THE SOUND OF HOME.

I’m reading a charming book called Anything Can Happen by George Papashvily (with his wife Helen, but it’s told in the first person by George); it’s the reminiscences, hokey and in sometimes overly cutesy “immigrant English” but heartfelt, funny, and moving, of a man who left Soviet Georgia for America in the early 1920s. (I have the first edition from 1945, borrowed from my nonagenarian mother-in-law, but as you can see from the Amazon link it’s been much reprinted and is still easily available, which testifies to its irresistible quality.) I thought I’d quote some of Chapter IV, “The Sound of Home”:

In all that time except for those first few months in New York I never heard one word spoken in my own language—Georgian… Once when I was still in Pittsburgh a Turk told me his cousin in Wheeling knew a man who could speak Georgian. So when was my day off—I was still in glue factory this time—I rode over on the bus and found this cousin. But it turned out his friend had been in Batum only a week or two in 1918…
Then one day I heard about the big professors at the university. They were writing books and speaking many languages… So I thought—such big professors—maybe one of them can speak Georgian.
On my day off I took plenty of time and got dressed up and went over to the university. High up in a marble building I found two men. Syrian, Russian, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Tartar, they were speaking all those languages like English—but Georgian, no, not a word.
They shook their heads and one took down a big book from the shelf. He said, “Do you know you speak one of the few tongues in the world that is unrelated to any other language group?” [!]
“Traces of Sumerian may be noted in it, I believe,” said the other…. [!!]

I was singing [a Georgian song] the day I went down to the new laundry for my shirts… The lady behind the counter stared when she took the ticket from me, but I was getting used to that.
“You sing in a funny language?”
“Yes, madam,” I said.
“My father speaks a funny language, too. A very funny one. He put a piece in the Sun Telegraph once. Ten years ago. ‘I pay one thousand dollars anybody can speak my language’ was what he said. ‘Signed Al Monteaux.’ A few people came, but nobody spoke it. It’s a funny language.”
“I guess all languages are funny to those not speaking them, madam. Nourts Gaprindebe, Nourts Moprindebe.” (“Fly, butterfly, fly.”)
“I call him anyway. Papa! Papa!!”
Skals Napoti, harali haralo. Skals Napoti—” The tunes wouldn’t stay out of my mouth.
“Pa——pa!!”
The door of the back office opened and an old man popped out. “Skals Napoti? Who sings Skals Napoti?” His voice creaked on the song like a dry ox-yoke.
I went toward him. “Gamarjueba, batano.” (“May yours be the victory in battle, sir.”) [Actually, gamarjoba (the modern form of gamarjveba), though etymologically it means 'victorious,' is the normal word for 'hello' in Georgian—LH.]
And he opened his arms and kissed me, and the tears rolled down his cheeks so fast they almost drowned his answer.
Gagemarjos, Shvilo. Madelobtbele wart.” (“Thank God that the sun rose on this day, my boy.”)
“So, at last! I hear my own language again after three years,” I said…
“Three years,” he said in Georgian. “Three years and yet you complain! Think of me, my son. Today I have heard the sound of home for the first time in thirty years.”…
After that almost every night when my work was through I stopped by the laundry for Papa Monteaux and we bought dry olives and salt cheese and cucumbers and bread and went home to his basement and tapped a barrel. For in all the thirty years when he never heard our language, still he never forgot how to make good wine.
Evening after evening we sat in his cellar doorway under the arbor and sang and told stories and Keento jokes and histories. We took turns reciting “The Man in the Panther’s Skin” to each other. [A kinto is a street merchant; apparently they were traditionally known for telling stories and jokes. The Man in the Panther's Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი, Vepkhistqaosani) is the national epic of Georgia.]
We talked and talked…

The book was successful enough that it was made into a 1952 movie starring Jose Ferrer, and a user comment at IMDb says “It is initially hard to accept Jose Ferrer playing a Slav…” I hope I don’t have to tell anyone here that Georgians are not Slavs!

Comments

  1. In Portland I met a woman with an eight-syllable name. It turned out that her husband was from one of the smaller nations of Georgia. He’d been a science teacher, then was drafted into WWII, captured by the Germans, fled repatriation (he probably would have been killed), and reached the US after awhile in Germany. Alas, I never met the guy.

  2. Great post Languagehat – it’s prompted me to go and buy the book on Amazon, looks like a great read.

  3. I saw this book in my local public library many years ago, and think I even read it at the time, but seeing this excerpt made me go to Amazon and order a copy as well. Searching for the author in Google, I see that he wrote various other books as well, and was a well-known sculptor, as in the Wikipedia entry on him:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Papashvily

  4. I remember an essay some homesick official in China had written about happiness that listed reaching one’s home district and hearing the dialect as number one or two on his list of happinesses.
    Does anyone else have the sort of synesthesia about languages – when you hear Cantonese you think of money and things stewed with five spice, or how two taxi drivers speaking Som-ali can make even the drippiest, windiest day feel like Palm Springs?

  5. Forrest: Thanks, it didn’t even occur to me there would be a Wikipedia entry (I didn’t realize he was a well-known sculptor)—I’ve added a link to the post.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    How did a Georgian man end up with the name Monteaux?

  7. I asked myself the same question; I can only assume it’s one of those weird changes names underwent for various reasons on or after immigration. It might have been one of those eight-syllable wonders, and it got shortened and written in a fancy faux-French way. No way of knowing, I imagine.

  8. That’s a lovely anecdote.

  9. Siganus Sutor says:

    A few people around would probably have had the same kind of experience, especially if their language doesn’t have many speakers. Being able to speak “Morisyen” once in Scotland was quite a pleasant surprise, and it is funny to note how close you can then feel to someone you would never have noticed at home.

