The Worst Ever.

John Lanchester’s enthusiastic LRB essay on the career of Georges Simenon includes the following paragraph:

As you’d expect, there have been many translations of Maigret into English. The project is not straightforward, as we can see just from looking at the titles. These often betray a lack of confidence as they stretch for snazzy English renditions of Simenon’s enigmatically blunt French. Pietr-le-Letton from 1931 was first translated in 1933 – note that English publishers were onto Maigret pretty quickly – as Suite at the Majestic. That same translation became The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, then The Case of Peter the Lett. In 1963 it was newly translated as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. David Bellos’s recent translation is the first with the confidence to call the book in English what it is called in French: Pietr the Latvian. Similarly, the second Maigret, another of my favourites, Le Charretier de ‘la Providence’, also from 1931, has been The Crime at Lock 14, Lock 14 and Maigret Meets a Milord – a serious candidate for the worst translated title ever. Now, finally, we get to read it in English as Simenon’s deadpan original, The Carter of ‘La Providence’.

Which inspired this letter:

John Lanchester nominates Maigret Meets a Milord as ‘a serious candidate for the worst translated title ever’ (LRB, 4 June). As he will know, this is a prize for which there is fierce competition. French cinema has furnished at least two candidates, though its Anglophone distributors must carry the blame. François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups has spent its life outside France with the meaningless title The Four Hundred Blows. More recently, Claude Barras’s Ma vie de Courgette – the touching story of a small boy orphaned when he accidentally causes the death of his mother, whose pet name for him was Courgette – has been distributed as My Life as a Courgette (or, in the US, My Life as a Zucchini).

It would not have taken a genius to come up with ‘Big Trouble’ or ‘Up to No Good’ (which is roughly what ‘faire les quatre cents coups’ signifies) for Truffaut’s film, and with almost anything other than My Life as a Courgette for Barras’s, even if it was only to drop the indefinite article.

Stephen Sedley

While I’m at it, I’ll quote a few other paragraphs from the Lanchester piece for those who might be interested:

The sense of place is equally strong, and one of the great pleasures is the summoning of France’s many landscapes and accompanying social milieux. Simenon captures the eerie flatness of the industrial north-east, the bitter cold and huddled indoor life of Breton fishing villages, the suffocated propriety of Vichy, the bright louche life of Mediterranean France. There is also, and it’s a chief glory of the books, a whole range of different Parises, from the shiny rich to the hypocritical bourgeois middle to the struggling, furious world of the poor, desperate and professionally criminal. I can’t help regretting that Simenon never got to write about today’s Paris, so starkly divided between a glittering central city and banlieue hinterland. […]

That kind of fidelity was important to Simenon. He was gratified by the fact that policemen liked his books. He wanted to get as much of the real world as possible into the formula of a detective story. It was a question of gaps: the gap between what people say they are and who they really are, the gap between norms of behaviour and how people actually behave. He is fascinated by codes of behaviour and power relations; I find it hard to imagine Simenon reading Pierre Bourdieu, but if he did he would have found a lot to agree with. Another of Simenon’s unexpected intellectual affinities is with Raymond Queneau, who in the course of his studies spent a lot of time reflecting on the difference between spoken and written Greek, between the dialect of the street and the formal language. It occurred to Queneau that French, too, had just as big a gap between the spoken vernacular and the official language, and this thought prompted him to write his exuberant and untranslatable 1959 masterpiece of ‘neo-French’ (his term), Zazie dans le Métro. Simenon was just as interested in the question of linguistic gaps, but in his case the rupture was between the formal, inquisitorial, antiseptic language of bureaucracy and the realities of life and crime. […]

In one sense, the Maigret books are the ultimate procedurals, since the entire narrative describes Maigret’s procedure in a particular case; at the same time, the procedures are a means to an end, since Maigret’s real interests are in character and justice. I don’t think there is a single Maigret novel in which he doesn’t work out the killer’s identity. In about half of them, though, the perpetrator goes unpunished by any legal process. The reader is in a similar position to the detective. In any given Maigret novel, we know whodunit from a fairly early point: that’s not where the interest of the stories is to be found. The denouement, in which the criminal is caught and the plot wrapped up, is hardly of any concern to Simenon; the kind of reader who reads detective stories for the buzz of working out who did the crime will find nothing in his books.

And here’s another letter, for those heretofore unfamiliar with a splendid joke:

John Lanchester’s observation about Simenon’s amazing work rate reminds me of Deirdre Bair’s story of Hitchcock telephoning Simenon at his home in Switzerland, only to be told by his secretary that the writer couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, aware of Simenon’s prodigiousness, replied: ‘That’s all right, I’ll wait.’

Paul Cullen


  1. Perhaps “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a deliberate mistranslation, given that “The standard diving dress and the butterfly” would have been meaningless to most anglophones, including me for one. To be fair, I think the book mentions diving bells as well as diving suits; but the film focuses on the latter.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Never tried Simenon. Looks like I may have been missing out on something.

  3. I’ve only read a couple, but they were very good and I hope I get around to trying more.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    “The Four Hundred Blows” sounds cool, albeit cryptic, so I should think it wouldn’t have hurt the movie’s marketing to Anglophone audiences. “My Life as a Courgette” maybe not so much.

  5. Yeah, while his point is inarguable, I’m afraid ‘Big Trouble’ or ‘Up to No Good’ are much less memorable titles. You’d have to come up with an English phrase as punchy as the French.

  6. John Emerson says

    Another nomination for worst: Balzac’s “Splendeurs et Miseres de Courtesans” as “A Harlot High and Low”. Published by Penguin, usually excellent. I can’t even think of a motive for the mistranslation (which really isn’t a translation, but a substitution).

  7. John Emerson says

    Oral v.. written language: a big deal in France with their goddamn pure classical French. When I read Celine’s “Voyage au Bout de la Nuit” in the original it was such a thrill, like nothing I’d ever read.

    An article on Celine said that while he used slang and some argot, the big difference was that he wrote the way all but the stiffest ordinary educated Frenchmen talked when they were “off duty”. (There were two other differences I don’t remember, but the final one was certain quirks unique to Celine, his own personal mannerisms).

  8. Yes, I got the same pleasant shock from Céline.

  9. The denouement, in which the criminal is caught and the plot wrapped up, is hardly of any concern to Simenon; the kind of reader who reads detective stories for the buzz of working out who did the crime will find nothing in his books.

    That is not my experience. I never try to guess who the perp is, but I notice when it is obvious. Mind, out of 300 or whatever Maigret novels I have read only a handful, presumably selected into collections for their higher than average qualities, including quality of the plot. Maybe in La colère de Maigret when he keeps repeating that lawyers don’t kill their clients it becomes obvious that’s who the killer would be, but I am always open to a twist.

