Different Language, Different Self.

In a NY Times column, “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar,” William Grimes talks about writers who publish in languages other than their own. He starts off with Francesca Marciano’s story “The Other Language,” in which “an Italian teenager named Emma falls in love with English”:

Ms. Marciano, who grew up in Rome, acquired English more or less as her heroine Emma did, as a teenager. She lived in New York in her 20s and, while spending 10 years in Kenya, wrote her first novel, “Rules of the Wild,” in English after a failed start in Italian. Today she lives in Rome, but English has become her second skin.

“You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language,” Ms. Marciano said. “I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”

Two waves of emigration from the former Soviet Union, the first in the late 1970s, the second after the nation’s collapse, have yielded a bumper crop of Russian writers who have made English their own. Some, like Gary Shteyngart, and Boris Fishman, whose first novel, “A Replacement Life,” is being published by Harper in June, came to the United States as children and absorbed English by osmosis. Others, like Ms. Litman, Lara Vapnyar, Kseniya Melnik, Olga Grushin and Anya Ulinich, left the Soviet Union in their teens or early 20s, late enough in life to make the transition to another language a conscious effort.

“They are all very fluent, but their sense of the language is different,” said Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stetson University in Florida, who has written extensively on Russian émigré literature. “There’s a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true of all transnational writers.”

Grimes goes on to discuss Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, and others who have chosen to write in English, as well as Andrei Makine, a Russian who “dazzled the French with Le Testament Français (published in the United States as Dreams of My Russian Summers), which won the Prix Goncourt and two other literary prizes in 1995.” and Yoko Tawada, “a Japanese émigré who lives in Berlin and writes in German,” who “has won a devoted following for uncanny, dream-shrouded works like Where Europe Begins.”

And Alice Robb’s New Republic piece “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” is worth a read (thanks, Dan!); it starts with Noam Scheiber explaining why he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his three-year-old daughter: “My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial.” Robb goes on to discuss research on the subject:

Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they “feel like a different person” when they speak different langauges. Nearly two-thirds said they did. [...]

In 1964, Susan Ervin, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to explore the differences in how bilinguals represent the same stories in different languages. She recruited 64 French adults who lived in the U.S. and were fluent in both French and English. On average, they had spent 12 years living in the U.S.; 40 were married to an American. On two separate occasions, six weeks apart, Ervin gave them the “Thematic Apperception Test”: She showed her subjects a series of illustrations and asked them to make up a three-minute story to accompany each scene. In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English.

Ervin then analyzed the stories, looking at the different themes incorporated into the narratives. When she compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.

In 1968, Ervin—by this point, “Ervin-Tripp”—designed another experiment to further explore her hypothesis that the content of bilinguals’ speech would change along with the language. [...]

In 1998, Michele Koven, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent a year and a half carrying out ethnographic research with bilingual Parisian adults whose parents had immigrated from Portugal. [...]

Like many people capable of such interactions, I feel very different when speaking different languages, so I’m fascinated by this stuff, even if it will probably never be possible to fully explain it.

Comments

  1. Quite fascinating, and it tickles both my bilingual and statistician personalities :) The French American theme-use test seems to be rather statistically insignificant due to the problem of multi-testing and to unexplored correlations between theme selection; my statistician’s hunch is to disregard it alogether.
    The Japanese wives in America example seems very real and very likely due to a confounding effect of the social circle rather than language per se. Basically even the most monolingual of us use different speech and reason conventions in different social settings. The logic / the patterns of the phrases used for conversation with girl peers surely differs from what is used for children or for husbands etc. It just so happens that in the Japanese American study, the language choice is confounded by the effects of the social circle linked t the language.
    For most of us, the social sphere – language use links may be a bit more blurred now, as the world just gets smaller in the XXI century and one finds same languages in newer, less expected settings (although social-circumstane confounding surely still runs strong). For an anecdote sake, I just experienced a couple weird Russian-usage situations in Quebec. One was a tango interaction which made me realize that Quebecois Russian tangueros may be unfamiliar with a whole layer of Castellano borrowings which speckle the American Russian tango speech – we literally ended up with different dialects, detracting from the ease of conversation! Another was the usual stupid-immigrant experience in the airport, where my “Sorry?” in response to an employee’s question of French was met by her switching to Russian: “Oh, no good French for you yet? And probably your English is no better,but no worries, I’ll explain you in Russian” :)
    BTW I really don’t think I have different personalities in English vs.Russian, it’s just I’m younger in Russian as it is the language of the good old days? Now if I have a black shirt or a red shirt on, *that* would be a slightly different personality. And if the music is Osvaldo Pugliese vs. Edgardo Donato, now that may be a totally different self :) :)

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Quintus Ennius tria corda habere sese dicebat, quod loqui Graece et Osce et Latine sciret.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennius

  3. David Marjanović says:

    The real test would be what people do who are bilingual in the narrow sense (having two native languages) and habitually use both languages in similar social contexts to talk about similar things.

    “My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial.”

    …Translation: he simply didn’t know Hebrew well enough. His vocabulary wasn’t quite as large as he’d have needed.

    The logic / the patterns of the phrases used for conversation with girl peers surely differs from what is used for children or for husbands etc.

    And especially so in Japanese, right?

  4. Michael C. Dunn says:

    Joseph Conrad, anyone?

  5. Joseph Conrad, anyone?

    Vladimir Nabokov.

  6. It’s always a pleasure to see something from Bill Grimes. Here’s his wonderful essay “The Chicken: It Came. It Clucked. It Conquered.”:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/living/21CHIC.html

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Hilaire Belloc is another one.

    Samuel Beckett and Julian/Julien Green wrote in both English and French. Green even wrote a bilingual autobiographical book, with facing pages which are not quite translations of each other, in which he often commented on his experiences with the two languages. I mentioned it in the thread “Guest-worker literature” (2006) which is relevant to the current topic.

