Translator’s Dilemma.

Recently Stan Carey wrote me: “This thread by Emily Wilson is a treat, if you haven’t seen it.” When I said I wished there were a threadreader version, he kindly provided me with one, and here it is; it starts:

A classic translator’s dilemma, which presumably applies for any language pair: what to do about the fact that languages individuate the world differently. One language makes a distinction where another makes none.

One area where this often happens is family relationships. Many languages distinguish between different types of cousin (father’s side/ mother’s side) or different types of in-law (a sister’s husband, versus a wife’s brother). Others, like English, don’t.

Often, these distinctions matter, in the context of the original culture or text — but there is no way to convey both register or degree of marked-ness (“this is the normal term”) as well as referent (“husband’s brother’s wife” is generally not idiomatic English).

A small instance of this vast area that I wrestle with all the time in the Iliad is the clear, common distinction between striking an enemy with a projectile missile (βάλλω) or striking with weapon still held in the attacker’s hand (τύπτω). Homer frequently uses phrases that express both distinct possibilities, as alternatives: these are the two ways you can kill or be killed in battle. But there is no pair of English verbs (let alone, two syllable English verbs) that expresses precisely this distinction.

She goes on to describe various ways of trying to handle the distinction; this is the kind of thing I love to read. Thanks, Stan!

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says

    The English verb “shoot” can cover most strike-remotely-via-projectile-missile situations, definitely including pre-firearm technology like arrows, although I’m not sure if it’s idiomatic with an old-fashioned stone-hurling sling. (It’s definitely idiomatic with a more new-fangled slingshot.) The difficulty perhaps comes because there is still a narrow-sense “striking” when the projectile hits the target, and one can perhaps speak both of the arrow striking the victim and perhaps more loosely of the archer striking the victim with an arrow.* I think the paradigm/core sense of the nice old verb “smite” involves an object held in the smiter’s hand (or a striking with the hand/fist itself as the weapon), but it is used in metaphorical extended senses from early on (including in the KJV) that don’t have that limitation. So the verbs can be used contrastively with enough context. One can imagine an old-timey prophet issuing the word of doom “If he be not shot by the arrow, surely he shall be smitten by the sword,” or something like that. But taking the verbs more abstractly they maybe have too much overlap the sort of contrast that (allegedly) exists in the Greek.

    EDITED TO ADD: To be fair, English “shoot” requires that some sort of separate tool/weapon be used to (help) launch the projectile at the target. If you’re just throwing rocks at someone with your bare hand, “shoot” is probably not an available verb to describe your action.

    *If you look at a bunch of different English translations of 1 Sam. 17:49, most have David striking/hitting Goliath but a respectable minority have the stone striking/hitting Goliath, as the next-step consequence of the stone having been slung at him by David.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    In the Kusaal version, likewise, it’s the stone that strikes (nwɛ’) Goliath; what David himself did to Goliath was lɔb “hit with a stone.”* Hitting with a spear or arrow is different again: tɔn (a word of great venerability: it’s another one I forgot to add to my list for Proto-Volta-Congo, along with its cognate “bow.”)

    * Actually, specifically with a stone which has left the hand/sling/whatever. If you hit someone with a stone you’re holding, that’s nwɛ’.

    [I see that it’s the stone itself that does the hitting in the original Hebrew.]

  3. “Others, like English, don’t” — an understandable simplification, where the reality makes the point even more strongly, eg: English, unlike French, distinguishes father-in-law from stepfather; and one’s “in-laws” are the blood relatives of one’s spouse, not the spouses of one’s siblings.

  4. While I’ve noticed (recency illusion?) an uptick in eg “shot to death”, I still prefer “shot dead”; cf. eg “stabbed to death”, where “stabbed dead” is (for me) impossible.

  5. While I’ve noticed (recency illusion?) an uptick in eg “shot to death”, I still prefer “shot dead”; cf. eg “stabbed to death”, where “stabbed dead” is (for me) impossible.

    Interesting; I hadn’t thought about it, but I share your preference.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    @mollymooly: Although of course there’s “struck dead” (and the now-archaic “stricken dead,” which the New York Times apparently still used in the early 20th century), where “struck to death” is so unidiomatic to my ear as to seem ungrammatical, although you can find instances of it in varieties of English rather geographically distant from me (e.g. Hong Kong and Kenya).