  10. The Strange Case of Peter the Lett

    Well, Lett is an older synonym for Latvian, but small blame to Sedley for not knowing that. So though Latvian has been ascendant since 1918, Lett would certainly be known still in the mid-1930s. The indefatigable OED3 readers even turned up a 1920 Glasgow Heraldsentence with not just Lett but Esth in it. It was also a time when localizing Pietr to Peter would be automatic, as is done for Franciscus today.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I never try to guess who the perp is

    Couldn’t do it even if I tried. I missed the twist in the movie Arrival even though I’d previously read the Ted Chiang short story … this may be some kind of record.

    [Apologies to anyone to whom this comes as a spoiler. I can at least testify that Arrival is very good whether spoilerised or not … I suppose. On the other hand, how would I ever know?]

  12. I can’t recall if I’ve read any of the books, but I came across a wonderful French TV version of Maigret on the MHz channel. The Paris scenes were mostly set in Prague, with a suitably evocative and seedy atmosphere. The actor who played Maigret was Bruno Cremer, who I hadn’t known before but who gave Maigret a worldly and generally rueful air. The series is now available on Apple TV, which I don’t have access too.

  13. I read Simenon for the first time a few months ago. He’s good. The stories I read are all clouded by a grim miasma. You could say the same for Chandler, but they are utterly different.

  14. Michael Eochaidh says

    I’ve read a handful of Maigret novels and enjoyed them. They’re also very short by the standards of today, so they don’t require a big investment of time.

  15. From Wikipedia:

    The English title is a literal translation of the French that fails to capture its meaning, as the French title refers to the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, meaning “to raise hell”. On the first prints in the United States, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gillmor translated the title as Wild Oats, but the distributor Zenith did not like that and reverted it to The 400 Blows.

  16. Well, Lett is an older synonym for Latvian, but small blame to Sedley for not knowing that.

    There are at least a couple layers of confusion here. Sedley says nothing about anything Lettish; I presume you mean Lanchester. More importantly, I presume he knows as well as you and I that Lett means ‘Latvian’; his point was that until the new translation everyone was adding unnecessary extra touches to the title (Strange Case, Case, Enigmatic).

  17. On the first prints in the United States, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gillmor translated the title as Wild Oats, but the distributor Zenith did not like that and reverted it to The 400 Blows.

    So Sedley was right to blame the distributor!

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I feel like there are two ways of constructing titles in translation, especially for ‘genre’ works, and both of them are potentially right. In this case, you can use the title the story had in French, or you can give it the title you think it would have had if written in English – the title that seems most likely to appeal to English speakers buying the work.

    To some extent that applies to the whole work, really – you’re translating less to give people a taste of work in another language than to provide more stories for people who like that kind of story.

  19. I devoured a collection of Simenon stories about twenty years ago; I remember feeling increasingly depressed at their bleakness but unable to put it down. That was in translation, I’ll have to have a go at the originals some time (though I might have to ration myself and read something more cheerful in between).

  20. Fortunately, my years of immersion in Russian literature have given me a positive taste for bleakness (much as I’ve learned to like my coffee without milk or sugar).

  21. I read several volumes of Tout Simenon. I liked Maigret best; the non-detective stories are mostly bleaker, while the country-doctor–detective Jean Dollent is almost cheerful.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I was wondering how this works in the opposite direction. For example, Perry Mason books were all titled (in English) “The Case of the …” but in the French translations that wording was often omitted.

  23. How about without coffee next?

  24. How about without coffee next?

    That would be The Case of the Missing Case. A detective / PI takes a well-deserved vacation at some sleepy resort town where nothing ever happens, but then… nothing happens. He just gets a lot of rest, and goes back, refreshed, after two weeks.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    There is (I’m told) a posthumous continuation of Raymond Chandler’s last, barely-started, novel Poodle Springs, in which Marlowe, finally married to Linda Loring, discovers that he can’t cope with a life of ease and safety …

    Haven’t read it, and never will. I don’t hold with that sort of thing, even if it’s done well.

    I and my children have long played Literary Detective Celebrity Deathmatch. Marlowe always loses, against everybody.* (The Continental Op always wins. He has backup, and he knows when to call for it.)

    * Even Poirot. Possibly even Miss Marple.

  26. I saw Poodle Springs at a bookstore. It’s four chapters by Chandler, and the rest added by whoever. It’s basically fan fiction.

    Another reason to ignore it is that without it, Marlowe’s last recorded words are, “Why don’t you go kiss a duck?”

  27. Farley Mowat wrote in The Siberians That his Never Cry Wolf was translated into Russian as Wolves! Please Don’t Cry! From what I can tell, it was indeed published as Не кричи, Волки! and later as Не кричи: “Волки!”

  28. Trond Engen says

    There are multiple Norwegian editions of Simenon’s Maigret novels, and their titles seem to diverge from the original in the same way as the English.

    My father had a shelf of Maigret novels in Norwegian translation which I read during summer and winter breaks in my early twenties. To me the mystery meant less than Maigret’s walks through the streets of Paris to the scene of crime, and his stops at bars on his way back, and the feeling that these changes of neighbourhood, barely hinted at beyond the street names themselves, mirrored his meditative mental process. This would be obvious to a contemporary Parisian reader. To someone like me it added another layer of discovery, and I always had a street map of Paris at hand when reading.

    I may have told this before, but the first time I came to stay at my now wife’s famliy’s house in Trondheim, I found a Maigret novel I hadn’t read in her basement apartment, and — still a little shy to just drop down in the family sofas with my own project, or maybe not yet sure if I was a guest of the whole family or just of her — started reading it there. I asked if she happened to have a map of Paris. She didn’t, but she thought her father might have one. A few minutes later she was back with the map. “Of course I have”, her father had said. “I use it when I read Maigret.”

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    This title-mangling in translations goes back a long way.

    What’s with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy?

    I mean, Numbers? What kind of a name is that?

  30. David Marjanović says

    Deuteronomy is mangled from Words

    Не кричи, Волки!

    Lacks the plural ending on the imperative.

  31. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I especially like the Perry Mason one which goes from ‘the cautious coquette’ to ‘la prudente pin-up’!

  32. Lacks the plural ending on the imperative.

    I uncritically copied it from the Latin transliteration in WorldCat and retransliterated it.

  33. I can’t find anything but Не кричи: “Волки!” in WorldCat (and a search for “Ne krichite Volki” gives “No results match your search”). In any case, the punctuation is irrelevant — as DM says, if the verb is кричи and not кричите, it can’t be addressed to the wolves. The Russian Wikipedia article also gives no hint of any other title. I suspect this is one of them urban legends.

  34. Here’s the WorldCat entry. I now remember it should be кричите. My one year of college Russian has not improved with years of disuse.

    It could be an urban legend Mowat had heard, or one he himself made up, after his wont.

    Incidentally, I was fascinated by The Siberians when I first read it, before realizing how much treacly Soviet puffery permeates it.

  35. John Emerson says

    Mower was barred from the US. He must have been a serious fellow traveller.

