Gopnik’s Word Magic.

The LH family (me and my wife) are longtime fans of Adam Gopnik (see, e.g., this early post), and of course I was especially delighted to see him address the issue of language and translation in the New Yorker in “Word Magic.” Alas, due to my incurable procrastination, by the time I get around to the piece I want to tell you about, the issue (May 26) is no longer on the stands, but maybe you can find a copy; you can read the start at the link above, here’s a typically sensible and well-written bit about Whorfianism:

A spectre haunts this book, however. It is the spectre of Benjamin Lee Whorf and the theory of linguistic relativism to which he gave his name. Whorf was an amateur American linguist in the first half of the twentieth century who became obsessed with the idea that the system of tenses in the Hopi language gave the Hopi a different view of present, past, and future. (His understanding of Hopi grammar turns out to have been rudimentary.) Whorfianism came to refer to a larger idea derived from this notion — the idea that our language forces us to see the world a certain way, and that different languages impose different world views on their speakers. It’s a powerful idea in the pop imagination. It sounds right when you say it.

Yet “Whorfian” relativism, at least in its strong forms, is one of those ideas that disappear under any kind of scrutiny. After all, if we were truly prisoners of our language, we shouldn’t be able to use it to see its limits clearly, or to enumerate the concepts that it can’t conceive. The ghost of Whorf haunts every page of the “Dictionary of Untranslatables”[...]

My only serious cavil is about his discussion of the well-worn problem of poetry translation near the end; while nothing he says is wrong, he ignores what I consider an essential point, that there are very different kinds of poetry. Poems that place a lot of weight on images and ideas, like Szymborska (whom he cites favorably), come across better than those that rely to a large extent on sound and rhythm; his “Poetry contains as much wisdom as it does word magic” flings itself across this gap in a heroic effort to bridge it, but I don’t think it works. Anyway, it’s a wonderful read, and I urge you all to find a copy by hook or crook. (Also, the book he’s reviewing sounds fascinating; alas, it costs an arm and a leg.)

Update. Since Christopher Culver writes in a comment below, “What an unfortunate surname,” it is only fitting that I link to Gopnik’s new BBC Magazine piece “The curse of a ridiculous name“:

I have a funny name. I know it. Don’t say it isn’t or try to make me feel better about it. I have a funny name. My children and social networkers tell me that. And you out there have even been tweeting about it: “@BBC POV, Gopnik: what kind of name is that? #weirdnames” [...]

It’s not just a funny name. It has become, in the Russia from which it originally hails, an almost obscenely derogatory expression.

A gopnik in Russian, and in Russia, is now a drunken hooligan, a small-time lout, a criminal without even the sinister glamour of courage. When Russian people hear my last name, they can barely conceal a snigger of distaste and disgusted laughter. Those thugs who clashed with Polish fans at Euro 2012? All gopniks – small G. And I’m told that it derives from an acronym for public housing, rather than from our family’s Jewish roots, but no difference.

Read the whole thing — trust me, you won’t regret it.

Further update: Michele Berdy on gopniks.

Comments

  1. Sir JCass says:

    Poems that place a lot of weight on images and ideas, like Szymborska (whom he cites favorably), come across better than those that rely to a large extent on sound and rhythm.

    Yes, exactly. It’s also the case for narrative poems. After all, how many Indians have read the Mahabharata or the Ramayana in the original Sanskrit? I’d say Greekless readers can get quite a lot out of Homer but almost nothing out of Sappho.

    (I think this old thread about Cavafy has some comments relevant to this topic too).

  2. I’d say Greekless readers can get quite a lot out of Homer but almost nothing out of Sappho.

    Well put!

  3. Of poets I read first in translation, and then in the original, the one who most surprised me, because he was so much better in the original than in translation, was Virgil.

    It’s partly how much the poet depends on sound and rhythm, but it’s also how well similar sounds and rhythms work in the target language, that determine how “translatable” a poet is.

