INFLATIONARY ENGLISH AND REVOLUTIONARY RUSSIAN.

I don’t know if anyone younger than me and a few of my similarly well-aged readers remembers Victor Borge, the musical comedian; he had a routine called “Inflationary Language” in which he added one to numbers embedded in words, so that “once upon a time” becomes “twice upon a time,” “wonderful” becomes “twoderful,” and so on. (You can read a version of the routine here and see him performing it via YouTube here.) I just ran across a parallel game played in Russia a century ago in Teffi‘s memoir (in Russian) of Fyodor Sologub (whom I wrote about here). She writes (original Russian below the cut):

We [those gathered at one of Sologub’s literary evenings] decided to write a novel in the new style [this would have been after the 1905 revolution, when informality and popular language were all the rage]. It started like this:
“На улицу вышел человек в синих панталонах” [Na ulitsu vyshel chelovek v sinikh pantalonakh] (‘There came out onto the street a person in dark-blue pants’).
In the new style it was written like this:
“На у-роже ты-шел лоб-столетие в ре-них хам-купо-нах” [Na u-rozhe ty-shel lob-stoletie v re-nikh kham-kuponakh: here улицу [ulitsu] ‘street’ is analyzed as containing a form of лицо [litso] ‘face’ and thus the latter is replaced by the slang word рожа ‘mug’; вышел [vyshel] ‘went out’ is taken as containing вы [vy], the polite form of ‘you,’ which of course is replaced by the informal ты [ty]; человек [chelovek] ‘person’ is analyzed as чело ‘forehead’ (archaic) + век ‘age, century’ and replaced by the standard words for ‘forehead’ and ‘century,’ лоб [lob] and столетие [stoletie]; the си in синих [sinikh] ‘dark blue’ is taken as “si” of solfège (i.e., B) and replaced by “re” (i.e., D)—I confess I don’t understand the rationale for this; and панталонах [pantalonakh] ‘pants, trousers’ (at the time—now it refers to women’s undergarments) is taken as пан [pan] ‘gentleman’ + талон [talon] ‘coupon,’ which are replaced by хам [kham] ‘boor’ (reflecting the trendy new anti-bourgeois feeling) and купон [kupon] ‘coupon’ (newer word).]
The game was thoroughly stupid, but terribly captivating, and many of our circle of writers eagerly took part in this nonsense. And many serious and even gloomy people, like Sologub himself, at first shrugged their shoulders doubtfully, then, as if unwillingly, thought up a word or two, and off they went. They got into it.


Teffi’s Russian:

Решили писать роман по новому ладу. Начало было такое:
“На улицу вышел человек в синих панталонах”.
По-новому писали так:
“На у-роже ты-шел лоб-столетие в ре-них хам-купо-нах”.
Игра была из рук вон глупая, но страшно завлекательная, и многие из нашего писательского кружка охотно разделывали эту чепуху. И многие серьезные и даже мрачные, как и сам Сологуб, сначала недоуменно пожимали плечами, потом, словно нехотя, придумывали слова два-три, а там и пошло. Втягивались.

Comments

  1. ni-x could be da-y(igrek) maybe
    so that no syllables were left unchanged

  2. i missed ‘na u- shel’
    those could be ‘pod, exal/lejal/bejal etc
    u i can’t change something not u, maybe something like far, daleko

  3. AJP Crown says:

    панталонах [pantalonakh] … refers to women’s undergarments … The game was thoroughly stupid, but terribly captivating, and many of our circle of writers eagerly took part in this nonsense.

  4. I’m only 41, but I grew up listening to Borge’s records, and enjoyed Language Log’s recent “deflationary language” homage to him.

  5. AJP: Heh. Yes, the parallel had occurred to me.

  6. AJP Crown says:

    I used to be fine. Now I see панталонах everywhere.

  7. “Now I see панталонах everywhere.”
    Most unfivetunate.

  8. “Now I see панталонах everywhere.”
    Most unfivetunate.

    Shouldn’t that be “most unfivetunine?

  9. unfivethreenine,
    pantalonu could mean just regular pants too iirc, clown’s wear, for example

  10. twofivethreenine, or is that a stretch?

  11. I’m 27 and I love Borge. I even gave my mother, 52, a boxed set of his TV series for Christmas this year. Now, him being Danish may have had something to do with the longevity of his reputation in Iceland.
    The Russian game, with local variations, can be played in any language, I’m sure.

  12. I’m in my mid-40s and also remember Victor Borge: my mother, whose family heritage is partly Danish, has always loved him. I always particularly enjoyed Borge’s renditions of punctuation.

  13. Well, Kari Tulinius reveals themself to be younger than me, so I’ll be quiet.
    -ish.
    I did give my mother a DVD with various Borge performances some years back. No box, though. There was a portrait programme of him on the telly here this week. Not that I saw it since I’d returned home by then.
    His phonetic interpunctuation is hilarious too. Supposedly one of the first things he performed in the US before he even spoke the language. Aforementioned programme was advertised with clips of him doing it to a song performed by Dean Martin. Well, DM tried to perform, but he was as crippled with laughter as poor Michaela Petri, the recordionist, was when she was supposed to play with him for one of his 80th anniversary concerts.
    Youtube to the rescue!

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The Russian game, with local variations, can be played in any language, I’m sure.

    I want to see it done in Mandarin before I believe it.

  15. I remember hearing the Victor Borge phonetic pronunciation routine, but for some reason I don’t remember ever seeing it as a video. And yes we were one of the first families in town to get television when it first came out. If you stop to think about it, his routines are a bit silly. Their total genius is in Borge’s timing–he interacts perfectly with the audience, but the gags also work on several levels. If you notice in the “inflationary language” video, the audience is not following all of the jokes–I had to really focus to catch most of them–but he doesn’t miss a beat, and everyone is on the edge of their seats to the very end.

  16. There seem to be tons of similar Mandarin word games, so I bet they have that one too.
    One of my Taiwan students used “san ba” (=38) in a suggestive way. It might have been a pun of some type, or it may just mean a 38″ bust.

  17. There seem to be tons of similar Mandarin word games, so I bet they have that one too.
    One of my Taiwan students used “san ba” (=38) in a suggestive way. It might have been a pun of some type, or it may just mean a 38″ bust.

  18. “twofivethreenine, or is that a stretch?”
    Strictly, it should be deuxfivethreenine.

  19. deuxfivethreenine
    I thought so, but wasn’t sure of the French.
    Spanish: dosfivethreenine.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    There seem to be tons of similar Mandarin word games, so I bet they have that one too.

    How could they?
    They have metric shitloads of ordinary puns that involve homophones and near-homophones, however.

  21. You’d just look through the four-word cheng-yu to find one that used at least one numeric-equivalent syllable and then substitute a different numeric-equivalent syllable.
    For example, if it were a superlative, ***jiu would be even more superlative than ***ba. You’d need to have the phrases somewhat adjacent, or the new one would be uninterpretable, but that’s true of the ones we’re talking about too.

  22. You’d just look through the four-word cheng-yu to find one that used at least one numeric-equivalent syllable and then substitute a different numeric-equivalent syllable.
    For example, if it were a superlative, ***jiu would be even more superlative than ***ba. You’d need to have the phrases somewhat adjacent, or the new one would be uninterpretable, but that’s true of the ones we’re talking about too.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Oh. Of course. That should work.

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