Translating Frozen Into Arabic.

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, has an excellent New Yorker blog post about just what the title says:

One of the forty-one languages in which you can watch “Frozen” is Modern Standard Arabic. This is a departure from precedent. Earlier Disney films (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Pocahontas” to “Tangled”) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the largest number of speakers in the region, based in a country with a venerable history of film production. Generations of Arabs grew up watching Egyptian movies, and the Disney musicals capitalized on their familiarity with this particular dialect.

Modern Standard Arabic is very similar to Classical Arabic, the centuries-old lingua franca of the medieval Islamic world. Today, it is the language of officialdom, high culture, books, newscasts, and political sermonizing. Most television shows, films, and advertisements are in colloquial Arabic, and the past several years have seen further incursions of the dialects into areas traditionally reserved for the literary language.

Ironically, though, children’s literature has remained deeply resistant to the trend toward vernacularization. “If we read to them in dialect, when are they supposed to learn real Arabic?” is the answer I usually get when I ask other parents about this state of affairs. As a scholar of Classical Arabic and a native speaker of Lebanese Arabic, I have always felt this to be a false choice. Setting aside the fraught question of what constitutes real Arabic, there is surely something to be said for introducing children to literature that speaks to them. [...]

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Of course, it isn’t Disney’s job to cultivate such a constituency. Nor is its assumption that Modern Standard Arabic is a lingua franca suitable for all forms of literature and all Arab audiences a species of Orientalism. It reflects, rather, an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region, rooted in many centuries of literary and religious history. The Arab world, however, is no longer culturally unipolar, with most of its films and music originating in Egypt. The most popular soap operas of the region are Syrian, North African films are staples of the festival circuits, and some of the largest media conglomerates are based in the Gulf. This is to say nothing of the effect that the Web and social media are having on the penetration of Arabic dialects into written communication, which is incalculable.

The age of the Arabic vernacular is here; someone just needs to tell the talking snowman.

Lots of good stuff in there (is it really true that Arabic kids don’t get read to in their own language?!), and he links to things like “Let It Go in 41 Languages, which includes Icelandic, Vietnamese, Turkish, Croatian, Estonian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, and Canadian French.” Read the whole thing!

Comments

  1. Nor do Austrian kids, as David M mentioned at Lameen’s blog. In a diglossic country, if something is written down, it’s Standard, period (unless it’s a transcription of folk poetry or pop music or something).

  2. After reading the title I thought for a moment it’s a post about one of those “untraslatable” words. :)

  3. Oskar Sigvardsson says:

    That “Let It Go in 25 languages” video the author links to is wonderful in ways I can’t really put my finger on.

  4. Here’s a question. I know from personal experience that if, say, two Italians from different dialect groups marry, and have children, they generally speak standard Italian at home to each other and children’s mother tongue will be basically standard Italian. If the family moves to an area with a third dialect group, say a Romagnolo marries someone from Veneto and they move to Turin (an example I know), the child may speak no dialect at all other than standard. The same is generally true in the German world. So, what happens if a Moroccan marries an Egyptian and they raise their child in Dubai? Do the parents speak MSA at home to each other, or does one adopt the dialect of the other? Or do they all just speak in their own dialects and have enough passive knowledge to understand each other? Presumably there must be at least some small percentage of Arabs for whom MSA is their true mother tongue.

  5. This is a departure from precedent.
    Not really. I have a modest collection of animated movies in Arabic and there are at least two in there that have been dubbed into Modern Standard Arabic: “Shrek the Third” and “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas”. Both are by DreamWorks, not Disney, but it just goes to show that using Egyptian Arabic is not the SOP. Plus, cartoons (of the Saturday morning type) and anime are also dubbed into MSA, for example Naruto Shippuden.

  6. Vanya,

    there’s ʿāmmiya / dāriža, there’s fuṣḥā and then there’s the wide space in between. A term that is used in this context is “luġa wusṭā”, i.e. “intermediate language” (see also), not exactly dialect, but not MSA either. It takes many shapes and forms, but almost always involves an effort by both parties to limit the use of features they perceive (whether intuitively or based on experience) as obstacles to being understood and replace them with feaures of MSA. These may be lexical items, so for example in your hypothetical scenario, the Moroccan husband would avoid using nbġī (or something along those lines) for “I want” and the Egyptian wife would likewise refraing from saying “ana ʿāyza” (or similar) and would opt for the MSA verb. Now whether that will take the shape of “urīdu” (totally MSA/Classic), “urīd” (relaxed MSA) or “nrīd” (Moroccan without assimilation) / “rrīd” (Moroccan with assimilation), that totally depends on a number of different factors that aren’t that easy to pin down. Of course, this is nothing new or unusual, speakers of related dialects/languages have been doing this for millennia.