  10. I don’t remember the priest telling me when I went to Confession when I was a kid, “Well, Lance, it was wrong of you to disobey your mom and talk back to her like that, but since you set the table every night and do your homework and sent your aunt a birthday card, what the heck! You’re a good kid. Your sins are forgiven automatically. No need for you to do any penance.” [Chinese spam removed -- LH] And maybe it’s happened a few times and I haven’t heard about it but I can’t recall a judge ever letting somebody walk on the grounds the crook was a good guy and his friends really like him.

  11. I know of a young American Peace Corps worker who learned an extremely obscure African language. Back in Portland, Ore., he walked into a McDonalds and saw from his name badge that one of the servers was obviously from the people in question. When he asked the guy for a hamburger in his native tongue, the server was so astonished, he fainted …

  12. LH: Were the professors right about Georgian being unrelated to any other known language, (like Basque?) and with traces of Sumerian?

  13. Just curious how that ad for a Chinese diabetes site got into tnb’s posting?

  14. The Chinese diabetes site is spammed elsewhere too.

  15. LH: Were the professors right about Georgian being unrelated to any other known language, (like Basque?) and with traces of Sumerian?
    No, that’s why I added the exclamation marks. Georgian is related to the other languages of the Kartvelian family, which may or may not be related to other Caucasian language groups (and, if you believe the Nostraticists, to Indo-European, Semitic, and who knows what all). And the Sumerian thing is just silly.
    Just curious how that ad for a Chinese diabetes site got into tnb’s posting?
    Because tnb is a filthy spambot.

  16. “Because tnb is a filthy spambot”
    Now I’m embarrassed…

  17. I’ve had the pleasure of partying with Georgians on occassion. They are wonderful toasters, and require one toast per quaff. There is a complex ritual to it I havn’t ever quite figured out. The women are all beautiful and somewhat tyrannical. The men are all charming and somewhat shifty. The most common female Christian name is Tamar, after the Tamar of the ring in the Bible, but also Queen Tamar of Georgia who is a saint. The most common male Christian name is Irakly (Hercules).
    Here’s one of my favorite Georgian stories. When God created the world, he set aside lots for each nation. The french were given a nation rich in vinyards, the english were given a cold climate to match their demeanor, the russians were given unrelenting winters to make them hard and strong. But as the nations were being given out by God, the Georgians were all busy throwing a party to celebrate, and as can happen at a Georgian party, things got a little out of hand, too much wine flowed, and the Georgians ultimately missed the distribution altogether. They finally arrived before God the next day, bleary-eyed and hung-over, and expressed remorse. They then asked God where was their lot, and God said there was nothing left; he had given out all the lots there were. The Georgians were dejected, at which point God said, very well, there is one small lot left, which has rich valleys and a beautiful weather and rich soil; it is the most beautiful lot in the world and I had been saving it for myself — this lot I will give to the Georgians.
    Needless to say, the Georgians are very proud of their country.

  18. I always thought the story went – “All the other nations were jealous of the beautiful paradise God had given the Georgians and went to complain. ‘It’s unfair!’ cried the rest of the nations. ‘Yes’, said God,’but look whom I’ve given them for neighbors!’”

  19. Now I’m embarrassed…
    I have to admit I haven’t seen spambots leave comments like that. If you’re not in fact a filthy spambot, my humble apologies, but you’ll have to explain how Chinese spam got into your comment.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    though etymologically it means ‘victorious,’ is the normal word for ‘hello’ in Georgian

    Impressive.
    The Kartvelian (“South Caucasian”) family is quite small, so the claim of isolation is almost understandable; however, the Nostratic link looks plausible. Sumerian, however, is probably not even Nostratic, and Basque clearly is not — and neither are the Caucasian (“North Caucasian”) languages.
    Georgian and Sumerian do have something in common, however: both are split-ergative. This scary feature is more common than one would suspect.

  21. David, the word “Nostratic” gives Steve the fantods. His wife is probably caring for him as we speak.

  22. Clearly there’s more than one tnb. I think they’re all spambots. Want a new spambot blocker? Click here…mwa ha ha

  23. As a Basque stranded in Brussels I have inmensely enjoyed the tale… But even here I can receive Basque TV through satellite. Times are definitely a-changin’!

  24. The fact that a man so desperate to hear his native tongue spoken by another human apparently taught not a word to his daughter reveals a lot about how different immigrant attitudes towards language once were.

  25. The daughter may well have refused to learn, as my mother and her brothers all refused to learn Norwegian despite their father’s offer of a penny a word (and this during the Depression). Never underestimate the need of the young to be just like their peers.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    - Hearing one’s language in unexpected places:
    In the well-known story (and opera) Carmen, the male protagonist is a Basque soldier in the Spanish army. Although Carmen is a fascinating woman, he might have been able to resist her charms, but what broke down his defenses was that she could speak a few words of Basque. As he explains to the narrator:
    Notre langue, Monsieur, est si belle, que lorsque nous l’entendons en pays étranger, elle nous fait venir les larmes aux yeux. “Our language, Sir, is so beautiful that when we hear it in a foreign country, it brings tears to our eyes.”
    No doubt the Basque language is beautiful, but many transplanted or minority people attribute their strong emotional reaction to their native tongue to its beauty, warmth, etc rather than to the fact that it is associated with their oldest and deepest memories.
    English speakers do not often have this type of experience, since very few of them are likely to spend months or years without any contact with their language.
    As for myself, if I discover that a person I have been speaking with in English for some time is actually a native speaker of French, I feel as if sunglasses have suddenly been ripped from in front of my eyes – even though I never feel that there is a barrier between me and English speakers as such.
    - About the Georgian father not teaching his daughter a word of his language:
    It is possible that he spoke a few words to her when she was a baby, but presumably the mother was American and the language of the home was English. A monolingual parent married to a bilingual one often strenuously objects to their partner using a language that they don’t understand, or at least think that it will confuse the child. Also, if it is the father who speaks a foreign tongue, he typically spends less time with the small child than the mother and often gives up the attempt to speak to the child in his language, ironically once the child is beginning to speak.

  27. Siganus Sutor says:

    What is a “beautiful language”?