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    English, unlike French, distinguishes father-in-law from stepfather

    I wonder how far back that goes? Sam Weller calls his stepmother his “mother-in-law” in Pickwick Papers.

    Kusaal has three basic words for “brother” and “sister”, none of them intrinsically marked for sex.

  8. JWB: indeed. If there’s any semantic distinction, I surmise “V dead” is punctual, “V to death” gradual. But one-stab fatal assaults are a thing.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    mollymooly: and shooting-related deaths need not be instant or “punctual.” Back in 1881, for example, the assassination of President Garfield was a rather drawn-out affair in that Garfield lingered for 79 days between the shooting and his death. But perhaps for that very reason it might be odd to say that Guiteau “shot him dead”? Even today it is not uncommon for murder charges to be brought in a situation where the wounded-by-gunshot victim was still alive when brought to the hospital and hours or days of medical effort ensued before it failed to succeed in preventing death.

  10. Yes, I think if I say “shot him dead” the implication is that he died on the spot.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Note FWIW that βάλλω is the etymon of “ballistic(s),” which has both military and homicide-investigation-etc. meanings in English whereas τύπτω is the etymon of “timpani/tympani.” And even if of limited use in battle these days, t(i/y)mpani are indeed played by being struck with objects held in the performer’s hands …

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: I suppose “fatally shot” is vaguer (in a way that may be useful to journalists and prosecutors alike) about the length of time between the shot and its fatal consequence and can cover both situations where the death is essentially instant and situations in which there is a considerable intervening period of time.

  13. To me, even “mortally wounded him” is iffy for Guiteau/Garfield.

    (Personal note: I do not live and never did live in the 19th century.)

  14. John Cowan says

    At common law the interval between killing someone and their death could not be more than a year and a day. South Carolina prescribes the time as not more than three years, whereas New York appears to abstain from any definition at all.

  15. @DE: what are the semantic lines between the three sibling-words?

    i’ve always thought that one of more annoying absences in english is words for mekhutonim: people made kin through their children’s marriage. “co-grandparents” / “co-parents-in-law” are hopeless, even by the standards of clunky compounds.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Same-sex elder sibling, same-sex younger sibling, opposite-sex sibling.

    You can express the concepts “brother” and “sister”, of course, but to do so you need to actually specify (a) whether you have the same mother and (b) the sex of the person you’re taiking about: “female child of my mother” and so forth. (It’s assumed by default that you share the same father.) Biig “child” is the default way of expressing both “son” and “daughter”: distinguishing sex requires a compound noun.

    The sibling-of-opposite-sex word, taʋn, has quite a number of cognates elsewhere in Oti-Volta which the grammars gloss “sister.” I have an unworthy suspicion that this translation is the result of the linguists never having got round to asking a female speaker how she refers to her siblings …

    The irrelevance of seniority across a gender divide (and its importance within a gender) actually pervades the whole system of Kusaal relationship words. Interestingly, it’s symmetrical between the sexes – it’s not that female seniority doesn’t matter, it’s specifically that seniority is irrelevant in the opposite sex to oneself.

    Even quite closely related Western Oti-Volta languages have sibling words which are not just unrelated but don’t match up as a system: Mampruli, for example, has a Japanese-like senior-brother/junior-brother/senior-sister/junior-sister arrangement. Conceivably this is something to do with Muslim influence; it seems to correlate with the groups that are most influenced by Islam, anyway.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Incidentally, the Kusaal system has the interesting property that, whenever two siblings refer to each other by the same term in English, they call each other by different terms in Kusaal – and vice versa.

  18. John Emerson says

    I call my wife’s family and siblings’ spouses both in-laws, though nephew in law and cousin in law don’t seem right. I also am quite friendly with some of my brother’s in-laws and call them my in-laws in-law. But my father just called non-close relatives “shirt-tail relations.

    I once determined to learn the traditional Chinese system and never did. It distinguishes older and younger, male and female, and relatives by blood and by marriage, though some of the less important relationships are lumped. But my father’s older brother’s eldest son and my father’s younger brother’s second son are sharply distinguished, to say nothing of relatives through the mother.

