On Italicizing Words.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this interview with Isabel Yap, but the part of LH relevance concerns italics:

And it’s sort of like — in my first fiction workshop, I wrote a story using Tagalog words, and I italicized them, because that’s what I was used to even back home, because I write in English. And it became a huge discussion for the class. Like, “why is she italicizing her words? Is that othering? Is that intentional? Is she writing for a white audience?”

And I was like, “oh my god.” [laughs] I never thought about these things. I used to be like, I write what I write. […]

[…] The main takeaway I got from that conversation was that I probably shouldn’t italicize my words anymore. And you know, because of where I’m coming from, even in the Philippines, that’s what we do, I don’t mind if an editor asks me to change it, but I won’t do it to start with. And that’s sort of like a response to people saying, “who are you writing for?”

‘cos the point of my teacher, who was really amazing, was when you italicize, it draws attention to the text. This is a word that’s not in English, and therefore it’s sort of like you’re catering to a white audience. Whereas if you just leave it in there, it’s more like whatever your background is, you can just read this and take the text as it is, and you may recognize this word or not. It’s a small adjustment for me, because I don’t have a super strong opinion on it, but now that’s what I adhere to in my story.

I must confess that it seemed natural to me, almost inevitable, to italicize foreign words, because, well, that’s what we do. But I found that pretty convincing, and this Daniel José Older video finished the job. “And then I got back, and I realized I needed some books, so I went to… [Panama hat, cigar]… la biblioteca. And I was hungry, so I ate some… [guitar chord] comida típica de la cultura latina.” Yup, use itals for emphasis (in fiction, not linguistics, obviously) and let the reader decide what’s “English” and what’s not (a debate we’ve had here more than once).

Comments

  1. Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express:

    I have no patience with macaronic sentences that go, “‘Carramba!’ said the campesino, eating his empanada at the estancia…”

  2. Well, Paul Theroux just doesn’t care for furriners and their furrin words.

  3. The context was that he was about to translate a Spanish-language dialog, which he’d had with someone, into plain idiomatic English, free of exoticized additions. It works quite well. Not to say that I think Theroux is a pleasant human being.

  4. I wish the interview gave some information as to what Tagalog words she italicised. For me, if they’re words for which the writer is having trouble giving a good gloss, that’s completely fine, include them and italicise them. And if they’re not, if they have an easy idiomatic translation into English, well, the polite thing is to translate, and not distract the reader with them, cf. the Theroux complaint above.

    I understand that my approach loses something for contexts where, like among the Filipinos I work with, there is the option of having a conversation in excellent, unstumbling English, in English mixed with Tagalog, or in Tagalog, and translating most of the conversation to English loses the distinction.

  5. Italicizing also carries the risk of not aging well. Writing now in English about eating pasta with pesto would look comically pompous, but once it was probably at least proper in a travel guide.

  6. I wish the interview gave some information as to what Tagalog words she italicised. For me, if they’re words for which the writer is having trouble giving a good gloss, that’s completely fine, include them and italicise them.

    But her whole point is that she’s decided they shouldn’t be italicized no matter what words they are. Why do they need the typographical marking? It’s obvious they’re not run-of-the-mill English words.

  7. Also what Y said while I was composing that.

  8. …what word would Theroux use for empanada, then? It’s a perfectly cromulent English language word. It means empanada. It’s the only word we’ve got for that.

  9. I’m guessing “pasty.”

  10. David L says:

    As in, the pasty old white guy ate an empanada

  11. marie-lucie says:

    …what word would Theroux use for empanada, then?

    It is probably not just the use of this one word, but the self-conscious piling up of “exotic” words in a single sentence, which annoys the reader.

  12. …what word would Theroux use for empanada, then? It’s a perfectly cromulent English language word. It means empanada.

    I wonder how many English speakers would have been familiar with the word in 1979, when The Old Patagonian Express was first published. And, of course, empanadas are extremely similar to turnovers or pasties.

    Not that you’d translate it or italicize it today, at least for North Americans…but the auto-spellcheck in my browser still flags it.

  13. Me, I italicize like a linguist (that is, when using words as exemplars), and so do all we Hattics. But I no longer italicize words meant to express my meaning, whatever language they may be in.

  14. On Y’s point of not ageing well: Microsoft Word routinely puts an acute accent on “cafe”. The accented spelling was obsolete in the 1990s when they introduced spellchecking – at least in Australia.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “white audience” notion struck me as a bit odd. The U.S. has a rather large non-white population – exactly how large varies depending on somewhat blurry definitions and obviously some of them (like some of the white population) are immigrants with limited fluency in English, but let’s say 50 million would be a low-end estimate for the non-white population over 18 that’s either L1 Anglophones or ESL speakers with English reading ability at an L1 high-school-graduate level. Probably 95% of those potential readers know no more Tagalog than the median white American. It’s a funny sort of cosmopolitanism that insists on avoiding any symbolic “othering” of Tagalog lexemes via italicization while apparently ignoring the existence of e.g. the entire American black population (overwhelmingly monolingual Anglophone, although probably just as likely as the white population to have had an uncle who spent time in the Philippines while serving in the military and picked up a little of the talking-to-barmaids register of the local language).

  16. The “white audience” notion struck me as a bit odd. […] It’s a funny sort of cosmopolitanism that insists on avoiding any symbolic “othering” of Tagalog lexemes via italicization while apparently ignoring the existence of e.g. the entire American black population (overwhelmingly monolingual Anglophone, although probably just as likely as the white population to have had an uncle who spent time in the Philippines while serving in the military and picked up a little of the talking-to-barmaids register of the local language).