    “People of the Deer” about Inland Eskimos (sic) was really great. I’ve read that “Never Cry Wolf” misrepresented wolf life.

  36. Mowat is mostly correct except it was “No woman, no cry”. No one knows what it means.

    And no one knows what “Не кричи, волки!” (quotemarks don’t matter: I usually hear or say this title) means.

  37. I had a Latvian-American friend in college, who was a great raconteur. (He would have made an excellent mathematics instructor, but it looks like he took forever to finish his Ph. D. and went back to programming. Although it enjoys an excellent reputation, the pure math doctoral program at Michigan seems to have treated everyone I knew who went there fairly badly.) He told stories about many years of attending Latvian summer camp. (Who knew there were Latvian-specific summer camps in upstate New York in the late twentieth century?) Most of the people who worked there, he referred to as “Latvian” or “Latvian-American,” but the old codger who maintained the property year round was a “Lett.” I never interrogated this difference of terminology further, but the word choice definitely seemed to fit the way Janis described that particular guy as different, older, and more traditional, as well as drunker.

  38. What’s with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? I mean, Numbers? What kind of a name is that?

    To be precise, they should be, In the beginning, The names of, And He called, In the wilderness, Sayings. More or less.

  39. The OED handles Numbers rather oddly; it’s under “III. Senses relating to the action of enumerating”:

    13. †a. An enumeration, an account; a reckoning; (also) a count, a census. Obsolete. rare.

    ▸ a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Lev. xxv. 14 After þe noumbre [a1425 L.V. rekenyng; L. supputationem] of frutes, he shal sulle to þe.
    c1626 H. Bisset Rolment Courtis (1922) II. 105 Heir followes the..numer of all the monasteries..ministeries..nunries and cells withtin the kingdome.
    1831 T. Buttrick Voy. 33 Two gentlemen undertook to take a number of these people, and found it to be about twelve hundred.

    b. In modern use in form Numbers, with singular agreement. A book of the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures, which includes an account of a census of the Israelites. In early use also in singular.

    c1425 Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Queen’s Oxf.) Num. Prol. 364 This book clepid Numeri, that is to seie, the book of Noumbre.
    a1450 (▸c1395) Prefatory Epist. St. Jerome in Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (New Coll. Oxf.) (1850) 68 The book of Noumbre..wher he conteyne not the mysteries of al the hool crafte..and of the profecie of Balaam, and of the xlij dwellyngis in wildirnesse?
    1502 tr. Ordynarye of Crysten Men (de Worde) iv. xxi. sig. aa.i Yᵉ auncyent testament in the .xxv. chapytre of nombres.
    1563 2nd Tome Homelyes Idolatry iii, in J. Griffiths Two Bks. Homilies (1859) ii. 175 As it is written in the book of Numbers, the twenty-third chapter, that there was no idol in Jacob.
    1589 T. Cooper Admon. People of Eng. 127 In the Nombers, he that brake the Sabbath day, was stoned to death.
    1649 F. Roberts Clavis Bibliorum (ed. 2) 52 Numbers, called because a great part of the Book, especially at the beginning, is spent in Numbring of the Tribes and Families of Israel.
    1728 E. Chambers Cycl. at Pentateuch The five books of Moses..; viz. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
    1840 Penny Cycl. XVII. 426/2 The book of Deuteronomy supposes the previous composition of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
    1875 Encycl. Brit. III. 638/1 The Levitico-Elohistic document, which embraces most of the laws in Leviticus with large parts of Exodus and Numbers.
    1910 Encycl. Brit. I. 716/2 The rod of Aaron, mentioned in Numbers xvii., was taken from an almond-tree.
    1989 R. Alter Pleasures of Reading iv. 118 We get a sense of restitution made in Joshua for the espionage fiasco of Numbers.
    1996 Church Times 16 Feb. 11/4 Setting Numbers against John..invites us to commit the second-century heresy of Marcionism.

    Why do you need a dozen citations for a usage that by its nature has only one specific reference? It’s not like there have been subtle developments in meaning.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    The OED compilers obviously felt that there was safety in Numbers.

  41. The Mowat wiki has this mysteriously euphemistic passage:

    >Mowat, who was part of a four-researcher team (in northern Manitoba in 1948), was fired by the chief of Canadian Wildlife Service because of complaints from the local population and lack of formal approval for some activities.

    I’ve tried to track it down. On his previous trip as a research associate the year before, the leader, Francis Harper, dumped him for spending “a very considerable time in non-biological matters, thus indicating a certain lack of genuine interest in, or devotion to, the primary purpose of the expedition.”

    In ’48, he seems to have spent the summer months with another research associate mostly in wilderness areas, but they split up in the fall, the other guy remaining at Nueltin Lake, in contact with Inuit (“Eskimo”) hunters, while Mowat went to “watch the caribou migration” for two months from Brochet, the only town in northern Manitoba.

    The memoirs of a Canadian naturalist state that Mowat was fired for a “class of personalities. Rumour among wildlife professionals for years maintained there was more to it than that, but I shall remain quiet about that.” There are suggestions from a couple Inuit sources that he was ungrateful, asking for his money back from one man who guided him. Which is unfortunate. But he doesn’t seem to have gotten his money back, and that doesn’t seem like enough to fire him from a temporary gig not long before the job would have ended anyway. Or maybe it should be, but it seems unlikely that in 1948, Inuit complaints would have led to that kind of summary dismissal.

    Reviews suggest that his bitterness towards “the government” for firing him twice in two years fueled some of the sentiments in his writing.

    Anyone know what actually happened, or what he was accused of?

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    “…the three cardinal tenets of rum drinking in Newfoundland. The first of these is that as soon as a bottle is placed on a table it must be opened. This is done to “let the air get at it and carry off the black vapors.” The second tenet is that a bottle, once opened, must never be restoppered, because of the belief that it will then go bad. No bottle of rum has ever gone bad in Newfoundland, but none has ever been restoppered, so there is no way of knowing whether this belief is reasonable. The final tenet is that an open bottle must be drunk as rapidly as possible “before all to-good goes out of it.”
    He may have made it easy for someone who did not like him to have him dismissed…

  43., DeepL:

    Shura Burtin had an amazingly interesting interview with Jason Badridze, a biologist who lived in a pack of wolves for several years.

    There is sound, smell, and visual communication. But there is also some nonverbal communication, telepathic communication. You can see it very well before the hunt – they kind of confer, they look into each other’s eyes, a fixed look – and the animal turns around, goes and does what it turns out to be adequate to do at that moment. And when all our barriers disappeared, so did I. So I go out hunting with them – the old one turns around, makes eye contact – and I run to the right place. It turns out later that I went the right way and closed the trail for the deer.
    – And your consciousness did not interfere with you?
    – At first it did, while I was thinking about what to do. And then it didn’t, not at all, after a few months. And after eight months I could already describe exactly what the wolf was doing behind my back. Because all the time there was tension: these are wild animals, you have to control them. And, apparently, this tension awakened the third eye, or whatever it is called.

