Karamzin on the English Language.

Karamzin is still in London (see this post), and he’s indulged himself in a rant about English which I thought I would pass on for your delectation and amusement:

I will end this letter with a few words about the English language. It is the easiest and simplest of all the languages on earth; it has almost no grammar, and whoever knows the particles of and to knows declension, whoever knows will and shall knows conjugation; all the irregular verbs can be learned in a single day. But you who can read Robertson and Fielding, even Thomson and Shakespeare, like an alphabet book will be as if deaf and dumb among Englishmen; that is, they will not understand you, nor you them. So difficult is English conversation, and so hard it is to recognize when you hear it the word that you know with your eyes! I understand everything that’s written to me, but in conversation I have to guess. It seems that Englishmen’s mouths are bound, or a heavy duty has been laid by a ministry on their opening, because they barely part their lips, they whistle or hint rather than speak. In general, the English language is rough, unpleasant to listen to, but rich and polished in all genres of writing — rich in what has been stolen or (so as not to offend British pride) taken from others. All learned words, and most of the ones relating to morality, are taken from French or Latin, and the fundamental verbs from German. The Romans, Saxons, and Danes destroyed the Britannic people and their language; they say that in Wales there are still remnants of it. The mixed character of the English language does not hinder it from being powerful and expressive, and the boldness of its poets is astonishing; but as for harmony, and that which in rhetoric is called number, it is entirely nonexistent. The words are jerky, the phrases short, and there is not the least variety in the periods. In verse, the measure is always identical: four or five iambs with masculine endings. — Honor and glory to our language, which in its native richness, almost without foreign admixture, flows like a proud and mighty river, resounds, roars — and suddenly, if necessary, softens, murmurs like a tender stream and sweetly pours itself into the soul, forming all the measures that are to be found in the fall and rise of the human voice!

А я заключу это письмо двумя-тремя словами об английском языке. Он всех на свете легче и простее, совсем почти не имеет грамматики, и кто знает частицы of и to, знает склонения; кто знает will и schall, знает спряжения; все неправильные глаголы можно затвердить в один день. Но вы, читая, как азбуку, Робертсона и Фильдинга, даже Томсона и Шекспира, будете с англичанами немы и глухи, то есть ни они вас, ни вы их не поймете. Так труден английский выговор, и столь мудрено узнать слухом то слово, которое вы знаете глазами! Я все понимаю, что мне напишут, а в разговоре должен угадывать. Кажется, что у англичан рты связаны или на отверстие их положена министерством большая пошлина: они чуть-чуть разводят зубы, свистят, намекают, а не говорят. Вообще английский язык груб, неприятен для слуха, но богат и обработан во всех родах для письма — богат краденым или (чтоб не оскорбить британской гордости) отнятым у других. Все ученые и по большей части нравственные слова взяты из французского или из латинского, а коренные глаголы из немецкого. Римляне, саксонцы, датчане истребили и британский народ и язык их; говорят, что в Валлисе есть некоторые его остатки. Пестрота английского языка не мешает ему быть сильным и выразительным, а смелость стихотворцев удивительна; но гармонии и того, что в реторике называется числом, совсем нет. Слова отрывистые, фразы короткие, и ни малого разнообразия в периодах. Мера стихов всегда одинакая: ямбы в 4 или в 5 стоп с мужеским окончанием. — Да будет же честь и слава нашему языку, который в самородном богатстве своем, почти без всякого чуждого примеса, течет, как гордая, величественная река — шумит, гремит, — и вдруг, если надобно, смягчается, журчит нежным ручейком и сладостно вливается в душу, образуя все меры, какие заключаются только в падении и возвышении человеческого голоса!

(I trust I’ve identified “Robertson” correctly; the Scottish historian is pretty much forgotten today, but I can’t imagine who else might be meant.)

Addendum. Karamzin’s usual serving girl is temporarily replaced by the shy and lovely seventeen-year-old Sophia, with whom he has an enjoyable conversation, and he muses:

To my surprise, English phrases came to me of their own accord, and if I could speak every day with the charming Sophia, in a month I would start to talk like a parliamentary orator!

Впрочем, к моему удивлению, английские фразы сами собою мне представлялись, и если бы я всякий день мог говорить с прелестною Софиею, то через месяц заговорил бы, как – оратор парламента!

Comments

  1. Good Olde English really is quite a masculine language. What an enjoyable ramble!

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Leaving aside the linguistic chauvinism, which I think was pretty standard on all sides in his day, it’s not so far off the mark in some ways. Though statements like

    “It is the easiest and simplest of all the languages on earth”

    are usually a sign that the writer’s knowledge is a whole lot less than he supposes. Or that he’s a native speaker not greatly given to deep reflection on language.

    (I’ve come across similar statements made by a colonial era Spanish bishop regarding Nahuatl, even.)

    I sympathise with his discovery that conversing informally in a foreign language is a hell of a lot harder than reading it.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    The old “Teach Yourself” Swahili had an introduction where the writer says IIRC “there may be no language which is easier.” Another bishop, I think. What is it with bishops?