  7. GeorgeW says:

    I would point out that most Arabs understand the Egyptian dialect due to Egypt’s political and cultural influence on the Arab world. Most Arabs have seen numerous Egyptian films and TV programs with dialog in the dialect. And, in the Gulf, there are thousands of Egyptians working, many as teachers. In Saudi, at the end of the school year, Saudia (the airline) charters a number of special flights for the teachers going back home.

  8. @bulbul: “this is nothing new or unusual, speakers of related dialects/languages have been doing this for millennia”.

    But sometimes there is no common standard to fall back on. For instance for the Scandinavian languages; Danish, Swedish and Norwegian may differ less than the various colloquial Arabics, or even the Italian dialects, but there hasn’t been a common literary (or spoken) standard for a thousand years.

    A Dane and a Swede who don’t know each other’s languages can’t do anything ‘better’ than speaking their own languages loud and clear. As LL touched on recently, that can work amazingly well, especially after a short tune-in period.

    If it doesn’t, the ultimate fallback is English.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Now whether that will take the shape of “urīdu” (totally MSA/Classic), “urīd” (relaxed MSA) or “nrīd” (Moroccan without assimilation) / “rrīd” (Moroccan with assimilation), that totally depends on a number of different factors that aren’t that easy to pin down. Of course, this is nothing new or unusual, speakers of related dialects/languages have been doing this for millennia.

    Similar things happen to Standard German when it’s used for real-time communication or by politicians.

  10. Lars,

    But sometimes there is no common standard to fall back on.
    True. And sometimes neither party can actually use that common standard actively, because Modern Standard Arabic is for all intents and purposes a foreign language to most speakers of Arabic. Falling back on MSA is just one of the strategies available in these situations, there are others which are quite similar to those employed by speakers of Germanic Scandinavian languages or Slavic languages.

  11. Yes, Arab kids consistently get read to in Standard Arabic. I did notice a very recent Moroccan dialect translation of Le Petit Nicholas, though.

    No Arabs speak full-on MSA to each other just to be able to understand each other; as Bulbul says, they go for a compromise solution drawing on MSA lexicon, but barely or not at all on MSA grammar, since the dialects’ grammars are often much more similar to one another than to MSA. However, every so often a teacher or an imam or someone like that will try to speak some approximation to MSA even at home for ideological reasons – in which case, the kid will still pick up a dialect from his classmates, but may feel more comfortable in MSA.

    Personally, I’d much sooner get a Disney movie in MSA than in Egyptian, and I think most Maghrebis would have the same reaction. Egyptian is simply too hard for Maghrebi kids to understand, not to mention having much less educational value, and all other cartoons are in MSA anyway. Middle Easterners may have a different perspective.

  12. Falling back on MSA is just one of the strategies available in these situations, there are others which are quite similar to those employed by speakers of Germanic Scandinavian languages or Slavic languages.

    The difference is in a mixed Swedish-Danish, or a mixed Polish-Slovak long term relationship, the couples would not communicate very long in a mutually developed “intermediate dialect” using Old Norse or Church Slavonic to fill the gaps. Typically the balance shifts to one partner’s standard (or possibly they communicate in English these days), and the children would speak one of the parent’s standards, not an intermediate dialect. Would the hypothetical Egyptian-Moroccan pair, if they lived somewhere outside Egypt or Morocco, eventually settle on one of the dialects or continue to speak their own “intermediate” for their married lives?

  13. GeorgeW says:

    Lameen: Maghrabi may be the most unlike Arabic dialect among the various dialects. I, an imperfect, Arabic-L2 speaker, have had the most trouble being understood in Morocco than any other Arab country, by far. I tried my English-accented MSA and I tried my English-accented Egyptian dialect to no avail. I have not had this difficulty anywhere else.

    I had a Syrian friend who lived in Morocco for a few years. She said she had an awful time at first. She would resort to MSA. In time, however, she picked up enough Maghrabi to get by.

  14. Personally, I’d much sooner get a Disney movie in MSA than in Egyptian, and I think most Maghrebis would have the same reaction.

