I just finished reading an excellent collection of essays, The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia (edited by Wayne Vucinich and based on papers from a conference held in December 1966); the amazingly detailed entry by Mary Matossian on the peasant’s way of life introduced me to plenty of new vocabulary, and Donald Fanger’s “The Peasant in Literature” made sense of the development of literary representations of peasants (as well as emphasizing that they are only that, and cannot be taken as reflecting the actual lives of peasants). I wanted to quote this passage from his discussion of Radishchev:

When the peasants gathered to see off the conscripts in “Gorodnya” speak in a language as elegantly artificial as that of the cultivated narrator, it is not because Radishchev was unaware of the way they really spoke, but because eighteenth-century literary decorum required a lofty style for the expression of serious sentiments. So when a peasant mother apostrophizes her departing son in phrases full of Church Slavonicisms, inversions, parallelism, and chiasmus, her language is no more than a sign that she is to be taken with full seriousness; the apparatus of elegance is in effect a democratic cue, signifying that her feelings are universal human ones, independent of class.

A good and subtle point. Later on, when literature turned to naturalism, Grigorovich, in “the first ‘inside’ account of peasants to be written by an outsider,” “offered conversations whose authenticity seemed guaranteed by their frequent unreadability (thanks to the proliferation of peasant dialect terms.” Obviously these are two extremes, but on the whole I think it’s better to err on the side of minimizing the difference of “quaint” local speech and maximizing the likelihood of winning the reader’s respect for the character.


  1. I don’t see how the study of language and literature can be separated from the question of free speech, which we all know is fundamental to our society. The area of ordinary speech, as I see it, is a battleground between two forms of social speech, the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliché, ready-made idea and automatic babble, and it leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob: free speech is one thing a mob can’t stand. You notice that the people who allow their fear of Communism to become hysterical eventually get to screaming that every sane man they see is a Communist. Free speech, again, has nothing to do with grousing or saying that the country’s in a mess and that all politicians are liars and cheats, and so on and so on. Grousing never gets any further than clichés of this kind, and the sort of vague cynicism they express is the attitude of somebody who’s looking for a mob to join.

    You see, freedom has nothing to do with lack of training; it can only be the product of training. You’re not free to play the piano unless you practise. Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use the language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at. The only exceptions, and they are exceptions that prove the rule, are people who, in some crisis, show that they have a social imagination strong and mature enough to stand out against a mob. In the recent [in 1962] row over desegregation in New Orleans, there was one mother who gave her reasons for sending her children to an integrated school with such dignity and precision that the reporters couldn’t understand how a woman who never got past grade six learned to talk like the Declaration of Independence. Such people already have what literature tries to give. For most of us, free speech is cultivated speech, but cultivating speech is not just a skill, like playing chess. You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society. So while free speech may be, at least at present, important only to a very small minority is what makes the difference between living in Canada and living in East Berlin or [apartheid] South Africa.

    —Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

  2. I think it’s better to err on the side of minimizing the difference of “quaint” local speech and maximizing the likelihood of winning the reader’s respect for the character.
    I’m not sure I agree that such a dilemma exists, but it reminds me of some essay of Borges’s in which he described the difference between “gauchesque” poetry written by cultivated urbanites and that produced by the gauchos themselves. Whereas the literati would evoke the voice of the gaucho with lots of rough jargon and frequent mention of nature and horses and knives and leather and what-not, the gauchos themselves would aim for a lofty, self-consciously “literary” style, heavy on abstractions and flourishes, and deliberately purged of the parochial concrete details of their lives. No doubt the gauchos themselves were eventually infected by the local-color-ism of the gauchsploitation writers.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    At the other extreme, though, is the technique of putting high-flown, polysyllabic speech in the mouths of low-status speakers–I’m thinking in particular of the Kingfish on the “Amos n’ Andy” show. It’s a device used mostly for comic effect, not a democratic cue but on the contrary a way of affirming inequality: the speakers try to talk above their station, the audience laughs at the folly of this vain effort.

