Conlangs in Movies.

Manvir Singh recently had a piece in the New Yorker (archived) that takes the new Dune sequel as its hook (it both invites and has attracted tedious controversy about supposed suppression of Arabic in the Fremen language) but has a lot of other material of interest, which I will excerpt:

A trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” features the boy prophet Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, yelling something foreign and uninterpretable to a horde of desert people. […] Engineered languages such as the one Chalamet speaks represent a new benchmark in imaginative fiction. Twenty years ago, viewers would have struggled to name franchises other than “Star Trek” or “The Lord of the Rings” that bothered to invent new languages. Today, with the budgets of the biggest films and series rivalling the G.D.P.s of small island nations, constructed languages, or conlangs, are becoming a norm, if not an implicit requirement. Breeze through entertainment from the past decade or so, and you’ll find lingos designed for Paleolithic peoples (“Alpha”), spell-casting witches (“Penny Dreadful”), post-apocalyptic survivors (“Into the Badlands”), Superman’s home planet of Krypton (“Man of Steel”), a cross-species alien alliance (“Halo”), time-travelling preteens (“Paper Girls”), the Munja’kin tribe of Oz (“Emerald City”), and Santa Claus and his elves (“The Christmas Chronicles” and its sequel). […]

Hollywood’s current obsession with constructed languages arguably started with “The Lord of the Rings” film adaptations of the early two-thousands. J. R. R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at Oxford and a lifelong conlanger, and he famously created the tongues of Middle-earth long before writing the books. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” he once wrote. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” The trilogy’s success showed the power of conlangs to create engrossing alternate realities, inspiring filmmakers to seek out skilled language creators.

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Beasts or Lilies?

We were recently discussing the academic prowess of the regrettable politician Enoch Powell, and little did I expect that I would be presented so soon with an example. Courtesy of Laudator Temporis Acti (where you will find a grudgingly admiring response from Peter Richardson), this quote from Powell’s The Evolution of the Gospel: A New Translation of the First Gospel with Commentary and Introductory Essay, discussing Matthew 6:28-30:

The words ‘card not’ οὐ ξαίνουσι—the process preliminary to spinning (as ‘sow’ above is preliminary to ‘reap’)—generated, by a slight misreading, the corruption αὐξάνουσι ‘they grow’, which is manifestly wrong, because it is not growing that is at issue but being fed and clothed. In addition, οὐ ξαίνουσι ‘card not’ has been replaced by οὐ κοπιῶσι ‘toil not’, which, as generic, cannot be paired or contrasted with the specific ‘spin’ (e.g. ‘no money and no shillings’). Thus the wording we have is the product of a (wrong) variant αὐξάνουσι in the margin and a (wrong) interlinear gloss κοπιῶσι in the text.

The antithesis to ‘fowls of the air’ is not ‘lilies of the field’ but ‘beasts of the field’. The beasts are indeed ‘clad’ without industry or artifice on their part. To say that ‘flowers’ or, even more, flowers of one particular sort are ‘clothed’ is absurd: beautiful they may be, clothed they are not.

The alteration of ‘beasts’ into ‘lilies’ may be a corruption. Confusion between ‘beasts’ … and ‘lilies’ … is difficult in Hebrew, whereas in Greek that between ΤΑΘΗΡΙΑ, ‘the beasts’, and ΤΑΛΕΙΡΙΑ, ‘the lilies’, is not. Corruption would then have taken place in Greek in two stages—(1) θηρία, ‘beasts’, changed to λείρια, ‘lilies’, and (2) λείρια glossed with its synonym κρίνα. On the other hand, the rhetorical piece about ‘Solomon’ and the ‘oven’ may be an insertion prompted by objection to being clothed as ‘the beasts’ are clothed, viz. in skin and fur, and this may have suggested ‘lilies’. Elaboration is betrayed by (1) ‘lilies’, for which ‘grass’, χόρτος, has later to be substituted (ovens are not fuelled with lilies) and (2) the absurdity of ‘clothing’ lilies or grass.

I have no opinion on the plausibility of all this (though of course I prefer the traditional and beautiful “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow”), but I do not know any other politician of any prominence who could pull off such a commentary. Color me impressed.