    Of course, but surely the solution is to produce different versions for the different regions (as they do for the Scandinavian countries), not one highfalutin’ version for everybody!

  15. Do they really produce dubs in Icelandic? It’s hard to believe that Icelanders who are interested in Disney movies but want them dubbed into Icelandic are anywhere close to being a large enough market to justify the expense.

  16. Vanya,

    using Old Norse or Church Slavonic to fill the gaps
    Like I said, in the Arabic-speaking, not everyone speaks MSA (even a little), so the situation is entirely comparable.

    Would the hypothetical Egyptian-Moroccan pair, if they lived somewhere outside Egypt or Morocco, eventually settle on one of the dialects
    That depends on so many factors, like, say, exposure to the local dialect. What if the wife stays at home and interact mostly with her husband and kids? What if she has a broader circle of acquaintances, but they are expats from Jordan? What if the husband works for an IT company where English is main language, but his colleagues are Palestinians and Iraqis? There is no easy answer.

  17. Do they really produce dubs in Icelandic?
    Oh yes. It’s all a question of logistics and money – if you order a dub into Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish, getting Icelandic really isn’t that much of extra effort or cost. Conversely, the common practice of dubbing movies into Egyptian Arabic is also a matter of numbers, i.e. the largest number of speakers = the largest market.

  18. Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing
    Not really. This just stinks of a decision made by someone in the marketing department who has heard of Modern Standard Arabic, but has no idea of what it actually is or how it relates to Arabic dialects.
    Stories from the localization industry, part 6546: I’ve been involved in preparing a response to a request for proposal for localization services. One of the question was: “When translating to Arabic Modern Standard, do you differentiate between the local variations of Arabic (Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia)?” Sigh.

  19. GeorgeW says:

    For those not familiar with Arabic diglossia, there is a much bigger difference between the standard and the spoken language than in most other languages.

    I would argue that many of the dialects are not mutually intelligible with MSA. However, this might be hard to test as almost all Arabs, even uneducated, are exposed to some standard, and classical Arabic, through religious discourse and some television programs (especially during Ramadan).

  20. Etienne says:

    A correction to Elias Muhanna’s post: there most certainly does NOT exist a tradition of Canadian French dubbing (or translation, for that matter) separate from European French dubbing. Various cartoons made or dubbed in France were for me (and for all too many Canadian francophones of my generation) the first real instance of exposure to spoken non-Canadian French.

    As for Egyptian versus MSA dubbing in the Arabic-speaking world: is there/are there now (or has there ever been?) any other dialect(s) in use for dubbing? I was told that one of the cartoons I was fond of as a child, the Japanese-made UFO GRENDIZER (or “Goldorak” in French) was quite popular in the Arabic-speaking world but had been dubbed in “Lebanese”: admittedly this might simply mean “MSA with a Lebanese accent”.

    I once saw about ten minutes of it in Arabic, actually, but because of my near-total ignorance of Arabic I have no idea whether it was MSA or not: I say near-total because I *think* I caught the name of the chief antagonist as /wega alkabir/ “Vega the great”: I believe that in English he was called “King Vega”, whereas in French they gave him a more original title/name: “Le grand stratéguerre”.

  21. We’ve discussed Arabic diglossia a number of times, e.g. here, here, and here.

  22. There’s a good discussion of this at “Arabic Literature”: Can’t ‘Let It Go’: The Role of Colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic in Children’s Literature and Entertainment. Among those weighing in is one professional dubber, who says:

    As I remember, we started off translating Disney films and series into colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and it was a great hit. A few years later, it was suggested (by Disney) to try using more mainstream Arabic, and we tried using colloquial Egyptian plus some MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) words, if the colloquial was too specific to Egypt… Then, once again, that changed, and at Disney’s request, we started translating films into colloquial Arabic and series in MSA (i.e. classical Arabic)! … But, MSA somehow got the best of us, and it was probably a marketing decision, when we were asked to dub everything into MSA. I think it had to do with Al Jazeera Children’s Channel buying the rights to all the Disney films.

  23. Stefan Holm says:

    As this thread is about a Disney movie my comment may be irrelevant but I think it’s worth mentioning that movies or TV programs for adults are always subtitled and never dubbed in the Nordic countries (or in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Portugal and most of southeast Europe).