    Even so — I think it’s silly to dismiss reading Sappho in translation as something you’ll get almost nothing out of. Not my experience. Whether it’s “really Sappho” — well, that takes us very quickly into very deep water :-)

  4. I think it’s silly to dismiss reading Sappho in translation as something you’ll get almost nothing out of.

    OK, in retrospect I agree that was overstated. It’s obvious that people get a lot out of reading her in translation (otherwise she’d be known almost entirely by Greeks!). I think what Sir JCass meant — certainly what I was endorsing — was that what Greekless readers get out of Sappho is a pale reflection of the magical web of poetry that is in the Greek. The intense feelings come across in a way that anyone can relate to, but what is specific to the Greek poetry is lost, and I guess to those of us who know Greek that specificity is Sappho, is why we read her. But one shouldn’t be exclusionist, and I thank you for the reminder.

  5. “The LH family are longtime fans of Adam Gopnik.”

    What an unfortunate surname.

  6. Yes, he has frequently had people tell him about its Russian sense (it’s a slang word for ‘criminal’).

  7. J. W. Brewer says:

    There are some reasonably well-established English surnames which would seem at first glance to be “unfortunate” (because of pejorative meanings associated in a different context with the same word) but do not seem to function that way in practice. I.e., people bearing them seem to be able to go on to have perfectly respectable careers despite whatever jokes might occasionally arise. Savage, Lawless, and Hazard are good examples. Also homophones like Payne and Hoare/Hore, although I guess I can’t be sure the latter pair are homophonous with “whore” in all dialects. And then e.g. Lynch where the unfortunate meaning was probably backformed from a bearer of the pre-existing surname. It’s really not any more of a social challenge or misfortune than e.g. being surnamed White while being racially black or being surnamed Black while being racially white, both of which are (given Anglo-American onomastic conventions) not even incongruous enough to be consistently noticed.

    OTOH, if this sort of phenomenon is not already extant for the common stock of Russian surnames, the “Gopnik” problem might be more acute, at least if one spent a lot of time in areas dominated by Russophones, which I don’t think this fellow does.

  8. NYC may not be dominated by Russophones, but there are an awful lot of Russophones there.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    Except that the particular “New York” Gopnik lives in “means a defined hamlet of upper-middle-class, middle-aged, artistically-minded liberal parents and the private schools their children attend,” according to a snarky review of one of his books in, of all places (talk about biting the hand that feeds) the New York Times. That’s not typically where you run into the Russophones.

  10. This is just a wild guess, but I suspect Gopnik doesn’t live his life according to the fantasies of snarky reviewers. He may even step outside his defined hamlet once in a while. Just a guess, mind you.

  11. Sir JCass says:

    what Greekless readers get out of Sappho is a pale reflection of the magical web of poetry that is in the Greek

    Yes. My Greek is far from perfect (and I’m a little out of practice nowadays), but when I was learning it I came across the following line from Sappho which showed me why she really had to be read in the original:

    Ἦρος ἄγγελος ἰμερόφωνος ἀήδων

    The English translation was “The messenger of spring, the sweet-voiced nighingale”, which makes it sound anodyne and banal. It conveys nothing of the delicate vowel music of the original. Besides which, English is rarely much good at rendering Greek compound words such as “imerophonos”, which means something like “desire-voiced”.

    Cavafy is a good illustration of this split between what is transferable in poetry and the elements which evaporate in translation. I don’t know any modern Greek, but I feel I can get something out of “conceptual” poems such as “Ithaca” or “Waiting for the Barbarians”. However, I get virtually nothing from the more lyrical pieces, which seem flat when turned into English.

  12. J. W. Brewer says:

    Could be, but the reviewer’s point in context was that Gopnik had chosen to write (in the volume in question, at least) primarily-to-exclusively about a small and unrepresentative subset of New Yorkers. This is of course the same subset of New Yorkers who are disproportionately likely to subscribe to the New Yorker (or, for that matter, the New York Times), so it’s not necessarily a bad strategy for making a career. New York and environs have lots and lots of different communities and subcultures, and it’s difficult to construct a life, even self-consciously, where you are consistently intersecting with all of them. I know which subway line to take to which stop to get off in a neighborhood where one of the major-to-dominant ethnic groups is currently Indo-Guyanese, but that doesn’t mean I find occasion to go there with any regularity. On the other hand, I regularly patronize a Portuguese restaurant I stumbled across less than two miles from my house but I think very few of my more immediate neighbors have ever been there (and non-Lusophone patrons always seem to be in the minority in any event). I expect that your own interests made you more conscious of the large Russophone presence (and/or more prone to go to places where it might be on display) than would necessarily be the case for everyone.