  44. Incidentally, I was fascinated by The Siberians when I first read it, before realizing how much treacly Soviet puffery permeates it.

    It made me curious. They never translated ti to Russian, though:/ Not in USSR, not in modern times.

  45. The final tenet is that an open bottle must be drunk as rapidly as possible “before all to-good goes out of it.”
    The last one is similar to Russian drinking lore I learnt back in the 90s – an open bottle of vodka must be emptied. No reason why was ever given, probably because no specific reason was needed.

  46. That is why I fail to keep red wine at home.
    I would love to a have a collection (to drink what I want, by mood, when I want), but the guy I drink it the most often with feels it is deeply wrong to stop drinking when there is still wine around.

    But the opening part, I do not get it. You are here. I am here. Vodka is here. Why two gentlemen would not drink it? You are not Russian or what? Hey, I know you are German, but it is not what I mean!

  47. As for Russian north, someone’s aunt was a top official in one of those regions. Once they received as a part of their yearly supplies from the mainland before the winter closed communications tons of zefir, and that was a pain in their arses, they would have to deal with this zefir during the winter. No one needed it. When she was visiting a factoria (a warehouse and a shop) she discovered that zefir sells well. She praised the woman who ran it, and the woman said, wait. A man entered and asked for a bottle of vodka and 2 kilo of zefir. Then the lady invited her boss to follow the man and look what will happen. The man threw zefir away soon – the governor looked around and saw the landscape: tundra bestrewn with piles of zefir and dogs digging these piles.

  48. This video, on simulating the effects of vodka, illustrates the proper use of zakuski.

  49. I get the impression that Mowat was at the same time naive and self-righteous, on top of having little interest in being a careful journalist. But his heart was in the right place. His flaws made him an easy target for criticism by the powers he was fighting against, like wolf-killers and colonialists, and their sympathizers, but he won at the end because of his passion and because his causes were fundamentally good (mostly; we’ll set aside Soviet communism.) WP, on People of the Deer, a book now known to be rich in errors:

    [Margaret Atwood:] “People of the Deer was to the support for increased autonomy among northern peoples as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was to the environmental movement: a wake-up call, the spark that struck the tinder that ignited the fire from which many subsequent generations of writers and activists have lit their torches, often ignorant of where that spark came from in the first place.

    According to Tim Querengesser in an article about the conflicting attitudes toward Mowat, People of the Deer and his later books, fueled increasing interest in the North. Some Northerners, such as Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, agree that Mowat got some facts wrong, but believe that his ends justified his means: “There are people alive today who would likely be dead or not even be born if Farley Mowat had not written about the famines in the Keewatin region in the 1950s…That is a legacy that can never be taken away from him.”

  50. But the opening part, I do not get it. You are here. I am here. Vodka is here. Why two gentlemen would not drink it? You are not Russian or what? Hey, I know you are German, but it is not what I mean!
    Да я всё понимаю, проблем нет. Поехали!

  51. I read one Maigret book after another many years ago in the wake of an unhappy breakup. And yes, the atmosphere and descriptions are a great deal of their charm. I always thought I was wrong for appreciating this aspect — they’re supposed to be detective stories, which are a particular form of escapism — but Simenon has a way with descriptions that enhulls you in the milieu of the stories. (‘Enhull’ doesn’t appear to be a word according to my spellchecker. Did I make it up?)

  52. I recently noticed that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid yields some interesting translations.

    Chinese: 小屁孩日记 xiǎopì-hái rìjì, literally ‘diary of a little backside child’. A 小屁孩 xiǎopì-hái ‘little backside child’ refers to pre-school kids (especially country kids) that wear open-crutch pants to allow them to urinate and defecate at need. ‘Little backside’ thus actually means something like ‘bare bum’. Xiǎopì-hái is used as a somewhat deprecatory term for someone who is young or immature.

    Mongolian: Дүрсгүй жаалын өдрийн тэмдэглэл Dürsgüi jaalin ödrin temdeglel ‘Diary of a naughty kid’ (could also be rendered as ‘mischievous kid’, ‘impish kid’, ‘pranksome kid’, etc.) It doesn’t seem to capture the sense of the English.

    Japanese: グレッグのダメ日記 Gureggu no dame-nikki, ‘Greg’s no-good diary’. It’s named after the main character, Greg Heffley. Dame ‘no good, useless’ here suggests not that he is up to no good but that he is a bit of a loser.

    I can’t comment on other languages, but in French it is Journal d’un dégonflé, in Portuguese (O) Diário de um Banana. German (Gregs Tagebuch) and Spanish (El diario de Greg) are disappointing.

  53. David Marjanović says

    German translations of titles are usually disappointing, but there’s simply no word or set expression for “wimpy” that wouldn’t have grossly misleading connotations.

  54. PlasticPaddy says

    Weichei does not seem to have a corresponding adjective but maybe “Tagebuch eines Weicheis”. I personally would go with “Tagebuch eines schlappschwanzigen Jungen”.

  55. David Marjanović says

    That could actually work (but with -ä-, because -ig tends to trigger umlaut).

  56. Other languages seem to do alright, although I can’t judge the effectiveness of these titles.

    Dutch is Het leven van een loser. I assume ‘loser’ is English.

    Italian is Diario di una schiappa.

    Romanian is Jurnalul unui puști.

    Polish is Dziennik cwaniaczka.

    Korean, on the other hand, is the rather lame 윔피 키드 (basically a transliteration of ‘Wimpy Kid’).

  57. Arabic has مذكرات طالب mudhakirat talib, ‘Student’s notes’ according to Google Translate.

    Norwegian (both types): En pingles dagbok

    Icelandic: Dagbók Kidda klaufa

    Urdu: ڈائری آف آ ومپی کڈ, which Google Translate says means ‘Diary of an amphibious kid’….

    I’ll stop here.

  58. Urdu: ڈائری آف آ ومپی کڈ, which Google Translate says means ‘Diary of an amphibious kid’….

    It is transliteration

  59. Thank you, drasvi. I didn’t see a transliteration in Google Translate and stupidly believed that it must be some kind of translation.

  60. Dutch is Het leven van een loser. I assume ‘loser’ is English.

    Italian is Diario di una schiappa.

    Polish is Dziennik cwaniaczka

    “Loser” in English is much harsher than “wimpy kid”. I assume it has similarly harsh connotations in Dutch.

    My understanding of “schiappa” is that it is usually used to mean physical uncoordination/lack of ability – someone who is bad at soccer is “schiappa” – but that sort of works

    Polish “cwianiaczek” makes no sense – a cwianiaczek is a hustler, or a sharp, not even close to a “wimpy kid.”

  61. Romanian is Jurnalul unui puști.

    Sadly, puști just means ‘kid’ according to my dictionary.

  62. Journal d’un dégonflé: I am not sure if this would be the right translation.

    Gonfler/dégonfler mean ‘to inflate/deflate’ something, like a tire or a balloon.