  28. How can that be answered? What is a beautiful artwork, or person, or landscape?

  29. I’ve seen the same spam passage before (grabbed from a blog entry), but in the other thread I saw it posted to, the comment (aside from the Chinese spam insertion) was actually relevant. The fact that it’s showing up in this thread as well indicates that the new(?) spamming technique may not be as smart as I assumed it was.
    And the second “tnb” is just someone (probably a regular commenter) joking, LH. The e-mail address is different, after all.

  30. Siganus Sutor says:

    LH: How can that be answered? What is a beautiful artwork, or person, or landscape?
    But I’ve heard serious people seriously say that some languages were ugly. For instance — totally arbitrarily of course — Chinese, Arabic or German. (Obviously for these people the said languages were totally alien, or had specific connotations). If some languages can be “uglier” than others, it means that others can be “more beautiful” than some, no?
    And, by the way, is it never possible to decide whether something is beautiful or not? And can beauty exist by itself, as an Absolute? A question for the Hydra, probably…

  31. marie-lucie says:

    “Beauty is in the eye”, and the ear, and the throat, etc of the beholder, hearer, speaker, etc.
    Lots of consonants together discourage the hearer, a regular CV-CV- (consonant-vowel) pattern makes a language easy to pronounce and sing and more melodious-sounding. But not necessarily: I remember once seeing a samurai movie, in Japanese with French subtitles. The women were speaking with high voices, giving the impression of twittering like birds, but the men spoke with low, gruff, aggressive voices, in fast bursts like machine-gun fire. If the men and the women had been heard separately rather than in conversation with each other, a person unfamiliar with Japanese (like myself) would have thought that they spoke completely different languages. I have since heard quite a bit of Japanese spoken by both sexes and those speakers were not as far apart as the ones in the samurai movie.
    Beauty, etc also depends on the circumstances: for instance, my parents, living in the German-occupied zone of France during WWII, had heard plenty of German, spoken in fast, gruff voices, etc by soldiers giving orders – most French people could only try to guess what those orders were for, probably nothing good, so hearing German made everyone afraid. Many years later, my parents travelled to Germany and Austria and were pleasantly surprised to discover that this military style was not the only way to speak German, and that the language could indeed sound soft and melodious.

  32. But I’ve heard serious people seriously say that some languages were ugly.
    Of course, and I’m sure you’ve heard people say some paintings or animals or other people were ugly. I’m not sure why you’re thinking of languages as a special case. I personally think German often sounds ugly; obviously that’s a personal reaction and not a fact about the German language, but so are all judgments about beauty and ugliness. I.e., what marie-lucie said.

  33. I met some Swedish-Americans born around 1930-1940 whose immigrant parents refused to teach them any Swedish because they were so angry at Sweden. Even in the early XXc, Scandinavia could be a pretty bitter place.

  34. Odd evil. Even good. says:

    Austrian Sigmund Freud is known as the father of psychoanalysis yet people have (mental) health problems because of their disfavor, illustrating the preditory purpose of this discipline, this individual.
    These people.
    Of course Hitler was Austrian. Glock, maker of the semi-automatic gun favored black street gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips, is Austrian.
    RedBull Energy drink, Buwdeiser both Austrian.
    [...]
    Italy’s boot is a clue showing the god’s intent with the Romans.
    Oshkosh is a clue just as Lake Michigan and Green Bay are clues:::: the ejaculate clue:::Life springs forth from this city.
    Expect your traditional Second Coming of Christ to come from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Consistant with the possibility of matrilinial lineage it may be the mother’s family from the Lake Winnebago area fulfilling some “Manifest Destiny” bullshit theater::::You see Manifest Destiny all around you (corporate). Expect the white man’s god’s prophecy to be fulfilled.
    [...]

  35. Odd evil. Even good. says:

    Austrian Sigmund Freud is known as the father of psychoanalysis yet people have (mental) health problems because of their disfavor, illustrating the preditory purpose of this discipline, this individual.
    These people.
    Of course Hitler was Austrian. Glock, maker of the semi-automatic gun favored black street gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips, is Austrian.
    RedBull Energy drink, Buwdeiser both Austrian.
    [...]
    Italy’s boot is a clue showing the god’s intent with the Romans.
    Oshkosh is a clue just as Lake Michigan and Green Bay are clues:::: the ejaculate clue:::Life springs forth from this city.
    Expect your traditional Second Coming of Christ to come from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Consistant with the possibility of matrilinial lineage it may be the mother’s family from the Lake Winnebago area fulfilling some “Manifest Destiny” bullshit theater::::You see Manifest Destiny all around you (corporate). Expect the white man’s god’s prophecy to be fulfilled.
    [...]

  36. My feeling is that the previous post strays somewhat from the topic, even by LH standards. Also, he’s all wet about Oshkosh.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    My guess is that this outburst was triggered by the word Austria which I innocently mentioned earlier. Perhaps it is inserted automatically?

  38. I do not normally edit comments, but the comment by a clearly mentally disturbed person was so long, irrelevant, and in places offensive that I cut it down to the bits referenced by John and marie-lucie. Trust me, the rest was not worth reading if you missed it.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    thank you, LH! my sentiments exactly.

  40. Siganus Sutor says:

    I’m not sure why you’re thinking of languages as a special case.
    Why? Oh, just because Marie-Lucie mentioned the character in Carmen who says that his own language is a particularly beautiful one. Even though I’ve heard people declare that this or that language was ugly — or nice as the case may be —, it is the kind of statement that has always puzzled me (to some extent). I agree that the notion of beauty is a subjective one, i.e. a mental construction that could hardly fall into the category of “absolute” concepts (a scarcely populated category in my opinion), but it is not because it is an arbitrary “feeling” that it can be used for anything. If we can marvel, or not, at the beauty of natural wonders, of man-made monuments or of a poem, a piece of music or a painting, can we speak of the beauty of a language itself (and not of what is said, written or sung in this particular language)? Can we marvel at the beauty of Tuesdays, the letter Y, the note F or the number 5? Or talk of the beauty of the colour red, of a quadratic equation or of… concrete?