Somehow I got pointed to the Wikipedia article Place names considered unusual, which besides the usual suspects (e.g., Fucking, Austria) has all manner of amusing names: Germany alone has Affendorf (“Monkey Village”), Bösgesäß (“Bad-ass” or “Evil-Buttock”), Faulebutter (“Rancid Butter”), Fickmühlen (“Fuck Mills”), Katzenhirn (“Cat Brain”), Lederhose (Lederhosen, leather trousers), and Warzen (“Warts”), among others. But I was particularly struck by “Rednaxela Terrace in Hong Kong, which is believed to be the name Alexander but erroneously written right-to-left (the normal practice for writing Chinese in the past)”; that link has a more detailed origin story:

Although there are no official conclusions to the origin of the name, it is believed that the road was part of the property owned by a Mr. Alexander, and Rednaxela is an understandable transposition of the English name Alexander, since the Chinese language was typically written right-to-left at the time. Most of the naming errors in Hong Kong are a result of incorrect transliterations. Another explanation is that the name is linked to abolitionist Robert Alexander Young, who was known to have used the name Rednaxela in his 1829 work Ethiopian Manifesto. Chinese transliteration followed suit and was adopted by the neighbourhood, and the government never made any further alterations.

There’s something very pleasing about “Rednaxela.”


Last night my wife and I watched Anatomy of a Fall and were both blown away — it immediately became our favorite Oscar candidate, and it’s certainly LH fodder, since the central character is a German writer who speaks English with her French husband, and at the French trial that takes up much of the movie she speaks French to begin with but lapses into English when she feels she can’t say what she needs to in French. It’s right up there with Le Mépris as a language-centered movie. But what brings me to post about it is something more specific. Impressed by Milo Machado-Graner, who plays the lead character’s son, I looked him up and discovered he “has completed shooting for Spectateurs!, the new film by Arnaud Desplechin”; this caught my interest, since Desplechin directed one of my favorite early-’90s movies, La sentinelle, so I followed the link to his Wikipedia page, where I read that “In 2014, he adapted Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Forest.” Now I was really interested, because I love that play, so I went to the French Wikipedia page for Desplechin’s adaptation, which says that “cette œuvre — qui n’est pas une captation — s’est faite avec les acteurs du Français, institution commanditaire du téléfilm, mais dans une mise en scène originale conçue par Arnaud Desplechin.” But what is a captation? The Trésor de la langue française informatisé has various senses, the only applicable one being “Action de représenter le réel dans une œuvre, en particulier picturale”… but don’t all plays and (non-abstract) movies represent reality in some sense? What is it that La Forêt is said not to be doing?

The Radetzky March.

I’m finally reading the copy of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March that has been sitting on my shelf for years (I have the Joachim Neugroschel translation from Overlook Press), and so far I’m enjoying it (I’m on ch. 10, and our hero, Lieutenant Trotta, has been transferred to a battalion just a few miles from the Russian border, at the end of the Austrian railway line — my guess is Pidvolochysk, now in western Ukraine [confirmed now that I’ve gotten to ch. 21, where the battalion heads to Woloczysk, just across the river]). I’ve run across a couple of passages of clear LH interest, and I’m sharing them here, in two English versions and in the German original. First, Neugroschel’s (the first passage is from ch. 1, the second from ch. 3):

“Sit down!” said the old man. The captain unbuckled parts of his splendor. “Congratulations!” said the father, his voice normal, in the hard German of army Slavs. The consonants boomed like thunderstorms and the final syllables were loaded with small weights. Just five years ago he had still been speaking Slovenian to his son, although the boy understood only a few words and never produced a single one himself. But today it might strike the old man as an audacious intimacy to hear his mother tongue used by his son, who had been removed so far by the grace of Fate and Emperor, while the captain focused on the father’s lips in order to greet the first Slovenian sound as a familiar remoteness and lost homeyness. “Congratulations, congratulations!” the sergeant thunderously repeated. “In my day it never went this fast. In my day Radetzky gave us hell!”