    Oh, come on. The writer was not cataloguing all possible elements of the US population, she was clearly using “white” in opposition to “people from the Philippines who would know those words.” And she was talking in an informal interview, not writing a sociology text. Do you always speak in scientifically accurate terms?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    …what word would Theroux use for empanada, then?

    It is probably not just the use of this one word, but the self-conscious piling up of “exotic” words in a single sentence, which annoys the reader.

    One thing I find very annoying is when a writer puts foreign exclamations, swearwords, endearments, and the like, in the mouth of characters whose language the writer does not really master. For example, alleged Frenchmen will say Sacrébleu!, and the like. In such cases the result often sounds ridiculous, because it is incorrect (as in this example: it is – or was – Sacrebleu), extremely old-fashioned (same comment), belongs to a very different register, and other evidences of linguistic and cultural ignorance. As another example, some time ago I came across a French youth magazine in which there was a strip about Conan Doyle, whom other characters addressed as “Sir Doyle”.

    When I was very young (before knowing any English) and an avid reader, English men appearing in novels regularly prefixed their replies with “Aoh!” Never having heard English spoken, I understood that the “A” was a French “a” spoken on a low tone and the “oh” was spoken on a high tone, as indicated by the exclamation mark. Many years later I realized that this spelling was meant to represent “How!”, obviously the favourite exclamation of Englishmen! but perceived as two syllables by French ears.

  18. m.-l., years ago I frequented a bakery run by a German woman, who spoke in the comic-book version of how a German would speak, sprinkling her accented English with Danke schöns and Aufwiedersehens. She may as well have been italicizing them.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Double sorry! The one needing deletion is at 8:34. Merci infiniment!

  20. I occasionally use italics for emphasis, but only if I think something is likely to be misunderstood otherwise. I also have a set of internal rules I have built up over the years about what kinds of quotations get italics.

    However, I do not think that I ever use italics for “foreign” words. (Scare quotes are obviously always quotation marks, never italics.) The basic reason is that I do not use foreign words in my writing; a term has to be able to stand on its own as English. Related to this is that I never use any accents or diacritical marks in English (except in the proper names of humans, which constitutes a special case). English orthography traditionally does not use such characters for English words, so if a word, like cafe (mentions, as opposed to uses of words get quotative italics), is English enough to be used, it is English enough to be written in a twenty-six letter alphabet.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Y, perhaps she did so in order to teach her customers, some of whom might have lamented their own lack of knowledge of German. Did any of them reply in kind? Two words are better than none!

  22. Double sorry! The one needing deletion is at 8:34. Merci infiniment!

    Sorry, I had already deleted the one you asked me to delete in your first request!

  23. m.-l., I always thought of it as an affectation. I never heard anyone replying in German. I never thought much about her motivation, but perhaps she liked to carry a locket of German speech with her. She sold proudly German-style rye bread (which for me was worth the mile-long trip from my home).

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “white audience” notion did not seem to have come initially from Ms. Yap herself but from the other students and/or teacher in the “fiction workshop,” whose own ethnicity/ies and nationality/ies are unspecified. But I do think treating white identity and American identity (or Anglophone identity) as approximately synonymous is pernicious, and not primarily because it’s “unscientific” or imprecise. At least if you’re going to actually live in the U.S. – if you’re living in Manila it’s less likely to cause practical difficulties to just think of the median/prototypical American as a white monolingual Anglophone and leave it at that.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    On the italicization issue, I frequently have conflicts with work collaborators on whether Latin-origin specialized legal jargon should be italicized in briefs submitted to courts. Many people seem to think it should be, but I am a strong anti-italicizer on the theory that the “Latin” words in question are, within the relevant specialized register, English words. It has been several generations since it’s been safe to assume that anyone who has become a judge in the U.S. (even on a fairly fancy/prestigious court) has had a few years of high school Latin, and any Latinate word or phrase that I’m not confident will be fully understood by a U.S. law school graduate who has never spent a day in a Latin class as such gets edited out of any court submission I am in control of.

  26. ə de vivre says:

    White guy objects to calling white people white. Film at 11.

  27. I’m not thrilled with being called white. For me it’s an exonym: the people who unreflectively call themselves whites aren’t, in general, people I identify myself with. For me it’s also a political term.

  28. Eli Nelson says:

    @J.W. Brewer: I think I would have a stronger preference for italicizing phrases that use non-English grammar, compared to single words. For example, I wouldn’t italicize the words “subpoena” or “mandamus”, but I think I would prefer to italicize “subpoena duces tecum”, or “stare decisis”.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Eli Nelson: there are plenty of lawyers who similarly draw some sort of intermediate line, possibly not in the exact same spot you do. All I’m saying is that if you and I were working on the same brief, we would probably have a power struggle over this issue. I’m not even saying that there’s only One Right Way to do it. I’m saying that I have a decided stylistic preference, and to the extent I am able to impose my preference on documents I am working on (when my role is sufficiently central-v-peripheral to make that feel appropriate rather than intrusive/overstepping) I do so.