  4. Primo Levi says something somewhere (I can’t find it at the moment) to the effect that just because you can read English, even sixteenth-century English, doesn’t mean you won’t be tongue-tied at the simple questions of a customs official.

  5. I suspect that Karamzin wanted to pronounce the words he recognized as Gallicisms / Latinisms the “right” French / Latin way, or what he identified as German words, the German way, hence his oral communication barriers? I’ve known people who learned written English as a third / fourth language (having French or German as the 2nd language) who experienced this specific problem.

    or (so as not to offend British pride) taken from others
    is properly “taken by force from others”. It isn’t about borrowing or exchange, it’s about pillage of conquest.

    Пестрота is translated above as “mixed character of” but it’s a livelier word, it means motley, hodgepodge

    Lastly, could you olease expound on the meaning on Number in Rhetoric? Pythagorean numerology and its applications to music are cool, but I just couldn’t find anywhere how it related to rhetoric (where Pythagoras seems to be known solely for epideixis) or, for that matter, what Karamzin had in mind. You know that I’m crazy about the old notions of rhythms in rhetoric and verse and their relations with the music of celestial spheres :)

  6. marie-lucie says:

    It seems to me that Karamzin is not complaining about his lack of fluency in English, but about the discrepancy between sound and spelling in the language. He can read English, but reading the language without hearing it has left him totally lost in conversation: he cannot recognize what others are saying, and neither can they recognize what he wants to say. For instance, he has no problem recognizing written English words which are of French or Latin origin, but if he is pronouncing them as in French the English speakers cannot recognize them.

  7. Stefan Holm says:

    You’re so right, John! Although I with just minor problems can read novels as well as textbooks in English (even Shakespeare) I have found myself an idiot in many everyday situations when actually having to speak English. One of the most embarassing ones was when I in the amusement park here in Gothenburg was asked by two American girls about where to find the roller coaster. I must have, as we put it in Swedish, ‘looked like a birdhouse’. Roll? Coast? ‘Sorry, I don’t know’, was my bleak answer although I perfectly well knew where to find berg och dalbanan, ‘the mountain and valley track’ .

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    For whatever reason, he seems to have found it hard to pick out the words he did know in conversation (extrapolating a bit from his remarks about whistling and not opening mouths.)

    I think he may in fact have been on to something, in that my experience suggests that languages really do vary in the degree to which you can pick out individual words and phrases when you only know the language imperfectly. For example, I would say French is unusually hard, whereas German is easier. Obviously this is going to be affected by one’s native language – German is much closer to English prosodically than French is. But I suspect languages really do vary objectively in this. (I find it relatively easy to pick out what the words actually are in Japanese speech, for example, even when I don’t understand them individually.)

    As a native speaker, I can’t tell where English would fall on this line, but I suspect it would be toward the harder end.

  9. Lastly, could you please expound on the meaning on Number in Rhetoric? Pythagorean numerology and its applications to music are cool, but I just couldn’t find anywhere how it related to rhetoric (where Pythagoras seems to be known solely for epideixis) or, for that matter, what Karamzin had in mind. You know that I’m crazy about the old notions of rhythms in rhetoric and verse and their relations with the music of celestial spheres

    I wish I could, but I know less than nothing about it — I considered myself lucky to find that link, and left my readers to make of it what they could. If you come across something better, please share it!

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think he just means “rhythm, metre”, as in Pope’s

    I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.

    Classical rhetoric pays a lot of attention to rhythm in prose, not just verse.

    That would fit with what he goes on to say, as well.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Numeri” in Latin also means “metre, rhythm.” I would imagine that like most Latin linguistic terminology it’s a calque from Greek, but my Greek lexicon seems to have disappeared.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ovid, Tristia IV,10,21

    saepe pater dixit ‘studium quid inutile temptas?
    Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes.’
    motus eram dictis, totoque Helicone relicto
    scribere temptabam verba soluta modis.
    sponte sua carmen numeros veniebat ad aptos,
    et quod temptabam scribere versus erat.

    My father often said: “Why are you trying this useless stuff? Even Homer didn’t make any money out of it.” I took his point, and abandoned poetry altogether, and had a go at writing prose. But a poem would turn up all in the right metre – whatever I tried to write came out as verse.”

  13. The old “Teach Yourself” Swahili had an introduction where the writer says IIRC “there may be no language which is easier.”

    My copy of ‘First Steps in Assyrian’ (a book for beginners, being a series of historical, mythological, religious, magical, epistolary and other texts printed in cuneiform characters with interlinear transliteration and translation), published in London in 1898, lets it be known in the preface that “[f]or the convenience of the beginner all the Babylonian texts included in this volume have been transcribed into the Assyrian character. It is of the greatest importance for him to become master of the so-called Ninevite script as soon as possible for almost every work found in Ashur-bani-pal’s Royal Library at Nineveh is written in it. His Babylonian studies should begin when he is able read the ordinary Assyrian character with ease.”

    Convenient or otherwise, my Babylonian studies will not be commencing anytime soon.

