IPSO FACTO.

I’ve never watched Doctor Who, though it seems like something I would have enjoyed had I grown up with it; this comment by Ray Girvan (on Mark Liberman’s Log post about the show) makes me feel that even more strongly:

I particularly liked the running joke in The Fires of Pompeii, where the English of the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate) was changed to Latin via the TARDIS’s translator, but if they actually spoke Latin, the Romans perceived it as Welsh:
Doctor: “Ah, well. Caveat emptor.”
CAECILIUS: “Oh, you’re Celtic. (Welsh accent) There’s lovely.”
Doctor: “Ipso facto.”
Caecilis: (doubtfully) “Look you.”
Doctor: (as guards draw swords): “Oh, morituri te salutant.”
Dextrus: “Celtic prayers won’t help you now.”

Comments

  1. I grew up with Who and it was great. Tom Baker was my Doctor (I imagine you already know that the Doctor could “regenerate”, i.e. turn into different actors. Tom Baker was the Fourth Doctor). Baker was brilliant because he came across as totally alien without the use of any cosmetics or prosthetics. Mind you, judging from what I’ve read he was pretty much like that in real life too. You might not approve, but the Fourth Doctor would sometimes use prescriptivism against his foes. In one episode, the villainous Cybermen threaten to “fragmentise” a planet and the Doctor sneers at their choice of verb. But I suppose if anyone deserves to have their English usage mocked, it’s megalomaniacs.

  2. More on Who and languages… The Welsh actor Philip Madoc, who sadly died recently, made several appearances on the programme in various different roles. Madoc was a brilliant polyglot and had actually trained as an interpreter and translator. According to this obituary: “He showed an early aptitude as a linguist at Cyfarthfa High School, Merthyr Tydfil, and went on to study Languages at the University of Wales before enrolling at the University of Vienna, where he became the first foreigner to win the Diploma of the Interpreters Institute. He ended up speaking seven languages, including Russian and Swedish, and had a working knowledge of Huron Indian, Hindi and Mandarin.
    “Having embarked on a career as an interpreter, he found the work soul-destroying: ‘I did dry-as-dust jobs like a sewing machine conference and political interpreting. You get to despise politicians when you have to translate the rubbish they spout.’”

  3. Oops, forgot to link the obituary properly.
    More, from an interview with Madoc:
    “He acquired a good knowledge of Albanian when teaching English in Vienna in 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising against communism.
    “Philip is today a lively member of the British-Albanian Society – and recently had a rare opportunity to use the complex Albanian language.
    “‘A couple of chaps were delivering furniture at home one day,’ he said, ‘and one of them turned out to be a refugee from Albania. So I started talking to him. You should have seen the expression on his face. He was just amazed to find an Albanian speaker in the English countryside!’”

  4. Merthyr Tydfil! I have a many-times-great-grandmother who came from there. A couple of aunts stopped by while visiting the U.K. a few decades ago in the hope of finding information about her, but as I recall they were unsuccessful.
    the complex Albanian language
    Sigh. But those are great stories, and he sounds like quite an interesting character.

  5. befuggled says:

    Well, any language is complex if you don’t understand it, right? And I’d be surprised if the interviewer spoke Albanian.
    For some reason I’ve never seen Dr. Who either. I suspect it’d be right up my alley.

  6. the complex Albanian language
    I bet that was the Daily Mirror interviewer’s comment, not Philip Madoc’s. My brother used to buy the Mirror, mainly for the sports coverage, and I remember reading one columnist complaining that he’d tried to learn Russian at school but had to give it up because “it had too many different words for things”.
    A couple of aunts stopped by while visiting the U.K. a few decades ago in the hope of finding information about her, but as I recall they were unsuccessful.
    I’m sure you’d have more success nowadays researching her on the Internet. I had to find out about some ancestors who lived in Cardiff in the mid-19th century and I managed to come up with a fair bit of information without even paying for access to genealogy sites.

  7. I bet that was the Daily Mirror interviewer’s comment, not Philip Madoc’s.
    Oh, I’m sure it was.
    Well, any language is complex if you don’t understand it, right? And I’d be surprised if the interviewer spoke Albanian.
    Well, yes, which is why (to the first point) it makes no sense to call a particular language complex when they all are, and (to the second) it makes no sense to call a language complex when you don’t know anything about it. But of course not knowing anything has never stopped a pundit (which is how a lot of reporters see themselves in their heart of hearts, if they don’t see themselves as novelists).