  30. John Cowan, you might be right in what you’ve written about your personal opinion on white people, you might be right on political implications as well, but it surely is not an exonym. It is not hard to find “white people” in Jefferson’s writings (just the first thing that came to my mind) and Franklin was concerned with “Whites”.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Despite 40 years of experience with Spanish speakers, I have never come across anyone apart from my late father-in-law who ever said ¡Caramba! He used to say it a lot. Otherwise it’s a word I associate with poor fiction written by people with little experience of real spoken Spanish. Is there anywhere where it’s an everyday expression?

  32. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I got distracted by the usage of ¡Caramba! from the main point about italicization. (I would have italicized ¡Caramba! if I hadn’t already used italics for emphasis in the same sentence.) For me, italicizing foreign words and phrases is perfectly normal, and implies nothing about distancing the writer from foreigners. It’s just as much standard in French and Spanish as it is in English. So, for example, when I read Ciao in a French translation of a book of Donna Leon it seems a completely natural way of representing an Italian word.

  33. BTW, if one chooses not to italicize ¡Caramba! on the theory that it would call too much attention to the foreign origin of the word, should they still keep the inverted exclamation point?

  34. For what it’s worth, in the Italian “Zagor” comics, Zagor’s sidekick Chico would always say CARAMBA! Just like that, no inverted exclamation point, and in all caps, just like the rest of the text, as you might expect in a comic book.

    Actually, Chico’s exclamation was CARAMBA & CARAMBITA! if I recall.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    “Distancing”, “othering” – what a crock.of preciousssness.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    keep the inverted exclamation point

    I think using the inverted question marks or exclamation points before Spanish words in a text written mostly in English, French or other language which does not use such marks is really overdoing it. I vote NO, definitely.

  37. Stu Clayton says:

    Signo de interrogación = question mark
    Signo de admiración = exclamation mark

    At the beginning of a sentence, these are signos de apertura. At the end, signos de cierre.

  38. Other uses for italics: In multi-player dialogs, to characterize stretches of narrative that are remoted in over phone or radio. To characterize words that are used performatively, like ‘shazam’ or any magic incantation. There’s lots of Latin I wouldn’t italicize, but I’d probably italicize ‘mirabile dictu’ when it’s used as an exclamation or interjection.

    (Five of the words above mystify my spell-checker.)

  39. Peter Fleming referred to this as “the Nullah, or Ravine, school of writing”- his criticism was more that it allowed people to show off the exotic words they know.

  40. it surely is not an exonym

    I only said that it is not an endonym for me (italics for emphasis). I think of myself as American, and male, and a hacker, but not as white.

    It is not hard to find “white people” in Jefferson’s writings (just the first thing that came to my mind) and Franklin was concerned with “Whites”.

    To be sure. They were slave-owners.

    Nullah, or Ravine

    To be sure, sub specie aeternitatis (no italics) nullah and wadi (linguist’s italics) mean ‘ravine’, but they connote one that is generally dry except during brief periods. There are ravines without running water at the bottom, but they are typically overgrown with vegetation. Loanwords often go through this sort of specialization: Sp sombrero ‘hat’ > Eng ‘traditional Mexican hat’.

    Of course ravine is also a borrowing, and originally meant the violent rush of water rather than its result: it is related to rave and ravenous.

  41. I am a strong anti-italicizer on the theory that the “Latin” words in question are, within the relevant specialized register, English words.

    I am, needless to say, in complete agreement.

    For me, italicizing foreign words and phrases is perfectly normal, and implies nothing about distancing the writer from foreigners. It’s just as much standard in French and Spanish as it is in English.

    Yes, of course it’s normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Good Thing. Yap and Older have pretty much convinced me it’s not, though I’m not sure I’ll actually change my practice very much, since I already lean towards treating borrowed words as English (see above), and for the purposes of fiction any word used in an English sentence can count as borrowed.

  42. Stu Clayton says:

    Italicization of non-English words and expressions included in English sentences is a great help to me in reading texts where there are many such inclusions. It makes it easier to understand (parse) the sentence.

    I don’t imagine that an occasional inclusion, especially in a novel, would create difficulties for a reader when not italicized.

    A brief review of languagehat comment threads in general shows that many commenters use italics or quotes as an aid to the reader.

  43. Otherwise it’s a word I associate with poor fiction written by people with little experience of real spoken Spanish. Is there anywhere where it’s an everyday expression?

    Springfield.

  44. Despite 40 years of experience with Spanish speakers, I have never come across anyone apart from my late father-in-law who ever said ¡Caramba!

    In high-school Spanish in the early 60s, we were issued 45 rpm records with conversations on them. I will never forget one classic line: “¡Caramba! Se me olvidó el cuaderno.” But that was beyond your 40-year threshhold.

    Neil

  45. Italicization of non-English words and expressions included in English sentences is a great help to me in reading texts where there are many such inclusions. It makes it easier to understand (parse) the sentence.

    This; it’s a good way of making clear that this is not an English word, or a misspelled English word, but a foreign word, so you don’t get taken out of the flow of the sentence by trying to work out what it should be – and if you’re reading it aloud, it warns you not to try pronouncing it as if it was English.