  14. What I guess was happening with Number and Measure in rhetoric and sound of speech was that XVIII c. was a period of synthesis of theories of rhetoric, poetry, and drama with the theory of music, which profoundly impacted the way the composers worked. It was presaged by XVI-XVIIth centuries development of Musica Poetica, which initially used the principles of classic rhetoric to compose vocal music, and later on, instrumental, following such works as 1563 Praecepta musicae poeticae by Gallus Dressler and 1650 Musurgia Universalis by Athanasius Kircher (who was a distinguished linguist and mathematician in addition to his being a musical theoretician). In Book VIII of Musurgia Universalis, Kircher expounded on “musarithmetic” approach to composition with numerous tables and formulas showing how to translate into music all of the Greek poetic meters, and then shifting from poems in Greek and Latin to poetic meters of Hebrew, Chaldaic, Arabic, Samaritan, Ethiopian, Armenian, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Illyrian. Musical rhetoric introduced further variation in the simpler sequences and formulas for rhetorical purposes. In XVIII c. Mattheson and Forkel developed the notion of tropes and figures as elements of rhetoric in music, and whole genres of XVIII c. music (fugue, fantasia) came out of this line of musicological thought, most profoundly developed by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach’s son and extremely influential composer and theorist of his time).

    :) of course one can’t quite get away from Pythagoras and the Music of Celestial Spheres on this quest, since Kircher’s legendary machine for musarithmetically automated composition also figures prominently in many tracts on divine / natural / non-human nature of music.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    It may indeed be that the Bishop simply meant to say that Swahili was pretty easy after Assyrian.
    And they claim that educational standards haven’t been dumbed down …

  16. See this old LH post on James Murray‘s letter of application to the British Museum Library, listing his various languages. (He didn’t get the job.)

  17. Stefan Holm says:

    I think there is no such thing as a universal or celestial thing about rhythm and meter. Your perception of it depends upon your native language. According to modern theories language acquisition comes in the order: 1. Prosody (already in your mothers womb); 2. The actual phonemes of your native language (before you can speak); 3. Vocabulary; 4. Grammar (although a ‘hardwired’ universal one is there from the very beginning – yes, I am a Chomskyan).

    Your perception of music, poetry or prose will, in my pet theory, be dependent upon this. Is your language tonal or not? Does it have a strong expiratory stress or not? Which syllable is normally (chromatically or expiratary) stressed? Is it strongly suffixed (allowing for end rhymes) or prefixed (allowing for alliteration)?

    My guess is that factors like those have made me like poetry in ie. (besides Swedish of course) Icelandic (the Eddas), German (Wanderers Nachtlied, Erlkönig), Russian (Парус, Бабий Яр) and Italian (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita). It has also made me feel somewhat indifferent to both French (Baudelaire, Rimbaud – inferior to Boris Vian) and English (Byron, Pound, Shelley –inferior to Woody Guthrie) poets. But – I find both Shakespeare and Beowulf ravishing!

    Nota bene: This is, following my pet theory, not an objective judgement whatsoever about any poet or his language but a reflection of the linguistic environment I happened to be bred into. You can use mathematics to analyze meter, rhythm, pitch and rhyme but not what you percieve as ‘beautiful’. That I believe was decided in the very moment when you were begeted.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that; apart from anything else it accounts for errors like Karamzin’s: he can’t hear the rhythms of English well, so he assumes that they aren’t there at all.

    I think one can go overboard with this sort of relativism, though. There do seem to be some admittedly weak consensuses about these things which go beyond “it sounds quite like my own language. How beautiful!”

    Another thing worth saying in the context of poetry is that poets vary a lot in the degree to which they rely on sound as such for their effects. On the one hand you have Virgil or Dante who are very sensitive to the sheer acoustic effect of their words; on the other, Lucretius or Donne, who aren’t, but are nevertheless great poets.

    Again, entire poetic traditions differ in this: think of ancient Akkadian or Hebrew poetry, where the rhymes are in meaning instead of in sound.

  19. Summary of Northrop Frye on melos, lexis, opsis. Note that Frye’s idea of musical poetry is the rough, not the sweet:

    To understand Frye’s melos, it is important to note his counter-intuitive usage of the term “musical”. He contends that the common usage of the term is inaccurate for purposes of criticism, drawn from analogy with harmony, a stable relationship. Music, however, does not consist of a plastic, static, continuously stable relationship, but rather a series of dissonances resolving at the end into a stable relationship. Poetry containing little dissonance, then, has more in common with the plastic arts than with music.

    Browning and Skelton, then, not Spenser and Tennyson, are the English musical poets par excellence.

  20. See this old LH post on James Murray‘s letter of application to the British Museum Library, listing his various languages. (He didn’t get the job.)

    The man didn’t know a syllable of Swahili. It’s no wonder.

  21. David, that must be the foreword by The Late A. B. Hellier, Canon and Chancellor of Zanzibar. He wrote: ‘Swahili is an easy language, its use is widespread, and it may be that there is no language more easy to learn; there are no real difficulties of pronunciation, and none of spelling. The present writer, like the author, can from personal experience assure the reader that it is possible, and easy, to TEACH YOURSELF SWAHILI’.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wonder whether I could propose a principle analogous to Godwins’ Law:

    “As a LH discussion grows longer, the probability of a citation of Aristotle approaches 1″ 

    Interesting link, and apropos, though it doesn’t seem to be the more humdrum sense of “rhythm” that I was thinking of.

