My Brilliant Friend’s Neapolitan Dialect.

My wife and I loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (as I wrote a couple of years ago), and we’re very much looking forward to the TV series, which has gotten great reviews; I of course am especially pleased that it’s done in Italian, and a reader sent me a link to Justin Davidson’s fascinating discussion of the details at Vulture:

Italy is a 19th-century invention unified by an official language that, until the 20th century, most Italians didn’t speak. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four volumes of her Neopolitan Novels, takes place on the outskirts of Naples, in a neighborhood isolated by dialect as well as by poverty. Ferrante avoids transcribing the speech patterns of the street, writing out everything in proper Italian and inserting a clause to specify whether the speaker is using Neapolitan dialect or not. This saves the reader from having to struggle through laboriously rendered, potentially offensive slang à la Huckleberry Finn, and it also makes it impossible to forget how far the narrator, Elena Greco, has traveled, from her days as a postwar urchin to the heights of literary respectability.

In the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, director Saverio Costanzo addresses the problem in a completely different fashion: by casting local kids, filming in Neapolitan, and providing Italian subtitles that viewers can fool themselves into thinking they could really do without. Elena’s trajectory is the story of a woman changing her speech, and with it the trammels of class, family, brutality, and loyalty. Costanzo sets the parameters in the opening scene, set in the present, when an iPhone buzzes on Elena’s bedside table. Sleepy and startled, she answers in educated Italian, with a hyper-proper “Pronto?” At the other end of the line is a young voice from her old life; the son of her childhood friend informs her in thick Neapolitan that Lila has disappeared: “Mammà ‘nzè tròve cchiù.” She understands, but her peers wouldn’t, not without subtitles.

There is a difference between Italian spoken with a Naples accent — a cadence rich in diphthongs, gaping vowels, and mushy sh sounds — and actual Neapolitan, which is impenetrable to an outsider from, say, even a few dozen miles away. Every Italian knows a few, mockable phrases: guagliò for “dude,” vabbuò instead of va bene (“all right”) or boh, che ne saccio in place of non lo so (“I don’t know”). Movies and television, which have to balance regional authenticity and mass appeal, have created a kind of Italo-neapolitan hybrid, colorful but comprehensible. In the 1980s, the comedian Massimo Troisi helped make his native dialect safe for national consumption, but he was careful to stay within the lines of intelligibility. The dialect continues to be a source of merriment and pride: Last month, when the Naples-born TV personality Stefano De Martino taught his son a few useful phrases, the 30-second final exam became a viral sensation.

Costanzo, though, is after something much more textured and profound than authenticity or local color: He uses gradations of dialect to delineate class, reveal the characters’ psychology, and propel the plot.

I’m tempted to just go on quoting, but hopefully you get the idea: it’s not the usual information-free puff piece, it’s full of good stuff, including a useful comparison to Lampedusa’s The Leopard (and video clips to illustrate some of the points). Now I’m even more eager to see the show!

A Year in Reading 2018.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and once again C. Max Magee has led off with my contribution, featuring my recommendations of A History of Russian Literature (see this LH post), the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin bio, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, and several other fine books. Head over there to see, and by all means support The Millions, a very worthwhile endeavor.

Foreign Languages, From Easiest to Hardest.

Colin Marshall wrote at Open Culture (last year, but I don’t think I posted about it) about the FSI language rankings:

Do you want to speak more languages? Sure, as Sally Struthers used to say so often, we all do. But the requirements of attaining proficiency in any foreign tongue, no doubt unlike those correspondence courses pitched by that All in the Family star turned daytime TV icon, can seem frustratingly demanding and unclear. But thanks to the research efforts of the Foreign Service Institute, the center of foreign-language training for the United States government for the past 70 years, you can get a sense of how much time it takes, as a native or native-level English speaker, to master any of a host of languages spoken all across the world. […]

In total, the FSI ranks languages into six categories of difficulty, including English’s Category 0. The higher up the scale you go, the less recognizable the languages might look to an English-speaking monoglot. Category III contains no European languages at all (though it does contain Indonesian, widely regarded as one of the objectively easiest languages to learn). Category IV offers a huge variety of languages from Amharic to Czech to Nepali to Tagalog, each demanding 44 weeks (or 1100 hours) of study. Then, at the very summit of the linguistic mountain, we find the switched-up grammar, highly unfamiliar scripts, and potentially mystifying cultural assumptions of Category V, “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.”

To that most formidable group belong Arabic, Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean, and — this with an asterisk meaning “usually more difficult than other languages in the same category” — Japanese.