    On the linked interview, I notice that she refers to herself throughout as a Filipino. I admit I’ve never heard this before; every person from the Philippines I’ve ever spoken to would call her a Filipina…

  46. it’s a good way of making clear that this is not an English word, or a misspelled English word, but a foreign word

    But that’s not in any sense a clear-cut distinction; as with dialects, it’s a continuum, not a sharp boundary. Read this thread and get back to me; as I say there:

    If you think it’s not part of the English lexicon, you need to provide a principled reason why (i.e., not “I’m not familiar with it and don’t have a use for it”). My test is very simple: if one English-speaker uses it in an English sentence and expects another English-speaker to understand it, it’s an English word, at least within that speech community. Now, a speech community can be very small; plenty of families have developed words they understand but no one else does. They’re still (in my view) English words, simply with limited circulation. I don’t know at what point you move from words of such tiny circulation they can be ignored by lexicographers (like family words) to words of limited but significant circulation that should at least be considered as dictionary entries, but I’m quite confident in my own mind that words for foods, utensils, orchestra instruments, and the like fall into the latter category. Again, if you disagree, I’d be interested in hearing why and what your criteria are. (And note that Conrad says “I’ve played a slenthem” just as he would say “I’ve played a sarrusophone”; what, pray tell, is the distinction? Most English-speakers are equally unfamiliar with either.)

  47. AJP Bazalgette says:

    Italicization of non-English words and expressions included in English sentences is a great help to me in reading texts where there are many such inclusions. It makes it easier to understand (parse) the sentence.

    Yes, I’m with Stu as well. To me the point is clarity, but also for every furriner who takes offence at italics there’s likely to be another who takes equal offence at having bits of their language subsumed in a swamp of English. And how do you use, for example, le weekend in an English sentence without italicising it?

    I still spell café with an acute partly because I always have, partly because there are lots of diacritics on a Norwegian keyboard so it’s no prob, and partly because – unlike German or Norwegian or Italian etc. – it’s one of those troublesome Es in English. When I was young (1960s), most non French speakers would pronounce it caff (I know this because my mother ran one) on the basis that the final E is usually silent in English.

    This reminds me that despite his prominence in the history of sewerage – hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a reference to him in the British press – I’m still uncertain how to pronounce Bazalgette/a> (I think it’s Bazzeljet but it could easily be Basil Getty).

  48. But that’s not in any sense a clear-cut distinction; as with dialects, it’s a continuum, not a sharp boundary.

    Then the criterion should be: does it help the reader understand what you’re saying, or read it aloud correctly?

    Particularly important with foreign borrowings from English, especially where the borrowing is used to mean something different (like “handy” or “body”). If you’re translating for a French speaker, “she says she left nothing on the changing-room floor except a body” is rather different from “she says she left nothing on the changing-room floor except a body”.

  49. “When I was young (1960s), most non French speakers would pronounce it caff (I know this because my mother ran one) on the basis that the final E is usually silent in English.”

    Mencken once spelled it “kaif”, imitating the Middle American pronunciation.

  50. Then the criterion should be: does it help the reader understand what you’re saying, or read it aloud correctly?

    Sure, absolutely. I just don’t think “automatically italicize any word that might be considered foreign” should be taken as meeting that standard.

    Particularly important with foreign borrowings from English, especially where the borrowing is used to mean something different (like “handy” or “body”). If you’re translating for a French speaker, “she says she left nothing on the changing-room floor except a body” is rather different from “she says she left nothing on the changing-room floor except a body”.

    I’m not familiar with whatever that “body” is; can you elucidate?

  51. J.W. Brewer says:

    I should note that my own anti-italicization stance in a particular context as described above is related to a strong functional desire in that particular context *not* to use words or phrases that will be exotic and cause my intended reader to pause or stumble. I am assuming a particular professional-subculture readership that knows lots of jargon (including Latinate jargon) that the more general reader would not, but using wording not within the reader’s working jargon lexicon would be counterproductive to my goals. But there are lots of other contexts in which using words or phrases that your readers may not be familiar with is a perfectly legitimate stylistic choice or even necessary to what you are trying to achieve, and the notion that italicization or some other typographic convention for such likely-to-be-unfamiliar words will be helpful on net seems like a reasonable, although not beyond-dispute, empirical claim.

  52. AJP Crown says:

    Mencken once spelled it “kaif”

    – That makes more sense now I think about it.

    JW, I love the idea of italicising all professional jargon.

  53. Lars (the original one) says:

    Un body would be a body stocking, or a female sleeveless one-piece undergarment more generally.

    I’m familiar with the convention, often in but not limited to textbooks, of introducing new terms in the italic, be they of the same language as the running text or not, together with an explanation, and then using them in the roman thenceforth. Not quite a mention-use distinction, but related to it.

  54. I’m familiar with the convention, often in but not limited to textbooks, of introducing new terms in the italic, be they of the same language as the running text or not, together with an explanation, and then using them in the roman thenceforth.

    Yes, and that’s not a bad solution. (Obviously there’s no perfect one that will satisfy everybody.) Thanks for the explanation of body!

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    Sure, in a didactic sort of context you want to have a workable way to explain potentially-unfamiliar terms to your reader when they’re first mentioned, but in fiction that might not work so well, with the chance of leaving a reader a bit puzzled being more likely to be consistent with the aesthetic strategy being pursued.

  56. J.W. Brewer says:

    And obviously I overstated before my desire (in professional legal writing) to never use unfamiliar terms. I try to not use legal jargon that I’m not highly confident my reader (generally a judge) will already know, but it is often the case that you can’t argue a case about the widget industry without referring to all sorts of intra-industry widget jargon, so someone in my line of work does need strategies to introduce and explain relevant widget-industry jargon to a reader with no prior acquaintance with it, without making the reader feel either confused/irritated (as when unfamiliar terms aren’t explained) or condescended to (as when one overshoots in the other direction). If I’m explicitly introducing and explaining a new technical term I’m probably more likely to put it in quotation marks than italics, not least because italics are conventionally used in my genre of writing for lots of other purposes (e.g. the names of prior cases being invoked as relevant precedent).