  8. There seem to be any number of writers from Eastern Europe and the Middle East who write in German, many of whom are at least commercially successful. Just off the top of my head – Wladimir Kaminer (native language Russian), Saša Stanišić’(Bosnian), Abbas Khider (Arabic), Alina Bronsky (Russian) have all written best sellers, and that doesn’t include the last two Bachmann prize winners who I seem to recall were both native Russian speakers. My overall impression from reading German and Austrian Feuilletons is that a much higher percentage of writers published in the German speaking world seem to be non-native speakers relative to the English literary world. Not surprising I suppose when one thinks how large a pool of native English speaking talent already exists.

    Sadly, the total quantity of literary output from Russian speaking emigres in English, German, and French probably dwarfs what is produced in Russian these days. The quality may even be better as well.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    As for me, I have lived mostly in English for several decades and I don’t feel I am a different person in each. The difference is more a social one. However, if I have been speaking in English with someone I assume to be an anglophone and it turns out that the person is actually a francophone (in a context where the people I meet are unlikely to be bilingual), I feel as if dark glasses have been ripped from my face.

    Most of my professional writing has been in English, only occasionally in French. If I need to to write a version of a text in the other language, I found that I can’t really translate, I have to rewrite.

  10. If you believe that the “self” is not something internal and unchanging but rather something that is generated constantly through acts of self-expression, many involving language, and you also believe that there are limits to translation (so that, for example, poetry cannot be recreated perfectly in another language), then it follows quite naturally that learning to express yourself in a new language could result in the emergence of a “new self.”

    People who have two native languages actually might not be the best subjective observers of this phenomenon — if multiple modes of self-expression have always been part of your experience, you might not experience this as a bifurcation into multiple selves, any more than most people think of the various faces they have for home, work, dating, etc. as different “selves”.

  11. m-l: I am curious about the dark glasses. Do you mean that it is as if you can see better? Or as if you are more visible?

  12. Israeli Arab Sayed Kashua writes very successfully in Hebrew.

  13. Nabokov had multiple L1s, unlike (say) Conrad or the vast majority of bilinguals.

  14. “There’s a sense of play and inventiveness, which is true…
    asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they “feel like a different person” when they speak different langauges. Nearly two-thirds said they did. [...]

    I agree, I feel different. And it’s not just social, it’s also a different set of cultural references. Even Russian Vinni Pukh is different from Winnie the Pooh. Have you ever played trifles/poostyaki?

  15. If I need to to write a version of a text in the other language, I found that I can’t really translate, I have to rewrite.
    I can’t translate myself too, I write a different version. I once wrote an article in English which was picked up and translated, very well, into Russian by a Russian web digest of Western press. I read it and thought, oh, I couldn’t have done it better. There was only one phrase from Russian newspeak that I’d never use myself.

  16. it’s also a different set of cultural references

    but don’t we all change our personal sets of cultural references, depending on the audience and the subject, even in one and the same language?

    Even Russian Vinni Pukh is different from Winnie the Pooh

    and Hamlet could have quite different personalities depending on the actor’s and producer’s interpretation, time, and place, without ever changing as much as a letter of a word! That’s the whole point, that we take on different play roles which appear to be different intrinsic personalities, when we change languages as well as when we changed scripts and contexts in the same language. You may perceive that you switched hearts, but isn’t it more like you “just” switched codes?

    However, if I have been speaking in English with someone I assume to be an anglophone and it turns out that the person is actually a francophone (in a context where the people I meet are unlikely to be bilingual), I feel as if dark glasses have been ripped from my face

    It’s often exactly the opposite for me, when I find someone who turns out to speak Russian in an “unlikely place or context” – I may be more deliberate / conscious / strained about choosing words than in English, for fear of not being understood – probably because the Russian speakers in those places tend to come from all national, cultural, and educational backgrounds, and their command of the language and the underlying cultural codes is often limited. And then there is always embarrassing leakage of English into Russian, most infuriating when I start a phrase in an adjective in certain gender and then painfully pause looking for a right-gender synonym of the intended noun because the most obvious choice was of a wrong gender (I guess at this point I must stop & refer to the ancient karass vs. granfaloon metaphor ;) )

  17. Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language,a general audience book on historical linguistics, was first published in English, then translated into Hebrew. In the intro to the translation, Deutscher writes, “It is a unique experience for an author to see his book translated into his mother tongue, not from it. And though most of the proofreading was done by the author, a great deal of creativity was required from the translator in this process. I wish to thank Omri Asher, not only for his bravery in taking on such a task, but also for his resourcefulness, his flexibility, and his patience with this author’s quirks.”

  18. So, is Nabokov as punny and intricate in Russian as he is in English? Or do his English novels merely display his “bright foreigner’s fondness for puns” (as he says of Pnin)?

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Ø : I am curious about the dark glasses. Do you mean that it is as if you can see better? Or as if you are more visible?

    Perhaps a bit of both. More exposed, perhaps. But the feeling only lasts a couple of seconds before I can speak comfortably with the person in our common native language. I don’t get that feeling when speaking French or English with bilingual anglophones whose French is very good.

  20. So, is Nabokov as punny and intricate in Russian as he is in English?

    He is definitely punny and intricate, but not as much so. Once I started reading him in Russian, I began to feel that he overdid it in English.

  21. m-l: Perhaps because you can spot an L2 accent in French more quickly and reliably than in English, and so you are not deceived? I was always very surprised when my Dutch friends (whose L2 English was excellent) couldn’t even begin to tell one native accent of English from another, not even radically different ones like American and Australian.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I think I can spot a French accent (whether France or Canada) in English quite reliably. I am talking about Canadian people who grew up bilingual in Montreal or Ottawa and speak both languages like monolinguals, so it is only from learning something about the lives of such persons that one can discover how they self-identify, most of them as francophones, but some as anglophones (and a few as neither). Their names are not necessarily clues, especially if they come from a mixed marriage.