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am of Welsh descent, live in Wales, and have actual live Welsh speaking relatives in Merthyr so I win this thread.
    What I actually wanted to say is that Doctor Who (which I saw the first series of when it came out, so I win the thread again) is very variable indeed in quality, as you’d expect of such an epically long running franchise. The best series for a long time (IMHO) was the comeback series with Christopher Eccleston, which is the one LL is referring to with its planetary norths and all. I’d recommend it as a good starting place for neophytes, except that I’m not sure how much of its appeal is due to deliberate playing with the long running established tropes; conceivably it wouldn’t strke a complete newcomer as quite so good. On the other hand it has Billie Piper.
    If I may be permitted to start a flame war, Patrick Troughton is really the only Doctor. Others may come close …

  9. Bathrobe says:

    Actually, I never got over the demise of William Hartnell.

  10. Bathrobe says:

    I found this paragraph rather interesting:
    “In the 1990s he starred as DCI Noel Bain in four series of A Mind to Kill, which was particularly successful in the United States, where it was favourably compared to Morse. Each scene of the series was filmed first in Welsh, then in English, prompting Madoc to muse that identical lines and characters were often transformed by the different languages.”

  11. David is right; I haven’t watched it for nearly 50 years, but the quality when I was a child was pretty low. The daleks, the bad guys, couldn’t even climb stairs, because they were on tiny trolley wheels. Not too scary. Apart from the rubber-band music, which was frightfully clever for 1963-ish, I only really enjoyed the first episode – so I beat everybody.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    Yes, I used to wonder about the daleks, too. Apart from their scary voices (“Exterminate!”) and that cool weapon that made the whole screen go into (photographic) negative mode, they didn’t seem a serious threat to civilisation since they could only operate on flat, paved surfaces.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Daleks were upgraded with regard to mobility some time back; the Christopher Eccleston series actually has quite a good joke based on this which I won’t spoil.
    It does lend support to my feeling that some familiarity with the schlockier aspects of the original series is a prerequisite for really appreciating the rebooted version. I wouldn’t have thought it would be easy to get into de novo. (On the other hand, my teenage children, who have no memory of the older series, seem to appreciate it well enough. Perhaps they’ve acquired sufficient background information by pure British popcultural osmosis.)

  14. Electric Dragon says:

    It’s also a bit of an in-joke, as the revival of the series is produced by BBC Wales and based at studios near Cardiff.
    Although it did lead me to muse whether the TARDIS was doing the “right” translation: because if it translates into a language appropriate to status, then maybe it should be English:Latin::Latin:(Ancient) Greek? On the other hand maybe the Romans are actually hearing modern English – wouldn’t that sound Germanic to their ears? (I’m overthinking this, obviously, but Whovians are prone to overthinking. See for example the magnificent TARDIS Eruditorum at http://tardiseruditorum.blogspot.co.uk/ )

  15. befuggled says:

    I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that most journalists don’t know what they’re doing outside of their narrow area of expertise. Frankly a lot of them don’t seem to know what they’re doing inside it, either.

  16. Well, yes, which is why (to the first point) it makes no sense to call a particular language complex when they all are, and (to the second) it makes no sense to call a language complex when you don’t know anything about it.
    Um … There is a tricky universal quantifier hiding in the first part of that sentence, and the second part contradicts the first. On the assumption that you don’t know all languages, how will you justify a claim that they are all complex ? Confronted with such dilemmas, I try to encourage myself with the motto: Tout comprendre, ce n’est pas tout.

  17. Apart from their scary voices (“Exterminate!”)
    That was scary.
    Just as Sean Connery is Bond, I too think that William Hartnell was the only real Doctor. He had the right panicky voice and Albert Einstein appearance. Later, I saw Hartnell in a film where he had a Birmingham accent; that was disconcerting.

  18. For my generation Dr Who is Tom Baker and Bond is Roger Moore.
    Ironically BBC Wales is the only place you won’t hear the Welsh language apart from placenames, personal names and the odd “nos da” (good night) at the end of a news show.