  13. I can’t judge Sappho or Homer. I have read quite a bit of the old testament in Hebrew and some verses in English in the King James version. Occasionally KJV is pretty good, especially in the prose sections, but in general it is rather poor. I am afraid the old testament can’t be translated.

  14. I expect that your own interests made you more conscious of the large Russophone presence (and/or more prone to go to places where it might be on display) than would necessarily be the case for everyone.

    Sure, no question, but I know for a fact (having corresponded with him) that he has had the Russian sense of gopnik mentioned to him repeatedly. I leave it to you to judge whether this is the result of living in a city with many Russians or the sort of weird coincidence that could happen equally well in Topeka or Iowa City.

  15. des von bladet says:

    This brings up the question whether in the art of literature there are not intertwined two distinct kinds or levels of art — a generalized, non-linguistic art, which can be transferred without loss into an alien linguistic medium, and a specifically linguistic art that is not transferable. I believe the distinction is entirely valid, though we never get the two levels pure in practice. Literature moves in language as a medium, but that medium comprises two layers, the latent content of language — our intuitive record of experience — and the particular conformation of a given language — the specific how of our record of experience. Literature that draws its sustenance mainly — never entirely — from the lower level, say a play of Shakespeare’s, is translatable without too great a loss of character. If it moves in the upper rather than in the lower level — a fair example is a lyric of Swinburne’s — it is as good as untranslatable. Both types of literary expression may be great or mediocre.

  16. Good man, Sapir! And a nice find.

  17. Tom Recht says:

    Mind you, Homer can hold his own when it comes to word magic. And interestingly, his specific techniques can be very similar to Sappho’s. Look at these descriptions of flowing water:

    Iliad 18.576: πὰρ ποταμὸν κελάδοντα, παρὰ ῥοδανὸν δονακῆα “by the babbling river, by the waving reeds”

    Sappho 2.5: ἐν δ᾽ ὕδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι᾽ ὔσδων “there cold water gurgles through the branches”

    Note the frequency in both lines of δ and ρ (the latter geminated in ῥοδανὸν, as the meter shows), and of closed syllables ending in ν followed by a stop: ἐν δ-, ον κ-; ὸν κ-, οντ, ὸν δ-. Also the repeating patterns of vowels: u-o u-o u-o in Sappho’s line, and a-o repeated no less than five times in Homer’s, with o-a to cap it off in the last word. Both poets evidently had similar ideas of how to represent the sound of running water: voiced coronals, ictus-bearing closed syllables ending in ν, and patterned vowel alternations.

    Or look at the vowels in these descriptions of “sweet female speech”:

    Odyssey 1.56-57: αἰεὶ δὲ μαλακοῖσι καὶ αἱμυλίοισι λὀγοισιν θέλγει “continually she beguiles him with soft and flattering words”

    Sappho 31.4: πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνείσας ὐπακούει “listens to her speaking sweetly nearby”

    Homer has four diphthongs in successive ictuses, oi-ai-oi-oi; Sappho has four long vowels, ā-ā-ō-ā. The alternations in quality are basically mirror images, and they produce a kind of abstractly iconic sound-image of speaking (like English speech-onomatopeias, blah-blah, jaw-jaw). Homer also puts in lots of l’s, which Dionysus of Halicarnassus thought was the “sweetest” consonant; the “sweetest” vowel was long ā, as Sappho seems to have felt too.