  41. Why yes, we can, and people have probably talked of the beauty of all those things. Mathematicians frequently talk about the beauty of equations and proofs, and I remember myself having a tremendous sense of the beauty of Gödel’s proof when I finished reading this book. In short, your puzzlement puzzles me!

  42. They came for the clearly mentally disturbed people, and I said nothing.
    And then they came for me, because there are not actually a lot of intermediate statuses to go through one by one.

  43. “Can we marvel at the beauty of Tuesdays, the letter Y, the note F or the number 5?”
    I don’t know about the tone F or Tuesdays, but the beauty of Ys and 5s (and all other letters and numbers for that matter) is rather often discussed on http://typophile.com/

  44. Siganus Sutor says:

    You leave me even more puzzled then! I understand that we marvel at some fruits of the human mind, “even” in mathematics, a scourge which inflicted pain on me for years (and it’s not totally over yet). I don’t know how “beautiful” is Gödel’s proof, but I do remember that when Andrew Wiles demonstrated Fermat’s Conjecture, a mathematician said, for what I recall of the article I then read, that he chose ‘the most beautiful path of all’. Indeed, even some abstract “things” in mathematics can be beautiful (cf. the title given to this moving movie about the life of mathematician John Nash).
    However, what I am trying to express is that it is the achievement — or eventually the process, the journey, the effort — which is beautiful, not the medium of information itself. To me it would somehow be like hearing Brassens’ Supplique pour être enterré sur la plage de Sète or Chopin’s Opus posthume (69) n°2 on the radio and saying that, wow! these radio waves are absolutely beautiful! Language can (or should?) be considered as just the means by which a message is transmitted from one mind to another one. It can be very efficient or poorly so, it can be accurate or lacking precision, it can be quick or slow, handy or not, but I would personally not use the adjectives beautiful or ugly to describe it. For example I cementiously mentioned concrete: I don’t think that it is ugly or beautiful in itself. It depends on what you do with it.
    Am I being desperately technical in the way I see language?
    (We could talk of hats another time.)

  45. But you’re talking about language as if it were some abstract medium. Sure, it can can “be considered as just the means by which a message is transmitted from one mind to another one,” just as a person can be considered as just the means by which a genetic packet is transmitted from one generation to the next or a piece of music can be considered as an abstract assemblage of information formally indistinguishable from its representation in binary form in a computer, but it can also be considered as a Ding an sich without regard for the transmission of messages. One can have esthetic impressions regarding languages one does not understand at all. If you don’t form esthetic impressions of languages, fine, but surely you can see how others can?

  46. There DO seem to be certain *purely linguistic* features that are considered inherently beautiful or inherently ugly in language from a hearer’s point of view: francophones as well as anglophones, for example (in my experience), both seem to consider that the presence of velar fricatives makes a language ugly; conversely a language with consonant palatalization is often said to be “soft-sounding” or the like…this may account for the fact that I have never heard a native speaker of English or French call Dutch or Afrikaans or Swiss German a beautiful language (whatever their feelings about actual speakers of the language, which ranged from neutral to positive), but that I have often heard Russian or Polish called beautiful (even by people who did not have a very positive image of the speakers) by them (yes, I know Russian and Polish both have a /x/ phoneme, but in any normal stretch of conversation one will hear far more palatalized consonants than velar fricatives). I find this interesting, since phonemic palatalization of consonants as well as velar fricative phonemes are equally alien to both languages, yet the former is considered ugly and the latter beautiful…
    One difference I have noticed between anglophones and francophones is that the former seem to find heavy nasalization of vowels much less tolerable than the latter, esthetically: conversely francophones seem much less tolerant of heavy stress and consonant clusters than anglophones do: francophones seem to find Brazilian Portuguese more attractive than anglophones do, and conversely anglophones seem to find German more attractive than francophones do. That does match to a degree the differences between English and French, of course…
    Is there any kind of experimental work on this? —i.e. on the esthetic value, from a foreign hearer’s perspective, of various phonological components of a language (phonemes, phonotactics, stress, intonation…), as opposed to the esthetics of actual foreign languages (where stereotypes and historical experience distort things considerably).

  47. David Marjanović says:

    and that the language could indeed sound soft and melodious.

    As a native speaker, I refuse to accept the claim that any kind of German is melodious. It’s the least melodious language both I and my Russian teacher have ever encountered. I’d say the entire language is within the range of the Mandarin third tone, and everything beyond that is considered singing!
    No, I’m not especially grumpy today. :-)

    RedBull Energy drink, Buwdeiser both Austrian.

    Budweis? České Budějovice? In Austria? Ouuuuch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch…

  48. David Marjanović says:

    the presence of velar fricatives makes a language ugly

    Maybe you confuse velar and uvular fricatives? I wholeheartedly agree that uvular ones are ugly (guessed it, they don’t occur in my kinds of German). If it sounds like gargling (though it doesn’t have to), it’s uvular.

    Dutch or Afrikaans or Swiss German

    Swiss German is famous for its voiceless uvular fricative, and some kinds of Dutch share it. (I don’t know about Afrikaans.)