    Tennyson would have been a fine example of what I meant by a poet sensitive to the acoustic quality of his verse. Someone (wish I could remember who) once decribed the opening lines of “Maud” as “perversely memorable” which strikes me as spot on.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    @AJ: good catch. I maligned the Canon by calling him a Bishop.

  24. It seems that Englishmen’s mouths are bound, or a heavy duty has been laid by a ministry on their opening, because they barely part their lips, they whistle or hint rather than speak

    In Japan the stereotype is that French speakers don’t open their mouths enough when they talk. Perhaps the rise of US English has helped improve our language’s image in that respect.

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    This might support my contention that French is at the harder-to-make-out-the-individual-words end of my supposed scale of intelligibilty of partly-understood languages.

    Other candidates for a supposedly at least partly objective difference: Swedish easier than Danish; Italian easier than Portuguese; Standard German easier than English. Mooré easier than Kusaal. Okay, maybe not so much uptake on that one.

  26. It seems to me that Karamzin is not complaining about his lack of fluency in English, but about the discrepancy between sound and spelling in the language.

    Yes, and of course that was in an era with no recording technology so Karamzin would have had very limited exposure to real spoken English before going there. I have always wondered how any European could have possibly learned to speak Mandarin or Cantonese in an era with no “language labs”.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    I have always wondered how any European could have possibly learned to speak Mandarin or Cantonese in an era with no “language labs”.

    There were a few Chinese people living in Europe, if one could find them.

  28. @ David Eddyshaw:
    … languages really do vary in the degree to which you can pick out individual words and phrases when you only know the language imperfectly. For example, I would say French is unusually hard, whereas German is easier.

    For what it’s worth, I have a distinct memory of my French-language teacher (who was French) putting special emphasis, after the first semester of basic French, on learning how to run words together properly. E.g., “pas de café” should be pronounced something like “podcafé” and not “pah – de – café”.

  29. Comfortable only in shallower fringes of these conversations I found the need to brief myself up on ‘prosody’. As A writer it made me ponder on how we convey the non-verbal in literature. Shortly afterwards, I discover that the US secret service is looking to acquire software to detect sarcasm in text, (BBC News).
    Well that’ll be money well spent…

  30. marie-lucie says:

    “pas de café” should be pronounced something like “podcafé” and not “pah – de – café”.

    Or rather, not “PAH de – CAFFay”. With apparent groups of four syllables, English speakers tend to break up the word or phrase into groups of two, with stress on the first syllable of each group. Another example is “YOU-row – PEE-an”. This is generally valid when the first syllable starts with a non-vowel: “a-MER-ican” is an exception.

    Elision of schwas is only one of the problems with pronouncing French starting from the written form. The other one is liaison which in many cases links the last consonant of one word with the initial vowel of the next, resulting in a new syllable. This is a problem not only for foreigners but also for small French-speaking children: many three-year-olds will say un tarbre for un arbre (pronounced ‘un narbre’) because of hearing un petit arbre ‘a little tree’ or un grand arbre‘a tall tree’ (both adjectives ending in the sound /t/ before a vowel).

    Even older children can be confused by this. Anatole France recalls an episode of his childhood, being taught in primary school to recite one of La Fontaine’s fables: the cat, being consulted by a delegation of mice, says to them Approchez, mes enfants, approchez, je suis sourd: les ans en sont la cause (where s is pronounced /z/) ‘Come closer, my children, come closer, I am deaf: the years are the cause of it“. The last sentence is not a structure that small children would use, and even les ans would not be part of their vocabulary, so AF understood les Zanzans sont la cause, and wondered for a long time who the mysterious Zanzans could be.

  31. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @PK: “Shortly afterwards, I discover that the US secret service is looking to acquire software to detect sarcasm in text”

    There is pretty reliable corpus work on textual markers of irony. I’m not sure it’s at the stage where it could be used to drive a non-topic-and-genre-specific classification algorithm, though.

  32. “doesn’t mean you won’t be tongue-tied at the simple questions of a customs official.”

    John, this can be an intended effect. A few years ago there was a wave of alien smuggling with Chinese living a few months in japan and then eventually coming into the US, quite often through Honolulu, presenting themselves as Japanese, passports and all, so that they did not need visas. The immigration inspectors, quite a number of whom were L1 or very strong L2 Japanese speakers, would ask these people their questions using a more formal register of honorifics than these people had managed to pick up in Japan, and busted them right and left.

  33. Tom Recht says:

    “Numeri” in Latin also means “metre, rhythm.” I would imagine that like most Latin linguistic terminology it’s a calque from Greek, but my Greek lexicon seems to have disappeared.

    περαίνεται δὲ ἀριθμῷ πάντα· ὁ δὲ τοῦ σχήματος τῆς λέξεως ἀριθμὸς ῥυθμός ἐστιν, οὗ καὶ τὰ μέτρα τμήματα·

    “Now all things are limited by number, and the number belonging to the form of diction is rhythm, of which the meters are divisions.” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.8, tr. J. H. Freese)

    “As a LH discussion grows longer, the probability of a citation of Aristotle approaches 1″ 

    I think you’re on to something.