  57. That makes sense.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    Some journals restrict italics to Recommendation 6. Elsewhere in the specialized literature, I’ve seen (and used) italics for emphasis on very rare occasions. I’d prefer boldface, but that seems exaggerated to most people.

  59. Boldface, in my experience, drags the reader’s attention to itself before anything else on the page can be seen, so I don’t like it in running text with the exception of Greek, where it’s better than italics for emphasis. In headers, of course, it works fine.

  60. My reaction is the same as JC’s. but I wouldn’t want DM to stop using bold — it looks good on him.

  61. David Marjanović says:

    drags the reader’s attention to itself before anything else on the page can be seen

    True.

  62. Lorem i p s u m dolor sic AMET […]

  63. I wouln’t eat a mélange. In a geological context it’s fine by me.

  64. The discussion about “body” in French (used the same way in Bulgarian) made me wonder about “суичър”, pronounced similar to switcher or sweatshirt, meaning hoodie. In English I’d probably just translate it as hoodie, but hoodie has slightly different sociolinguistic implications.

  65. Bathrobe says:

    There is obviously a lot of fluidity in the use of italics, but marking foreign words as foreign through the use of italics is not as pernicious as the ‘amazing teacher’ seems to be making out.

    If I use a word like gaitare in English, marking it as non-English is a service to the reader. “No, Mr/Ms ordinary English speaker, this is not a mistake for ‘guitar’; it’s a Japanese word so interpret it and, if you can, pronounce it as Japanese.” (In case you don’t know, it’s a word for foreigners who became extremely popular on the Japanese media, an abbreviation of gaijin tarento.) I don’t think that throwing gaitare into a text without some kind of marking is a service to the reader. Perhaps using italics at first mention and then omitting them at later mentions is a reasonable compromise, but avoiding italics doesn’t help the reader at all.

    I agree with Stu. All this talk of ‘whiteness’, ‘othering’, ‘distancing’, ‘cultural appropriation’ etc. seems to be a very postmodern obsession, and a very self-conscious one at that — perhaps more so in the US than elsewhere. English speakers are pretty bad at pronouncing foreign words at the best of times. English spelling is a mess as it is. Throwing words following non-English spelling conventions into a text without some kind of marking only makes it worse. On the one hand the vast mass of English speakers wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce foreign words; on the other we now have this movement to get rid of italics because it’s ‘othering’. Give me a break! Refusing to give your average monoglot a clue that maybe a word shouldn’t be pronounced or understood as English is just being unhelpful. Deciding not to use italics is just another obsession born out of skewed sensitivities.

    Incidentally, the overuse of inverted commas as a ‘distancing mechanism’ seems to be a much more rampant sin than using italics for foreign words.

  66. jamessal says:

    I like to avoid italicizing, but if it’s a French or Latin word or phrase I know most people will have to look up — or if the spelling includes letters not found on an English keyboard, like cri de cœur — then I italicize. Like Stu said, I think readers will find it helpful; and I don’t think Hat was far off the mark with his initial reaction: “because, well, that’s what we do.” That is, we do it that way for reasonable reasons having to do with English specifically. It’s somewhat common, when I decide to borrow a French or Latin word or phrase, for me to ask myself, “Is this common enough for me not to italicize it?” Most writers writing in other languages have to ask themselves similar questions far less frequently. To quote Donald M. Ayers in English Words: from Latin and Greek Elements: I am sure that English was [as linguists say] created equal. But after nativity, it lacked the benefit of being reared by dutiful parents during its formative years, and, rather like Topsy in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it ‘just growed’.” I’m sure most readers know enough about the development of English to know what he means. Few languages have four competing etymological morphologies: Greek, Latin, French, and what we’ll just call older English. Syntax competes, too, as the phrase “split infinitive” demonstrates. I don’t know how relevant this actually is, but it jumped to mind. Even vocabulary: English is flooded with so many borrowings that, to quote Ayers again, “One stutters before the range of possible choices of words while the opportunity to speak flies by!” We also have a lot of especially French and Latin words and phrases that, though not in first-rate English dictionaries, we use pretty often in literary, legal, and other forms of academic writing. If italicizing helps with the more esoteric words and phrases — as I, like Stu, AJP, and ajay do — that might help explain that, well, that’s what we do. (I don’t think I’ve said anything all that controversial; I’d just been flipping through the Ayers book the other day and it seemed relevant.)

  67. Bathrobe says:

    @m-l

    One thing I find very annoying is when a writer puts foreign exclamations, swearwords, endearments, and the like, in the mouth of characters whose language the writer does not really master.

    Agatha Christie does this with Hercule Poirot. The guy speaks perfect English but Christie insists on inserting little snippets of French just to make sure we know he is a Belgian. Whether his French is correct/idiomatic or not, I have no way of knowing.

  68. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: Christie insists on inserting little snippets of French

    In the case of Hercule Poirot, it is part of his character to make a point of using little snippets of French (and speaking with a definite accent) because his self-presentation is that of an obvious, almost caricatural foreigner, just as he insists on dressing formally, with patent leather shoes that hurt his feet, even on the beach, among other eccentricities (the huge moustache!) that keep people from recognizing his talents (like Columbo on TV, though in reverse). I have not read any of the Poirot stories in quite a while but I think that his French (or Agatha Christie’s or her editor’s) is quite accurate. At least I don’t remember it as making me cringe! But Poirot uses complete (if short) French sentences, he does not just say things like mon Dieu! in inappropriate contexts.