  49. marie-lucie says:

    What Etienne is saying is basically that people object to features that are not in their own language, and prefer to hear sounds that they are used to, which seem at least normal to them, if not actually beautiful. This is why most Westerners object to the sound of Arabic because of the deep throaty sounds of the pharyngeal consonants.
    About German in particular, it is true that many speakers make it sound “harsh”, especially if they use a strong glottal stop before vowels (such as at the beginning of the word ein), so that their speech seems to be very choppy to those who do not have this feature in their own language. But not everyone has this heavy emphasis. If German was irredeemably harsh, it could not be so successfully set to music – listen to Schubert’s lieder.
    Fricatives by definition are “friction” sounds, which can be produced with different degrees of muscular force and of noise. Just as it is possible to strongly “hiss” an s-sound, it is possible to emphasize the rasping or gargly potentialities of a uvular fricative, but those sounds can also be produced with only very slight friction. In the Standard French, or indeed German, “r”, the uvular friction is very slight, with very little noise, although it is possible to use much stronger friction to emphasize the sound. Similarly, the sound at the end of a word like Bach can be more or less raspy depending on the speaker.
    A few months ago Language Log had some posts on “German ü”, commenting on a piece written I think in England, claiming that the existence of this sound indicated something mournful or depressed about the German character. Obviously the author of this gem was unaware of the fact that French (along with many other languages) has exactly the same sound, and as everyone knows the French are typified by their “joie de vivre”. (This sound is also frequent in Scots English, and seems to be creeping into some North American English too: for instance some people pronounce “good food” almost as “güd füd”, but without much lip rounding).

  50. I know another native speaker besides David who thinks that German is ugly. I still think that Rilke is the greatest poet I’ve ever read, though.

  51. Marie-lucie: actually, in my first paragraph I wrote that French and English speakers alike seem to find velar fricatives unattractive and palatalized consonants attractive, even though both are features equally alien to both languages.
    David: I know the difference between velar and uvular fricatives, and was thinking of the former: Afrikaans, like Dutch, has a huge number of velar fricatives which grew out of Germanic *G (hence Dutch GOED /xut/ versus English GOOD, German GUT), and Swiss German goes further than New High German in terms of the second sound shift (so that whereas German has KIND, KOMMEN, with unshifted Germanic */k/, versus MACHEN, with the shift from */k/ to /x/, most Swiss German dialects have /x/ as a reflex of earlier */k/ in cognates of all three words).
    And I think you are beng a little harsh on your language: Austrian German, to my ears, sounds quite melodious (admittedly, I am a native speaker of Quebec French, which is very monotonous, as Hat himself once pointed out when writing of a trip to Montreal, so I suppose most of the world’s languages sound “musical” to me).

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, about the first point, I was speaking in very general terms, and the features you mentioned in your earlier posting clearly differentiated anglophone and francophone likes and dislikes according to features of their own languages. As for sounds alien to both, the specific features of the sounds (eg the potential raspiness of velar and uvular fricatives, as opposed to the gliding quality of palatalized consonants) do play a role too.
    David, which German-speaking area you are from might make a difference in the perceived quality of the sounds.

  53. For what it’s worth, I too find Austrian German pleasanter to listen to than German German.

  54. I too find Austrian German pleasanter to listen to than German German.
    In the words of an Austrian friend of mine: “Deitsch Deitsch is sowos von unsexy, mit ‘nem dea so spricht könnt’ ich nie ‘m Leben schlafen.”

  55. Language can (or should?) be considered as just the means by which a message is transmitted from one mind to another one.
    The problem, for me, with this statement is that it presumes a rather narrow conception of language, and of language’s functions. Where others have remarked on comparative differences between languages’/dialects’ characteristic tonal qualities, I think it would also be worthwhile to mention poetry as a counter to Siganus Sutor’s account of language.
    In particular, Louis Zukofsky’s formulation of poetry as “upper limit music” and “lower limit speech” might, I think, be expanded to account for language itself. The “lower limit” in question is analogous with Sutor’s overly technical reckoning. I take Zukofsky to refer here to the ways language is used to signify — that is, to recall our daily use of languge, in which we look past the material qualities of words (to say nothing of grammar) in order to convey meanings, whether those meanings are trivial or urgent.
    But we can’t forget that language has a material component — that is, that every sign has a signifier, and that signifiers are constituted by sounds and/or by marks on the page. (We might also recall that those sounds are made by particularly sensitive and sensuous parts of the body, as well…) When Zukofsky calls our attention to poetry’s “upper limit [of] music” — and when I extend this to describe language itself — he reminds us to be attentive to the sonic component of the words we use, and to understand that in aesthetic terms. And we need not look to poetry for examples: tongue twisters come to mind, as does the double-dutch of schoolyard rope-jumping.
    At the same time, I also think it’s important to stress that our attention to language’s “upper limit” doesn’t require us to insist on the “arbitrary” elements of the sign to the point of excluding sense — that is, we don’t have to take language as abstract, or to forget about signification, in order to focus our attention on the signifier. The “lower limit” remains, and is in fact essential…

  56. David Marjanović says:

    In the Standard French, or indeed German, “r”, the uvular friction is very slight, with very little noise

    That’s because it’s not a fricative, but a trill. (A short one, with usually a single contact, a single bubble of air that gets squeezed through.) I keep reading about that fricative, but I’ve found one French speaker so far who uses it, and no German speaker.
    However, word-finally or in front of voiceless consonants, the French one becomes voiceless, and then it can acquire various degrees of friction. That’s more like [x] than like [χ], though (because it’s not dorso-uvular). The German one becomes a vowel in such environments.

    I know another native speaker besides David who thinks that German is ugly.

    Hey, I didn’t say ugly, I just said not melodious. Where I come from singing all the time is considered embarrassing. :-)
    That said, most of those varieties I’m not used to are, unsurprisingly, not particularly pleasant to my ears. :-)

    most Swiss German dialects have /x/ as a reflex of earlier */k/ in cognates of all three words)

    Yes, except it’s not [x] but [χ].

    (admittedly, I am a native speaker of Quebec French, which is very monotonous, as Hat himself once pointed out when writing of a trip to Montreal, so I suppose most of the world’s languages sound “musical” to me)

    Hm. I haven’t noticed anything in that direction in the way my thesis supervisor speaks French. He hasn’t lived in Québec for a long time, though.

    David, which German-speaking area you are from might make a difference in the perceived quality of the sounds.

    I don’t quite see how. I don’t produce any of them natively, but I can pronounce [q ɢ ɴ χ ʁ].