  34. “Now all things are limited by number, and the number belonging to the form of diction is rhythm, of which the meters are divisions.” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.8, tr. J. H. Freese)

    It may be *it*. Aristotle dispenses very practical cookbook-like advice with the respect to ἀριθμὸς in rhetoric. Basically he says, don’t speak in consistent poetic meters familiar to the audience, because the listeners would concentrate on the beat and await the repetitions, which may partly distract them from the substance of the speech (I guess for Aristotle poetry was sonorous but not informative ;) ). But, Aristotle continues, you can still cheat and use enumerated rhythmical syllabic formulas, as long as the listeners remain unaware of the trick & keep their attention on the subject rather than on the beat and sound. For example, a phrase opening with triple short syllables and ending with a long, stressed one. Or exactly the opposite, a phrase starting from a strong beat and ending with a triple of short syllables. Aristotle’s, like, “see how we tricked the naive listener? we just snuck in a numeric rhythmic formula which wasn’t a classic meter, nya nya nyanyanya”.

    So maybe the “number” as taught by rhetoric instructors of the day was, juxtapose multiple unstressed syllables with strong stresses and pauses for a rhythmic effect which surpasses mere punctuation.

  35. marie-lucie

    “les Zanzans”

    They are of course distant French cousins of poor Lady Mondegreen. The Vieille Alliance strikes again!

  36. marie-lucie says:

    richard, I think you are right, not only about Lady Mondegreen but her pet Gladly the cross-eyed bear. French is full of such possibilities. But I don’t know what you mean by “la vieille Alliance”: the English were les ennemis héréditaires of the French for centuries, until the role was taken over by the Germans.

  37. He was probably thinking of the Auld Alliance.

  38. David Eddyshaw says:

    As Lady Mondegreen was a known associate of the Earl of Moray this would make sense.

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    I speak delicately. I have no wish to tarnish the reputation of one who has surely paid the price for any misjudgments in this life.

  40. David Marjanović says:
    It seems that Englishmen’s mouths are bound, or a heavy duty has been laid by a ministry on their opening, because they barely part their lips, they whistle or hint rather than speak.

    What?

    Either this is a comment on the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation, or the habits of native speakers have changed a lot in surprisingly little time. Today, the English move their jaws when they speak – it’s a sight to behold!

    In contrast, for me, natively, it’s not the rounding of a vowel that takes an effort, it’s the spreading of an unrounded vowel.

    I have always wondered how any European could have possibly learned to speak Mandarin or Cantonese in an era with no “language labs”.

    I learned the Mandarin tones pretty easily from a teacher who wasn’t a native speaker of any tone language himself.

    les ennemis héréditaires

    …Even this, like almost literally everything else, was calqued into German: Erbfeinde!

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, from the very first comment:

    Good Olde English really is quite a masculine language.

    What do you mean?

  42. Stefan Holm says:

    In 1817 Swedish national-romantic poet Esias Tegnér wrote a poem “Språken” (The languages), in which he describes a bunch of the European ones and dismisses them one after another. He somewhat agrees with Karamzin when he comes to English:

    Språk för de stammande gjort, vart ord är ett embryon hos dig,
    En hälft stöter du fram, en hälft sväljer du ner.
    Allt i ditt fädernesland med ångmaskiner bedrives;
    Käraste, skaffa dig snart en för din tunga också!

    In my most humble attempt to translate into English:

    Speech for the stammering made, each word is an embryo by you,
    One half you’re bumping up, one half you swallow down.
    All in your Fatherland with steam machines are driven.
    Dearest, get yourself soon also one for your tounge!

    When he finally reaches Swedish it gets embarrassing:

    Ärans och hjältarnas språk! Hur ädelt och manligt du rör dig!
    Ren är din klang, säker som solens din gång.
    Vistas på höjdernas du, där åskan och stormarna tala,
    Dalarnas lägre behag äro ej gjorda för dig.
    Spegla ditt anlet i sjön, och friskt från de manliga dragen
    Tvätta det främmande smink, kanske det snart är för sent.

    Another poor attempt to translate:

    Language of honour and heroes! How noble and virile thou move!
    Pure is your tone, safe as the suns is your road.
    Dwell upon heights you, where thunder and storms speak,
    The lower delights of the valleys they are not made for you.
    Reflect your face in the lake and clean from your manly feature
    Wash the foreign rouge, maybe it’ll soon be too late.

    It’s worth mentioning, that the first line in the Swedish original: Ärans och hjältarnas språk! Hur ädelt och manligt du rör dig! is a joke among Swedish linguists: it doesn’t contain one single original Swedish word – they’re all Platdeutsch loans.

  43. Thanks much for that, it’s great (especially that last bit)! The older I get, the odder I find it that people are so incapable of realizing their own biases. I don’t mean eliminating them — that’s impossible — but just of the bare thought “Of course Swedish seems best to me… because I’m Swedish! Chinese feel the same way about Chinese, and Frisians about Frisian!” It wouldn’t stop you from feeling it, but it might keep you from that sort of embarrassing effusion. Instead, people just assume that what they feel so strongly must be The Truth, and all those foreigners are simply deluded for bizarre foreign reasons.