    Il est gonflé in this context means “He’s got nerve”, so “dégonflé” is the opposite, especially about someone who first boasted of being able to do something daring but gave up ignominiously. These words could describe the attitudes of the former US president at different times, especially on January 6, when some of his supporters could have said Il s’est dégonflé.

    Din turcă puşt („desfrânat”).
    (fam.) băiat tânăr, băiețaș, copil; copil ștrengar.

    I loved the translation of the definition of desfrânare in Yandex (a Russian competitor of Google). It is so laconic, that I will quote it in full.
    faptul de a se desfrâna, de a fi desfrânat; destrăbălare, stricăciune, depravare.
    fornication, fornication; fornication, fornication, fornication.

    (for desfrânare there is an entry in ENglish, but it just says “fornication”)

  64. The Romanians are really into fornication.

  65. Fornication leads to kids. It is logical. I was neglecting Romanian and I was wrong. bărbat “man”, femeie “woman”, the former is what it seems, the latter is not what it seems it is < familia.

  66. The Romanians are really into fornication.
    It looks like they have a hundred hwords for it..

    “Tagebuch eines schlappschwänzigen Jungen”
    As DM said, that’s not a bad translation, but even if we assume that the publishers considered it, they probably would have dismissed it as maybe off-putting to parents as potential buyers, due to the colloquial meaning Schwanz “penis”. Any thoughts of fornication are to be avoided…

  67. (I mean a general observation. copil indeed is said to come from “bastard”, but puşt is apparently derogatory. Its Greek descendant πούστης (see descendants in پشت) is 1.faggot 2. jerk 3. dude, man, bro (term of address between freinds). A strange combination.)

  68. @LH, my impression from the Romanian entry (copil ștrengar ) is that the word may belong to a specific register (cf. мальчишка, which is technically boy, but…). Or may have extra connotations. Same is true for kid, and lad and lass and anything of course.

    Such play (using a form from a specific register that denotes an attitude as if it was a noun for a kind of thing that “triggers” this attitude and register, but exists independently of them and thus can be called with this word across registers) is possible.

  69. A strange combination

    The Romanian development resembles English bugger as in little bugger.

  70. Oh. English Wikipedia has a long review of a Russian film which I never heard about titled Don’t Think About White Monkeys – and nowhere it explains it! I do not know the English analogue (there must be one). It is an idiom/quotation from an observation that if you ask someone not to think about white monkey(s)/ape(a) (I know it in singular…) this person will think exactly about (a) monkey(s) and exactly white one(s). And if this person will try hard not to think about them, the situation will only get worse.

    What I mean, is that if “Any thoughts of fornication are to be avoided…” is the same sort of a trick, it is wise to choose something utterly good for this. Like fornication.

  71. @LH, my impression from the Romanian entry (copil ștrengar ) is that the word may belong to a specific register (cf. мальчишка, which is technically boy, but…). Or may have extra connotations.

    I’m sure that’s true. My dictionary is a crappy little thing published (by Saprograph) in 1964; I got it in 1977 when I was briefly infatuated with a Romanian woman.

  72. Hebrew יוֹמָנוֹ שֶׁל חְנוּן yomano shel khnun. Khnun is a fairly good translation of ‘wimpy kid’ or of ‘nerd’ of any age. Per Rosenthal’s Hebrew slang dictionary, the term comes from Moroccan Arabic xnuna ‘snot’ (transliteration may be inaccurate).

  73. I think I have no choice.

    19th issue of Romano-Arabica by the Center of Arab Studies of the University of Bucharest (and University of Bucharest is a center of Arab studies), Curses and Profanity in the Languages and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.
    It has such important titles as Curses and Profanity in Moroccan Judeo-Arabic and What’s Left of it in the Hebrew Sociolect of Israelis from Moroccan Origins , The Tunisian Swearosaurus. and… well, all seem important. I have not yet memorized read them.

  74. I hope the next issues will be dedicated to fornication…

  75. David Marjanović says


    …that’s snark, right?

  76. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I cannot think of the thing that you’re not allowed to think of in English, which is rather ironically frustrating.

  77. Wiktionary has German “schwach, feige, unentschlossen” for “wimpy”. For Portuguese it has “banana”.

    Spanish seems very good at describing wimps: ñoño, nenaza f, cagón m, cagueta f, gallina m or f, endeble, timorato m, medroso m, pelele m or f, cagado m, cobardón m. Maybe it was just a creative editor.

  78. …that’s snark, right?

    Sorry, I miscopied it — it’s Saphrograph.

  79. Moroccan Arabic xnuna ‘snot’

    More on Morrocan Arabic خنونة xnuna in Jeffrey Heath (2013) Jewish and Muslim Dialects of Moroccan Arabic, under xnana in the middle of page 93, which I hope LH readers can see here.

  80. xnana made it into Israeli slang, too, a synonym of xnun.

  81. jack morava says

    @Jen, & drasvi, not sure I understand; it’s called a White Bear in Tristram Shandy, cf

    for an extensive quote, with refs to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

  82. @JiE/dravsi/jm:

    what’s in my anglophone head for the canonical “don’t think of” is a pink elephant or just an elephant (possibly related to the one in the room), but i think i’ve also heard hippopotomi and rhinoceri (possibly reinforced by ionesco?) used – so maybe it’s a pachyderm pattern or a Really Big Animals one.

  83. David Eddyshaw says
  84. PlasticPaddy says

    Re Wiktionary’s German “equivalents”, as DM says, none of them would be good (without further qualification) in a translation of the title, e.g.,
    Tagebuch eines schwachen/feigen/unentschlossenen Jungen = diary of a weak/cowardly/indecisive boy
    Tagebuch eines jungen/xjährigen Feiglings/Schwächlings = diary of a young/x-year-old coward/weakling.
    Better for “wimp” would be Weichei or Schlappschwanz. But Hans already explained why the latter would not work in a childrens book title😊

  85. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The Meltdown.
    Дневник слабака. Глобальное потепление.
    (back translation) Diary of a weakling. Global warming.

  86. I don’t know exact connotations of “wimpy”, but I guess it should have been дневник рохли (or записки рохли etc. if one does not want associations with дневник journal where teachers write “2” with red ink).

  87. , which I hope LH readers can see here.– …and on sound symbolism here.

  88. “Don’t think of a white bear,” is the usual English version I know. I was already familiar with it when I took Introduction to Psychology with Jeremy Wolfe. (The last time I checked, which was admittedly quite some time ago, he was teaching that class at both MIT and Harvard.) Wolfe handed out sheets with every lecture that combined lecture notes with instructions for interactive activities. One interactive demonstration was to keep our hands in the air for as long as we managed not to think of a white bear. This was particularly memorable to me, because I managed somehow to distract myself with something else and was thus one of the handful of students who managed to avoid thinking about a white bear entirely (or, at least, for as long as Prof. Wolfe had us keep our hands up).