  18. I once read, in a scholarly work, that Dante had received far less attention in France than he had in the English- and German-speaking worlds, because he is devilishly difficult to translate into French.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Iliad 18.576: πὰρ ποταμὸν κελάδοντα, παρὰ ῥοδανὸν δονακῆα “by the babbling river, by the waving reeds”

    I know almost no Greek beside the alphabet, but since ποταμὸν means ‘river’ (hence “hippopotamus”) I suppose that the word for ‘reeds’ is ῥοδανὸν. The original Greek name of the Rhône river in Southern France is usually rendered as “Rhodanos”, I have never seen a meaning for the word, but it looks like the same word as ‘reed(s)’. The river ends in an extensive, swampy delta where it meets the Mediterranean. Could that be the source of the name, given by the original Greek colonists?

  20. I have read quite a bit of the old testament in Hebrew and some verses in English in the King James version. Occasionally KJV is pretty good, especially in the prose sections, but in general it is rather poor. I am afraid the old testament can’t be translated.

    They are utterly different works that just happen to be describing the same events. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and its movie version. They barely inhabit the same planet.

    The Hebrew OT is laconic in the extreme (hey, parchment was expensive!). The KJV is majestic. Robert Alter’s Genesis is a masterwork.

  21. des von bladet says:

    The KJV considered as a Dub-Parody.

    How will that play in Peoria, I wonder?

  22. The original Greek name of the Rhône river in Southern France is usually rendered as “Rhodanos”, I have never seen a meaning for the word, but it looks like the same word as ‘reed(s)’.

    What does that tell us about Rhodes, the island in the Eastern Mediterranean?

  23. Mind you, Homer can hold his own when it comes to word magic. And interestingly, his specific techniques can be very similar to Sappho’s.

    By gad, sir, that’s the kind of analysis I love!

  24. Stefan Holm says:

    Poetry is of course impossible to translate. I still today don’t understand how Shakespeare could make such a wonderful litterature out of the English language (which puts stress on the first syllable) by using the iambic. It goes: ta dam ta dam ta dam ta dam ta dam. He made it by adjusting the vital syllables into the rhythm: To be or not to be that is the question

    Unfortunately for us, the Swedes, we can’t make our poetry popular to others in the same way. The reason is, that Swedish is a tonal language, which shifts in vowel length, respiratory stress and pitch as well. That’s the common feature throughout the world but strangely not in Europe, where besides Swedish only Norwegian, Lithuanian and, to some extent Latvian and Serbian, are tonal.

    This sing-song character of Norwegian and Swedish (which I think you all know too well) can’t easily be transferred into a foreign language when it comes to poetry. And that’s a sad thing since I think that although Scandinavian prose (with the exception of maybe Henrik Ibsen) isn’t very much to be proud of, our poetry would be a world heritage, were our langugages just wider spread.

    Outside poetry I consider ‘Whorfianisn’ a stupidity.

  25. Some years ago I picked up a copy of Thorleif Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. “Builds on the premise that language and thought are inevitably and inextricably bound up with each other. . . . A classic study of the differences between Greek and Hebrew thought,” says the enticing blurb on the cover.

    I’ve tried to read that sucker at least a dozen times. I can’t. It’s thicker than Bunker C at -40. The Wiki entry on Bible prophecy quotes the man:

    “The Norwegian scholar Thorleif Boman explained that the Israelites, unlike Europeans or people in the West, did not understand time as something measurable or calculable according to Hebrew thinking but as something qualitative:

    We have examined the ideas underlying the expression of calculable time and more than once have found that the Israelites understood time as something qualitative, because for them time is determined by its content.

    …the Semitic concept of time is closely coincident with that of its content without which time would be quite impossible. The quantity of duration completely recedes behind the characteristic feature that enters with time or advances in it. Johannes Pedersen comes to the same conclusion when he distinguishes sharply between the Semitic understanding of time and ours. According to him, time is for us an abstraction since we distinguish time from the events that occur in time. The ancient Semites did not do this; for them time is determined by its content.”

    Yes, Biblical Hebrew verb tenses are different from the ones that developed later and that more closely resemble, say, English verb tenses. (Of course we don’t know how biblical folks actually talked; all we have is a written — and redacted — record of their supposed speech.)