There’s a convenient map (though only for Europe) as well as the full Foreign Service Institute language difficulty ranking list. I have to say, based on my own attempts to learn languages it’s pretty accurate — Arabic was definitely the hardest I tried (and I never got very far). Thanks, Jonathan!

Slightly Less Maroon.

My brother gave me Belinda Bauer’s new crime novel Snap, set in the southwest of England (Tiverton and nearby parts of Devon, to be precise), and at one point a policeman is investigating a burglary — a family has come back from vacation to find their house not only burgled but despoiled — and the irate paterfamilias is complaining about insurance companies: “Always looking for ways not to pay you.” The scene continues:

‘Well, you’ve done the right thing leaving everything as it was for us to see, Mr Passmore. I’ll be giving you a crime reference number for the insurance claim.’

‘Thanks.’ Passmore nodded, slightly less maroon.

I was taken aback by this unexpected use of maroon, which means a number of things but not, as far as I can tell, anything like ‘upset.’ Is this a slang/dialect UK thing?

Also, the Wikipedia article on Tiverton (linked above) refers to its “medieval town leat“; this dialect word for an artificial watercourse or aqueduct was new to me, and I find it pleasing; Wikipedia sez:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, leat is cognate with let in the sense of “allow to pass through”. Other names for the same thing include fleam (probably a leat supplying water to a mill that did not have a millpool). In parts of northern England, for example around Sheffield, the equivalent word is goit. In southern England, a leat used to supply water for water-meadow irrigation is often called a carrier, top carrier, or main.

I’m not sure which I like better, fleam, goit, or leat.

Strange Persistence.

Julie Sedivy, whom I’ve posted about more than once at LH (2012, 2014, 2015, 2017), has a nice piece at Nautilus called “The Strange Persistence of First Languages.” I might as well repeat what I said at that 2017 post — it’s one of those long, meaty articles that make too many points to summarize briefly, so I’ll just quote a few bits and urge you to read the whole thing:

[My father’s] death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life. […]

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. […]

A first language remains uniquely intertwined with early memories, even for people who fully master another language. In her book The Bilingual Mind, linguist Aneta Pavlenko describes how the author Vladimir Nabokov fled the Russian revolution in 1919, arriving in the United Kingdom when he was 20. By the time he wrote his memoir Conclusive Evidence in 1951, he’d been writing in English for years, yet he struggled writing this particular text in his adopted language, complaining that his memory was tuned to the “musical key” of Russian. Soon after its publication, he translated the memoir into his native tongue. Working in his first language seems to have prodded his senses awake, leading him to insert new details into the Russian version: A simple anecdote about a stingy old housekeeper becomes perfumed with the scents of coffee and decay, the description of a laundry hamper acquires a creaking sound, the visual details of a celluloid swan and toy boat sprout as he writes about the tub in which he bathed as a child. Some of these details eventually made it into his revised English memoir, which he aptly titled Speak, Memory. Evidently, when memory speaks, it sometimes does so in a particular tongue. […]

I discovered that, while I may have run out of time to visit my father in his homeland, there was still time for me to reunite with my native tongue. On my first day there, the long drive with my uncle between the airport and our place in the countryside was accompanied by a conversation that lurched along awkwardly, filled with dead ends and misunderstandings. Over the next few days, I had trouble excavating everyday words like stamp and fork, and I made grammar mistakes that would (and did) cause a 4-year-old to snicker. But within weeks, fluency began to unspool. Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me. (Often they were correct. Sometimes not: I startled a man who asked about my occupation by claiming to be a savior—spasitelka. Sadly, I am a mere writer—spisovatelka.) The complicated inflections of Czech, described as “character-building” by an acquaintance who’d learned the language in college, began to assemble into somewhat orderly rows in my mind, and I quickly ventured onto more and more adventurous grammatical terrain. Just a few weeks into my visit, I briefly passed as a real Czech speaker in a conversation with a stranger. Relearning Czech so quickly felt like having linguistic superpowers. […]

I’ve recently left my job as an academic linguist to devote more time to writing, and I often find myself these days conjuring my father’s voice by reading a passage in Czech. Like many Czechs I’ve met, my father treated his language like a lovely object to be turned over, admired, stroked with a fingertip, deserving of deliberate and leisurely attention. He spoke less often than most people, but was more often eloquent. I may never regain enough of my first language to write anything in it worth reading, but when I struggle to write prose that not only informs but transcends, I find myself steering my inner monologue toward Czech. It reminds me of what it feels like to sink into language, to be startled by the aptness of a word or the twist of a phrase, to be delighted by arrangements of its sounds, and lulled by its rhythms. I’ve discovered that my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.