    In this case, the color of the bear is not specifically meaningful, but the popularity of the bear as the object one is not supposed to think about may have been influenced by the classic puzzle:

    A bear walks one mile south, one mile east, then one mile north and is back where it started. What color is the bear?

  89. This video, on simulating the effects of vodka, illustrates the proper use of zakuski.

    I did not comment on this (but I wanted).

    It also illustrate a very important point about translating English titles. Their gerunds/participles. It begins with an English calque, изображая закуски.
    I do not understand English [verb]ing [noun] titles (bletting the medlar) – but they have already borrowed it!

    Particualrly, I do not understand “Finding Nemo”, and so other speakers of other languages (the person who asked native speakers online to explain it was not a Russian, and I am afraid I did not understand the explanations).
    The Russian translation is I guess “в поисках Немо” – same as in “In Search of the Castaways” (в поисках GEN-… “in search of …”). But I am not sure if it is what is meant in English.
    “Finding”, while “in search” is more like “trying to find”, I assume?

    It is this reading that made them use a participial adverb/adverbial participle/converb/transgressive/how do you call it. This part of speech matches -ing in “when doing X, I did Y”, “thinking about Z, I did not notice…” etc.
    When we see -ing titles, in our heads we understand and translate them this way, I suspect, sometimes incorrectly. I do not know, what happens in English heads:(

  90. @drasvi: My interpretation of the gerund in Finding Nemo is that it doesn’t describe an activity, but a goal / objective / endeavour. That interpretation seems to have been shared by those who came up with the German title of the film, Findet Nemo, which is an imperative. A similar case is IMO “Saving Private Ryan”, although in this case one could say that the title also describes the activity the film depicts.

  91. David Eddyshaw says

    CGEL asserts (pp 82-83) that the traditional distinction in English grammar between gerund and present participle “cannot be maintained”*, so the interpretation would be entirely a matter of context in any case.

    * Evident Hausa influence.

  92. “We’ve got to start by finding a ruined city of giants,” said Jill. “Aslan said so.”

    “Got to start by finding it, have we?” answered Puddleglum. “Not allowed to start by looking for it, I suppose?”


    Initialism of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. (1985)
    Initialism of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. (2002)

  94. David Eddyshaw says

    Second one. Modern, I am.

    Got to start by finding it, have we

    “Find” in the telic sense is expressed in Kusaal with nyɛ “see.” Which makes sense, I suppose. There are several verbs for “seek”, my favourite being laŋim “wander about, looking for something”, which is somewhat less focused than ia “seek.” Useful …

  95. In Chinese, 找 zhǎo means ‘to seek’, 找到 zhǎo-dào (resultative) means ‘to find’.

  96. @David, thank you. They should name them by (after) colours, trees, gems etc. maybe.

    Already in 1820s Grech’s grammar of Russian (meant as they said, to substitute excessively cerebral Universal Grammar) was in three versions. Extensive*, Practical, Short.

    *Later the meaning of a word “extensive” would change: it became an epithet for “speech”, “explanation”, “text” etc, which indicates that it is either longer than expected or diffuse.

  97. Second one. Modern, I am.

    For a moment I thought it was a palindrome, but “main red omen odnoces” is altogether different.

  98. David Marjanović says

    in three versions

    Like the three Latin dictionaries by Liddell & Scott: Little Liddell, Middle Liddell, Great Scott.

  99. It is not that anyone would read Grech’s grammar today, but it is usually referred as “Grech’s grammar”.

    This is instructive though:

    Sounds of human voice can be splitten up in simple sources from which they are composed, and these sources are named letters: accordingly, a letter is a distinctive or original sound, serving for composition of a word.

    Note 22. A word letter has a double meaning: firstly, it means sound of voice audible to an ear, and secondly, depiction of this sound with visible strokes. Here we take letters only in the first of these relations, that is, we consider the number and quality of the primary voice sounds characteristic for Russian language, relegating the rules of pronunciation and depiction of letters to the fourth and fifth parts of the Grammar (§ 64).

    A modern man learns that phonemes are a recent invention, and may assume that old grammarians (and modern speakers of some languages with a grammatic tradition of their own) confuse letters and sounds when they say “letter”. Oops.

  100. David Marjanović says

    Phonemes are a very recent invention. (Wikipedia says “during 1875–1895”, and in the 1950s there were still linguists who thought this was a fad that would soon pass.) Sounds aren’t. 🙂

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    there were still linguists who thought this was a fad that would soon pass

    Bernhard Karlgren springs to mind …

  102. @David Marjanović, but letters are an ancient invention.

    If a “letter” as an entity distinct from both sound and shape, it is a phoneme.

  103. David Marjanović says

    But here, “letters” are defined as “the primary voice sounds”. I guess it depends on what “primary” turns out to mean.

    Bernhard Karlgren springs to mind …

    That’s the one I had in mind. I can’t actually name any others, but from what I’ve read about Karlgren there must have been some.

  104. David Eddyshaw says

    John Firth himself, in fact, and to some purpose.

    I was prompted to remember this by

    which is well worth listening to in any case. (Malinowski is one of my heroes …)

  105. The more interesting question is whether the somewhat intuitive notion of “sound” or “letter” of early comparative linguistics should be still maintained as well. I believe yes, for starters since phonemic analysis is not unambiguous or uniquely determined; classic examples include Mandarin [sɿ ɕi]: is this /si ɕi/ or /sɿ si/ or maybe even /si xi/ (if the last, how about in earlier Mandarin that maintained the [ɕi xi] contrast)? This has not been a problem for those structuralists who simply consider(ed) a phoneme to be a set of realizations… for those, incl. I believe most generativists, who insist on treating one allophone as the “underlying real value”, it rather is. Also a clear big issue in phonological typology, leading to databases have competing inventories for the one and the same language variety. I hope to repopularize this one day as “allophoneme” which hopefully invites less confusion.

  106. David Eddyshaw says

    Karlgren actually had a valid point (though he seems to have been overdogmatic about it.) There is no way of definitively deciding what the phonemes of Middle Chinese were (let alone Old Chinese.) Even for a contemporary spoken language, an unambiguous phonemic analysis is not possible. These things are abstractions, and as JP says, a phonemic analysis is not uniquely determined.

    I was reminded of this by looking at the WP Kusaal page again, where Somebody messed with my original (admittedly not very profound) description of the phonology; among other things, they misanalyse glottalised vowels* as VCV sequences. There is no /ʔ/ in ku’om “water”, though the glottalised vowel can (but need not be) be realised with a glottal constriction after the first mora. There is really no doubt whatsoever but that such sequences behave consistently as /V:/, not /VCV/ in Kusaal. But the evidence for this is morphophonemic**, not phonetic. You could describe the system as including /ʔ/, though you then need to concoct a whole lot of otherwise completely unnecessary rules to account for the fact that it behaves quite differently from any other consonant in the language. But that is a matter of aesthetics, at the end of the day, rather than a Linguistic Fact set in stone.