  4. It’s Marie-Lucie’s birthday. Bonne fête, m-l! Une personne exceptionnelle.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Rigueur! Humeur! Madame le professeur!

  6. It’s a device used mostly for comic effect, not a democratic cue but on the contrary a way of affirming inequality
    Yes, that of course is a more common procedure, elites being what they are. Mark Twain had a very rare ability to navigate these waters with grace.

  7. Twain handled southern black dialects with more grace than he did German. Possibly because he didn’t know any German dialects, or thought that his audience would know none. Or because he believed that Germans didn’t need to be handled gracefully, but instead to be taken down a notch.

  8. If you’re interested in peasant’s life in XIX century Russia, you should read А.Н. Энгельгардт “12 писем из деревни” (A. N. Engelgardt “12 letters from the countryside”): http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/ENGLGRDT/index.html

  9. “Or because he believed that Germans didn’t need to be handled gracefully, but instead to be taken down a notch.”
    He may have had an axe to grind. Missouri in his day was experiencing a huge wave of German immigration.
    “At the other extreme, though, is the technique of putting high-flown, polysyllabic speech in the mouths of low-status speakers–I’m thinking in particular of the Kingfish on the “Amos n’ Andy” show. ”
    The final flourish on this techinique is what you saw in the Prison Imam sketches on “In Living Color”, where the imam imparts insights to a breathlessly attentive disciple in string after string of pretentious malapropisms.

  10. marie-lucie says

    AJP, thank you.
    TE: Rigueur! Humeur! Madame le professeur!
    I hope you mean humour! humeur by itself usually means ‘bad mood’. I was in a pretty good mood after receiving unexpected messages and even flowers.

  11. No, if anything Twain was pro-German. He briefly had a job setting type for the Anzeiger des Westens, the oldest and biggest German language newspaper west of the Mississippi. He kept trying to learn German since he was fifteen. The Awful German Language has to be seen as a humorous report of those genuine efforts, particularly while staying there.
    Which is not to say that Twain was above stereotyping. But it would, in my opinion, be a mistake to read animus into that.

  12. Trond Engen says

    ML: Thanks, and apologies. I meant ‘humeur’ but thought it might mean “good mood” when standing alone. That’s how the loan ‘humør’ behaves in Norwegian. (As I say: Too bad for publication. But I keep doing it.)

  13. You mean “I had meant ‘humeur'”, Trond.

  14. The Awful German Language had me in stitches. It was most certainly meant as a spoof on people who disdain anything that is not familiar. There are many such people in Wobegon–I am unfortunately on their listserve for the current anti-immigration innuendo campaign–and Twain has it pitch perfect.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Trong, humeur means “mood, temper”, so it can be good, bad, sad, etc. But the terme un accès d’humeur means “a fit of temper’, both French and English indicating a bad mood. There seem to be more negative than positive adjectives associated with humeur, as in être d’une humeur massacrante “to be in a foul mood”.

  16. Marie-Lucie:
    I would say that temper, like humeur, is now firmly attached to the negative pole in ordinary use, making bad temper pleonastic. As a result, good temper strikes me as slightly archaic for good mood, though it is certainly not unknown in current use.
    Temper originally meant simply ‘balance’, physical or emotional, a sense still at least faintly present in the idiom lose one’s temper. Then the sense changed to ‘temperament’, from the idea of the four humors being in or out of balance. (These humors are blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, which give us the adjectives sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic from the supposed emotional effects of their excess.) Next came ‘mood’ (temperament being habitual mood), and then the current sense ‘bad mood’.
    The same process changed homely (in North America only) from ‘homelike’ to ‘ugly’, and is currently changing attitude from a neutral description to a negative one, bad attitudes being more subject to discussion (or complaint) than good ones. But of course the poster child for semantic change is this story:
    The royal figure came out of the newly finished cathedral and told the architect it was awful, pompous, and artificial. Words of strong condemnation, surely? No: for the date was the end of the 17th century, the cathedral was St. Paul’s, the architect was Sir Christopher Wren, and the words meant ‘awe-inspiring, stately, and ingeniously contrived’.
    (This is usually attributed to Charles II, but he died in 1685, whereas services didn’t begin until 1697.)