    I’m pretty sure of this being a contributing reason, why the Dutch and the Scandinavians admittedly are among the best L2 speakers of English. Not the main reason though which I believe is kinship in vocabulary and grammar plus the mandatory English in school from the age of nine or ten. After all, natives in English can easily spy a Dane or a Norwegian/Swede from their prosody, no matter how many Yankee soap operas they have been watching (and hearing).

    Subtitling is thus strongly recommended for all countries not suffering from severe illiteracy. (Contrary I can feel a little embarassed on behalf of my kinsmen, when interviews with people speaking standard Norwegian regularly come subtitled on TV).

  24. des von bladet says:

    Japan is a subtitling country, which explains also the excellence of their English.

    As a parent of children of Disneyable age, I would remark that foreign-language movies for children are almost always dubbed, (and when our bilingual children went to one of the rare exceptions, the cashier tried to refuse to sell them a children’s ticket) as is children’s TV, so it can’t be prohibitively expensive.

    And my actual point, the Disney movies are just the tip of the commercial Disney iceberg – I am surrounded by Cars themed cars, Disney prinsess dresses, jigsaw puzzles, colouring books, rucksack, lunchbox, Wall-E learning computers, stickers, Pluto and Minnie Mouse keyring, cuddly toys, Pez dispensers, comics, Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars lego.

    It would be madness for Disney to deny themselves their slice of Iceland’s parents’ cash for the sake of a few voice-actors’ afternoons.

  25. des von bladet says:

    Oh, I forgot pyjamas and duvet covers, and probably plenty more.

  26. ‘Nor do Austrian kids, as David M mentioned at Lameen’s blog. In a diglossic country, if something is written down, it’s Standard, period (unless it’s a transcription of folk poetry or pop music or something).’

    I was surprised when learning Persian to find that this isn’t the case. In my experience, the distance between the usual spoken Tehran (and general Iranian) variety and the formal written standard is about that between, say, the dialect of elderly hospital patients in Salzburg and what they speak on Deutschlandfunk, the German national broadcaster. But in informal contexts, people type خونه instead of خانه، or اونجا می رم instead of به آنجا می روم and doing so isn’t marked, in the way it would be in German.

    Of course, it might be a bit strong to call the linguistic situation in Iran a diglossia, but there is a (usually) spoken variety and a (usually) written variety and there’s not the simple mapping between the two that you have in Turkish or the Spanish of, say, Cuenca in Castile.

  27. Icelandic children don’t understand English so film distributors have to dub Disney movies, it’s either that or not exhibit them at all. Kids are used to dubbed films/programmes on TV so they won’t accept undubbed films in cinemas (Icelandic TV stations dub foreign programmes/films for children because small kids can’t be expected to keep up with subtitles).

    Disney pays for the dubbing of its theatrical films. The money comes from the movie’s P&A budget (prints and advertising) which means that it is budgeted from the outstart. Disney has voice approval and they exercise very strict quality control. I happen to know all this because a friend’s post-production company did all the Icelandic dubbing for Disney movies for years, decades even, and he personally oversaw every step of the process. On those jobs he was practically in daily contact with his man at Disney’s.

    I find the Arabic situation very odd indeed. I don’t understand why they don’t make a dubbed version for every country in the Arab world (or a dubbed version for the largest linguistic group in each and every country). Unfortunately my very good friend died last year (aged 59 and quite unexpectedly) so I can’t ask him to tell me more about how these things work. Or whether things work differently in different countries.

    But I think one thing is for certain: distributors (or cinema owners) in the various countries around the world decide whether to dub a Disney film or not. Not Disney Studios. Here in Iceland there seems to be a financial incentive to dub quality children’s films (read: big budget affairs from Hollywood) despite the incredibly small market. I’m only guessing now but perhaps Icelandic film distributors acquire Icelandic TV rights as a rule (in addition to the theatrical rights) and dubbed children’s films are surely much more attractive to TV-people than undubbed ones and therefore more saleable. Not to mention the other secondary markets: DVDs, Blu-ray etc. Quality children’s films have a long shelf life – DVDs keep selling for years and years after the film has run its course in the cinemas — and if an Icelandic distributor doesn’t have an Icelandic version, a dubbed one rather than a subtitled one, he really doesn’t have a saleable product. Dubbing is expensive but it’s definitely an investment that pays over the years.