  23. tetri_tolia says:

    Kundera is also a nice example, especially with all the nice whimsical-melancholy reflections he sprinkles all his books with about being an émigré.

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    In terms of the original laundry list of “Russian writers who have made English their own”: one might expect e.g. Gary Shteyngart (came to U.S. at age 6 or 7; spoke English w/o “heavy Russian accent” by age 14, according to wikipedia) to differ substantially from someone who came to the U.S. at a more advanced age. (Especially since it seems plausible that someone in Shteyngart’s position could as an adult carry on a decent conversation in Russian but not necessarily produce to order a ten-page chunk of grammatical/idiomatic Russian prose.) Does he or doesn’t he? Or is this lumping together sufficiently unscientific that it is unlikely that anyone could accurately identify a “ringer” novel or short story set among recent post-Soviet emigres in NYC but written by a WASP using a vaguely Slavic pen name? The implicit generalization “no writer born and raised in the U.S. to Anglophone parents has a ‘sense of play and inventiveness’” would presumably be easy to find counterexamples for, and I assume it would also be easy to find “transnational” writers who lack that sense.

  25. MOCKBA, I am familiar with the karass/granfaloon distinction in its original form, having read Cat’s Cradle as a teenager, but what is its relevance here?

  26. it seems plausible that someone in Shteyngart’s position could as an adult carry on a decent conversation in Russian but not necessarily produce to order a ten-page chunk of grammatical/idiomatic Russian prose

    It differs of course depending on situation, some legacy Russian speakers attend great Russian schools, enroll in theater or literature club, and spend extended periods of time back home, but it’s still a rarity for a legacy speaker to have creative writing skills deemed necessary for a rookie Russian author. It’s such a high bar! The expectations of formal qualifications and diplomas is so pervasive, talent alone may not cut it…

    U.S. parents who want their children to be able to get higher education in Russia typically enroll them in prep schools there. I imagine that a gifted and exceedingly confident author might be able to publish & be read even without grammatical and vocabulary perfection, but I don’t know of any examples.

    Empty – the karass must be a dated cliche, and I apologize for that – I was thinking that people who speak the same language as yourself are of course of substantial affinity to myself; but how much cultural luggage and national psyche you expect to find in common, it probably depends on the language. And if the language is Russian, then the average answer may be, not much at all.

  27. No, no. I was happy to see a reference to the karass/granfaloon. I just did not know (and still don’t know) what it meant to you in context.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    @MOCKBA:

    “Even Russian Vinni Pukh is different from Winnie the Pooh”

    I imagine so …
    The Yiddish Vini der Pu is certainly not quite the same character as the very English Winnie.

    On the other hand, once you’ve read the Yiddish version you realise that Eeyore/Iya is actually Jewish in the original. He kvetches …

  29. The “having some common identifier (here, a language)” vs. “having a heart-to-heart connection” aspect. Sort of adding to the title of this LH post by the complement of its message: “same language, still different selves”

    I easily fall for the miracle of non-verbal connection between souls and hearts these days … that’s the draw and the bane of being a tanguero, and it’s felt especially acutely after a visit to a faraway city where you don’t know anybody, and don’t even have a common language with many to start with, yet often feel intense, profound mutual understanding on the dance floor. Inevitably, one finds out that one has something superficially important in common with some of the new friends. Common language, same professional field, same places. One lady even turned out to be from a rival math-and-sciences magnet high school in Moscow – like, what would be the chances? So I couldn’t help remembering how the word “granfallon” applied to such commonalities, now that we have found a deeper shared vibe.

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    From a review of Shteyngart’s recently-published memoir:

    In the Soviet Union, as an asthmatic 5-year-old eager to please his grandmother, he began writing his first novel; it was a patriotic tale called “Lenin and His Magical Goose,” which, in retrospect, he says, had the Orwellian lesson of “Love authority but trust no one.” His first work in English, at the age of 10 — which will garner him the attention of otherwise indifferent or contemptuous classmates in Queens — is a sci-fi tale called “The Chalenge,” featuring an earthlike planet named Atlanta (with “conservative politics and strong retail base”) pitted against an alien planet named Lopes (a hot, Latin-like world that “contained many parrots”).

  31. He is such a funny guy. Even reading a summary of a review of something he wrote, I laugh.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Nancy Huston, an anglophone Canadian, lives in France and writes in French.

  33. a hot, Latin-like world that “contained many parrots”

    Sounds too hot for a preteen, isn’t lora ~~ parrot a traditional slang for a whore (especially an immigrant one) in parts of South America? La concha de la lora, the cavity (literally sea-shell) of the “parrot”, is still reported as an expletive interjection of bewilderment / surprise.

    A classic old tune with this title (but recorded without lyrics) had to be “euphemized” into “La C…ara de la L…una”, “The face of the Moon”, and the linked image of the booklet jacket has this face of a very nonchalant crescent Moon smoking a cigarette. If you utter “WTF” – then yes, that’s what it means.

  34. Eeyore isn’t Jewish. He just complains; he has no sense of humor about it.

  35. Eeyore/Iya is actually Jewish in the original. He kvetches …
    Eeyore isn’t Jewish. He just complains; he has no sense of humor about it.

    What’s curious is that A.A. Milne pretty much selected the Hebrew word for young donkey as the name for this character: עַיִר ‘ayir.

  36. Paul: so is “kvetch” by any chance from a Hebrew word for the humorously plaintive sounds that young donkeys make ?

  37. Even the OED derives “kvetch” from German quetschen. But this last word means “crush” or “pinch”. There may have been some kind of association with quietschen = “squeak”, “peep”, as well as with quatschen: [mit jmd. quatschen ] = “chat with someone”, [quatschen ] = “talk nonsense”, “go on and on”.

  38. That “kv” sound is unusual in English, I think, as is the “tch” sound. The failure to notice these sounds must be the reason why some Anglophones, who otherwise speak German quite passably, say “kwee-chehn” for quietschen, instead of “kvee-tchehn”.

