New York days. (By the way, we discussed some of this stuff back in 2008.) Thanks, Trevor!

Stuck in the Middle.

Stuck in the Middle: A Bilingual, Multicultural Comic Series by Ru Kuwahata is obvious LH fodder; I particularly like the suggested European responses to “How are you?”: French “It is what it is,” Dutch “I am terrible but such is life,” and Eastern European “We live, we die, so what.” (Obviously, these are not what people actually say but the cartoonist’s version of their general attitude.)

Library of Discarded Books.

Thom Peart posts about a nice story out of Turkey:

Turkish garbage collectors in the country’s capital city of Ankara have opened a public library that is full of books that were originally destined to be put into landfill. The workers began collecting discarded books and opened the new library in the Çankaya district of Ankara. News of the library has spread and now people have begun donating books directly to the library, rather than throwing them away.

As CNN reports, the library was originally created for the use of the employees friends and family but, as it grew in size, the library was officially opened to the public in September of last year. “We started to discuss the idea of creating a library from these books. And when everyone supported it, this project happened,” said Çankaya Mayor Alper Tasdelen, whose local government spearheaded the opening of the library.

The library now has over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books and includes a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and a number of English and French language books for those who are bilingual.

Thanks, Ariel!


Nick Nicholas has a typically detailed, informative, and enjoyable post about an obscure medieval word that’s turned up in various modern Greek dialects as well as a much more unexpected place. I’ll let you discover the facts over at Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος; me, I couldn’t resist the following (clears throat, grabs mike):

There’s this word that’s been on my mind
All the time, fu-fu-fufudio oh oh
The dictionaries don’t know its name
But I think it’s a real word just the same
Fu-fu-fufudio oh oh
The Russians got it from the Byzantines
Now they don’t even know what it means
But they called it fofudia back in the day
I feel so good if I just say the word
Fu-fu-fufudio, just say the word
Oh fu-fu-fufudio

Now they use fofudia down in Ukraine
LiveJournalists claim to be Russians in pain
Fu-fu-fufudio oh oh
“They won’t let my daughter wear fofudia at school
How long must I endure their rule?”
Fu-fu-fufudio oh oh
“How long, how long must this go on?”
They sound sincere, but they’re having fun
They make the xenophobes feel scared
But they feel so good if they just say the word
Fu-fu-fufudio, just say the word
Oh fu-fu-fufudio, oh

Learning Greek in Ohio.

Sarah Manavis has a nice piece at Prospect about “how immigration keeps old dialects alive”:

Like most children of immigrants, I grew up speaking a half-and-half combination of languages. My Dad was the only immigrant in his family to become fluent in English; aside from him, I had an entirely and only Greek-speaking side. The other side of my family, my mother’s, spoke entirely and only American English.

I, and the other children in my community, spoke these languages interchangeably until we spoke in full sentences, teething our way towards speaking English. I would occasionally accidentally use Greek words with American school friends, not realising I was using a different language.

Another thing I did not realise, in fact only realized in the last 5 years, is what exactly is the kind of Greek I speak. My mother, the American, and my sister and I all adopted the language that we spoke not just with my grandparents and relatives in Greece, but the bizarrely large Greek-immigrant community also nestled in southwestern Ohio.

Until I left my little Greek community, I had been under the impression that I was, of course, speaking modern Greek. […] Yet my mother, sister and I have all been met with the same response from Greeks since leaving the midwestern United States. “You sound like my yiayia,” they all say. You sound like my grandmother. […]

The insulation of a new country and the relatively strict cut-off date from when the last immigrants arrived helps not to cultivate a new language, but to retain a way of speaking lost to time moving on. These slightly outdated forms of formal languages are being preserved in all parts of the world, with some immigrant communities becoming the only lifeline for dialects about to become extinct in their countries of origin. […]

She goes on to talk about Ciociaro (“a distinct, several-centuries-old dialect of formal Italian, borne out of the rural region of Ciociaria in central Italy”), now hardly spoken in Italy but flourishing in “an Italian community in Sarnia, Ontario, a city in the southeast corner of Canada, just north of the US-Canadian border,” and Caribbean Hindustani (“a language predominantly developed out of South Asian slave trade to the Caribbean islands […] influenced by a huge number of languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Braj Bhasha, Dutch, Tamil, and French—to name a few”), and goes into related issues:

This brings us to the major problem in understanding how many of these new and preserved dialects actually exist in the world: tracking them all is near impossible. As of now, there is no country maintaining formal statistics on immigrant dialects, beyond formally tracking how many speakers they have of an already recognised language from particular immigrant groups’ home countries.