  69. I tried to find a full list of Poirot’s French expressions, but without success. He often uses Parbleu!, Nom d’un nom d’un nom!, Sapristi! and similar euphemistic expressions. I did find a list of the things he says (or mutters to himself) in Death on the Nile, a book which is especially rich in French:

    À merveille!
    À votre santé.
    Ah, non!
    Ah, vraiment!
    article de luxe

    Bien.
    bon Dieu!
    Bonne nuit

    Cache
    Ce cher Woolworth
    C’est de l’enfantillage!
    C’est vrai.
    Cette pauvre petite Rosalie.

    Écoutez, madame.
    Eh bien…
    empressement
    en verité

    femme de chambre

    jeune fille

    la politesse
    le roi est mort — vive le roi!
    les chiffons d’aujourd’hui

    Ma foi!
    Mais oui, Madame
    Mais c’est tout
    Moi, qui vous parle.
    mon ami
    Mon cher Colonel
    Mon Dieu!
    Mon enfant

    Nom d’un nom d’un nom!

    On ne prends pas les mouches avec le vinaigre.

    Parbleu!
    Précisément.
    Peut-être.

    Quel pays sauvage.
    Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?

    Sacré! [the French translator renders this as “Enfin!”]

    Tenez!
    Tiens, c’est drôle, ça!
    Très bien, Madame.

    Une qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer.

    Zut!

    David Suchet (who is English) says that he used a mixture of Belgian and provincial French accents, based on BBC recordings, when playing Poirot.

  70. marie-lucie says:

    Merci JC! I see two utterances that are not quite right:

    – Nom d’un nom d’un nom! : should be Nom de nom de nom! (one of my grandfather’s favourites, probably obsolete nowadays).

    – On ne prends pas les mouches avec le vinaigre. : should be On ne prend pas les mouches avec du vinaigre (sounds like a translation from English)

  71. Prends for prend is a typo on the list-maker’s part: the original text has prend.

  72. One of the Poirot-Suchet movies was linguistically quite ridiculous. Poirot travels with inspector Japp to Belgium and everyone speaks English. Now, this is not the ridiculous part. I don’t think that actors and characters must speak the same language. If British filmmaker shots a movie for British audience with action confined entirely to a monolingual community of speakers, I would prefer the actors to speak English no matter what language the characters supposed to speak. But there, in his native Belgium Poirot kept speaking his trademark somewhat off-beat English with occasional little French phrases. That was the ridiculous part. Apparently, the inertia of the character created over a decade worth of movies was so strong that Poirot’s speech mannerisms could not be ditched even if the effect was quite off-putting.

    It would be interesting though, to see Poirot speaking his native French (or Belgian French) now with a dollop of English making this his quirk in his homeland. I don’t see however how that trick could have been pulled for English-speaking audience.

  73. AJP Crown says:

    Donald M. Ayers, English Words: from Latin and Greek Elements – I may have to buy this. Thanks, Jimsaal.

  74. If she’s writing primarily for a Filipino/Filipino-American audience, it makes sense to not italicise the Filipino words, since people would know them already. Similar to how an author writing for the US market wouldn’t italicise words specific to US English. If the book then gets popular enough, the publisher can then contemplate localising the text, a glossary or italicising specific words. Personally I’m not sure what I prefer. I like languages, so I like to be introduced to new words. On the other hand, I also like to read books in translation, since I tend to lose a lot of the nuances even in English. A translation is less useful if some words are left in the original language.

    Another thing I’ve seen in books is to let the American characters speak Swedish with a very literal use of English idioms, but in Swedish. However, that was a book written in Swedish, not translated.

    I’m pretty annoyed by watching movies set in non-English speaking countries, where the characters all speak English for no reason at all. It makes the movie less realistic and engaging for me. I get that it’s made that way to be more friendly to the English-speaking audience, but for me it doesn’t matter since I usually watch with subtitles anyway.

  75. AJP Crown says:

    (That shd be Jimssal.)

  76. (Or actually Jimsal.)

  77. If she’s writing primarily for a Filipino/Filipino-American audience

    This seems a tremendous stretch. The interview with Yap, in fact, strongly implies precisely the opposite.

    If British filmmaker shots a movie for British audience with action confined entirely to a monolingual community of speakers, I would prefer the actors to speak English no matter what language the characters supposed to speak.

    I agree, if only because foreign languages are so often so poorly done in British and/or Hollywood productions. I’m thinking in particular of the absolutely execrable Russian in last year’s The Shape of Water, syllabically grunted out by non-Russian actors. It took me right out of the movie. On the other hand, I had no problem at all with the British and American actors speaking in their natural dialects in The Death of Stalin.

  78. Apparently, the inertia of the character created over a decade worth of movies was so strong that Poirot’s speech mannerisms could not be ditched even if the effect was quite off-putting.

    Indeed. I once saw an on-set interview with Suchet where he was (not unnaturally) dressed as Poirot, and although he was speaking in propria persona and spontaneously, he was still speaking in Poirot’s voice. Evidently over 21 years it became second nature. Put on the costume and the fat-suit and the mustache, and the accent and speaking style goes on with all the rest.