  44. Stefan Holm says:

    Hat: it’s great (especially that last bit)!

    Thanks,and indeed I agree. Just as all men are born equal, so are their languages. There is not one single langugae on earth, that isn’t capable of expressing anything in the realm of human thinking, be it science or humanities, feelings or logics. The difference is that in single langugages we are forced to grammaticalize certain aspects: ‘We ate’ and ‘we were eating’ are both ‘vi åt’ in Swedish but it is still perfectly possible in Swedish (as in any other human language) to express the aspect. ‘We were eating’ is thus normally in my native tongue expessed as ‘we sat and ate’, meaning exactly the same, ie an imperfect, ongoing, not finished action.

    On the other hand Swedish has grammaticalized the passive voice by putting an ‘-s’ to the verbal stem. ‘It was said’ is thus ‘det sades’ – with the same meaning. But of course, your excellent knowledge of Russian, where it basically works in the same way, makes this a piece of cake for you

    Did you by the way notice, that I deliberately used ‘virile’ instead of ‘manly’ in my attempt to translate the chauvinist line: Language of honour and heroes! How noble and virile thou move! That one doesn’t contain one single ‘Englisc’ main word. They’re all in the language of, what Sir Cedric in Ivanhoe called, the Norman dogs.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    It’s worth mentioning, that the first line in the Swedish original: Ärans och hjältarnas språk! Hur ädelt och manligt du rör dig! is a joke among Swedish linguists: it doesn’t contain one single original Swedish word – they’re all Platdeutsch loans.

    That is so awesome!!! :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

    All of them, though? Even hur? And while the d on du and dig definitely looks German/Dutch, did you folks really borrow personal pronouns?!?

    Instead, people just assume that what they feel so strongly must be The Truth

    Welcome to presuppositional apologetics. *cough*

  46. Trond Engen says:

    DM: All of them, though?

    No, you’re right. Hur is native, and the personal pronouns, and och, and rör.

  47. Welcome to presuppositional apologetics. *cough*

    Better than presuppositorial apologetics. *ouch*

  48. Of course Swedish seems best to me… because I’m Swedish!

    Mostly yes. But occasionally you get someone whose emotional preference is for another language than their own, notably the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who not only specialized in English but obviously adored it. The first chapter of his 1912 work Growth and Structure of the English Language is a detailed point-by-point panegyric of English as a masculine (= good) language; this is long before any sort of PC for either gender or language. The comparisons he makes are impeccable, even if the valuations he gives them are subjective by today’s standards.

    The whole book is online at the Internet Archive; I’ve HTMLed the first chapter for easier reading.

  49. Mostly yes.

    I didn’t say it was inevitable, just that if one had that perfectly normal preference one should be self-aware enough to realize why one felt that way. Similarly for “my country is the best,” “kids these days,” and other things a great many people say unironically.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    Although the words you cite aren’t borrowed, there’s nothing impossible about borrowing personal pronouns. English did …

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    Although you could argue that modern Japanese personal pronouns aren’t really pronouns (and some have tried) FWIW the common informal masculine word for “I,me” 僕 boku is not only a borrowed Chinese morpheme but is apparently a calque of the old German student use of “Diener” “(your) servant.”

    (Hence also the at first sight extremely weird Hungarian greeting “szervusz.”)

  52. Not to mention ciao.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    there’s nothing impossible about borrowing personal pronouns. English did …

    I know; it’s unusual and requires special circumstances, though.

    apparently a calque of the old German student use of “Diener” “(your) servant.”

    Possible.

  54. Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who not only specialized in English but obviously adored it. The first chapter of his 1912 work Growth and Structure of the English Language is a detailed point-by-point panegyric of English as a masculine (= good) language; this is long before any sort of PC for either gender or language. The comparisons he makes are impeccable, even if the valuations he gives them are subjective by today’s standards.

    >> You have none of those indistinct or half-slurred consonants that abound in Danish, for instance (such as those in hade, hage, livlig) where you hardly know whether it is a consonant or a vowel-glide that meets the ear.

    It suddenly become much less convincing when Danish, that some (Trond?) here has called speaking with a stroke, is taken as the standard of comparison.

  55. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Hat:

    Re ciao: that piece of information has just made my day. Mille grazie.

  56. GeorgeW says:

    “There is not one single langugae on earth, that isn’t capable of expressing anything in the realm of human thinking, be it science or humanities, feelings or logics.”

    Absolutely correct. But, different languages routinely make distinctions that others don’t make. One example I notice frequently: in English, we routinely distinguish between ‘so much’ and ‘too much’ where Arabic does not. They can express the idea of ‘in excess of needs’ vs ‘a lot,’ but the generally would not unless it was critical to make the distinction. In fact, I don’t recall an instance where the in-excess-of-needs idea was actually expressed.

    Some languages have no comparatives (like Aymara as I recall). I am not sure how they would go about making a needed comparison. And, if they do, how common it would be.