There was wine; they had also managed to muster up beef and cherry dumplings. Fraulein Hirschwitz came in her gray Sunday silk and, upon seeing Carl Joseph, relinquished most of her severity without further ado. “I am utterly delighted,”’ she said, “‘and congratulate you from the bottom of my heart’”—using the German word beglückwünschen for “‘congratulate.” The district captain translated it into the Austrian word gratulieren. And they began to eat.

Here is Eva Tucker’s:
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Middle England.

I’m reading Owen Hatherley’s LRB review (3 November 2022; archived) of Richard Vinen’s Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain (“The unofficial title of ‘second city’ has changed hands many times. York, Norwich, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool have all taken a turn. Since the First World War, Birmingham has generally been considered the UK’s second city”), and I have a question about this passage:

Birmingham became prominent because of its industrial power, but its history is very different from that of the ‘industrial North’. It sits in the middle of England but it is not ‘Middle England’; it is one of the most multicultural places on earth, but it is not exotic. The upshot is that this economically and demographically important place is relatively culturally obscure.

I looked up “Middle England” in Wikipedia and was told that it is “a socio-political term which generally refers to middle class or lower-middle class people in England who hold traditional conservative or right-wing views”; is that what it means here? How do my UK readers understand the term? (I think of Birmingham mainly as the etymon of brummagem; we discussed its accent a decade ago.)

Horse, Deer, Baka.

One of the words that’s most firmly ensconced in my memory from my years in Japan is baka ‘idiot, fool’ — people yell it at each other all the time, and you hear it in Japanese movies as well. Leanne Ogasawara, at her Substack blog Dreaming in Japanese, posts about it in the context of a drama about Murasaki Shikibu:

Something that really caught my attention in the show was the origins of the surpring kanji used to write the Japanese word for “fool,” or “baka.” Written as horse deer, 馬鹿 baka, is one of the most famous Japanese words that even people with only a passing understanding of Japanese have probably heard. Since Japan does not have a lot of “bad words” baka is used a lot in Japan!

But why is fool written as horse deer???

After Murasaki’s father remarks that it’s too bad she wasn’t born a boy, he reads her a passage from the Chinese Records of the Grand Historian 史記 about the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang and infamous traitor, the Minister Zhao Gao (died 207 BCE). Wanting to wrest control of power and the mandate to rule, Zhao brings a deer to court and pointing to it, calls it a horse. The second emperor laughs and says, “Aren’t you mistaken? That looks like a horse to me,” to which Zhao asks everyone in the room: “is this a deer or is it a horse?”—Most present, however, wanting to ingratiate themselves with the minister, called the deer a horse. But […] those who remained silent, he later had killed.

This is where the Chinese idiom “point at a deer and say horse” 指鹿為馬 comes from and the Japanese 鹿を指して馬となす Shika o Sashite Uma to Nasu) meaning “deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes.”

This is the first I’ve heard about the horse/deer origin story, which I presume is your basic just-so folk etymology; the Wiktionary entry I linked at the start of the post says:

Probably originally a transcription of Sanskrit मोह (moha, “folly”), used as a slang term among monks.

Alternatively, may have arisen from the same root as Old Japanese 痴 (woko, modern oko, “stupidity, ridiculousness”). However, this theory is problematic phonologically, as the /b/ ↔ /w/ shift is difficult to explain.

I’ll be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about all this. Thanks, Trevor!

Currency Lads.

Joel at Far Outliers has been posting excerpts from Annegret Hall’s In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts’ Perspective, and this one taught me a very interesting phrase:

The younger Rope family members were typical of the new generation of free colonialists, commonly known as the ‘currency lads and lasses’. This was the expression used in the colony to describe those who were Australian born with emancipist or convict parentage. This generation grew up in an adult society in which free immigrants often made slights and barbs about their origins – they were ‘the offspring of thieves’ and ‘good for nothings’. But the spirit and energy of this new breed had its admirers. Surgeon Peter Miller Cunningham was optimistic about the ‘currency youth’.

Our colonial-born brethren are best known here by the name of Currency, in contradistinction to Sterling, or those born in the mother-country. … Our Currency lads and lasses are a fine interesting race, and do honour to the country whence they originated. … The Currency youths are warmly attached to their country, which they deem unsurpassable, and few ever visit England without hailing the day of their return as the most delightful in their lives….