    * The likely culprit is an expert in a neighbouring language which doesn’t have glottalised vowels at all. I was more deferential to established academic opinion in the days when I last edited the page myself, and consequently didn’t revert the changes. The stuff about palatals “falling together” with the velars in Kusaal is wrong too (that’s what I was getting at on the talk page.)

    ** Actually, it’s partly tonal too, because syllabification affects tone sandhi, and this supposed /ʔ/ does not begin a syllable. But that is the icing on the cake.

  107. David Marjanović says

    There is no way of definitively deciding what the phonemes of Middle Chinese were (let alone Old Chinese.) Even for a contemporary spoken language, an unambiguous phonemic analysis is not possible. These things are abstractions, and as JP says, a phonemic analysis is not uniquely determined.

    Sure, but it’s only science anyway. Find the most parsimonious analysis and stick with it as long as it remains most parsimonious…

    For Modern Standard Mandarin, I’m partial to the two-vowel analysis, under which si xi are both vowelless, /s/ and /ɕ/. This absolutely does not work for Middle or Old Chinese (though I’m waiting for Chris Button to publish his separate two-vowel analysis of Old Chinese, which he has insisted on in a long list of LLog comments).

    But the evidence for this is morphophonemic

    For many languages, it’s very clearly not enough to work with just two levels, “phonetic” and “phonemic”. English, notably, needs at least three, arguably “phonetic”, “phonemic” and “morphophonemic”, where the “morphophonemic” level contains such things as morpheme, word and syllable boundaries while the “phonemic” one does not. The hearer does not hear such boundaries, but has to reconstruct them from (allo?)phonemic differences. That way, the “phonemic” level needs a much larger inventory, in English, than the “morphophonemic” one: glottalization vs. aspiration – doubling the inventory of fortis plosives – is what distinguishes night rate and nitrate, pre-fortis clipping – casually doubling the size of the vowel inventory – is what distinguishes nitrate and Nye trait.

    Likewise, in my kinds of German, /dː/ occurs only as |t-d| and |d-d| across morpheme boundaries, while /tː/ can be |d-t|, |t-t| or underlying, unanalyzable, intramorphemic |tː|. Loans with dd get a short /d/ despite the short vowel that precedes them.

  108. David Eddyshaw says

    Find the most parsimonious analysis and stick with it as long as it remains most parsimonious…

    That’s a good principle, I like it, and I mostly agree with you.

    However …

    There isn’t any absolute metric for “parsimonious.” This is particularly the case if you’re describing a relatively understudied language in a way that you hope will be comprehensible to someone other than the author of the description.

    When it comes to glottalised vowels, for example, I’m in the happy position of knowing that even if my reader hasn’t previously come across the idea, all they need to do is to go to WP and voilà! they’re a real thing that I haven’t made up on the spur of the moment, and lots of languages have them, even if it’s only a small proportion of the world’s known languages overall. And positing that Kusaal has them too simplifies the description enormously.

    However, if the facts in Kusaal itself were absolutely the same, but there were no other languages known with glottalised vowels, it might actually be a whole lot easier on my reader if I did treat glottalised vowels as VʔV sequences along with a set of realisation rules particular to the unique consonant /ʔ/. What counts as “parsimonious” depends on what you can reasonably expect of your readership.

    I actually thought about this issue quite a bit before first posting my grammar online. My “internal use only” previous drafts of it used a much more abstract “phonemic” representation in which, for example, there were no diphthongs, no epenthetic vowels, and only two tonemes instead of three. (This is actually fairly easy to do: the “underlying” structures of Kusaal words aren’t all that far from the surface, and it doesn’t take too much digging to get to them. The standard orthography for Moba, which is quite similar to Kusaal phonologically, actually does keep to that level of abstraction to a great extent.) It was all very beautiful. But if I’d stuck with that it would have made my work much less useful to anybody familiar with Kusaal as normally written or with any previously published work on Kusaal (in other words, to practically everyone who might be interested in it in the first place.)

    I took a deliberate decision to boil as much abstraction out of my description as I could without the result being (in my own opinion) grotesquely overcomplicated as a result; and a good thing it proved to be, because in the process I discovered quite a few real issues that my abstractions had been blithely glossing over.

    But, sometimes in the night, when it does get a little lonely, I reach over and touch it [the abstraction.] Then it doesn’t seem so lonely anymore.

  109. David Eddyshaw says

    Or, as Donald Knuth said, “Premature optimisation is the root of all evil,”

  110. classic examples include Mandarin [sɿ ɕi]: is this /si ɕi/ or /sɿ si/

    This is what Cyrillic and IPA are for Russian. Two different analizes.

    And as a native speaker (and now also a speaker who occasionaly speaks to L2 users) I would much prefer to treat palatalization as a property of two segments.

    Back in the 2nd or what grade it was when they said that Cя is “soft consonant and a” my first though was “no, it is not “a””.

    Another topic is morphology. The border between morphology and phonology is, obvioulsy, blurred – but it is so in speaker’s heads I think. I do not believe anything is “isolated” there. What is blurred here must be blurred there as well.

  111. David Eddyshaw says

    The border between morphology and phonology is, obviously, blurred

    I just now chanced to be reading (from Jeffrey Heath’s grammar of Jamsay)

    Working on Jamsay has deepened my conviction that currently dominant grammatical theories, with their sharp compartmentalization of “phonology” and “syntax”, are badly misguided.

    Preach it, brother!

    (The immediately preceding sentence is “I know of no (non-Dogon) language where prosody is so tightly integrated with morphosyntax”, from which it is, alas, clear, that he did not know Kusaal … his loss.)

    … but having said that, what Heath is actually on about here is that Jamsay has a fair number of syntactically determined tone overlays, where the intrinsic lexical tones of a word are overridden by a set tonal pattern like “all low tones.” (So does Kusaal.) I must say I can’t see that this is particularly difficult to express in fairly straightforward terms as just being a sort of suprasegmental particle. I don’t think it vitiates the idea that you can usefully separate phonology and syntax, any more than the fact that words having case endings in Latin means that is is misguided to treat “morphology” and “syntax” as distinct entities. Nobody has ever thought that you can treat them without cross-referencing form and function. I think Heath is setting up something of a straw man here.

  112. @David Eddyshaw, form vs. function distinction is indeed somethign that language does generally well (though, if a “sign” unites two and is binary, I wonder if a ternary concept is possible:)). It is how some define ‘langauge’…

    This border is blurred for onomatopoeia and for self-referential/self-describing items maybe (is a hug a sign?).

    In a way the level next to word morphology is word order (which to English speakers appears related to syntax…:)).

    Blurred line between phonology and morphology is evident in a word “morpho(pho)nology” and many descriptions, that it is blurred in minds is rather my intuitive belief. Humanum est, be blurry (ophtalmologists may disagree…). But I do not insist.