  17. JC: The ancient medical theory of humeurs/humours is part of the background of pre-19th century literature, even if it is forgotten nowadays. “Temper” is a little different: to be even-tempered = “être d’un tempérament égal” (I think that the French phrase is more literary than the English one).
    The process of semantic degeneration is well known in historical linguistics, with examples such as what you quote. Going from neutral to bad is a lot more likely than from neutral to good, although the latter does happen. Awful and pompous may have started being used ironically because of a connotation of exaggerated praise, before becoming negative. As for bad used to mean good, it is more likely to result from deliberate use of a word with opposite meaning in order to conceal the real meaning – a common strategy in slang.

  18. Temperament also has a musical meaning which, though distinct, may sometimes influence the more general sense. “Tempering” is the process of adjusting the tuning of a (usually) keyboard instrument so that all keys sound in tune.
    This meaning probably also emerged from the old theory of humors, where the idea was that a proper adjustment in the proportions of different humors resulted in a “good” temperament.
    There are hundreds of musical temperaments, but the standard one today is “equal temperament” which, interestingly, is also “tempérament égal” in French.
    Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier” could suggest equanimity in addition to its strictly musical meaning (the subject of ongoing debate). I don’t know if the original German “wohltemperiertes” carries the same connotation.

  19. There’s also the notion of tempering steel or other metals, which is probably much older than the musical meaning. The same idea of mixing heterogenous things to achieve a desirable balance of qualities is there too.

  20. Alan Shaw: Temper, the verb, is first applied (as far as the record shows) to steel and to musical pitch in the early part of the 14th century.

  21. JC: Interesting. That seems about right for music, but I would have thought the metallurgical meaning was older than that. Certainly the process was.

  22. Distemper is a disorder in animals.
    Tempera is a mixture for painting, but it is also sometimes called distemper!
    Did “temperature” once mean moderate degree of heat/cold?
    “Sense of humor” once referred to a sensitivity to the moods of others, did it not?

  23. Alan: Of course; remember that temper and its friends are basically of Latin origin, and were taken into English in earlier senses and then grew new sentences in the soil of transplantation.
    Empty: Indeed it did; the OED’s examples of sense 6 (which it calls obsolete) are:
    1531 ELYOT Gov. III. xxvi, The temperature or distemperature of the regions.
    1578 T. N. tr. Conq. W. India 217 Desiring of Him by Prayers to give raine and temperature, that the Earth may bring foorth Corne, Fruite, Hearbes,..and all other necessaries.
    1585 T. WASHINGTON tr. Nicholay’s Voy. IV. xxiv. 139 Thracia..[is] of an yll temperature, the ayre being vnwholesome, & not healthfull.
    1624 CAPT. SMITH Virginia II. 21 The temperature of this Country doth agree well with English constitutions.
    1697 W. DAMPIER Voy. I. xix. 529, I look upon this latitude [the Cape of Good Hope] to be one of the mildest and sweetest for its temperature, of any whatsoever.
    1727 SWIFT State Irel. 35 A country so favoured by nature..both in fruitfulness of soil, and temperature of climate.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Is tamper (with something) a doublet? Oh, I can answer that myself… Yes, according to etymonline.com.
    marie-lucie: As I said, humør alone will be positive in Norwegian. But the native synonym lune will be negative on its own. They’re not antonyms, though. Qualifiers make them synonyms.
    (You write my first name with -g. That is Nynorsk for 1. adj. “tight, narrow” 2. n. “strong drive, need” 3. v. pret. “needed”. Embarrassing as it might be, I hadn’t thought of this before, but if you make this a switch and write my last name with a d, it will sound naughty.)