  19. John Emerson says

    And children by the main wife and by secondary wives.

    The terms were meaningful to the extent that the clan was functioning unit with internal
    hierarchies and lines of authority. A wealthy fertile clan might have hundreds of adult males on the fifth generation and be the de facto government of a considerable area.

    But anthropologists and historians have found that this clan organization was an ideal not usually attained, so that in practice the complete nomenclature wasn’t usually necessary.

  20. Guiteau’s lawyers tried to make the point that all Guiteau did was wound Garfield, and he was actually killed by the bungling of his doctors. At a historical perspective, this is probably correct, but it was not accepted in court at the time.

    English is pretty parsimonious with relationship words. There’s no distinction between uncle/aunt by birth and by marriage. Or for example, my brother-in-law is my wife’s half-brother, and his wife is my sister-in-law? Half-sister-in-law? And their children are my half-nephews by marriage?

    I guess the exact nature of relationships is not so important to anglophones as it is in some other cultures.

    I can think of a novel, not in English, in which an entire chapter is devoted to the question of how closely the hero is related to his love, and whether they would have to buy a dispensation to get married, which he can’t afford. He goes to talk to his mother, who goes into a recitation of both their genealogies, back several generations, using tons of very technical relationship terms, interlaced with diatribes about how young people these days can’t be bothered to learn genealogies, and where will we be then.

    (Caisleáin Óir by Séamus Ó Grianna)

    It would be a real challenge to translate this. In part because I think the author was showing off his mastery of obsolete relationship words, which even at the time (1924) were falling out of use. I suppose there may be a translation of the book into English, but I haven’t seen it.

    There may have been a lot more relationship words in English back centuries ago, I suppose, but there hasn’t really been a clan structure that would support their use for a long time.

    An example of a joke that doesn’t really translate is one that I’ve seen in old Spanish-language movies, where someone, at a wedding or some such event, addresses an unmarried female, who is getting on in years, as “Señora”, and is indignantly corrected “¡Señorita!”. But I think the joke itself is out of date, as these terms are used differently now, and women being married or not, at whatever age, is not seen as such an important thing as it once was. And “old maid” jokes are not longer acceptable.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    And “old maid” jokes are not longer acceptable.

    What a pity, just when I came up with “maid honoris causa” as a mnemonic for your moniker.

  22. Fräulein, señorita, mademoiselle and miss and everything (say, memsahib) are translated to Russian as frojlyajn, sen’orita, madmuazel’, miss and memsaxib. How else?

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    @drasvi
    Does no one address a stranger as molodaja devushka? I think molodoi chelovek is (or was?) a thing…

  24. And when I read Afrikaans I translate in my head mevrou as mefru or mefrou..

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    In Kusaal, as a man, you’d say m diemma “my parent-in-law” to any grown woman whose name you didn’t know, unless she was old enough to be your grandmother, in which case you might venture m ma “my mother.”

  26. @PP. molodoy chelovek is a thing (though many complained that they find it ugly). Accordingly, devushka (no need to specify the age, a devushka is young by definition. They could have chosen yunosha or paren’ instead of m.ch. but for some reason it is m.ch.), which also annoys some devushki.
    It is worse with zhenschina, muzhchina (woman, man), these two are often used by strangers (shopsellers or in a bus) who are dissatisfied with the woman/man in question. If m.ch. is ugly per se, I suspect these two may cause negative emotions. But again, no other options really.

    A frind of mine when he needed to attract attention of a passer-by to ask for directions (he was in a car and it was impossible to get out of it) yelled : сударыня!!!! That was cute.

  27. But these are words for addressing strangers.

    For “miss N.” we have patronymics, e.g. Nina Nikolayevna, …. and there is not really a need to use gospozha N.

  28. Though, I think I once told the story of a certain Anyuta. Her parents addressed her Anyuta and then she went to school and rude and unhappy teachers addressed her Anya. Anya is a usual short from from Anna – if you know this Anna, you call her Anya. As result her associations with Anya are bad. She identifies as Anyuta. And when she introduces herself to you she ask you not to call her Anya, but if you don’t like Anyuta you can call her Anna, she can tolerate that. (I do not know why someone would not like “Anyuta”, it’s a nice name… but well, it really sounds endearing, so maybe she’s shy or some people can’t use it).