  57. Unfortunately, Google isn’t very good at finding comparative studies of comparatives. I do remember, though, that in some languages “X is big, Y is small”, using a pair of opposed adjectives, is the standard way of saying “X is bigger than Y”. English is unusual in having both morphological and syntactic comparatives and comparatives (though more, most are historically the morphological comparative and superlative of a lost adjective or adverb).

  58. In Chinese, if I recall correctly, the comparative/superlative/excessive distinction is calibrated differently, so that my students in Taiwan were forever writing “too good” (or whatever) when they meant “very good.”

  59. David Eddyshaw says:

    Japanese doesn’t have comparative forms of adjectives, though it naturally has plenty of ways of expressing the concept. The most neutral way of saying “X is bigger than Y” is basically “from Y, X is big.” Lots of languages without (morphological) comparison of adjectives are like this, more or less, of course.

    Welsh has four degrees of comparison expressed morphologically, corresponding to “white” “as white” “whiter” “whitest”, gwyn, gwynned, gwynnach, gwynnaf. I think Irish is similar. Welsh also has non-synthetic forms along the same sort of lines as English “more beautiful.”

  60. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hausa adjectives don’t have flexions for comparison either; there are several ways of expressing the idea, most often using verbs like “fi” “surpass” eg

    Audu yaa fi Muusa waayoo “Audu is cleverer than Musa” (Audu has surpassed Musa in cleverness)

    Many West African languages do much the same. A typical example is Luke 11:26 in the Krio Bible

    I go go bak go bring oda sevin debul we bad pas insef

    “Then it will return bringing seven other devils worse than itself”

    which is a serial verb construction with the stative verb “bad” “be bad” followed by “pas” “surpass”

  61. David Eddyshaw says:

    (I thought Hat might like the Dostoevskyan vibe)

  62. I do!

  63. Trond Engen says:

    Danish, that some (Trond?) here has called speaking with a stroke

    Not me, I think. I’ve said a lot about Danish, though. Let me say for the record that I love Danish in all its weirdness.

  64. Sorry to return to the sad plight of the Earl and his Lady (I was awa’ for a bit). Yup the Auld Alliance, neatly bracketing England, it was. I thought, given the circumstances, that the French name for it was more appropriate.

    I once did a radio essay on the subject:

    “…an essay by Sylvia Wright. It seems that, some time before she wrote of it in 1954, Mistress Wright had misheard a couplet from that wonderful old ballad from Percy’s Reliques ‘The Bonnie Earl o’ Murray’ as “They have slain the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen” (presumably one of the Edinburgh Mondegreens, an ancient and otherwise completely respectable lowland family)—but alas for poor Lady Mondegreen, not only was she slain but, to add existentialism to injury, she never was pre-slain in the first place, being no more than a misconstual of “And laid him on the green” giving the unfortunate earl a much more lonely and less romantic end: however in consolation she did give birth to the term ‘mondegreen’ for such mishearings…”

    Mine was a boring piece, apart from this footnote (you don’t want to know how I do footnotes on the radio) which casts some doubt on the source of the source:

    “Since researching this essay I have become just a little suspicious of the details of of Mistress Wright’s etymology: you see the version of the BEoM in my copy of Reliques has a “hae” inserted before “layed” so that unless Wright mater had a very slurred rendering of the line (surely she didn’t have to get that inebriated before delving into the book?) one wonders just where the heck the “hae” went to. And then again in Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany *, an earlier collection, we also find the line rendered with a “hae”; “hae”, of course, represents the Lalans for ‘have’ and since one vigorously shies away from the notion that, having slain the Earl, anyone then ‘had’ Lady Mondegreen, we must look elsewhere for our origin. Child is no help here since in his version (Number 181) we see not “hae” but “they”!
    However I remember as an infant in school learning a version with a tune …, and more importantly a version which leaves out any “hae”s or “they”s, and I’m wondering if we are getting a glimpse of a phenomenon akin to someone seeing an article in say People Magazine or Entertainment Weekly and then discovering that it refers to something originally in Nature or Scientific American and henceforth claiming that that is really, really where they did see it first: really.
    I mean ‘I misheard it when Mother read it to me from Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ is so much sexier than ‘I learned it wrong in grade school’
    ____________________
    * The original coffee table book “

  65. I think that’s reading too much into the word hae, which if unstressed (as here) is a single vowel and easily elided. I too learned the hae-less sung version.

    I can’t lay my hands on Wright’s original article at the moment, but I seem to remember that there is a second, unnoticed mondegreen in her version of the ballad: “And woe be to you, Huntly, / And wherefore did you say / I bade you bring him with you / But forbade you him to slay.”. Of course, the last word of the second line should be sae = Eng so, and the line means “And why did you do that?” The quatrain as a whole is spoken by the King.