  25. Trond, I apologize for mangling your name – it was just a typo.

  26. Trond, it’s your second name that looks like it means “narrow”!

  27. Trond Engen says

    marie-lucie: No need for apologies. I wouldn’t even have noticed if it wasn’t funny.
    Ø: Eng means something like “enclosed grassland, pasture”, but its etymology actually is something like “narrow”.

  28. I don’t know if the original German “wohltemperiertes” carries the same connotation.
    Alan, I’ve never encountered it used with such a connotation. The Latin-German temperiert usually applies only to metals and temperature (of a room or enclosure). There are plenty of German-German words to denote varieties of “good/ill temper”, such as Laune (gut/froh/schlecht/übel gelaunt, mißlaunig), Stimmung (in guter/froher/schlechter/übler Stimmung, verstimmt, gut gestimmt), Verfassung (in guter/froher/schlechter/übler Verfassung), Befindlichkeit, Gestimmtheit, wohlgemut.

  29. Yeah, you see how temper is untranslatable into German?

  30. How now, brown cow ? “Temper” is Stimmung or Befindlichkeit. That’s short-term. For the long-term view, as in “she’s a good-tempered person”, sie hat ein freundliches Naturell serves nicely.

  31. Sorry, John. Before posting, I had in fact briefly wondered why in the world “How now, brown cow ?” had suddenly popped up in my mind. Now I see that there must have been an unconscious association with “Cowan”.

  32. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly: For the long-term view, as in “she’s a good-tempered person”, sie hat ein freundliches Naturell serves nicely.
    In French too, l’humeur is for the punctual, short term mood, and for the long term there is le naturel, a somewhat old-fashioned word.

  33. marie-lucie, according to Duden Naturell is from le naturel. It is characterized there as bildungssprachlich, which is not true tout court. I’ve heard Naturell used in Cologne by everyday folks speaking Kölsch. But then Kölsch was lexically influenced by French when Cologne was under French political control in the past, as it was many times. Hochdeutsch also displays such lexical influence, but for different historical reasons.

  34. marie-lucie says

    For me, le naturel is rather literary and old-fashioned, but it must have been a normal everyday word in earlier times if the people of Cologne use it in conversation. In present-day French we would say le caractère. Thus the contrast between elle est de mauvaise humeur “she is a in bad mood” and elle a mauvais caractère “she is bad-tempered”.

  35. it must have been a normal everyday word in earlier times if the people of Cologne use it in conversation
    This is a very interesting issue I have wondered about in the past, without getting very far with my speculations. In the languages I know, there are not a few expressions that must have originally belonged to an educated vocabulary, yet moved into the vernacular in a distorted form. My prime suspect in German is an und für sich. This today is used exactly as are the English “essentially”, “for all practical purposes” , but an und für sich is prime-time Hegel – “in and for itself”. My wild surmise is that this was picked up by jokey German students in the 19th century, and passed on by them to the low-life circles they frequented when not attending lectures. Of course an und für sich is recycled kath’auto, per se etc etc.

  36. m-l:
    elle a mauvais caractère “she is bad-tempered”.
    Then what would be the Fr. equivalent of “she has a bad character”? Larousse says “mauvais renom” for “bad character” but that corresponds to a rather Victorian sense of the expression in English.

  37. Trond Engen says

    In Norwegian i og for seg is used to mean something like “narrowly speaking”.
    – Kan dere løse det?
    – I og for seg, men det vil koste.
    – Can you solve it?
    – Yes, narrowly speaking, but it will cost.
    – Han er i og for seg en bra kar, men…
    – He is a good guy in a way, but…
    It’s often pronounced like *joforseg, and I think it’s generally percieved as a modified form of the countering affirmative jo. At least that’s how I understood it as a child when I heard my father use it.

  38. Is there a ponderable difference between “essentially” and “narrowly speaking” ? Apart from the fact that “narrowly speaking” is a bit old-fashioned. When you narrow something down, only its essence is left.