  39. So “Eeyore” shares some consonontal structure with עַיִר, and some vowel structure (more or less) with “hee-haw”.

  40. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Dmitry Pruss:

    isn’t lora ~~ parrot a traditional slang for a whore (especially an immigrant one) in parts of South America?

    Not really, and certainly not in the context in which Shteyngart may have met the word. Lora ‘prostitute’ is very dated Lunfardo, remembered mainly because it’s attested in a tango or two but entirely out of common use, and not intelligible to speakers outside Argentina/Uruguay. The earlier sense ‘blabbermouth, yakker’ is more widespread, though.

    La concha de la lora, the cavity (literally sea-shell) of the “parrot”, is still reported as an expletive interjection of bewilderment / surprise.

    There’s no need to rely on reports; the phrase is still commonly attested in the wild and, if anything, it’s becoming increasingly common (although my guess is that this is merely a sampling artefact). This doesn’t mean that its association with the older term is transparent to speakers, though, especially since other animal terms can also fill the slot (e.g., vaca, perra, etc.).

    I find the Bowdlerisation of concha as ‘cavity’ quite misleading; the term’s vulgarity makes ‘cunt’ a much better equivalent.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    quetschen : In France there is a variety of cherry called quetsche (pronounced like English ketch). The word is a borrowing from Alsatiaan (the Germanic dialect of Alsace, the province just West of the Rhine).

    Stu, what do you mean by the tch sound as opposed to the ch sound? English uses both spellings for the same sound, as in rich and pitch. Is there a difference in Yiddish?

  42. David Marjanović says:

    People who have two native languages actually might not be the best subjective observers of this phenomenon — if multiple modes of self-expression have always been part of your experience, you might not experience this as a bifurcation into multiple selves, any more than most people think of the various faces they have for home, work, dating, etc. as different “selves”.

    There’s a lot of individual variation in this. Some people have such different faces, others less so, yet others probably not at all.

    Similarly, I (sort of) know someone who doesn’t identify with the person he was just a few years ago; he sometimes wakes up and has no idea why he took the decisions he took – it feels as if everything had happened to someone else. I’m on the other extreme: to the extent that I remember it, I empathize with everything I did when I was 5, it all makes perfect sense given the knowledge I had.

  43. marie-lucie: Stu, what do you mean by the tch sound as opposed to the ch sound? English uses both spellings for the same sound, as in rich and pitch.

    I didn’t put that well about the mispronunciation of German quetschen by some English native speakers. I guess the problem is that they say “kwe – chen” instead of “kwech-en” – the slight “pause” is in the wrong place. There’s nothing wrong in English with saying either “ki-tchen” or “kitch-en”.

  44. So “Eeyore” shares some consonontal structure with עַיִר, and some vowel structure (more or less) with “hee-haw”.

    “Eeyore” is actually just a respelling of “hee-haw” for UK speakers who are non-rhotic and don’t pronounce their haitches. Being a Yank, I didn’t learn this until I was an adult, but I presume it’s transparent to Brits.

  45. Hat’s right, here in Britain “eeyore” is just the sound all donkeys make. It’s like having a sheep character called “Baa” to us, I’d be very surprised if there was Hebrew influence in Milne’s choice.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I agree. I first encoutered Winnie the Pooh in reading silently, so I did not hear the name Eeyore pronounced, but once I tried to pronounce it (much later) I realized that it was the equivalent of French hihan, the cry of the donkey. The French h’s are purely orthographical. I have seldom heard a donkey, but I don’t remember perceiving a distinct [h] type sound.

  47. In the Scots translations of the Pooh books, the donkey is in fact named Heehaw. The others bear the same names as in English, except for Piglet, who is Wee Grumphie, and Owl, who is named Hoolet (cf. English (h)owlet</i) but spells his name HOOTEL (corresponding to English WOL).

    These days I'm working with the Web Ontology Language, the acronym for which is OWL. In the same way, the International Organization for Standardisation / l’Organisation internationale de normalisation / Международная организация по стандартизации (all three names are official) is known as ISO.

  48. Even the OED derives “kvetch” from German quetschen. But this last word means “crush” or “pinch”.

    The bare meaning of Yiddish ‘kvetch’ is squeeze, which I guess is midway between ‘crush’ and ‘pinch.’ I don’t know how or when the sense of whining, cajoling, complaining and so forth developed.

    Some two decades ago, when plastic* began replacing glass for ketchup bottles, an Israeli condiment company labeled its product “Kvetchup.”

    * Heinz et al invested kajillions in developing a plastic that wouldn’t be ravaged by the acids and other stuff in tomatoes. Note that cans for tomato paste and the like are always lined.

    Eeyore, hee-haw and hihan: I wondered if Hebrew ‘ayir might be onomatopoeic, but according to BDB it’s from an old word meaning sprightly with a verb form meaning ‘go hither and thither’ and ‘escape through sprightliness.’ There’s an Arabic cognate too.

  49. I think the idea is either of squeezing something till it complains or that of squeezing something out of someone by complaining. See the lemon-squeezing contest.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    quetschen : I thought of English quash.

    From the Online Etymological Dictionary for quash: (numbers added):

    (1) “to make void, annul,” early 14c., from Old French quasser, casser “to annul, declare void,” and directly from Medieval Latin quassare, alteration of Late Latin cassare, from cassus “null, void, empty” (see caste (n.)).

    (2) Meaning “to break, crush,” is early 14c., from Old French quasser, casser “to break, smash, injure, harm, weaken,” from Latin quassare “to shatter,” frequentative of quatere (past participle quassus) “to shake,” from PIE root *kwet- “to shake” (cognates: Greek passein “to sprinkle,” Lithuanian kuteti “to shake up,” Old Saxon skuddian “to move violently,” German schütteln “to shake,” Old English scudan “to hasten”).