    In the words of an Austrian friend of mine: “Deitsch[-]Deitsch is sowos von unsexy, mit ‘nem dea so spricht könnt’ ich nie ‘m Leben schlafen.”

    :-D
    (The part before the comma is in generic dialect. The part behind the comma is supposed to be an approximation of generic north-of-the-White-Sausage-Equator.)

  57. (David, I hope you don’t mind — I added itals to your blockquotes to make it clearer they were quotes from other people. I know that’s what the blockquotes were supposed to do, but it wasn’t working for me, because I’m a codger set in my ways.)

  58. marie-lucie says:

    m-l: “In the Standard French, or indeed German, “r”, the uvular friction is very slight, with very little noise
    David: That’s because it’s not a fricative, but a trill. … I keep reading about that fricative, but I’ve found one French speaker so far who uses it, and no German speaker.
    One problem with stating that such and such a sound does or does not occur in X language is that there is sometimes slight variation between one place and another, and few people have experience with the whole range of variation. For instance, if you are a Canadian interested in the pronunciation of English but your only references are from US sources, you might be puzzled by the differences and perhaps conclude that the authors don’t know what they are talking about – they do, but they are not talking about the same thing. Similarly if you are in Québec and your sources are talking about “Standard Metropolitan French” ( a fluctuating variety: the descriptions of its pronunciation can be quite different depending on which decade they were written in – according to some sources I am way behind the times).
    Where is your apparently oddball, fricative-using French speaker from? Probably from a different area from the others you are hearing. I don’t know many French speakers (in France) who use a uvular trill. My grandfather, from Southern France, used a strong uvular trill for rr, but an apical flap for just plain r (the same thing occurs in Portuguese – I think the uvular trill is the natural intermediate transition between the apical trill or “rolled r”, and the uvular fricative). Personally I am quite capable of producing a uvular trill, as well as the other kinds of uvulars (I cannot reproduce the written symbols at this point), but in my normal native speech I use a weak uvular fricative, the one you have been reading about but not encountering.
    However, word-finally or in front of voiceless consonants, the French one becomes voiceless, and then it can acquire various degrees of friction.
    When I studied German in a French high school, most of my classmates were unable to make a distinction between the words nach and Narr, and pronounced both like Narr, ending in a voiced uvular fricative. In Southern France there are places where the final r is voiceless with lots of friction, but this is by no means general in the country. A recent fashion in France (especially, it seems to me, in young women) is to compensate for the weakness and bare audibility of a final r by adding a vowel, so that for instance Bonjour sounds like Bonjou-re. This would not have happened if the normal pronunciation had strong friction and devoicing to begin with.

  59. michael farris says:

    Once, I had to have my German pronunciation (then pretty good, now horribly rusty) evaluated in the context of a language program in which I was a kind of teacher’s assistant.
    Anyhoo, I was told that a) I could do better at distinguishing long and short vowels (I knew that already) and b) my ‘r’ was ‘a little too french sounding’. I think that’s because I had a tendency to use too much friction which led to some devoicing so that ‘fahren’ sounded like it was between what it should sound like and ‘fahchen’
    I have no idea where I picked that up, the German I had heard most in real life (from a family that called themselves Austrian) used a slavic-style tapped r which I used when I began taking classes (much to the amusement of the teacher).

  60. David Marjanović says:

    David, I hope you don’t mind —

    I don’t. In fact, I wanted to add italics myself (because on this blog neither the font nor its size change in blockquotes), but forgot. (And I almost forgot again this time.) Thanks!

    One problem with stating that such and such a sound does or does not occur in X language is that there is sometimes slight variation between one place and another, and few people have experience with the whole range of variation.

    Of course. I don’t have experience with the whole range of French or even German. It’s just that the voiced uvular fricative is said to be “Parisian”, and I am in Paris and don’t hear anyone say it. Granted, I do métro-boulot-dodo, but still.

    according to some sources I am way behind the times

    In which respects? (Just curious.)

    Where is your apparently oddball, fricative-using French speaker from?

    No idea. I haven’t even met him, I found him in a video that is somewhere online. I’ll try to find it. (I might possibly meet him this summer, however.)

    Probably from a different area from the others you are hearing.

    Most likely.

    My grandfather, from Southern France, used a strong uvular trill for rr, but an apical flap for just plain r

    An apical one? Now that’s interesting.
    But was it really a flap, like, the American Atom/Adam thing? Wasn’t it rather a one-contact trill, like the Spanish r? This is often said to be a “tap” — in sources that are in English, anyway.

    When I studied German in a French high school, most of my classmates were unable to make a distinction between the words nach and Narr, and pronounced both like Narr, ending in a voiced uvular fricative.

    In that case, however, they had missed a few other things. Nach has a long vowel and ends in a consonant. Narr has a short vowel — in fact I think it’s even shorter than the German short vowels normally are — and does not end in a consonant, unless you are Swiss/Vorarlberger/Swabian or deliberately exaggerate (which, incidentally, often happens to this rather obsolete, poetic word). I’d say… it ends in a rather long voiceless [ɐ]. Hm. ~:-| Not in a consonant in any case.

    A recent fashion in France (especially, it seems to me, in young women) is to compensate for the weakness and bare audibility of a final r by adding a vowel, so that for instance Bonjour sounds like Bonjou-re.

    Yes, I have encountered that. There are people (young women) who don’t seem to end any word in any consonant.
    (On the other hand, I’ve also encountered cases where the r of bonjour seems to have dropped completely, leaving a German-style diphthong behind. Phonetically unique things often happen to greetings. Or maybe I didn’t quite listen closely enough.)

    so that ‘fahren’ sounded like it was between what it should sound like and ‘fahchen’

    Pronouncing the r in this word would be a hypercorrectism (or Swiss…) in the first place. :-) The same holds for the e. It’s just [fa:n], at most (if you speak slowly enough) with a syllabic [n]. You can use “fah-renn” when you sing, but that’s it. The r just (further) contributes to the length of the /a:/, except in southeastern dialects like mine where it turns it into a diphthong.
    Again, I bet the “tapped” r was a one-contact trill.