  39. marie-lucie says

    elle a mauvais caractère “she is bad-tempered”.Then what would be the Fr. equivalent of “she has a bad character”?
    “Elle a mauvaise réputation”. (This of course reflects the double standard for men and women).
    Larousse says “mauvais renom” for “bad character” but that corresponds to a rather Victorian sense of the expression in English.
    What year is your Larousse? I have never seen mauvais renom. It is possible that the phrase is used nowadays, as a translation of “bad character” by people not quite familiar with English. In any case, in English you can say “a bad character” meaning a bad person, but “le renom” can never be a person: the word refers to a (usually good) reputation that goes beyond the limits of a person (/town/restaurant/etc)’s immediate vicinity.
    Incidentally, I have seen “renoun” for the English noun and “reknown” for the adjective (instead of “renowned”).

  40. “Elle a mauvaise réputation”. (This of course reflects the double standard for men and women).
    Yes, my Larousse had this too, and it does seem to me to share the same inadequacy as a translation of “bad character” in present-day English. Reputation and character are two different things to us now – even for women. Unless the phrase in French has completely lost the sense that it primarily involves one’s reputation (as opposed to one’s real character).

  41. A person (especially a woman) with a bad reputation usually also lacks “character”.
    I don’t think that there is a French word with quite the same meaning and connotation as “character” in English (what Victorians were stressing: a strong moral sense, ability to resist temptation and manipulation, etc). The closest might be moralité, which is not quite the same either. “Caractère” has a different meaning as described above.

  42. Yes, caractère, seems closer to “nature” in English, and I’m wondering if this makes “bad-natured” a closer equivalent to mauvais caractère than “bad-tempered.” The difference is small but significant: bad-natured people are often bad-tempered, but not always. Some can stab you in the back with perfectly serene smiles on their faces.
    Does mauvais caractère necessarily imply propensity to anger?

  43. Does mauvais caractère necessarily imply propensity to anger?
    If not necessarily to anger, at least to grouchiness and to lashing out at other people, not to hypocritical “perfectly serene smiles”. This makes a person difficult to be around, but not necessarily mean or dangerous.

  44. In Russian both реноме (from renommée) and репутация (from reputation or réputation) are widely used, with реноме having mostly postive colouring, while reputation is more neutral and often needs a qualifying adjaective (bad or good reputation).
    The difference between Radischev and Grigorovich also beautifully shows the development of Russian linguistic tools within one hundred years. Apart from ‘democratic cue’, Radischev clearly struggles to find the right words to put peasants’ speech in writing while Grigorovich (Dahl’s contemporary) is comfortable enough to experiment with dialectisms. Incidentally it was Grigorovich who discovered Chekhov after falling in love with the qurkiness of the young Antosha Chekhonte’s characters and their speech.
    (I was just watching The Stormbreaker with the children – and couldn’t resist to bore them with a lecture on stresses in Russian surnames: Yasen GriGOrovich in the film should be GrigoROvich, like the writer and the Bolshoi choreographer).

  45. Is the stress in Chekhonte on the final syllable?

  46. If not necessarily to anger, at least to grouchiness and to lashing out at other people, not to hypocritical “perfectly serene smiles”. This makes a person difficult to be around, but not necessarily mean or dangerous.
    Well, I’m probably splitting hairs here. For most purposes I think “bad-tempered” and “bad-natured” could be counted as synonyms. Even truer for “good-natured” and “good-tempered.” At most I think “natured” implies more of a spiritual (as opposed to humoral or hormonal) quality.
    The very specific meaning of “temper” (propensity to anger) seems peculiar to English.

  47. Isn’t temper gemüt?

  48. In one old-fashioned usage “character” could mean “letter of recommendation”.
    She gave me a good character,
    But said I could not swim.

  49. Look out, she has a temper.
    Well, you’re in a mood today, aren’t you?
    It looks like we’re in for some weather.