    But still: The Wiki editor cherry-picked. For me the book is impenetrable. Maybe it’s just a bad English translation from the German original. Or maybe not. (Boman seems to have been a respected Norwegian theologian; he’s got a short Wiki entry in that language.)

  26. Sir JCass says:

    By gad, sir, that’s the kind of analysis I love!

    Seconded. Bravo!

  27. English has initial stress in native words, but there are so many non-native words (half a million, versus perhaps 2000 native words) that there are plenty of iambic rhythms already available:

                                      Whence is that knocking?
    How is ’t with me when every noise appals me?
    What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
    Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.

    Incarnadine means ‘to make red’; it is a nonce verb.

  28. Also, English (unlike Russian) can reverse stresses within the foot, which makes things easier.

  29. Tom Recht says:

    marie-lucie: ῥοδανόν is actually the adjective I translated as “waving”; reed is δόναξ (whence δονακεύς “thicket of reeds”, acc. δονακῆα). Of course, “waving” could also make a sensible river name, but Wiki at least thinks the name of the Rhone is Gaulish.

    Paul: the name of Rhodes (Ῥόδος) has no established etymology, as far as I know; it looks a lot like the word for “rose”, ῥόδον, but that could well be coincidence. And the latter is a borrowing, cf. Arabic ward, Hebrew vered. (I don’t know if the name of Rhodes has turned up on the Linear B tablets; if it does, that might tell us something more.)

    Hat and Sir JCass: thank you kindly!

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Tom Recht!

  31. Unfortunately for us, the Swedes, we can’t make our poetry popular to others in the same way. The reason is, that Swedish is a tonal language, which shifts in vowel length, respiratory stress and pitch as well.

    Finland Swedish is (mostly) not tonal. Has anyone tried to make Swedish poetry popular to the language’s own native speakers in Finland?

    (Hometown umpiring aside, Tranströmer had an international reputation long before he was Nobelised.)

  32. GeorgeW says:

    John Cowan: “English has initial stress in native words, . . .”

    It is my impression that English (at least AmE) has default penultimate stress, with many exceptions. But, there are so many foreign loans that come with their native stress that it is hard to determine what the stress rules are. And, of course, there are many dialect differences. We, in the American South, like initial stress in our nouns like POlice. Then, there is noun/verb homophones like rePORT (noun) and REport (verb) . . . . .

    Maybe you are referring to English in a historical sense.

  33. I once saw a letter to the editor, from a professor of English, objecting to the pronunciation of “harass” with stress on the first syllable on the grounds that this pronunciation trivializes sexual harassment; the writer claimed that in English most of the violent verbs are iambs.

  34. GeorgeW says:

    “. . . the writer claimed that in English most of the violent verbs are iambs.”

    Hmm. BRUtal, SAvage, VIcious, saDIStic, . . .

    But then, TRANquil, PLAcid, GENtle, SErene . . . . .

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Verbs ?

  36. I once saw a letter to the editor, from a professor of English, objecting to the pronunciation of “harass” with stress on the first syllable on the grounds that this pronunciation trivializes sexual harassment; the writer claimed that in English most of the violent verbs are iambs.

    Was this in the Onion? If not, is the professor still gainfully employed?

  37. It was in the Boston Globe over twenty years ago. I don’t know who this was. I was tempted to write a rebuttal, but I didn’t want to risk looking like a churlish mansplainer who just doesn’t get it.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    a professor of English, objecting to the pronunciation of “harass”

    I am not surprised. English teachers and professors are typicallly ignorant of the structure of their language. There are linguists in some English departments, but they are in the minority.

    That said, with words that shift stress either with function (noun vs verb) or derivation there is frequently a conflict between stress patterns because of different models, eg verb haRASS, noun haRASSment tending towards HArassment perhaps on the model of GOvernment and others, hence sometimes the back-patterning of the verb as HArass. This sort of thing has to do with general stress patterns, not with specific semantic classes such as ‘violent verbs’, let alone ‘trivialization’.

  39. GeorgeW says:

    “Verbs ?”

    Okay, how about INjure, MIStreat, DAmage, MOlest, TORment, TORture, RAvish, RANsack . . .