    The words have influenced each other in form and sense since Medieval Latin and now are somewhat grown together.

    Could quetschen fit in there? the Germanic examples in (2) all come from s- initial forms of the PIE root. A direct evolution from plain *kwet into Germanic would begin with [h], but a post-Grimm’s law borrowing from Latin quassare would have had [kw].

  51. J. W. Brewer says:

    Despite the polyglot and multicultural nature of Queens, I’m not sure whether Shteyngart had picked up Spanish sexual slang within the first few years after his childhood arrival, especially since he initially attended not the NYC public schools but the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School.

  52. J. W. Brewer says:

    http://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/shteyngart_sp04.html has Shteyngart talking about how diglossia works in his life, including that Russian remains the language in which he counts money: “American dollars, the lack of which constitutes an immigrant’s most elemental fright, are denominated entirely in the Russian language.”

  53. marie-lucie says:

    questchen, quash again

    A direct evolution from plain *kwet into Germanic would begin with [h], but a post-Grimm’s law borrowing from Latin quassare would have had [kw].

    Correction: PIE *kwet (without initial s) would end up in Germanic with wh (Eng. spelling) or hv Nordic spelling, later losing the sound [h]. German has turned w (still in spelling) to [v].

    This still means that a borrowing from a Latin qu… word is more likely than direct descent from PIE.

  54. I find the Bowdlerisation of concha as ‘cavity’ quite misleading
    My apology! I wasn’t trying to “sound Bowdlerized”, but rather to guess the etymology, how the conch may have come to mean cunt. So, Alon, when today’s speaker cuss “la concha de la lora”, the meaning of the first part is still fully transparent to them, but the original meaning of the second part is completely lost to times? Oh the ways the slang terms survive as “living fossils” of the bygone usage!

    (Lunfardo dictionaries are often quite confused between the current slang vs. the deprecated usage mothballed by the old song lyrics, but unknown to modern speech! I remember falling into this trap before even on the pages of Languagehat, like when we discussed Beshdash / Payana…)

  55. Since Eeyore was based on an actual stuffed toy (which only some of the characters were), I figured that he was probably named not by A. A. Milne, but by Christopher Robin.

  56. J. W. Brewer says:

    When I figured out as an adult that “Eeyore” probably sounded a lot like “hee-haw” in Milne’s own idiolect, I found it vaguely disturbing. I think I have decided to ignore that factoid as a variant of the Etymological Fallacy. Eeyore’s true and canonical name is as it was pronounced (rhotically) to me by my maternal grandmother When I Was Very Young.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Given the dates, I was probably in France with limited internet access when this thread was ‘live’, as I don’t recollect any of the discussions.

    knucklebone game : In France this game is called les osselets, lit. “little bones”. I have known of this game since childhood from encountering it in written texts but have never even seen it played, much less played it myself. I have also seen pictures of children playing it, all boys as I remember, not girls at all. I have also seen plastic sets of ‘bones’, but never seen them in use.

    payaso ; Spanish payaso is indeed from Italian pagliaccio (plural pagliacci), a derivative of paglia ‘straw’ (= French la paille). According to the Vocabulario Etimologico Italiano, the word first meant ‘bag stuffed with straw, straw mattress’ (like French la paillasse) , hence ‘man sleeping on such a mattress because of poverty caused by laziness, debauchery, etc’. In the Commedia dell’Arte a pagliaccio was a kind of despicable clown, hence the later meaning. The word must also have referred to a ‘mannikin stuffed with straw’, perhaps used in some plays.

    In the Russian ballet Petrushka (which I saw in Paris), during the night the wooden, etc mechanical and other figures displayed during the day at a fair come to life. One of them is Petrushka, a sad rather than clownish character similar in personality to the French Pierrot. After various episodes, he is killed by a mob. The dancer playing the role disappears among the mob, which disperses leaving behind a lifeless figure dressed identically but obviously made of straw.

    Nahuatl, Quechua

    One commenter, apparently a troll, described these languages as having no grammar, meager vocabularies, etc. This is a common but prejudiced attitude held by people ignorant of languages. Nahuatl (in Mexico) and Quechua (in Peru, Bolivia, Northern Argentina) have many speakers and are among the best known (if not perhaps the best known) native languages of the Americas, studied by many linguists who are not necessarily “lefties”.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. I am surprised that my comment appears on this thread. I had been reading PAYANA, BESHDASH, GENGGI (an interesting thread from 2011, plagued by a troll for quite a while) and expected my comment to appear there.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    I didn’t put that well about the mispronunciation of German quetschen by some English native speakers. I guess the problem is that they say “kwe – chen” instead of “kwech-en” – the slight “pause” is in the wrong place. There’s nothing wrong in English with saying either “ki-tchen” or “kitch-en”.

    …I still don’t understand what you mean. Pause? What pause?

    And do you really pronounce the e in -en? I only do that for extreme emphasis, or when it’s preceded by a nasal consonant (m, n, ng), and lots of Germans don’t even make this latter exception.

    I have seldom heard a donkey, but I don’t remember perceiving a distinct [h] type sound.

    And indeed, German-speaking donkeys make I-A.

    There is, of course, a story of Till Eulenspiegel promising to university professors that he would, for a lot of money in advance, teach a donkey to read. Somehow he convinces them to pay him. After a few months, he paints I on one page of a book and A on the opposite page and has the donkey read aloud…

    The bare meaning of Yiddish ‘kvetch’ is squeeze, which I guess is midway between ‘crush’ and ‘pinch.’

    Same for German. Never head “crush” (implying something breaks) or “pinch” (implying too localized pressure and perhaps sharp points).

    Could quetschen fit in there?

    Semantically, yes. Phonologically, there’s the problem of the tsch, which… isn’t really supposed to exist at all. I’ll wave my hands and say “onomatopoeia”.

    Qu- words are rare in German, but a few may be native, like Quelle “spring/source”, which reminds me of English well.