  19. The effects in the first era of Doctor Who were frequently ropey (which is part of the charm now) but the scripts were usually wittier and more literate than the show’s bigger budget US “children’s sci-fi” rivals (yes, I’m looking at you, Mr Lucas). Who completely lost it during the 1980s but the rebooted version is pretty watchable and has decent effects. And I’d rather watch any story from the first four doctors, however bad, than the Star Wars prequels. Actually, I’d rather have my eyes poked out than watch those turkeys again.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    Star Wars put me off Lucas for life.

  21. “Each scene of the series was filmed first in Welsh, then in English, prompting Madoc to muse that identical lines and characters were often transformed by the different languages.”
    That was something they often did in the early days of sound cinema. According to the booklet notes in my copy of the Masters of Cinema DVD of Fritz Lang’s M:
    “It was common practice in the early 1930s to shoot a film in several different languages on the set, using different actors if necessary, but the same sets, the same or similar camera set-ups, the same lighting, etc. One can distinguish between several different kinds of multi-language versions. In Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930), for example, the same cast speaks English (logically justified by making Lola a British singer and her suitor a professor of English); in G.W.Pabst’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1931), a mainly new French cast replace the German actors; and in Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), different actors are only used for some of the bigger parts, while others are dubbed…
    “It is interesting to note that dubbing did exist at that early stage in the sound era, as did subtitling. But dubbing and subtitling were probably felt as obtrusive and often jarring by the audience, and they drew attention to the fact that what you were watching was a foreign film. A multi-language version, on the other hand, if done right, often succeeded in letting the film pass as a home-made product.”

  22. I never watched the first era of Dr. Who, but I love the second. Give it a try, I’m sure many of you will like it. Specially the 2005 episodes with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and the next ones (2006-2008) with David Tennant in that role.

  23. to shoot a film in several different languages on the set, using different actors if necessary
    Over the last few years, I have been an astonished witness to TV interviews conducted in French or German with well-known American actors. Unfortunately I can’t remember who these were, since I am not a film freak. I suppose I formerly thought of film actors as just meat blankets for the producer’s couch.
    Well, one multilingual actor just occurs to me: Orson Welles, but the interviews I saw were with people like di Caprio, Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep (these may not be the right examples).

  24. Another such actor was Peter Ustinov. But these examples are dating me, so I’d better stop now.

  25. Ustinov wasn’t an American anyway.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    it makes no sense to call a particular language complex when they all are, and … it makes no sense to call a language complex when you don’t know anything about it.
    I would say “all languages are complex, but some languages are more complex than others”.
    And all languages that you don’t know are equally complex to you, so a journalist is quite safe in declaring them complex. Albanian is not on the (very short) list of commonly taught languages, so it must be complex.
    At one time there was a widespread though totally unfounded belief that “primitive” languages (spoken by “primitive” peoples) must be very simple, and as that belief was proved wrong again and again by missionaries and linguists, their “complexity” started to be mentioned (eg in recent stories about the Piraha language). Perhaps as a result, languages unfamiliar to journalists are now regularly described as “complex”, while German or Spanish are not.

  27. The recently rediscovered English-language version of M is included as a bonus on a second DVD. Lang took no part in producing it. Some of it is reshot and some of it is dubbed. I’ve just watched bits of it and it’s a very peculiar affair, rather dreadful in fact. It was quickly dropped in favour of a subtitled version of the German original. The great novelty is that Peter Lorre, the star, speaks English for the first time in his film career. To me his accent sounds very little like the one he used in later Hollywood movies like The Maltese Falcon; he’s clearly struggling.
    Lang refused to have anything to do with the English or French versions because he felt the different German dialects and accents were integral to the film. According to Robert Fischer, “Lorre’s Austrian accent…already brands him as an outsider among the Berliners…There are at least four different kinds of ‘languages’ in M: that of the upper class (the police commissioner, the minister), that of the working class (including Inspector Lohmann), that of the crooks and beggars, and that of the murderer [Lorre].”

  28. And all languages that you don’t know are equally complex to you, so a journalist is quite safe in declaring them complex.
    Exactly parallel would be:
    All countries that you don’t know are equally exotic to you, so a journalist is quite safe in declaring them exotic.
    I’ve actually come to hate the word “exotic”; it is devoid of content except as a smug signifier of “strange foreigners who can be ignored except for their entertainment value.”