  40. marie-lucie says:

    I am not a native speaker, but living in an English-speaking environment for decades. I would not stress all of these verbs on the first syllable.

  41. George W: I make it seRENE, misTREAT, and moLEST. My wife (born in North Carolina in 1943 but long resident in New York City) agrees with me on all of these, though she clings to such shibboleths as UMbrella and CEment (to say nothing of Y’ALL).

  42. Also MURder.

    I do realize that the convenient word “mansplain” did not exist at that time. By the way, I always imagine it is pronounced MANsplain, but I suppose it might be manSPLAIN.

  43. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Harass” with first-syllable stress is one of the few prescriptivist tics that got into my idiolect and stayed there. I’m pretty sure I got that from my (female, fwiw) 10th grade English teacher who was in general a wonderful person and very positive influence on my education. I have read somewhere or other that first-syllable stress (for that particular word) is more common in BrEng than AmEng so I expect she fell prey to the common illusion of thinking British = correct. She herself had grown up in a part of the U.S. (West Virginia) stereotypically associated with low-prestige/rustic dialects but there was nothing non-standard I can recall about her pronunciation or syntax. It seems possible in hindsight that she had invested energy in changing her own idiolect along the way for reasons of social mobility etc and thus thought it important to encourage others to do the same.

  44. Stefan Holm says:

    Des: Finland Swedish is (mostly) not tonal..Has anyone tried to make Swedish poetry popular to the language’s own native speakers in Finland?

    You can bet! The national-romantic poem cycle: Fänrik Ståls sägner, written by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg and opening with Finland’s National Anthem: Vårt land ‘Our Land’ (only later translated into Finnish – and iambic by the way), was mandatory reading in Swedish elementary schools until the mid-1960s.

    John: English has initial stress in native words, but there are so many non-native words (half a million, versus perhaps 2000 native words).

    But you forget that the numerous early French borrowings into English got the native first syllable stress. In that sense English was more true to its Germanic origin than Scandinavian. These words (spelled exactly the same in our languages) have intitial stress in English but (preserved from French) final in Swedish: station, vision, general, garage, journal, dualism, bastard, total….in a never ending row. So it couldn’t have been just a piece of cake for the man from Stratford-upon-Avon

  45. Well, garage has end-stress in American English.

  46. GeorgeW says:

    John Cowan: “I make it seRENE, misTREAT, and moLEST:

    On further review, I agree.

  47. Foot verse is very far from being a piece of cake in English. The native forms, including the inherited alliterative line but also the folk meters, (short, long, common, poulter’s) are all stress-verse (that is, the number of slacks is not counted). Likewise, rhyme is very difficult (too many vowels compared to Romance models, even French).

  48. Stefan Holm says:

    I’m too old, Hat. In the 1960s the USA was quite popular in Sweden when it came to movies, cars, HD bikes, rock’n’roll, jazz, blues, country music etc.And the reminicences of the US contributions in WWII were still alive. But of course the admiration wasn’t extended by the attempts to ‘bomb Vietnam back to stone age’ (Barry Goldwater) or the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.

    The Swedish educational authorities however sticked to the idea that RP is ‘proper’ English. And so I was taught. This means that I on this great blog is infallibly revealed as a foreigner but in first contact with native speakers of English as a member of the House of Lords.

    Young Swedes today speak American.They simply don’t care about their teachers.

  49. If it helps, I will think of you henceforth as a member of the House of Lords.

  50. AJP or Sir JCass can give you an official title.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    As a French youngster I learned RP. When I first came to the US many people thought I was English (although I could not possibly have fooled English people), but after a short time I lost all traces of RP and my French accent was revealed. Not altogether though: most people who first meet me (in English Canada) think I must be German or Dutch.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    I was told by another linguist that I didn’t sound really French because “my stresses were always in the right places”.

  53. des von bladet says:

    The Gopmeister, as they call him in the the Bulgarian steam-bath circuit in the Bronx, where he is a regular,, is on the podcast.