  60. Stefan Holm says:

    Qu- words are rare in German, but a few may be native, like Quelle “spring/source”, which reminds me of English well.

    Quelle looks closer to Swedish källa with the same meaning (well/spring/source) and with cognates all over Scandinavia. It’s simply a regular, umlauted derivative of kall, “cold”. The spelling may just be an ornament. Or could both the English and the Norse words have existed on German soil and happened to merge?

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Stu: some English native speakers … say “kwe – chen” instead of “kwech-en” – the slight “pause” is in the wrong place. There’s nothing wrong in English with saying either “ki-tchen” or “kitch-en”.

    The pattern CV’-CVC (where the ‘ indicates stress) sounds wrong for English, which is typically CV’C-VC. “Ki-tchen” is what I would expect from a Romance speaker, “kitch-en” from an English or Germanic speaker. The vowel written i in “kitchen” is the same sound as in “rich” or “pitch”, that is IPA [ɪ] , which only occurs when followed by a vowel in the same syllable (Cɪ’C).

    quetschen: David: there is the problem of the tsch, which… isn’t really supposed to exist at all

    Perhaps the word is is from some obscure dialect? see French quetsche (from Alsatian), a variety of plum (not cherry as I wrongly remembered earlier).

  62. Alon Lischinsky says:

    I wasn’t trying to “sound Bowdlerized”, but rather to guess the etymology, how the conch may have come to mean cunt.

    The meaning was inherited from Latin; Plautus writes
    te ex concha natam esse autumant, cave tu harum conchas spernas
    ‘they say you [Venus] were born of a shell; care that you do protect their cunts’ [of two young women who have sought refuge by her altar]. The traditional explanation is that the shape and colour of conches is reminiscent of the vulva; they were certainly an erotic motif in Roman art and literature.

    So, Alon, when today’s speaker cuss “la concha de la lora”, the meaning of the first part is still fully transparent to them, but the original meaning of the second part is completely lost to times?

    Yup. I have no clue of how they would account for the phrase, but I’m betting dollars to doughnuts that not one in a hundred speakers under 60 could gloss lora as ‘prostitute’.

    Lunfardo dictionaries are often quite confused between the current slang vs. the deprecated usage

    They are guilty of worse sins, but unfortunately a Historical Dictionary of Argentine Spanish doesn’t seem to be a priority for the AAL.

  63. I suspect that people feel differently when speaking another language due to pragmatics and maybe more specifically politeness norms.

    I don’t think someone would, as an example, be a complete jerk in English and a real prince when speaking Japanese.

  64. des von bladet says:

    Bart was a hulking Flemish bruiser who played prop for his village rugby team. Like most Belgians he was perfectly bilingual but it wasn’t until years later I discovered that his francophone personality was a dainty transgendered woman called Cecile.

    (Notice of untruth to protect the unwary: Rugby is not that popular in Flanders.

    Also, everything else.)

  65. Stefan Holm says:

    I would be surprised if the vulgar English word for the visible parts of the female reproduction apparatus were not derived from the widespread ieur word for “woman”: In English it is inherited in queen, elsewhere Swedish kvinna (older kona), Greek gyne Russian жена/женщина etc. all mean “woman”. After all, this development took place long before we needed to be politically correct.

  66. The meaning was inherited from Latin; … the shape and colour of conches is reminiscent of the vulva; they were certainly an erotic motif in Roman art and literature

    Thanks! From the Renaissance paintings I imagined that Venus came out of a rather different seashell – a white, flat scallop! But apparently in a Pompeii fresco, Venus reposes on a conch shell indeed.

    Still isn’t it strange for a Latin meaning to be inherited only by certain Latin American strains of Spanish, and not by any other Romance languages? I suspect that the meaning might have been “restored / reacquired” in Colonial or post-Colonial times, without continuous inheritance…

  67. Stephan: It’s of unclear origin. Quoth Etymonline:

    Some suggest a link with Latin cuneus “wedge,” others to PIE root *geu- “hollow place,” still others to PIE *gwen-, root of queen and Greek gyne “woman.”

    The form is similar to Latin cunnus “female pudenda” (also, vulgarly, “a woman”), which is likewise of disputed origin, perhaps literally “gash, slit,” from PIE *sker-(1) “to cut,” or literally “sheath,” from PIE *kut-no-, from root *(s)keu- “to conceal, hide.”

  68. David: I still don’t understand what you mean. Pause? What pause?

    What marie-lucie indicates by a hypen: ‘The pattern CV’-CVC (where the ‘ indicates stress) sounds wrong for English, which is typically CV’C-VC. “Ki-tchen” is what I would expect from a Romance speaker, “kitch-en” from an English or Germanic speaker.’ Not a “deliberate” pause, but a differenztheoretische Saussurezäsur :-)

    And do you really pronounce the e in -en?

    No – but in my NRW German it’s “kwetsch-n”, not the Bavarian “kwetschn” thing.

  69. I’m not saying that Bavarians pronounce quetschen as “kwetschn”. *”kwetschn” is intended to suggest those Bavarian words that end in an unpronounceable pile of consonants, such as fensterln.

  70. Konsonantthromben.

  71. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA)

    Still isn’t it strange for a Latin meaning to be inherited only by certain Latin American strains of Spanish, and not by any other Romance languages?

    The form of the word shows it’s a late borrowing, rather than having come all the way through Vulgar Latin and Old Castilian (as its doublet cuenca ‘cavity’ did); I suppose the most likely source is medical Latin. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Corominas & Pascual (which is the only authority I would trust on this matter) at hand.

  72. GeorgeW says:

    “I wasn’t trying to ‘sound Bowdlerized’, but rather to guess the etymology, how the conch may have come to mean cunt.”

    According to Melissa Mohr in “Holy SH*T: A Brief History of Swearing,” the C-word probably did not come into English from Latin in spite of the resemblance. More likely sources are OE cwithe ‘womb’ or cynd ‘nature, essence’ which are from Proto-Germanic kunton.