  61. David Marjanović says:

    Found the video! It’s 12:29 long and accessible from here.
    The guy who uses a fricative for both r in microrestes and everywhere else appears at 6:55 (and, having just watched it again, I think he uses a one-contact trill when he says les restes once). Everyone else uses a one-contact trill between vowels, with various degrees of devoicing (and, when voiceless, friction) elsewhere; I think there’s a 2- or 3-contact trill somewhere close to the beginning of the video.
    I was to Cherves in 2003 and Crayssac in 2004 and met some of the people shown. I hope to dig in one or both places again this summer.
    Incidentally, the Alsatian (Fabien Fritz) stands out by the very narrow pitch range of his voice. As predicted. =8-) (He himself does not speak German, though.)

  62. michael farris says:

    “Pronouncing the r in this word (fahren: maf) would be a hypercorrectism (or Swiss…) in the first place.”
    Well in courses for beginning learners that kind of spelling pronunciation is common (like unvoiced [t] in city for learners of American English).
    But that was a hypothetical example, feel free to substitute any word with an intervocalic /r/ in your variety of German, maybe erreichen?
    “Again, I bet the “tapped” r was a one-contact trill.”
    In the terminology I’m most comfortable with a tap is like the r in Spanish pero (but) while a trill is like rr in Spanish perro (dog).
    It was IIRC like the single Spanish r.

  63. I’m sorry I only just now noticed this. Anything Can Happen is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I first read it when I was a kid, and it’s never stopped being good.

  64. If you enjoyed Anything Can Happen, you must hunt up his book of Georgian folk tales, Yes and No Tales. My mother had it as a child, I was brought up on it, and I have raised both my kids on it. I had to find a second copy because my daughter absconded with it to college; fortunately they’re not too expensive even though there was only one printing. They are fantastic, wild tales, some bloody and some hysterically funny, often with pithy morals. “Up a hill you push a cart, downhill it rolls. In this world there is some justice – but not enough.”

  65. My wife was also brought up on that book and has a copy around somewhere; you’ve just impelled me to insist she dig it up. (I have a book of Georgian folktales called იყო და არა იყო რა [iqo da ara iqo ra], whose title is the Georgian equivalent of “Once upon a time” but literally means “it was and it wasn’t” — hence “Yes and No.” Hmm, maybe it’s time to learn Georgian again…)

  66. Thanks! Here‘s the direct link.

  67. vetiver says:

    That’s a wonderful excerpt. I’ve added both Anything Can Happen and Yes and No Tales to my ABEBooks list.
    I have nothing to contribute to the discussion of tapped “r”s, the one-contact trill, or fricatives of any kind.
    However, I’m compelled to note this one textual artifact: “I was still in glue factory this time.” I’m trying to imagine a life in which that sort of statement is thrown out as a mere time-marker, as in, “I was a senior in high school then.”

  68. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    German doesn’t sound ugly to me, because my earliest exposures to it were heartbreakingly beautiful: Ernst Busch singing Six Songs for Democracy on a album recorded right behind the front lines in the Spanish Civil War: Lotte Lenya singing Brecht/Weil: and my own father reciting nursery rhymes and singing “Freiheit” and “Moorsoldaten.”
    The beauty of a language has got to be subjective.

  69. Oh, absolutely, and my reaction to German has got to be colored by my having had to learn it for grad school.

  70. Siganus Sutor says:

    LH : But you’re talking about language as if it were some abstract medium.
    But I think it is… “to some extent, like I said the other day. In itself a language is senseless: it is “just” sounds — not always “of home”, obviously — that are put together, or just letters in the case of written language. Just a code, a series of dots and dashes if you wish. What makes it ‘not so abstract’ is the message it conveys, or not. I’m sure everyone could write a grammatically correct sentence that would have no meaning whatsoever. It would be good English, German, Kriol or what you will, but it would remain abstract because it wouldn’t express anything. That’s probably why I think (a personal opinion, all right… to some extent…) that in itself, regardless of any meaning, a language cannot really be “beautiful” or “ugly”.
    Okay, I’m ready to reckon that some guttural or raucous sounds (or what more or less arbitrarily appears to be thus) may sound unpleasant to some ears, but I would tend to say that one would find it so because he hasn’t been used to them, or because he associates unpleasant souvenirs with these sounds. (I’ve heard that some people even enjoy techno “music”…) Are clicks in some African languages beautiful or ugly? To me it’s hard to tell — if not irrelevant. All I can say is that it sounds “odd” to my ears, nothing more than that.
    To make a parallel with odours, I could say that some smells might be pleasant or unpleasant to some noses, depending on how much you’ve smelled them before, and in which circumstances. However, would we talk of a “beautiful” or an “ugly” smell? Yes, maybe… to a certain extent…
     
     
     
    just as a person can be considered as just the means by which a genetic packet is transmitted from one generation to the next
    He he… it looks as if you too have read Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. It might not be totally how things are, but it’s quite funny to think that individual bodies are “tricks” invented by genes as a means to survive and be transmitted.

  71. Andrew Dunbar says:

    I’m sure everyone could write a grammatically correct sentence that would have no meaning whatsoever. It would be good English, German, Kriol or what you will, but it would remain abstract because it wouldn’t express anything.
    Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
    Farblose grüne Idee schlafen wütend.
    Ideas verdes incolorosas duermen frenéticamente. (sorry somebody else will have to supply the Kriol)

  72. Etienne says:

    Hat: I’m struck by the fact that the Georgian equivalent of “Once upon a time” is “There was and there wasn’t”, since this is also found in Romanian (ERA SI NU ERA) and Albanian (ISHTE EDHE NUK ISHTE): apparently in both languages it is a calque of Turkish, itself a calque of Arabic “KAN MA KAN” “It was what was”, where MA was misunderstood and taken to be a negator. Which, along with geographical proximity, suggests the Georgian structure is also of Turkish origin.