  29. My own doctor was Baker, though I wasn’t much of a fan of the show as a child, not least because I often found British accents impenetrable, and much of the humor as well (that’s the price you pay for being a colonial this side of the pond, I suppose): but despite the poor visual effects the stories were often quite gripping. Indeed, perhaps it was cause and effect: without stunning visual effects the creators/producers knew they had to rely on a strong script (and conversely, thanks to stunning visual effects today plots and scripts can be, and typically are, abominable).
    I followed the re-booted show, but lost interest after David Tennant’s run: the show is now too repetitive/formulaic, to my eyes in any case.
    THE FIRES OF POMPEII was the only episode to my knowledge, however, in either series, which explored the TARDIS’s translation capabilites: otherwise it was as unobtrusive as STAR TREK’s universal translator. For a lover of language DOCTOR WHO is mostly of interest because of its plays on words, neologisms, and use of accents (or sometimes misuse: in the original series some of the “American” accents, for example, were atrocious but gave a fascinating glimpse of perceptual dialectology from a British vantage point).

  30. Apparently, The Fires of Pompeii wasn’t Who’s only exploration of linguistics. According to this site, the Tom Baker story State of Decay discussed consonantal shift:
    “The Fourth Doctor mentioned this to Romana II when discussing how the names of the Hydrax’s officers, Miles Sharkey, Lauren MacMillan and Anthony O’Connor, had changed to Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon.
    “…According to Terrance Dicks [the script editor], Christopher H. Bidmead’s revision of State of Decay had featured an extensive amount of speech about consonantal shift as he apparently found it fascinating. However, Dicks had it toned down.”

  31. it makes no sense to call a particular language complex when they all are
    News flash: Hat spouts dubious Chomskyite dogma, film at 11.

  32. I never saw Doctor Who. After Harlan Ellison (who would have made a pretty good Doctor, by all reports, bar his accent) pushed it, I got and read the first two Doctor Who books, but didn’t like them enough to carry on (in either sense of that transatlantically variable term).

  33. Hat spouts dubious Chomskyite dogma
    Gosh, how exciting ! It seems that there’s something at that link to justify feelings of superiority, if not of contempt – but I can’t quite figure out what that might be …
    Is “all languages are equally complex” (whatever that means) an essential item of Chomskyite dogma, or does it follow immediately from ditto first principles ? Does the link show a Chomskyite being shown up as a revisionist, so that Chomsky comes out unscathed (like Stalin betraying Lenin, or Lenin betraying Marx) ?
    I think the link author says all we need to know about him, in the following initial passage:

    Now, if you have tried to learn French, and then Spanish, you might have noticed just a tad of a difference. Spanish has nowhere as many impossibly difficult vowels as French, nowhere as many abominably irregular verbs, nowhere as crazy a spelling… But let’s not get personal, so allow me to take as an example two languages which will not make anyone raise an eyebrow, I am sure. One is called Tolomako, the other Sakao.

    This is a good example of someone trying to hide provincial dust bunnies beneath exotic throw-rugs.

  34. I agree with Grumbly; furthermore, I didn’t say anything about all languages being equally complex, I just said they were all complex. Which they are.

  35. I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that most journalists don’t know what they’re doing outside of their narrow area of expertise. Frankly a lot of them don’t seem to know what they’re doing inside it, either.
    I know from long experience that many journalists are obliged to flit from subject to subject daily, which led me to coin the expression: “You are either an expert in three days or 10 years.”
    Because you have somehow to get a working knowledge of the subject instantly, then have to move on to something completely different and do it again. Occasionally, with luck, you can use what you did learn when a similar situation arises later (in my case, oil spills).
    But of course not knowing anything has never stopped a pundit (which is how a lot of reporters see themselves in their heart of hearts, if they don’t see themselves as novelists).
    The “pundit” journos are those with the luxury of covering one beat for a long time. Most of us real hacks have no pretensions to be novelists either (though one of my greatest friends, a true hack, did want to be a playwright when young. I think reality shows such as the Lebanese civil war cured that).

  36. Trond Engen says:

    My wife started watching the first episode of the Eccleston series when it was sent here in … 2006 or something. I wasn’t particularly interested, so I sat reading, but somehow I got caught interested enough in the dialogue to start listening, and when the “Northerner” line came I was caught. It’s another one of those lines I drop whenever I find occasion, but maybe not here.
    It wasn’t especially difficult catching up. Even references to old series.
    (I liked Eccleston best, but the two after him are good too, each in their own way. But I’ve just started thinking I’m getting bored with increasingly complicated buildups for season-finales now. And with people dying and time being reversed to save them.)