  54. Rodger C says:

    @J. W. Brewer: A West Virginian who has extirpated her regional accent is apt to have neuroses about usage and, unless she has some linguistic training, superstitions about it.

  55. Sir JCass says:

    AJP or Sir JCass can give you an official title.

    I think I can knight you, but AJP’s the one to go to for the really swanky titles. So if you want to be a margrave, a vidame or a voyevoda, ask him.

  56. the book he’s reviewing sounds fascinating; alas, it costs an arm and a leg

    Huge chunks of it are available free on the amazon site, Language. You just have to “look inside”. I find the book awfully long-winded, but it is a terrific idea.

    Incidentally, not only do I disagree that most younger Swedes (or Norwegians) speak English with an American accent, I’ve found that your average Scandinavian can’t reliably tell the difference between, say, RP and midwestern US speech.

    The H. of L. has never been especially RP. Its heyday there must have been postwar. Before then, they spoke the kind of upper-class that says “hice” for “house” and “gawn” for “gone”. I don’t know what that’s called, but despite its similarities it’s not RP. The kicking-out of most of the hereditary peers from the Lords during Blair’s regime has led to a wider range of regional accents being spoken there.

  57. Actually, if anyone has exotic sounding names it’s the Swedish nobility. John Emerson first drew our attention to this with the wiki List of Swedish Poncey Families.

  58. RP was an innovating middle-class accent in origin, and when first described did contain the CLOTH-LOT split and CLOTH=THOUGHT merger, hence “gawn” for “gone”. This split was eventually lost in its home country but retained in the Eastern U.S. I have it, and do say “gawn” for “gone” and “clawth” for “cloth”, which causes some flea-bitten Westerners to describe my accent as “half British”. Which is absurd.

  59. I quite often say gawn. It started as a Monty Python joke, but then I found my daughter (who picked up her English accent from me) says it and so now I do too. Do you say hice, John? I think that’s the shibboleth.

  60. My mother says Gawd for God. But I don’t think it’s because of some merger; I think it’s something special about that awe-inspiring word.

    On the other hand, years ago a friend of mine said “I’m not gahn, you know!” (meaning “gone”) and I heard it as “I’m not God, you know!” For me, God is Gahd and gone is something like gawn.

    And I feel as self-conscious as a centipede whenever I try to examine my own pronunciation of frog or log.

  61. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Gawn” is a plausible eye-dialect spelling of the normal/standard/prestige AmEng pronunciation (at least for those who lack the cot/caught merger, which is maybe at least a teensy bit non-prestige). It doesn’t strike me as posh or pretentious or armigerous or anything like that. This may be because I’m treating my own idiolect as the unmarked/default variety. But it ain’t bragging if it’s true, as the proverb goes.

  62. “Hice”, no. I have a rather conservative pronunciation of “house”, actually.

  63. I also think gawn is a pretty reasonable representation of how “gone” is pronounced in standard/prestige American English. It’s how I say it.

  64. Ø: And I feel as self-conscious as a centipede whenever I try to examine my own pronunciation of frog or log.

    Isn’t it frahg & lahg, or something similar?

    JW: It doesn’t strike me as posh or pretentious or armigerous or anything like that.

    No. It’s upper-class speak in Britain, though.

  65. J. W. Brewer says:

    AJP: that’s as may be, but for purposes of gauging what counts as standard/unmarked English pronunciation you can’t sensibly take account of people with foreign accents. (Of course when I was watching Monty Python as a lad — rerun on the local PBS station because of the hilarious cultural-cringe conceit that British = educational — it was full of nothing but comical foreign accents, but I couldn’t tell which ones were exaggerated for comic effect and which ones were dead-on accurate.)

  66. you can’t sensibly take account of people with foreign accents.

    Heavens, no. I’m talking about British RP vs the upper-class British accent. That was John, talking about his own accent.

  67. For me it’s dawg but frahg, lahg, fahg, idiosyncratically. These -og words are at the periphery of the CLOTH set, which mostly separates from LOT on the same basis that BATH separated from TRAP (a separation I don’t have): a postvocalic voiceless fricative, with or without intervening nasal (which is what separates BATH from DANCE among those who make that difference).