    Dubbing is really really really expensive (if it’s done well and Disney insists that it’s done well) and I rather doubt Icelandic distributers make much profit from children’s films. I know that they find the money Disney provides rather less than generous, considering the costs involved. The jobs are highly specialized and you need nothing short of first rate artists. But Icelandic distributors still do it, not doing it is not an option. I think they realize that they simply can’t cut kids off (and their parents, it’s the parents that take small children to the movies). Distributors need to lure children into the cinemas because children are the future, if they don’t attend to them there simply won’t be any cinema-goers 20 or 30 years from now.

    Addendum: After I wrote this I read Lameen’s post AND the article he links to which is on a website called Arabic Literature (in English). Actually I only skimmed through the article (a collection of individual posts, rather) because I’m so unfamiliar with the matter under discussion that I quickly lost my bearings. What little I gathered is that a lot of (well educated?) Arabic speakers want to institute a standard Arabic language (called MSA), a kind of classical/old timey Arabic, to serve as a kind of lingua franca in the Arabic world. In the name of political unity, I suppose (and I don’t mean that as a disparagement, far from it). That would explain a lot re. the dubbing of Disney movies. Because it seems to me that there is a lot of resistance to the idea of dubbing Disney movies to suit each and every country in the Arab world. Influential Arabs want Hollywood to regard them as a singular and unified culture. The only matter of contention (among Arabs) seems to be which language should be the spearhead (when it comes to dealing with Hollywood), Egyptian or MSA?

  28. want to institute a standard Arabic language

    It already exists: it is the only Arabic in which people can write.

  29. GeorgeW says:

    John Cowan: MSA is the only language they DO write on a normal basis. It is the one they are taught. There are some contexts in which the dialect is written such as cartoons. Also, since the orthography is phonemic, it would not be difficult to write a dialect so that it would be completely understood.

    Also, as an aside, except for very religious scholars or preachers, an educated Egyptian can use standard lexicon, morphology and syntax, but has great difficulty with standard phonology. Producing the ‘jeem’ or dental fricatives is a real difficulty.

  30. Japan is a subtitling country, which explains also the excellence of their English.

    Not necessarily a subtitling country! It’s pretty common for foreign TV shows and movies shown on non-cable channels to be dubbed here. (Cable TV, digital TV, etc. has changed things a bit by allowing multiple options.) If you buy a foreign movie or TV show on DVD, pop it in and press play, the default settings will usually involve dubbing, not subtitling.

  31. Japan is a subtitling country, which explains also the excellence of their English.

    I assume that was meant as sarcasm.

  32. Etienne -

    there most certainly does NOT exist a tradition of Canadian French dubbing (or translation, for that matter) separate from European French dubbing.

    Maybe not a tradition, but it certainly exists. My son has a French Lucky Luke DVD with a “Canadian French” soundtrack option.

  33. TG4, the Irish-language channel, shows children’s cartoons dubbed into Irish.* This is not economically viable, but the channel is heavily subsidised by the state. Perhaps a country like Iceland subsidises dubbing for similar reasons.

    (*TG4 also shows Continental movies with *English* subtitles, which rather goes against its remit.)

  34. Apparently in Iceland, dubbing costs only about twice as much as subtitling, due to ready availability of inexpensive acting help. So it could be indirect form of Government subsidies – the support it lends to training in humanities and creative arts, perhaps creating an outsize pool of people looking for acting jobs. Another part of the picture may be the policy of delaying rhe younger generations’ onset of English fluency (and general eligibility to enroll foreign universities) to reduce their emigration rate (the framhaldsskóli system may keep students ineligible to apply for studies abroad until the age of 21, and Danish rather than English remained the principal language taught in grade school very recently, until 1999)

  35. Mollymooly:

    I think TG4 is not only subsidised by the state but also by the EU on account of the fact that the Irish language is truly threatened (I think only about 100 thousand people can be said to speak the language). In Iceland dubbing is not subsidised by the state (or the EU, Iceland is not in the European Union). Commercial considerations rule.

    Dmitry:

    Your information source is seriously misleading, believe me. I don’t know where to begin.

    Subtitling requires specialised translators, people who know the tricks of the trade. Bottom line, if you need to subtitle a foreign film or a TV programme you only need to hire one person, a translator. Well, perhaps you also need to hire a technician, someone who takes care of things technical (like slapping the lines of dialogue onto the film or video). It used to be (in TV) that translators merely did the translating and then technicians took over to and finished the job. But nowadays (because of computers and user-friendly software) translators are basically in charge of the process so there is not much use for technicians anymore. What I’m saying is that subtitling is dirt-cheap, comparatively speaking, because so few people are involved.