  50. Chekhonté
    yes, it was his nom de plume in the early years when he produced more short stories than there days in a year.
    (sorry for the typos, I’m working on something else while posting here)

  51. caractère
    my [fluent French-speaking] children advise me that while caractère as in human character may be a faux amis, it means exactly the same as in English in the sense of a ‘letter, writing symbol’.

  52. marie-lucie says

    Sashura, True.
    It is also true in the aesthetic sense, as in Cette maison a du caractère “That house has character” (meaning style and individuality).

  53. marie-lucie says

    p.s. a typographical font is called “une police de caractères”.

  54. or simply les polices – very close to my prof activities here.

  55. Why “police”?

  56. From Italian “polizza.”
    Actually technically a typeface rather than a font, though the terms are tending to run together in both languages.

  57. yes, typeface is a particular design, font/fount is the full set of a design. In Russian it’s гарнитура (garnitura) from German Garnitur. And size is кегель or кегль from German Kegel. I think the names of popular sizes are more or less international: nonpareil for 6 points, petite for 8 points, korpus for 10 and cicero for 12.

  58. Isn’t temper gemüt?
    Not a bad try, Crown, but it’s not quite that simple. Remember Gemütlichkeit. Gemüt has a slight positive connotation to it, so you can’t properly contrast gut/schlecht versions of it, unlike “good/bad-tempered”. Gemüt is more like “(sunny) disposition”.
    There are two cute expressions in Duden I didn’t know: Ein Gemüt haben wie ein Fleischerhund [have the disposition of a butcher’s dog], i.e. insensitive, without any feelings. Also: Ein Gemüt haben wie ein Veilchen/Schaukelpferd [have the disposition of a violet / rocking-horse], i.e. to be naive or tactless.
    Duden defines Gemüt thus: Gesamtheit der seelischen und geistigen Kräfte eines Menschen [all the spiritual and mental forces of a person]. This is not the same as “temper” in the sense of “character”. The German for “good/bad character” is guter/schlechter Charakter.

  59. Gemüt is more like “(sunny) disposition”: Ein Gemüt haben wie ein Fleischerhund.
    This is confusing, Stü.

  60. Yes, that whole Duden thing is confusing. I never knew violets were tactless.

  61. The basic idea is that Gemüt is something that everybody has, that is like the English “disposition”, EXCEPT that its components are in principle “positive”. That’s why I added “(sunny)” to make things a little clearer, NOT to define it absolutely.
    The Duden expressions work by contrast-and-shock. They mean “Gemüt that is not a Gemüt at all”. A butcher’s dog does not have a Gemüt that is bad in the sense of “evil” – instead, it has a Gemüt that isn’t a Gemüt. Remember that the expression ein Gemüt haben wie ein Fleischerhund is used to characterize a person, not butcher’s dogs. The choice of “violet” and “rocking-horse” is rather weird, I admit, but the expression scheme is not: “this person has as much X as Y”, where Y is something that has no X.
    Consider the English “he has no more sense than a hill of beans”. This is not an indictment against beans for being gormless, but a complaint about a person who acts with culpabable thoughtlessness.

  62. culpable

  63. In the precedential case of Pea vs. Bonehead, Pea sued for libel damages against Bonehead for calling Pea a “beanbrain” in public. The lower courts originally ruled in favor of Pea, since the genetic evidence was compatible with libel. In the Supreme Court appeal, however, Justice Judicious Joe reversed this ruling, on two grounds. One ground was that Pea, not being a person, was incompetent to file suit. The second ground was that Bonehead didn’t understand the half of what the trial was all about, and so was not legally required to defend himself. Justice Joe, in his summing-up, said the whole affair didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

  64. An anthropomorphic trope used with irony, then. There’s probably some Greek name for the figure of speech. Thanks, G.

  65. John Cowan says

    Police is also ‘insurance policy’, which leads to a Canadian anecdote about a French-language policy saying that it did not cover jewelry, and if you had any, you needed to buy a police spéciale — most unfortunately (un)translated in the English version as police special ‘.38 revolver or cartridge thereof used by U.S. police until about 1990’.

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