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Or look at the vowels in these descriptions of “sweet female speech”:

    Not just the vowels. Homer uses no less than three counts of /si/ in that short line, while Sappho has once /si/ and once /eːsas/.

    The Hebrew OT is laconic in the extreme (hey, parchment was expensive!).

    Parchment hadn’t been invented yet. I guess papyrus was used.

  69. Isn’t it frahg & lahg, or something similar?

    For me it’s more like frawg and lawg. Except when I stop and think about it it sounds funny, so I think maybe I’ll say frahg and lahg. But that sounds funny, too …

  70. See the Update to the post on the name issue.

  71. I love that BBC piece. If he thinks Shakespeare is a peculiar name, and it is, what about Sir Francis Bacon? There are some oddly named recent writers & poets: Edwidge Danticat springs to mind.

  72. Anthony Trollope a solidly sensible name? WTF? Is the word trollop ‘slovenly woman, prostitute’ utterly forgotten in the land of its birth? Or is this all irony on Gopnik’s part?

    In any case, Anthony got his revenge by naming his characters: we have Septimus Harding, John Bold, Tom Towers, Sir Abraham Haphazard, Olivia Proudie, Obadiah Slope, Letty Quiverful, Monica Thorne, Roger Scatcherd, Martha Dunstable, Patience Oriel, and the Duke of Omnium (whose ancestral seat is Castle Gatherum).

    Among comically named authors, certainly Charles Dickens deserves a place: there’s a mystery short story which depends on the fact that dickens is a name for the Devil, and both of Nicholas Nickelby’s names also suggest him.

  73. Is the word trollop ‘slovenly woman, prostitute’ utterly forgotten in the land of its birth?

    How dare you! I should like to see your evidence that prostitution is an English invention.

    If “what the dickens?” is a euphemism, like “what the heck?”, I’d still be interested to know why “dickens” was chosen and whether Shakespeare coined it or simply used it.

  74. Mr. Language Hat, please get hold of a copy of this Dictionary of Untranslatables and tell us what you think about the Slavic-related sections! There are claims made about the difference between pravda and truth, aletheia etc that you might find discussion-worthy.

  75. Well, of course not, Crown. Prostitution is the oldest profession (with the possible exceptions of lawyering and architecture), and the English are a few thousand years old at most.

    Dickens is evidently a nickname for Richard: “Jacky of Norfolk, be not too bold / For Diccon thy master is bought and sold”, as the Bard says elsewhere. Exactly why the Devil should be named Richard is unclear, but he has many names. There’s a folk etymology that he is called (Old) Nick in reference to Machiavelli, but Etymonline soberly says there is no known reason for it. Both nickel and cobalt (= kobold) are named after demons who put the wrong stuff in the ground for poor suffering miners to dig up in place of honest copper and silver respectively.

  76. Dickens is evidently a nickname for Richard

    I think you mean Dicken is a nickname for Richard; Dickens would be the genitive — cf. Peter(s).

  77. GeorgeW says:

    “I’d still be interested to know why “dickens” was chosen and whether Shakespeare coined it or simply used it.”

    Interesting. I grew up saying ‘dɪkɐnz’ as in, ‘She beat the dɪkɐnz out of him.’ I never associated this with Dickens (pronounced ‘dɪkInz’)

  78. Hat: Yes.

    George W: I’ve got the Weak Vowel (aka abbot-rabbit) Merger, so it’s all one to me.

    HS: We talked about pravda/istina in 2011; see especially my link to Wierzbicka’s paper.

  79. It turns out that Trollope is troll-hope, where hope is a dialectal word for ‘valley’. There may be a connection between trollop and troll, but if so it is obscure. I wonder if Trollope pronounced his name with a long vowel.

  80. I doubt it; surely the vowel would have been shortened in that position long before his time. But it should be possible to find early-20th-century recordings by people who would have known him, or at least used the pronunciation of his day.

  81. In Robert Lynn Asprin’s MythAdventures series, the male inhabitants of the dimension of Trollia are trolls, and the females are trollops.

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