    Dubbing is a whole another matter. Especially when it comes to Disney films. Dozens and dozens of people are involved and they must all get paid. Disney insists on high quality. Talented Icelandic actors and singers don’t come particularly cheap, this is not a third world country.

    So someone who says that in Iceland dubbing costs are “only about the twice the costs of those for subtitling” is seriously deluded.

  36. AThRd, the number surprised me to. Perhaps part of the explanation of the surprisingly low reported ratio of dubbing / subtitling costs may be found in the fact that the book I cited relied on a nearly 20 years publication (Josephine Dries, “Dubbing and Subtitling: Guidelines for Production & Distribution”, European Institute for the Media, Düsseldorf 1995) and at the time, subtitling technology might have been far more expensive in the absence of digital video toolkits. But I have a good friend doing digital subtitling now, and I understand that it remains a very time consuming technical task.

    The fact remains that at the time, Iceland stood out as the least expensive European nation for dubbing, by a large margin given that the typical dub/subtitle cost ratio was as high as 15-fold,

  37. 1995 . . . subtitling technology might have been far more expensive in the absence of digital video toolkits. But I have a good friend doing digital subtitling now, and I understand that it remains a very time consuming technical task.

    A recent item on Israeli television focused on the ridiculously low compensation paid to the freelance translators who write Hebrew subtitles for broadcast material originally produced abroad. (There’s no dubbing in Israel.) If the piece is to be believed, they get only about two cents a word. Even granting that conversation is IMO the easiest kind of material to translate, there must be a huge number of people competing for the work for the fee to be so low. (Translation of commercial material from Hebrew to English pays far more than that.)

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Also, since the orthography is phonemic, it would not be difficult to write a dialect so that it would be completely understood.

    …This implies that the consonant systems of the dialects are all either very similar or subsets of that of MSA! Many German dialects have sound systems so different from those of Standard German that many spelling conventions break down at any attempt to write them. (Admittedly, this concerns the vowels much more than the consonants.)

  39. David: Many German dialects have sound systems so different from those of Standard German that many spelling conventions break down at any attempt to write them. (Admittedly, this concerns the vowels much more than the consonants.)

    Those vowels again … Here is a technique I find useful for understanding unfamiliar, spoken dialects of German (including the Swiss variety): concentrate on the consonants, suppress the noise between them as blanks, and mentally fill in the blanks to match Standard German.

    “Spelling conventions” – those would, I guess, be the conventions that use familiar letters to represent familiar sounds. AKA phonetic orthography. I’m not sure what you mean by “break down”, though. It may be the following.

    Take the varieties of “Kölsch” spoken in Cologne and the environs. There are newspaper columns “in” these varieties that are very hard to read as one normally does. They’re quite accurate phonetically, but they drew my attention to the fact that reading, as actually practiced by most people in everyday life, relies only partly on “applying a phonetic system” – only in a geological, subterranean way, one could say. Unless you read these Kölsch texts out loud, they are unintelligible.

    In phonetic langagues, there is normally a kind of gestalt recognition of words when one reads, making reading easier (for most people, if not all). This is made possible by children having had “the right spelling” inculcated into them. The need for, or usefulness of, this gestalt recognition is more obvious in languages such as French and English, but it’s true for German as well.

  40. There are even unfortunate effects of gestalt recognition. I failed miserably at the spelling quiz linked here recently. Even though I thought I was paying attention, am severe on people who misspell, and had come third at the El Paso Spelling Bee a mere 55 years ago.

    The explanation for this that I prefer is that I am not fazed by peanuts.

  41. Etienne:

    I can’t tell what generation you belong to, but I can tell that at least as far as it concerns cartoons, it’s very common for there to be separate Canadian and European French dubs. Right now I couldn’t say exactly for how long this has been true — it’s quite possible that when I was a kid in the 80s, Saturday morning cartoons were dubbed in Europe — but The Simpsons, for example, has had a Canadian French version ever since the show started. And it’s not a unique example.

    Quebec does have a dubbing industry, and it’s not uncommon for movies to be dubbed there as well, but when it comes to those dubbed for the international French-speaking market, it’s usually done in some standard international French, with as little features from any particular dialect as possible.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    “Spelling conventions” – those would, I guess, be the conventions that use familiar letters to represent familiar sounds. AKA phonetic orthography. I’m not sure what you mean by “break down”, though. It may be the following.