  73. David Marjanović says:

    any word with an intervocalic /r/ in your variety of German, maybe erreichen?

    Yes. It’s really hard to imagine that with a fricative instead of a (one- or two-contact) trill.
    The reason “tap” vs “one-contact trill” is a pet peeve of mine is that it leads so many people — including countless Wikipedia articles — to claim that the American flap is (or sounds) the same as the Spanish (or for that matter Japanese) r, which is a plain lie, or at least to use the same IPA symbol for both, which strikes me as bullshit in the philosophical sense (see Wikipedia article on bullshit). Repeat the Spanish r four or five times in a row, and you get the Spanish rr; in both there is no deliberate tongue movement (of which there’s a lot in a flap), instead the tongue is held in place and air squeezed through between it and the upper alveoli (respectively the uvula).

  74. David Marjanović says:

    Now that’s interesting, that “there was and there wasn’t” business. Convergence: the German “there once was” regulary gets parodized as “there once was and is no longer”. And then the next step: Es war einmal und ist nicht mehr / ein riesengroßer Nasenbär. Sometimes that story is continued, but I don’t remember how.

  75. Which, along with geographical proximity, suggests the Georgian structure is also of Turkish origin.
    Yes, I’ve always assumed that (Turkish or Arabic) — I’d like to see a study of the history of that.

  76. A recent discussion of Bir varmış bir yokmuş.

  77. I knew Persian yeki bud yeki nabud, but the Kurdish was new to me — thanks for the link. I wonder if anyone knows what the original locus of the expression was?

  78. By coincidence, the super-bargain books outside a local used bookstore at lunchtime included Yekke Bude Yekke Na Bude for a couple bucks. It is anecdotes by a retired Massachusetts teacher, who at sixty-five joined the Peace Corps and went to Iran to teach English in the waning days of the Shah. Often it’s amusing not in the way the author intended. She translates, “There was a time that was not a time,” which I don’t think I could actually explain if pressed to. (That’s just the title; none of the tales are particularly fairy-tale-like.)

  79. marie-lucie says:

    Back to uvulars in French and German:
    After reading David M’s further descriptions I spent some more time practicing uvulars and even opening my mouth in front of the mirror as I pronounced “French r’s” and other sounds: as I wrote earlier, I am capable of pronouncing both “trilled” and fricative uvulars, and what I (and most speakers of Standard French) pronounce in normal speech is definitely fricative, not trilled. A long trill is still a trill, but a long fricative is still a fricative. For instance, if I had a need to say lard rôti (“roasted bacon”) the two r‘s would more or less blend into a long fricative, and the result would not be a trill.
    About my perceptions of German pronunciation, I waited to write until I could get in touch with two friends who come from Germany. With each one I explained my experiences with the pair nach/Narr and other words, asking them to demonstrate their own pronunciation: friend 1 spoke exactly according to David M’s description – long a in Narr, barely audible r, as also in fahren. Where was she from? – a small town near the Dutch border. But, she said, a Bavarian would say things differently: and she demonstrated the pronunciations which I had learned. Now I looked up friend 2, who happens to be from Munich: she said Narr and fahren exactly as I remembered learning them, with uvular fricatives. She also commented that her German r in these words was “practically like the French r, but not quite so far back in the mouth” (she speaks French almost perfectly). I asked her to say erreichen and she produced what sounded to me at first like a long e followed by a fricative, but turned out to be as in er reicht (that is, two kinds of r‘s rather than one long fricative). At no time did she produce what I would have identified as a uvular trill.
    It is probably not the case that foreigners are taught an unnatural, artificial German pronunciation, but they are probably taught a Southern rather than a Northern variety.

  80. You can use “fah-renn” when you sing, but that’s it.
    Loads of American and English fans were sure that Ralf and Florian from Düsseldorf were singing “fun” with their ordinary monosyllable.

  81. This short BBC article somehow belong here:
    How do people lose their native language?

    Sgt Bowe Bergdahl spoke English for 23 years until he was captured by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan five years ago. But since his release, he has trouble speaking it, says his father.

    [...]

    Some people have gone decades without speaking or hearing their first language but they retain the ability to speak it easily, says Dr Monika Schmid, a linguistics professor at the University of Essex in the UK. But others begin losing fluency within a few years of not speaking it.
    It’s rare to totally lose command of a first language, she says. Instead people have “language attrition” – trouble recalling certain words or they use odd grammar structures.

    “Language attrition” reaching the point of not being able to speak the language at all: something hard to imagine when your mother tongue is concerned — as long as you have not been cut away from it for several years.

    But still…

  82. marie-lucie says:

    I think I read the same article. The linguist continues with saying that once a person is back in their native language environment, hearing it all the time and expected to speak it when spoken to, it normally comes back. So even though the soldier in question might have been taken aback when spoken to in English, probably understanding but unable to reply right then, the condition is unlikely to be permanent. It seems that the native language has been pushed “to the back of their mind”, but, like other types of memory, can return to consciousness when prompted by hearing the language, especially in interaction with others.

    However, consider that happened in many cases in native communities where the children were removed from their families and sent away to school, so that they had practically no contact with their own language, sometimes for years. If they came back to a completely native language environment, they probably relearned the language (rather, it came back to them) from being surrounded by speakers who expected them to speak it. But if they came back to parents who were more or less bilingual, those parents often switched to the dominant language (English in most cases) in the belief that the children had totally forgotten the native language and would never be able to speak it again. I have personally heard the reminiscences of people who had had either type of experience. Some older people remembered coming back from school or a similarly long absence unable to speak their native language, but if their families still spoke it at home, it gradually came back (although they might never had become quite as competent as their parents and elders). Some younger, bilingual families had spoken the language at home until one of their children was sent away, for instance to a hospital, for a long period of time and had apparently forgotten the language, so the whole family switched to English in order to accommodate the returning child, who as a result never relearned the language (unless the child made a deliberate attempt to do so when older).

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