I’m a bit surprised that she doesn’t mention the Czech original of her surname, Šedivý (feminine Šedivá), so I’m doing it for her. (Thanks, Ariel!)

Shibboleth Names.

I just ran across this “List of shibboleth names by which the privileged judge their inferiors” and of course was intrigued. It’s wildly unreliable — right off the bat it says “Abbe Suger (French pronunciation: syoo-zheh, British: soo-gehr),” when in fact the French pronunciation is [syʒɛʁ] (“syoo-ZHEHR” if you’re going to use his hand-wavy transcription), and I seriously doubt his suggested British version, with /g/, is all that widespread — but it’s cleverly called “shibboleth names,” not “correct pronunciations,” and I’m sure there’s somebody somewhere who will judge you for not saying a name the suggested way, even if it’s wrong. At any rate, even a list with errors can put you on the right path; I would never have guessed that Robert T. Bakker, the paleontologist, pronounces his name “bocker” if I hadn’t seen it in the list (of course I checked to make sure). So take it for what it’s worth; use it with appropriate caution, and no, Celmins is not pronounced “tell-midge,” for Pete’s sake.

The Poor Man of Nippur.

Charles Hymas reports on another attempt to speak an ancient language:

A Cambridge academic has taught himself to speak ancient Babylonian and is leading a campaign to revive it as a spoken language almost 2,000 years after it became extinct.

Dr Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, has created the world’s first film in the ancient language with his Babylonian-speaking students dramatising a folk tale from a clay tablet from 701BC.

Entitled The Poor Man of Nippur, it recounts the tale of a man with a goat who takes revenge on a City mayor for killing the animal by beating him up three times.

It is the culmination of his two decades of research into how the language, once the lingua franca of the Middle East used by Babylonian kings in Mesopotamia, Egyptian pharaohs and Near East potentates, was spoken and pronounced. […]

Dr Worthington has been learning the language since 2000 and says he could make a speech in it but admitted he was by no means fluent, more a “work in progress.”

I approve of this sort of thing, even if it rarely results in natural-sounding speech (and hey, at least he’s modest about his accomplishments); I’ll leave it to those who know more about the language to comment. Thanks, Trevor!

The Languages of Warruwi Community.

Michael Erard has long been my favorite reporter on linguistic issues (the LSA likes him too), and he’s got a new piece in the Atlantic about a very interesting situation:

On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.

None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.

This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role.

Follow the link for the fascinating details and some striking “language portraits” by locals; I like the conclusion:

And that’s one lesson to be learned from receptive multilingualism at Warruwi Community: Small indigenous groups are surprisingly complex, socially and linguistically, and receptive multilingualism is both engine and consequence of that complexity. It may also be a key to ensuring the future of small languages as the population of speakers dwindles if more was understood about how to turn receptive abilities in a language into being able to speak it. “If we understood receptive abilities better, we could design language teaching for these people,” Singer says, “which would make it easier for people who only understand their heritage language to start to speak it later on in life.”

Thanks, Bonnie!


I was reading the introduction to a posthumous work of scholarship by the woman who got it in shape to be published, and she thanked her husband for his “acribic proofreading.” I was taken aback, but figured it was one of the many obscure bits of the English wordhoard I hadn’t yet run into. But it’s not in any dictionaries I can access, even the OED, and yet Google Books turns up quite a few hits, e.g. “The history of insect sting allergy has been described in a very acribic article by Ulrich Müller” (2010), “As a rule the acribic analysis of the broader rasm-text per se” (2003), “the means a ‘true history’ uses to validate its ‘genuineness,’ like an editorial apparatus, acribic detail, and interpolated documents” (1989), etc. It’s obviously derived from Greek ἀκριβής ‘accurate, precise,’ but where are these authors getting it from? Can anybody provide acribic enlightenment?

Boys a Dear.

Jamie Dornan has an enjoyable video about Northern Ireland slang; if you don’t feel like watching a three-minute clip, you can get the gist, and most of the expressions, at Erica Bush’s Metro write-up. There’s lots of good stuff, e.g.:

“Any more of this and there’ll be less of it.” I mean, that’s so stupid. That’s as Irish a statement as you’re ever likely to read. It’s like “Put an end to it, stop it or you’ll get what’s coming to ya.” It could only be uttered in Ireland, that’s why I love it.

But what drove me to post was “Boys a dear,” equivalent to the apparently more widespread “boys-a-boys,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “(Irish) a general excl. of amazement, disbelief.” It makes no sense in English, which of course is par for the course for idioms, but I’m wondering if either version might be derived phonetically from some Irish word or phrase. Anybody know? (Thanks, Eric!)