    I was primarily thinking of vowel length. In Standard German, it comes as a package with the distinction between certain vowel phonemes. For example, /œ/ as in Hölle is automatically short, and /ø/ as in Höhle is automatically long. In Central Bavarian dialects from west-central Bavaria to the eastern border of Austria, vowel length is not phonemic, it’s entirely predictable – like in Russian, all else being equal, stressed vowels are longer than unstressed ones. Nonetheless, most of the same vowel quality distinctions as in the standard are phonemic. In the eastern half of Central Bavarian, thanks to the wonders of L-Umlaut, 11 and 12 have ended up with /œ/ and /ø/: [œːf], [t͡svøːf]. In Standard German, the distinction between /œ/ and /ø/ – or any other “lax” and “tense” vowel phonemes – is written by means of length markers, as in the Hölle/Höhle example. In such dialects, this strategy fails.

    While we’re at [œ], take a common expression of surprise, [ˈœhɐ]. It begins with an open syllable that contains a “short” vowel by Standard standards – and in Standard German, that is impossible to the degree that the spelling system relies on this rule. Spelling the word with hh to “close” the syllable, as the ll does for Hölle*, would fail rather spectacularly: the first h would be interpreted as the “silent h” that lengthens the preceding vowel in Höhle.

    Or consider nasal vowels. In the abovementioned dialects, ein is [ã], and einen is [ãn]; [a] without nasalization is auch. You’d have to resort to diacritics, and then people would have to guess what they mean; or you’d have to ignore the distinction, and people would have to puzzle out the meaning from context.

    * …never mind that most Upper German dialects, as well as Austrian Standard German, retain the distinction between short and long consonants. In an Austrian pronunciation, the words Höhle and Hölle have the same length, which is reached by [øː] in the former and [lː] in the latter.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    11 and 12

    The names of the numbers, that is: elf, zwölf.

  44. David, I understand now what you meant by “break down”. You are doing Fourier analysis of orthography, whereas I was just counting my sheep. People here have been talking about dubbing, subtitling, dialect/standard language and such everyday stuff. I added my bit about newspaper columns “in a dialect”.

    Everyday people want to understand what they read without a great amount of effort. When they read, they do not expect an IPA-like exactish representation of sounds but without IPA notation. Even standard orthography does not provide that.

    My point was that newspaper columns “in a dialect” are not easy to read, but not because they reproduce the dialect inaccurately. They’re written phonetically (to an approximation), so they’re fine on that head. What breaks down is the gestalt recognition that reduces the phonetic effort, and that people rely on (I think).

  45. GeorgeW says:

    “…This implies that the consonant systems of the dialects are all either very similar or subsets of that of MSA!”

    The spelling would not be absolutely consistent between MSA and a dialect, but there is generally a one-to-one relationship between the written form and the pronunciation. The principal exception is place assimilation of the definite article.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    You are doing Fourier analysis of orthography

    :-D :-D :-D

    My point was that newspaper columns “in a dialect” are not easy to read, but not because they reproduce the dialect inaccurately. They’re written phonetically (to an approximation), so they’re fine on that head.

    My point was that, with the dialects I’m used to, even that is quite difficult at best.

  47. My point was that, with the dialects I’m used to, even that is quite difficult at best.

    I conclude that such dialects are merely not suitable for down-home newspaper columns. But they would present no problem for radio/TV/internet broadcasts. These technologies allow us to ignore the fretful issues of orthography and IPAdolatry.

  48. Jean-Michel says:

    des von bladet: Japan is a subtitling country, which explains also the excellence of their English.

    Vanya: I assume that was meant as sarcasm.

    Me too, but it should be clarified that Japan really was a “subtitling country,” at least where theatrical features were concerned. High-profile foreign films were and are usually released in both subtitled and dubbed versions, but previously the box-office split was something like 2 to 1 in favor of the subtitled versions. I’m using the past tense here because now it’s supposedly evened out, which I’ve seen attributed to the aging of the Japanese population and movie audience—the idea being that older viewers become are more conservative in their tastes and prefer to hear their own language. I don’t know if that’s a valid explanation (it doesn’t seem to hold true in, say, Scandinavia, which also has a graying population), but a shift towards dubbing has definitely happened in Japan. The opposite phenomenon has occurred in China, where the movie audience has gotten younger and subtitling has massively overtaken dubbing (again, for theatrical features—TV is another story).

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