  29. I think I once told the story of a certain Anyuta

    Here you go.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely the or at least a cromulent English word for the word rozele transcribes as “mekhutonim” is the perfectly good loanword “machatunim,” which I have certainly heard used by L1 Anglophones who could not string together a sentence in Yiddish or understand a randomly-selected Yiddish sentence uttered by someone else. I suppose that maybe it’s still not mainstream enough to make this fully analogous to “what do you mean, English doesn’t have a word for ‘schlemiel'”?

    I think mollymooly’s point is that while I certainly do refer to my brother’s wife as my sister-in-law, when I just say “my in-laws” the group that NP refers to (i.e. my own spouse’s close kindred by blood) does NOT include my brother’s wife. In other words, the default semantic scope of “my in-laws” turns out to be narrower than “the set of all people who would be referred to individually as “my X-in-law.”

  31. Surely the or at least a cromulent English word for the word rozele transcribes as “mekhutonim” is the perfectly good loanword “machatunim,” which I have certainly heard used by L1 Anglophones who could not string together a sentence in Yiddish or understand a randomly-selected Yiddish sentence uttered by someone else.

    You move in specialized circles indeed. I lived a Jewish-adjacent life in the very Jewish-adjacent NYC and I don’t remember ever hearing anyone use “machatunim,” in English or otherwise; I couldn’t even have told you what it meant, and I have a fair stock of Yiddish and Yiddishoid lexicon. I’m not denying your experience, just saying it’s not nearly as generalizable as you seem to think.

  32. Fräulein

    Don’t forget a certain fröken Bock ‘Miss Goat’, brilliantly voiced by Ranevskaya.

  33. Fräulein
    Into maybe the 1970s or so the señora / señorita story would also have worked in German, substituting Frau / Fräulein. Nowadays, Fräulein is frowned upon as a symbol of a patriarchal culture that sorts woman by marriage status.

  34. @Juha, one of the first words of a Russian/Soviet child, basic vocabulary! Sadly, chances of ever using it are rather slim for most of them (still better than for memsahib…). There also was фрёкен Снорк (Snork Maiden in English).

  35. @Hans, I used it once. Not to address a strange lady, but amidst a humorous discussion of German and Russian langauges with a girl from Hamburg who we were helping with school mathematics. I was given a strange look (much unlike the reaction of that Russian lady to сударыня – she reacted as if it were normal). I still do not know if it was my accent or it was inappropriate for some reason (rude or inapplicable to schoolgirls):(

  36. In German Fräulein is still occasionally used by parents admonishing their teenage daughters, usually with a threatening undertone. But you hear that more and more rarely, too.

  37. I was given a strange look (much unlike the reaction of that Russian lady to сударыня – she reacted as if it were normal). I still do not know if it was my accent or it was inappropriate for some reason (rude or inapplicable to schoolgirls):(
    Somewhere between unexpected and inappropriate, I guess. Basically no-one below 40 has Fräulein in daily use anymore, and the only persons who she may have expected to address her that way would be old people who are behind the times or perhaps, as sh mentions, her parents or grandparents when admonishing her. If you want to avoid making people feel uncomfortable, better don’t use the word.

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish still has good old svoger and sviger(mor) (and svigerinde, which must be a later formation). But we got them from LG versions of G Schwäger and Schwieger(mutter), I don’t know where we put our own.

    More to the point, svogerskab applies to siblings’ spouses, spouses’ siblings, and their spouses/siblings again. Basically anybody you might see because two people at the occasion would be siblings — that’s actually salient because married couples were almost joined at the hip in social contexts back before ’68.

  39. English, to my taste, does not have a good word for calling the attention of strangers. Aside from that the existing words are all gendered, each carries an unwanted baggage: Sir and Madam come off as servile, and exclude children; Mister and Lady have a sheen of rudeness. Hey, you would be OK by me, except it isn’t by others.

    Fräulein sounds like the equivalent of English young lady: used by parents admonishing their daughters (young missy is a bit more jocular), but an adult male addressing a strange teenager as young lady would probably make her uncomfortable.