The currency lads and lasses were also referred to as Corn Stalks because they were taller than their British counterparts the Sterlings, and they had a distinct way of talking. The children of exclusives saw themselves as the pure bloods of the colony and, if they came from large estates, as the Pure Merinos. Among the colony’s youth, the currency lads stood together and if one was attacked the ‘whole hive sally to his aid’. Interestingly, drunkenness was much less common among the currency youth than their parents or the adult population as a whole.

It would not have occurred to me that currency could be contrasted with sterling in this way. The OED updated its entry on the former just last year, and these are the relevant subsections:
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The Russian Panama.

In the course of an e-mail conversation about faux amis, Lizok happened to mention that “A панама hat is not a Panama hat.” I can’t describe my shock; all my bilingual dictionaries define панама (penultimate stress: пана́ма) as ‘Panama (hat),” and why would one ever suspect anything different? And yet when I went to Russian Wikipedia I discovered that, sure enough, the images showed something completely different, what the corresponding English article calls bucket hat, fisherman’s hat, Irish country hat, and session hat (one could also call it a sun hat). Looking it up in the Национальный корпус русского языка (Corpus of the Russian Language), I found a number of hits in Danilkin’s 2017 biography Ленин: Пантократор солнечных пылинок [Lenin: Pantocrator of dust motes in sunlight], including this: “Некое подобие гибрида панамы и банной войлочной шапки мы видим на известной фотографии «Ленин в Закопане».” [We see a certain semblance of a hybrid of a Panama hat and a felt bath hat in the famous photograph “Lenin in Zakopane”]. My question is, how and when did the referent change? And what do Russians call a Panama hat as others understand it? The Wikipedia article doesn’t have a Russian equivalent!

Rescuing Forgotten Geniuses.

Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page (which I linked to just last November) has a good post on a topic dear to my heart: We Must Rescue Forgotten Geniuses If We are to Read Them. I’ll quote the start and end (here’s an archived version of the Tadepalli piece), and if those excerpts intrigue you you can click through to read the whole thing:

Apoorva Tadepalli published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times recently, titled “We Need to Read the Forgotten Geniuses, Not Rescue Them.” As anyone who’s familiar with this site can imagine, this was an article I read with interest. For over forty years, I’ve been fascinated with looking for forgotten writers and reading their books, a fascination that I’ve used this site since 2006 to share, a fascination that led in 2021 to the creation of the Recovered Books series from Boiler House Press and my own rescue of a few of my discoveries. So I was eager to learn what Tadepalli had to say and agreed enthusiastically with some of it. But I hope she will allow me the right to quote some of her points and offer my thoughts in response.

“Critics,” she writes, “play a role in determining which books published today should be branded ‘instant classics,’ which authors are best described as ‘little-known’ and which books published in past decades or centuries merit re-examination.”

Ah, if it were this simple. The role of critics in the publishing process is almost entirely post-natal. When a book is first published, critics can influence its sales and its reception by the reading public by what they say in reviews, but few publishers consult any critic when deciding to reissue a book that’s been out of print — and in most cases, consequently out of any critical conversation — for some time. What a reissue publisher, at least any not exclusively targeting an academic audience and sales to university libraries, considers are three questions foremost: Is the book good (meaning of sufficient merit to justify being associated with the imprint)? Is the book in the public domain or are the rights attainable for a reasonable price? Will enough readers buy the book to recoup costs and, with some luck, earn a profit?

The first question — merit — is in the critic’s territory only to the extent that the football is in the territory of a fan watching the game. Except in this case, the stands are deserted, aside perhaps from a lone die-hard or two. We owe the rediscovery of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, for example, to the fact that Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler, two of the more prominent critics of the time, both named the book as one of “The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years” when queried by The American Scholar magazine. Their enthusiasm for Roth’s novel, along with Irving Howe’s (another influential critic) convinced Avon Books to reissue the book — accompanied by a remarkable amount of advertising, for a paperback edition of a forgotten book, in places like The Saturday Review of Literature. […]

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