  37. dearieme says:

    Just as Who is undoubtedly Hartnell, so Madoc is undoubtedly the U-boat skipper.

  38. Grumbly:
    Sakao and Tolomako aren’t exotic to Guy: he did field linguistics on both languages. And since he is himself French, anything negative he says about French is a “statement against interest” and can probably be believed. (He posted here once, on the idea that Everett’s Piraha was a hoax.)
    As for Chomskyite dogmas, “all languages are equally complex” is certainly one of them, though whether it follows from other principles or not is not known to me.
    Hat:
    True that, complex vs. equally complex. In any case I was only tweaking your brim.

  39. And no, Guy is anti-Chomsky, like most people in the field linguistics tradition.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    As for Chomskyite dogmas, “all languages are equally complex” is certainly one of them
    I don’t think this dogma originated with Chomsky, “all languages are equal” was a tenet of pre-Chomskyan structural linguistics (so if one is complex, all are complex, although in different ways). Perhaps it was adopted by Chomsky, but this did not result from his investigations of a variety of languages (which he did not do) but through his (later) notion of “universal grammar”, allegedly the master plan for all human languages.

  41. John Cowan: Sakao and Tolomako aren’t exotic to Guy: he did field linguistics on both languages
    That’s all very well for him, but not for his argument. That’s why I spoke of a cover-up.
    First he expresses simple-minded opinions, unworthy of a professional linguist, about the relative difficulty of French and Spanish, two major languages familiar to everybody. To argue in support of those opinions, he switches from French and Spanish to two languages nobody knows except him and his esoterically-minded buddies.
    That is a style of argument one is accustomed to from toothpaste advertisements and patent applicants. Important-sounding, arcane language and examples are wheeled in for scientific show effect.

  42. And since he is himself French, anything negative he says about French is a “statement against interest” and can probably be believed.
    To make a “statement against interest” is a classic rhetorical maneuver to wow thoughtful punters. But since interests can be wrong-headed, I don’t see how the credibility of a claim would be increased by going against them.
    In any case, the internal consistency of an argument (or the startling effect of apparent inconsistency “against interest”) is not evidence for anything, neither credibility nor plausibility. Internal consistency is just a minimum requirement that one expects a scientific argument to meet – just as one expects that the scientist has brushed his teeth before delivering the argument.

  43. Marie-Lucie: Doubtless I was unfair to call it a “Chomskyite dogma”, then, though it is certainly a dogma of Chomsky’s school, along with what Everett calls the Translation Principle, the idea that every language can be trivially translated into every other.
    Grumbly: Not to argue in support of his opinions on French and Spanish, no. He gives us French and Spanish, and then Sakao and Tolomako, in defense of his broader “some languages are more complex” opinion. The one example is not meant to shore up the other. And anyway, someone who speaks French natively is not going to exaggerate its degree of difficulty, was my point; it wasn’t difficult for him to learn, after all.

  44. I did see your point, I assume you see mine – a rather banal one – about arcaneness as a diversionary tactic.
    someone who speaks French natively is not going to exaggerate its degree of difficulty
    When I came to Europe, not a few French intellectuals I met were covertly supercilious about the ability of furriners to learn proper-like French, Americans in particular. That attitude has gone now, since they’re running scared that so few people want to learn their silly old language.
    Just joking, of course. I have learned to blame my difficulties over the years not on French, but on several traditional, untenable views I unwittingly shared about the acquisition of languages. My most recent revelation was about the function of grammar and anticipation in recognizing phonetic patterns – so plausible when once it is said.

  45. My experience with French has again confirmed my belief that the process of learning anything must, after a certain point and gradually, become a process of forgetting – the preformed ideas, the rigid rules, the beavering towards predetermined goals. They’re OK to start with, but a hindrance farther down the road.
    I don’t know in detail how this works, and have no theory about it. I catch myself now listening to Arte for hours, only occasionally not understanding something, and I think: “How is this possible ?? Only a few months ago you were griping about ‘difficulties’ !?”

  46. All roads lead to Chomsky… Actually, it’s a little known fact that in the late eighties there was a move to revive Doctor Who’s flagging fortunes by offering Noam the leading role after Sylvester McCoy left. The deal fell through when Chomsky insisted he be promoted to Professor Who.

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