    She notes that ordinary English people did not speak Latin. The word is first attested in English in the 12th-13th century while the Romans left Britain around 400 CE.

  73. David Marjanović says:

    Quelle looks closer to Swedish källa with the same meaning (well/spring/source) and with cognates all over Scandinavia. It’s simply a regular, umlauted derivative of kall, “cold”. The spelling may just be an ornament.

    It’s pronounced, though (as [kv]), and the noun derived from kalt is Kälte.

    German Wiktionary to the rescue! Well, mostly. Old High German and Old Saxon quella, Old English cwylla where I’m not sure how to explain the different vowel; the whole thing is a nound derived from the OHG verb quellan, modern quellen “well up, swell”; and then there’s a “citation needed” tag, funnily rendered as Quellen fehlen “sources are missing”.

    The verb seems to be explained:

    seit dem 10. Jahrhundert bezeugt; althochdeutsch quellan, urgermanisch *kwelnanan, auch niederländisch kwellen ‚anschwellen‘, altenglisch collenferhð ‚mit geschwollenem Mut, stolz‘, zum indogermanischen *gʷelH- ‚herabträufeln, überfließen, quellen‘, vergleiche sanskritisch गलति (gálati) ‚träufelt, fällt herab‘, albanisch gëloj ‚wimmeln, hervorquellen‘.[1]

    OK, that makes sense.
    The meanings given in the quote are “to swell”; “with swollen courage/self-esteem, proud”; “drip down, flow over, well up”; “drips down, falls down”; “to be crawling with, to well up out of somewhere”.

    What I still don’t understand is what determined whether OHG qu remained as such or turned into k.

    What marie-lucie indicates by a hypen:

    Do you mean that somebody lengthens the vowel or perhaps turns the /t/ into a /d/? The latter happens in the Viennese dysphemism for accordion.

    those Bavarian words that end in an unpronounceable pile of consonants, such as fensterln.

    …That one just ends in [ɐln], with two consonants. The spelling with r isn’t even etymological.

  74. What I still don’t understand is what determined whether OHG qu remained as such or turned into k.

    According to Prokosch, Germanic labiovelars went to plain velars before back vowels, before consonants, and word-finally (same as in Latin, basically).

  75. Kluge (via his English translator John Francis Davis) says that Quelle is related to OIc. keldo, ‘spring’, whence Finn. kaltio. Also: “The prehistoric root gel (gol) is related to Sans. jala ‘water’, gal ‘to curl.’”

  76. marie-lucie says:

    Old High German and Old Saxon quella, Old English cwylla where I’m not sure how to explain the different vowel; the whole thing is a nound derived from the OHG verb quellan, modern quellen “well up, swell”;

    If Quelle< and cwylla are related to swell, does it mean that both words are descended from a PIE root such as *(s)-kwVl where the s occurs only in some of the descendants (a common occurrence in IE)?

  77. Swell is common Germanic without known IE connections. Well, which I thought might be related, is < PIE *wel- ‘turn, roll’.

  78. Trond Engen says:

    Swell is common Germanic without known IE connections.

    Not according to Bjorvand & Lindeman. Like you, they see it as an s-mobile to velle “stream, flow (out)” with Germanic languages also displaying senses like “boil”. They see an IE extended root *wel-H- “ibid.”, but since the cognates largely mean “wave”, I think we may narrow it down to “flow in a pumping movement”.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    According to Prokosch, Germanic labiovelars went to plain velars before back vowels, before consonants, and word-finally (same as in Latin, basically).

    Makes sense. I guess I didn’t notice because it requires plenty of analogy, as in quellen, quoll, gequollen vs. kommen, kam, gekommen – there are no verbs where qu and k (or any other initial consonants/clusters) alternate.

    German (auf)wallen is quite similar in meaning to English well up, though restricted to literary/poetic registers and more often referring to wrath than to liquids.

  80. Etienne says:

    David: Dutch is not known for its archaic features, but it still has “kwam” as the simple past of “kommen”.

  81. Stefan Holm says:

    Come on and forget about the spelling! ‘q’ is absolutely redundant in Germanic. The English could have spelled their reign ‘kween’. Even ‘c’ and ‘x’ are (the latter of course is just ‘k+s’).

    As for ‘c’: Swedish students of days gone by used to talk of their English colleagues as ignorant, when pronouncing the name of Cicero as ‘Kikero’. After further studies they however found, that they where wrong – the English way was how the great rhetor probably would have pronuonced his name himself. The Latin alphabet (A, B, C) is after all based upon the Greek (alpha, beta, gamma) But when it comes to Caesar we’re probably all wrong in England and Scandinavia. He himself supposedly listened to the name of ‘kaysaar’, i.e. closer to German ‘Kaiser’.

    And – paying respect to the English preservation of PIE [w] – in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, you should really give it a thought to change ‘’w’ to ‘v’ and ‘v’ to ‘f’. I.e. ‘Fater’ instead of ‘Vater’, ‘Volf’ instead of ‘Wolf’, ‘Folk’ instead of ‘Volk’ (yes, I know that Volk and Folk differ somewhat sematically) and ‘velle’ instead of ‘welle’

  82. Swedish students of days gone by used to talk of their English colleagues as ignorant, when pronouncing the name of Cicero as ‘Kikero’.

    I have never heard an English speaker say Cicero with /k/. Are there any such? (It’s always “Sisero” as far as I know.)

  83. I have never heard an English speaker say Cicero with /k/. Are there any such? (It’s always “Sisero” as far as I know.)

    It’s ‘Sisero’ for me in everyday speech, but we were assuredly taught otherwise in high school Latin class (early 60s, Ontario). Preema fack-i-yeh evidence too.

  84. Well, yeah, in Latin, sure. I thought Stefan was talking about English colleagues speaking English; why would they have been speaking Latin?