  40. Excuse me! is pretty common.

  41. Oh, right.

  42. David Marjanović says

    Basically no-one below 40 has Fräulein in daily use anymore

    Make that 50*, if not 60 – I’m going to be 40 this year, and it’s not at all in my active vocabulary or even that of people noticeably older than me.

    * = born in 1972

    Schwäger

    Schwager “brother-in-law”, Schwägerin “sister-in-law”; all other in-laws are Schwieger-.

    Excuse me! is pretty common.

    It’s all German has left (as Entschuldigung), and it’s not something you can shout after people.

  43. Oh, we shout it — I’ve done it myself: “Excuse me, you dropped something!”

  44. I’m 65 now, and I think Fräulein has never been in my active vocabulary (even female teachers at school were always adressed as Frau, nobody cared if they were married or not). The last time I heard it used to adress an unmarried woman was in 1980; the last time I heard it used by a mother to chide her (12 yo) daughter was a few years later. The word is not just obsolete, it’s dead. Dictionaries will probably start to acknowledge this fact towards the end of this century.

  45. It’s still alive in the way foreign (anyway American) comedians stereotype Germans. The way Fritz and Franz are common German names (some 20 years ago I told a 20-ish German about the “Hans & Franz” skit on SNL, which she immediately found hilarious, because Franz was such a ridiculously dated name.)

  46. David Marjanović says

    I heard it used by a mother to chide her (12 yo) daughter

    FWIW, I never have; but then I also didn’t know about the custom of using the unabridged name for that purpose (apparently very common in the US) until a week or two ago.

  47. David Marjanović says

    Fritz was so common (in Prussia?) at some point, over a century ago I think, that there were words like Pressefritzen “(annoying) reporters”. Then it vanished without a trace until, I guess, hipsters started digging up Friedrich for their children lo these halfscore years ago.

  48. J.W. Brewer says

    In AmEng, you can still say “excuse me, Miss” to a female (even if unknown marital status) under a certain somewhat fuzzily-defined apparent age, and that will usually be fine. Probably more risk of giving offense for using “ma’am” with someone who thinks she’s too young for it than for using “miss” with someone who thinks she’s too old for it? Vocative “dude” addressed to females is one workaround that avoids this line-drawing need, but is not yet acceptable in all registers/varieties of AmEng. My seven-year-old has recently been experimenting with using vocative “bro” and/or vocative “brah” in addressing his mother, although that usage has thus far not found favor with its recipient.)

  49. When I was taking German in high school, our teacher said that it was fine to refer to a young-ish woman as “Fräulein” in any circumstance in which you could use “miss” in English; the specific example he used was trying to get the attention of a waitress. That was presumably true when he had lived for a couple years in Germany, back in the 1960s, and evidently nobody had corrected his usage on his more recent trips back.

    However, I was always a bit dubious. I had a feeling that Fräulein was just more marked than English miss. I don’t entirely know what that was based on at the time—perhaps a combination of what experience I had already had with native German speakers, combined with the facts that Fräulein is a longer, more noticeable word than miss and that it is an explicitly constructed diminutive, which miss is not? In any case, my hesitation to use Fräulein to call the waitresses I had on my first trips to Germany and Austria was born out, since nobody there ever seemed to use it that way.

  50. I have the impression that Mademoiselle is similarly declining in France, though not to that point.

  51. @ulr: your experience agrees with mine regarding using Fräulein + Lastname as an address – I’m 56, and I can’t remember using it actively myself. But I remember (mostly older) people still using Fräulein to address waitresses or female sales people into the 80s and 90s, – my grandmother, who died in 2011 at the age of 94, even kept using it for this purpose till the end. But I know more later examples of the use with daughters; I myself used it (occasionally and half-jokingly) with my daughter, who was born in 1997.

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    English, to my taste, does not have a good word for calling the attention of strangers

    Akan speakers hiss to do this. It’s somewhat disturbing if you don’t know that it’s perfectly polite (at least, as polite as any way of attracting the attention of strangers is ever going to be.)

    Unfortunately, southern Ghanaians tend to assume that it’s a pan-Ghanaian thing, and do it in the north too; but in fact, northerners find it just as disconcerting as Europeans would.