  113. David Eddyshaw says

    I doubt whether we are in fundamental disgreement. I’m happy to concur that borders are blurred …

    I think they may be less blurred than they sometimes appear though. Even clearcut onomatopoiea is a lot more arbitrary and language-dependent than people often think. For every donkey that goes ʔiʔã̀ã̀ there’s a dog that goes ʔyɛ̀ɛ … come to that, Kulango donkeys, for all that they make a very similar noise to Brit donkeys, evidently have emic vowel nasalisation, just like Kulango humans, and unlike Anglophone donkeys. And people.

  114. For many languages, it’s very clearly not enough to work with just two levels, “phonetic” and “phonemic” (…)

    Perhaps not with those two levels: whenever this problem arises, abandoning phonemics and fully switching to morphophonemics usually works fine. And for plain descriptive adequacy just the “phonetic” level alone is sufficient, all the other stuff only exists for the sake of Theoretical Elegance™.

    I will not go into too much of it here but I do grow continually more convinced that the concept of “morphology” has been a mistake and it only shows blurred lines because it should be disassembled between phonology / lexicon / syntax which are all rather more easy to keep separate.

  115. The phonetic level is anchored in a Chomskian Universal: “people have mouths”.

  116. Regarding other levels one possible question (apart of whether phonology “exists” in a language like Latin) is whether it exists cross-linguistically.

  117. @J Pystynen: I will not go into too much of it here but I do grow continually more convinced that the concept of “morphology” has been a mistake […]

    Please do. Your teaser begs questions which start with “but what about…”; I would rather hold off on those until you got more specific (here or elsewhere).

  118. David Marjanović says

    And for plain descriptive adequacy just the “phonetic” level alone is sufficient

    Often it’s much more complicated than necessary for that purpose, though. You actually had a little thread on that. 🙂

  119. David Eddyshaw says

    The phonetic level is anchored in a Chomskian Universal: “people have mouths”

    Greenbergian rather than Chomskyan. (Mouths are not needed for Merge, and Language properly speaking is all inside your head. Moving your mouth is mere Performance. Ugh. The practice can be safely ignored for all scientific purposes.) And a tendency rather than an absolute universal, of course …

  120. David Eddyshaw says

    If the phonetics isn’t more complicated than necessary for all other purposes, it can of course always be made so just by trying harder.

    Some sort of rationalisation and lumping-together of quite different actual sounds as “the same” is a practical necessity. The question is only, What kinds of additional, possibly non-phonetic, data are going to be allowed to be legitimately taken into account when you decide on your favourite lumpings? There is no a priori right answer to this question.

  121. You actually had a little thread on that

    Right, and largely prompted by some work that is not merely descriptive.

    I still have no firm opinion on if Kamassian [ĕ] is best considered belonging to /e/ or /i/ or a separate phoneme we could call /ə̈/ or /ɪ/, even though this would probably have sorted itself out fast in the hands of a native Kamassian reseacher, or at least one who actually understands the language instead of trying to be human tape recorder. But lacking that I think I will still pick the human tape recorder approach over 1700s Russian Explorer Transcription, sure is much easier to consult (likewise easier than new fieldwork even when the language in question is not extinct) when suspecting some analyses to be uh, prematurely optimized.

  122. @David Marjanović: Actually, the way that I distinguish night rate from nitrate is by lenition in nitrate. I have that in a number of similar words as well, with the /t/ realized just as a tap. I don’t know whether that is common among other speakers, but I have a fairly generic standard American English accent, so I suspect I may not be alone in these pronunciations.

  123. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes, I’ve heard this from a few people.

  124. David Marjanović says

    I do grow continually more convinced that the concept of “morphology” has been a mistake and it only shows blurred lines because it should be disassembled between phonology / lexicon / syntax which are all rather more easy to keep separate.

    There’ll be a workshop called “Morphology as Syntax 2” soon.

  125. Another followup letter to the posted article:

    Regarding mistranslated titles, the prize for the all-time worst should go to the late and over-rated translator of Italian William Weaver for rendering Primo Levi’s La chiave a stella as The Monkey’s Wrench (Letters, 2 July and 16 July). As someone once pointed out, this makes two mistakes at once. The tool referred to in the original title was a ring spanner, not a monkey wrench. And even if it had been a monkey wrench, that is not, as Weaver had it, a wrench possessed by a monkey.

    Peter Hayes

  126. @languagehat: The “monkey’s wrench” bit reminded me of one of my favorite Far Side cartoons.

  127. I love it!

  128. @Brett:
    I was surprised to learn that there is in fact a paper titled: “Hammer or crescent wrench? Stone-tool form and function in the Aurignacian of southwest Germany“.

    This was of course not the only scientific reference to The Far Side. The most famous, of course, is the thagomizer of the stegosaurine dinosaurs.

    Hm. While there are probably others, I cannot recall them offhand.

    Semantic scholar claims that these works reference The Far Side Gallery, and also has other works by Gary Larson

  129. @Brett:
    I was surprised to learn that there is in fact a paper titled: “Hammer or crescent wrench? Stone-tool form and function in the Aurignacian of southwest Germany“.

    This was of course not the only scientific reference to The Far Side. The most famous, of course, is the thagomizer of the stegosaurine dinosaurs.

    Hm. While there are probably others, I cannot recall them offhand.

    Semantic scholar claims that these works reference The Far Side Gallery, and also has other works by Gary Larson

  130. *Semi-occasional gripe about Akismet*

    I typed a version of the above comment, and submitted it. While the 15-min editing window was still available, made a few changes to italics and quotes and other minor formatting issues that occurred to me. This comment was suddenly gone, with no error or warning displayed. Like someone who has encountered a boojum, it softly and silently vanished, and did not reappear when I refreshed the page.

    Fortunately, I was able to use the back button, and the un-edited version of the comment was in the comment box on a previous page. This time, I made the changes I wanted first, then pressed the submit button, and the comment was accepted. This time, I made no edits. This time, it appears to have stayed.

    Still. What the hell?

  131. David Marjanović says

    Both versions have appeared now, and they’re identical.

    It is possible to retroactively send a comment into moderation by editing it if it contains a lot of links – apparently four is enough.

  132. @Owlmirror: The Prehistory of the Far Side (a tenth-anniversary book collecting Larsen’s thoughts, recollections, and rejected or never completed comics) includes a letter from a entomologist Dale Clayton, telling the cartoonist about his plans to name a newly discovered chewing louse species Strigiphilus garylarsoni.

    In the 1980s, it was very common for medical doctors to begin talks by displaying a cartoon from The Far Side, and many of those linked articles use Larson’s cartoons in a similar vein.* One of them, “blah blah WOMEN blah blah EQUALITY blah blah DIFFERENCE” is clearly a reference an even more famous cartoon Larsen drew (“What we say to dogs”—not linked because it’s easy to find, and I don’t want to annoy Akismet).

    * As I understand it, the most popular ones in pediatrics were these three.

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