  85. David Marjanović says:

    Dutch [...] still has “kwam” as the simple past of “kommen”

    Wow.

    Come on and forget about the spelling!

    I’d fix the vowels first, to be honest. Sometimes long vowels in German are marked by a double letter, sometimes by silent h, then there’s ie, sometimes they’re only marked by the absence of a marker for shortness, and in a few cases (Ostern, Österreich – but not Osten…) they’re misleadingly marked for shortness instead. It’s like English, perhaps not in degree, but definitely in kind. Take a look at Hungarian, which has almost the same vowel system as Standard German, and weep.

  86. David Marjanović says:

    I hasten to add that the different ways of marking vowel length are often, but by no means always etymological.

  87. Well, let’s look at the UHDR ungarnized:

    Ale mensen zint frai unt glajch an vűrde unt rechten gebóren. Zí zint mit fernunft unt geviszen begapt unt zolen ajnander im gajszte der brűderlichkajt begegnen.

    Jéder hat anspruch auf ale in dízer erklérung ferkündeten rechte unt frajhajten, óne írgendajnen unterschít, etva nach rasze, hautfarbe, geslecht, sprache, religjón, politiser óder zonszticher ansauung, natsjonaler óder socjaler herkunft, fermőgen, geburt óder zonsztichem stant.
    Des vajteren darf kajn untersít gemacht verden auf grunt der politisen, rechtlichen óder internacjonalen stelung des landes óder gebítes, dem ajne persón angehört, glajchgültich op dízesz unaphengich iszt, unter trojhantsaft stét, kajne zelpstregírung bezict óder zonst in sajner szuverénitét ajngesrenkt iszt.

    Jéder hat das recht auf lében, frajhajt unt zicherhajt der persón. Nímant darf in szklaveraj óder lajbajgensaft gehalten verden; szklaveraj unt szklavenhandel in alen íren formen zint ferbóten.

    Nímant darf der folter óder grauzamer, unmenslicher óder ernídrichender behandlung óder stráfe untervorfen verden.

    Jéder hat das recht, űberal als rechcféich anerkant cu verden.

    Yeesh. I don’t know if that’s more painful to a German eye or to a Hungarian one. I think “rechcféich” is particularly abominable.

  88. David Marjanović says:

    I think “rechcféich” is particularly abominable.

    Would it look better if you tried a less northern accent, one with -ig instead of -ich? …But then, there are western accents that keep a separate /æː/, which would let you get rid of the é, though it would also leave you with nothing to replace it. Oh well.

  89. I’m using the standard accent my mother taught me, which uses -ich in all words ending in the suffix -ig, like fertig, lustig, and -ik in all words that just happen to end in -ig, like Honig, König. It also made no distinctions between e and ä whether short or long (except trivially that ä never goes to schwa). (Note that my mother’s own accent made /x/ of all final /g/, so she pronounced Tag as Tach, but she was careful to warn her students, including me, not to imitate her in this case.)

  90. Also, I think it’s the chcf sequence that looks particularly disgusting.

  91. David Marjanović says:

    I’m using the standard accent my mother taught me, which uses -ich in all words ending in the suffix -ig, like fertig, lustig, and -ik in all words that just happen to end in -ig, like Honig, König.

    I didn’t even know such an accent existed, only northern -ich for all and southern -ig for all (not -ik – syllable-final fortition is northern).

    Rather literally painstaking research on YouTube confirms that der König von Mallorca pronounces himself with -ich… Wikipedia mentions the “ending”, but doesn’t say if only the grammatical suffix is meant.

    except trivially that ä never goes to schwa

    Because it’s never unstressed. The process that created it (and ö and ü) only operated in stressed syllables.

  92. David Marjanović says:

    Also, I think it’s the chcf sequence that looks particularly disgusting.

    Actually, I’ve never seen rechtsfähig before, only als Rechtsperson anerkannt zu werden “to be recognized as a juridical person”. :-)

  93. Oh, it’s doubtless an artificial accent, but it is the one foreigners are taught. However, it seems I may have been wrong to draw the line between suffixal -ig and other -g; various sources in English say it’s between -ig of any origin and other -g. The German of Danzig/Gdańsk, not too surprisingly, is said to have followed this pattern.

    There are some 74 kghits for rechtsfähig, often in connection with the word Rechtsfähigkeit (about a third of them).

  94. David Marjanović says:

    various sources in English say it’s between -ig of any origin and other -g.

    This definitely exists, for instance in the codified stage pronunciation.

  95. cavity cuenca concha . . .

    I suppose this is the right thread to note that Austrian transgender personality Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision song contest last night.

  96. There is a variety of plum called Zwetschge in southern Germany. I mentioned it on another LH thread long ago and somebody replied with an explanation of how that word evolved from some form of the place name Damascus. Could this be the same plum and word that Marie-Lucie mentioned above?

  97. David Marjanović says:

    called Zwetschge in southern Germany

    and Zwetschke in Austria. This is one of the very few official differences in spelling between the countries.

  98. Zwetschge in southern Germany. I mentioned it on another LH thread long ago and somebody replied with an explanation of how that word evolved from some form of the place name Damascus.

    It’s the plum’s name in English that evolved from Damascus: Damson. Cf Bethlehem and bedlam.

    Reading up on the fruit I learned that sloe is a kind of small plum, which suggests that the first syllable of slivovitz may come from a common root.

  99. @Paul Ogden: Slivovitz does indeed appear come from the same root at sloe. I looked it up once, after my brother and I found a bottle of the stuff at a large liquor store in Chicago. (Prior to that, slivovitz had just been a semi-legendary drink in my family. My grandfather and his best friend had gotten hammered on it on V-E Day, since it was the only thing alcoholic that they had handy. They were both U.S. Army draftees that had been sent by the army to medical school, and the defeat of Germany ensured that they would not be deployed overseas to treat combat injuries. Instead, they served in the Public Health Corps after the war.)

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