It’s a good read; if you get a subscription pop-up, just click on the page or hit refresh and it should go away. Thanks, Bathrobe!

How Many Is a Couple?

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca discusses an interesting phenomenon. To her, as to me, “a couple of” basically means two, but she had a revelation:

While discussing language peeves in my introductory English linguistics course, one student, Katelyn Carroll, volunteered that it drove her nuts when people used the phrase a couple (of) to refer to more than two things. I heartily concurred, along with a few additional students, but a good number of other students in the course felt we were being persnickety — and, perhaps, were just flat-out wrong.

Katelyn ended up doing research on a couple (of) as a quantifier for the class usage guide, and it has changed my copy-editing practices. In a very small survey of undergraduates at the University of Michigan, she discovered that only one third of them believed a couple (of) could refer to only two items, and some of them believed that it always had to be more than two (i.e., equivalent to several, which is typically seen as more than two). Almost all the respondents agreed — as do I — that a couple (of) is informal, whatever it means.

Dictionaries indicate that I am not on solid footing with my restrictive definition. Merriam-Webster online provides the definition “an indefinite small number: FEW” for the word couple, with the example “a couple of days ago.” The online Webster’s New World concurs. The definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online supplies a very similar definition: “Informal A few; several: a couple of days.” American Heritage defines several as more than two or three (but less than many); few is simply a small number. In any case, both dictionaries reflect much more flexibility than I was exhibiting in how many things are encompassed by a couple of things.

This was as much a revelation to me as to her, so I ask the assembled multitudes: what does “a couple” mean to you?


One of the pleasures of my editing work is that it occasionally introduces me to new words, and I’ve just run into one such: kriging. It’s a statistical term, equivalent to Gaussian process regression (whatever that is, and don’t bother trying to explain it to me because even if I understood it at the moment I wouldn’t retain it), and what I want to know, of course, is how it’s pronounced. The Wikipedia article says it’s named after “Danie G. Krige, the pioneering plotter of distance-weighted average gold grades at the Witwatersrand reef complex in South Africa,” and I assume his name would be anglicized as KREE-guh (or, if you prefer, /kri:gə/. But the article goes on to say “The English verb is to krige and the most common noun is kriging; both are often pronounced with a hard ‘g’, following the pronunciation of the name ‘Krige’.” This muddies the waters; the verb form krige would seem to demand a “long i” (/kraɪg/ or /kraɪdʒ/), and “often” implies that it’s (equally? less?) often pronounced with a soft g (/dʒ/). I don’t care either way, and I’m never going to have occasion to say it, but dammit, I want the facts! Any of you know how statisticians actually say this word? (It’s not in the dictionaries — too recent, I presume.)

Being Wrong about Sámi.

The last page of the TLS is the cheeky “NB” section, which discusses things like recent used-book purchases and mentions of the TLS in novels, movies, and the like. I generally enjoy it, but this bit from the Feb. 12, 2016 issue made me grind my teeth:

Lesser-used languages of Europe, an occasional series. Niillas Holmberg is the author of The Way Back: Poems in Sámi (Clive Boutle, £9.99). We thought we were ignorant of Northern Sámi, both language and region, but learn that it refers to the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. The old terms, Lapp and Laplander, Mr Holmberg writes, are “now seen as pejorative”. The poems are presented in the original, with facing translations. “In spite of centuries of colonization in Sámiland, many of us still speak the language of nature.” The poet also speaks the language of Zen Buddhism. Here are three lines of “Suomaiduvvan” (Assimilation):

Máid sápmelaš bargá
go meahccái láhppo
dat manná ruoktot

What does a Sámi do
when he gets lost in the wild
he goes home

If we’re not wrong, the translated “Sámi” is “láhppo” in the original. Are the old terms disapproved of in English but not in Sámi itself?

As it happens, you are wrong, you smug twits. I mean, you don’t have to do any extensive research to figure this out, you can just go to the frigging Wikipedia article and read “Sámi refer to themselves as Sámit (the Sámis) or Sápmelaš (of Sámi kin), the word Sámi being inflected into various grammatical forms.” Therefore it is the “sápmelaš” in the first line that is translated “Sámi.” Now, I went the extra mile and consulted an online Northern Sami-English Dictionary to discover that “láhppo” is an inflected form of láhppán ‘lost,’ but that wouldn’t have been necessary in order to prevent the idiotic attempt at a gotcha (“ooh, those do-gooders want you to use some fancy word they probably made up, but look, the quaint reindeer herders use the bad word themselves!”). I checked the next few issues, expecting a mea culpa or a correction in the letters section, but nary a word — I guess it’s just too obscure a topic for TLS readers. So here, two years late, is the rap across the knuckles they deserve.