    Before beginning his role as Poirot, Suchet actually played Inspector Japp, Poirot’s Gregson, opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot in Thirteen at Dinner (based on Lord Edgware Dies). He says Ustinov told him that he would make a good Poirot. In preparation for the role, he read all the novels and short stories, finding a very different and more serious Poirot than earlier films had shown. In particular, he noted that Poirot considers himself “un bon Catholique”.

  79. AJP Gymslipper says:

    Or actually Jimsal

    Duh. Oy vey ist mir.

  80. One thing I loved about The Death of Stalin was that everyone used their very diverse native British and American accents. It worked just fine. I’m glad they didn’t make them speak English with Russian accents.

  81. marie-lucie says:

    Moa: I’m pretty annoyed by watching movies set in non-English speaking countries, where the characters all speak English for no reason at all. It makes the movie less realistic and engaging for me

    I think I wrote about this several years ago: I remember a movie about the plight of displaced Europeans during WWII (a version of a novel which was famous at the time, but the name of which I can’t remember). The central character is a man from a village somewhere in Central Europe who ends up separated from his wife and children and shipped from one country to another, without understanding what is happening. The movie was entirely in English, spoken with a variety of accents which must have represented different languages. As a result, there were scenes where the man was hearing dialogues between, for instance, Germans or Russians, which he was supposed not to understand, as shown by his bemused expression, while the movie viewer hearing all English understood everything, so the poor man gave the impression of being an idiot. I don’t often watch movies these days, but I think (or at least hope) that things have somewhat improved.

  82. One thing I loved about The Death of Stalin was that everyone used their very diverse native British and American accents. It worked just fine. I’m glad they didn’t make them speak English with Russian accents.

    A great movie. I would have liked a bit more rhyme or reason to the accents; something like giving all the Jews New York accents, or some other consistency from nation to nation. But entertaining, funny, sympathetic to the characters and to everyone else, I found it excellent.

    Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm did a version of Bulgakov’s A Country Doctor’s Notebook where they spoke reasonably-standard English (Radcliffe RP-ish, can’t remember what Hamm did) and the locals had regional English(-of-England) accents. That was the first international-English-speaking production I know of that took accents seriously, very pleasant altogether.

    Have we discussed Game of Thrones here? Ah, I see we have. Anyway, one of the things it does well is making an effort at consistency of accent and regional allegiances, something traditionally done terribly by Hollywood.

  83. A great movie. I would have liked a bit more rhyme or reason to the accents; something like giving all the Jews New York accents, or some other consistency from nation to nation. But entertaining, funny, sympathetic to the characters and to everyone else, I found it excellent.

    I did too, but I don’t agree about the accents. Who among the non-Russian audience at whom it’s aimed would have any idea who was of what nationality? Kaganovich was of Jewish origin, but a) I’m pretty sure he didn’t have any kind of a Jewish accent in Russian, and b) who among the audience would know that bit of trivia anyway?

  84. I saw an interview with Suchet that was recorded, seemingly between takes, during the filming of the second or third season of Poirot. When episodes off BBC and (especially ITV) programs were broadcast on Mystery in America, a bit of extra material was needed to fill out the entire hour, since there were no commercial breaks on PBS. In the early days of Mystery (and program it was spun off from, Masterpiece Theatre), the hosts (Vincent Price and Alistair Cooke, respectively) would provide additional exposition about the authors, actors, and milieu of the stories. After Diana Rigg took over as host of Mystery in 1989, the time was more often filled with interviews with people involved in the British productions. I remember specifically that Poirot episodes were often augmented with interviews (or, rather, clips from a single long interview) with Suchet, and episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey had similar interview clips talking with writer John Mortimer at the end. (Not coincidentally, these two series were broadcast on ITV, which is a commercial station, and ITV episodes were thus somewhat shorter than BBC ones.)

    In the interview with Suchet, he still seemed to be half in character as Poirot, even relatively early in his two decades of playing the character. The actor actually commented on that in one segment, saying it was difficult to completely eliminate the Belgian accent when he was on set to play the character. (This seems particularly ironic since, as marie-lucie notes, Poirot the character, at least in his later stories, plays up his “funny foreigner” traits to get criminals off their guard. In one of the 1960s Poirot novels, he actually gets, in a private moment, rather indignant that anybody could believe that a world-famous detective would really speak in broken English after having lived in London for decades.)

    When I later saw Suchet as the Arab terrorist villain in Executive Decision it felt really weird, since I was so used to seeing him as Poirot by that time.

  85. @languagehat: Among Jews who are interested in twentieth-century history, Kaganovich is a well-known figure, as possibly the most evil Jew who ever lived (a groys shanda fur die goyim). He is reviled for being Stalin’s most obedient lieutenant, as devoted as Molotov or Voroshilov but far more pliable. He remained a committed Stalinist until his death in 1991, and I know American Jews who have said that they wished he could have lived a few more months, just to see the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  86. gwenllian says:

    I’m pretty annoyed by watching movies set in non-English speaking countries, where the characters all speak English for no reason at all. It makes the movie less realistic and engaging for me. I get that it’s made that way to be more friendly to the English-speaking audience, but for me it doesn’t matter since I usually watch with subtitles anyway.

    I always enjoy misjudged attempts to provide an excuse for why two characters with the same mother tongue would speak English to each other, with characters saying stuff along the lines of “Stop, we should speak English now that we’re visiting America”, “I want to speak English, like in Hollywood”, or “I never much liked our language, really”. Not too much of this in quality movies or TV, but I’ve watched a lot of trash, and these bizarre scenes are everywhere.