  66. John,
    you are almost certainly right, my only excuse is that the main purpose of the exercise is humour (or something approximating to it). The ‘sae’ ‘say’ mondegreen is interesting. I never noticed it.
    It definitely deserves the term “inadvertent lapsarial contrafactum”. :-)

  67. Treesong says:

    In Chinese, if I recall correctly, the comparative/superlative/excessive distinction is calibrated differently…

    Indeed, one of the things that most boggled me in first-year (Mandarin) Chinese was that the comparative is the unmarked form: jeige hao means ‘that’s better’, jeige hen hao means ‘that’s good’. We were told that hen meant ‘very’, which didn’t seem to square with the translation of hen hao. Also there’s haodebudeliao ‘really really good’.

  68. It’s not so much that omitting hěn makes things comparative, it is that in a comparative sentence the standard of comparison need not be expressed but can be glorked from context (like almost everything else in Chinese). If there is no such standard of comparison in the context, hěn hǎo is infelicitous, a better word than “ungrammatical” in a Chinese context, where the typical negative grammaticality judgment looks like “Well, yes, you could say it that way, maybe somebody does, but we usually say X instead”.

  69. (saved too soon)

    Furthermore, hěn means ‘very’ only in contexts where a bare adjective can get a positive reading, such as under negation or (especially) where there is contrastive focus: Zhang gao, Lisi ai is felicitous for ‘Zhang is tall, Lisi is short, as each is the implicit standard of comparison for the other, and you can then insert hěn before either adjective or both to mean ‘very’. And of course if there is an actual adverb or measurement or other qualifier for the adjective in there, hěn is not needed to get the positive reading.

    Thomas Grano argues in Mandarin hen and Universal Markedness in Gradable Adjectives (2011) that Mandarin doesn’t actually violate the universal that says all comparatives are more complicated than positives; the paper is a typical UG paper in that it is about “How can we contort the facts to fit our theories?” and vice versa, all full of null operators and single-child tree nodes, but the descriptions and summaries are quite useful.

    (While writing this comment, I got a call from my (Chinese) laundry to see if I would accept delivery in ten minutes rather than the promised hour; I found myself automatically saying “Very good, very good”!)

  70. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    David Eddyshaw: “My experience suggests that languages really do vary in the degree to which you can pick out individual words and phrases when you only know the language imperfectly. For example, I would say French is unusually hard, whereas German is easier.”

    That’s certainly my experience. After six years of French at school I couldn’t get anything approaching a perfect score in a dictation. After one week of German (and with almost no understanding of the language) I could get close to that in a German dictation. Others have told me the same.

    Later: “Italian easier than Portuguese”. Definitely, but more than that, Brazilian is nowhere near as opaque as Portuguese Portuguese. When I went on a tour at Iguazú a couple of years ago I was the only non-Brazilian in the bus, so the commentaries in Portuguese tended to be more detailed than the English, but I found I could get a fair idea of what the guide was saying before he gave the English version. That would never have worked in Portugal. Indeed, my feelings in Portugal are much like Karamzin’s in England: I can read it almost as easily as Spanish, but I can’t make out a word that is spoken.

  71. My experiences with Brazilian vs. Portuguese Portuguese are the same as those of Athel Cornish-Bowden. (I’ve even been to Iguazú, though several decades earlier.)

  72. David Marjanović says:

    I was taught that the meaning of hěn is very bleached out, so it basically just plays copula in sentences with… now it dawns on me… predicative adjectives (where no noun follows). “And how’s your younger brother?” – Yě hen hǎo “he’s totally fine, too”. If you actually mean “very”, I took away from this, you have to resort to zhēn “really”.

    BTW, *jei doesn’t exist, I think you mean zhè “this”.

    Indeed, my feelings in Portugal are much like Karamzin’s in England: I can read it almost as easily as Spanish, but I can’t make out a word that is spoken.

    Thirded.

  73. Sullivan says:

    I don’t think it’s any mystery why people find European Portuguese and Danish hard to understand. Both dialects are known for having an unusual phonology (by European standards). The British linguist John Wells, whose blog I used to follow, wrote posts on his blog about both of them (Portuguese, Danish).

  74. David Marjanović says:

    Both dialects are known for having an unusual phonology

    and a disconnect between spelling and pronunciation that borders on the English state of affairs. Worse, the Danish vowel system is currently shifting and hasn’t stopped yet.

  75. That reminds me of a science fiction story about an alien people who defended themselves against Earth invasion by mutating their language so fast we couldn’t keep up with it. John Cowan will probably know the story.

  76. Alas, it rang no bells with me, but looking at secondary sources tells me that it’s Robert Sheckley’s “Shall We Have a Little Talk?” Not surprising that it’s by Sheckley: he is the master of following plausible-sounding ideas to their ultimate and ludicrous consequences. Here’s a plot summary: “For the evil Earth capitalist empire to take over a planet, they have to buy some land on the planet. A representative goes to some planet to start negotiating for a land purchase and finds that every day the language has changed, not only in vocabulary but in grammar. At one point, he exclaims ‘Stop agglutinating!’ The inhabitants of the planet are using accelerated language change as a defense mechanism, and at the end of the story, they are communicating in identical monosyllables.”

    Here’s the SF Encyclopedia article on linguistics, which contains a pretty comprehensive catalogue raisonné, but doesn’t happen to mention this story.

  77. Thanks, that’s it!

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