  87. Among Jews who are interested in twentieth-century history, Kaganovich is a well-known figure, as possibly the most evil Jew who ever lived (a groys shanda fur die goyim).

    Interesting, thanks! (Of course, I’m pretty sure that audience was not in the forefront of the minds of the people who made the movie.)

  88. Brett, it seems quite possible that we both saw the same interview.

  89. Bathrobe says:

    1. All this talk of ‘whiteness’, ‘othering’, ‘distancing’, ‘cultural appropriation’ etc. seems to be a very postmodern obsession, and a very self-conscious one at that — perhaps more so in the US than elsewhere.

    Regarding the above sentence, this section of the interview brings some of this into focus:

    I identify as Filipino, and I grew up in — oh, here’s one thing she [Thai ethnic who immigrated to the US from Hong Kong] said that I strongly identify with. She said she hasn’t — she doesn’t have the same inherited angst that Asian Americans who grew up in America feel. It just wasn’t present for us. We were in our dominant culture for most of our lives thus far, so we don’t have the same feeling. The things that we worry about and stress about and inherited from our parents or whatever, are very different from people who grew up here.

    I suspect that “post-modern” obsessions have a greater resonance for Americans — and the idea that italics are “othering” is a by-product of this obsession. People are very sensitive about old categorisations. The trouble is, have nothing much to put in their place except “Don’t other me!” So words that have been mainstream English for centuries and words that someone has just grabbed from another language for the occasion must all be treated equally; otherwise you are just privileging one part of the English-language cultural background.

    2. If she’s writing primarily for a Filipino/Filipino-American audience

    No, she’s not. But she’s very conscious of the different ways in which stories speak to people of different cultural backgrounds.

    I wrote a story once about this festival called the Pahiyas Festival, and that was a story that readers who are not Filipino maybe struggled with a little bit more. ‘cos it’s an actual festival that happens in the Philippines, and I set it in the near future. And I used the description of the festival as it is today, and a lot of people who read it said like, “it was such an exotic world, almost like a fantasy world.” Whereas it was reality, essentially.

    That’s very different from Filipinos who have read my work, and say “this is very realistic. This reminds me of the Philippines. This is how Filipinos talk.”

    Leaving out italics might not matter one way or the other, but assertions that italics are “othering” does not hold water. The othering (or differentness, or whatever you want to call it) is already implicit in cultural reactions to and understanding of the stories. As she noted, some people without the cultural background found the stories hard to understand. How othering is that?

    3. every person from the Philippines I’ve ever spoken to would call her a Filipina…

    She calls herself a Filipina on her website. Perhaps she’s worried about introducing non-English categories? 🙂

    I will leave you with this thought: Why should we pander to the mainstream? Why should we reduce foreign words to a single script with 26 letters? Why assume that the reader has any cultural expectations at all, including the expectation that words must be rendered in Roman letters? Italics are for the faint of heart! Why not leave words in their original script when we quote them in English? Forcing foreign words to fit English conventions, divorcing them from their roots, is a form of cultural violence. Cultural imperialism, cultural debasement, whatever you want. Why write ‘gaitare’ or gaitare (both pale imitations) when 外タレ is the real thing?

    To adopt this suggestion may be impractical but it is the only truly honest way to treat foreign words as used in English. Bleating about italics is just farting around the edges. What we really need is a full-scale revolution!

    Sound ridiculous? Sorry, so do arguments about avoiding italics.

  90. But you are arguing it the other way around. The case against italics is that there is no need to label the foreign word as foreign. People who don’t know the word will figure it out anyway and readers who know the word do not need reminder of its foreigners. Just in case anybody cares, I don’t care either way.

  91. Bathrobe says:

    I know that I’m arguing it the other way round. But the point is that NOT using italics is like reducing everything to ASCI. It looks simple and non-discriminatory but it’s not. It’s a kind of dumbing down — everything should be in the same matte finish whether it makes sense or not.

  92. SFReader says:

    Listened to Kaganovich’s interview. I would describe his accent as mild Ukrainian accent.

    But maybe that’s how Jewish accent sounded, I don’t know

  93. jamessal says:

    The case against italics is that there is no need to label the foreign word as foreign. People who don’t know the word will figure it out anyway and readers who know the word do not need reminder of its foreigners.

    As I tried to explain above, that argument doesn’t really work for English, because there are too many English words and common foreign expression with which most native English speakers are unfamiliar for that “figuring out” not to become tiresome. It wouldn’t be only for people essentially fluent in Latin, (ancient) Greek, Old French, and Old English. Then again, I’m pococurante, like D.O.

    Donald M. Ayers, English Words: from Latin and Greek Elements – I may have to buy this. Thanks, Jimsaal.

    Yeah, what I’ve found time to skim I find interesting. More importantly, I’ve been meaning to get back to you since you received my little present, and though I don’t want to promise I will soon, I did want to let you know that Robin and I are working very hard toward building a life for ourselves in which we can do the things we enjoy at least somewhat often, and one of those things for me is resuming my correspondence with you. That’s the plan for the near(ish) future. A year or two and we plan to be enjoying ourselves most of the time: reading, writing, corresponding with friends, even visiting them hiking for Robin’s photography (as we’ve already done a wee bit already), and most importantly traveling. Talk soon!

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