    (It works, though.)

  53. January First-of-May says

    Fräulein, señorita, mademoiselle and miss and everything (say, memsahib) are translated to Russian as frojlyajn, sen’orita, madmuazel’, miss and memsaxib. How else?

    I have no idea what a “memsahib” is, but the rest of it is indeed correct, modulo minor spelling differences: фройляйн (I would have written фройлейн, and Filatov spelled it фройлен), сеньорита (and the Italian equivalent синьорина), мадемуазель (usually not мадмуазель), мисс, and indeed фрекен (sic – I don’t usually see фрёкен, and the cartoons don’t say it either).
    I’m guessing that a “memsahib”, whatever it was, would indeed be мемсахиб. Never heard of it that I could recall.

    Многоуважаемая фру,
    Малоуважаемая фрекен,
    Многоуважаемая фру,
    Вы – старая – кенгуру!

    Incidentally, фройляйн (however spelled) has a doublet фрейлина “assistant of a princess”, which apparently started out as a 18th century noble title, but these days is probably best known from fairy tales.

    all other in-laws are Schwieger-.

    …up to and including Schwiegerschwager, lit. “brother-in-law-in-law”, which apparently refers to either of the relationships indicated by “also siblings-in-law, I think?” in this xkcd. I do wonder if it can be extended further.

    (I actually came across this term by accident a week ago while googling for some German genealogical records [in a misguided attempt to figure out the modern heirs of Charlemagne by absolute primogeniture], and thought it interesting enough to mention somewhere, but didn’t get around to doing the mentioning before now.)

  54. фрейлина “assistant of a princess”, which apparently started out as a 18th century noble title, but these days is probably best known from fairy tales.

    It’s known to me — and probably a fair number of other people — from Tolstoy: “Так говорила в июле 1805 года известная Анна Павловна Шерер, фрейлина и приближенная императрицы Марии Феодоровны, встречая важного и чиновного князя Василия, первого приехавшего на ее вечер.”

  55. John Cowan says

    Sir and Madam come off as servile

    Not at all. They are my normal forms of address for adults, particularly for African Americans and people from other cultures.

    people still using Fräulein to address waitresses or female sales people

    That’s the way I use Miss still: to address a situational servant.

  56. They are my normal forms of address for adults, particularly for African Americans and people from other cultures.

    No offense, but you are hardly a representative sample.

  57. John Cowan says

    Who is? Do you think Sir/Ma’am are servile?

  58. I always cringe at being called “Sir”. I’m only called that by servile strangers. If we keep one thing from communism, let it be “comrade”.

  59. Do you think Sir/Ma’am are servile?

    No, I just think they’re used by a vanishingly small proportion of the population these days. I can’t remember the last time I heard either.

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    Policemen call members of the public by them in the UK. It doesn’t come over as servile …

    (The last time I was myself directly addressed by a policeman in the course of his duties, he called me “son.” Ah me! Où sont les neiges d’antan?)

  61. What are the feminine equivalents of Australian “mate” and of Standard Beatnik “Daddy-O” as terms of address?

    (@DE: he called you that last year?)

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    he called you that last year?

    Well, it was a year …

  63. I always cringe at being called “Sir”.

    Me, too. I’d prefer “Hey” or “You”. “Comrade” is a bit much to expect, but I wouldn’t complain.

    He would answer to “Hi”, or any loud cry
    such as “fry me” or “fritter-my-wig”.

    I’m only called that by servile strangers.

    I’m called it by servers at shops/cafes I’ve been going to for years/no sort of strangers. Must be my distinguished grey, but (in my head) I’m not greatly older than them.

  64. John Cowan says

    I cringe when they are applied to me too, but it’s easy for me to be an egalitarian, as nobody has ever seriously questioned my status since the end of high school. See They Call Me Mister Tibbs! for the other viewpoint.

  65. @DE: that’s so interesting! it makes sense that seniority would only be marked when it’s a structuring element of the relationship – and /sigh/ that (presumably european or u.s.?) linguists who only talked to men would presume that gender was the grammaticalized category and project that onto the “sibling whose seniority status doesn’t matter for me” word (i’ll have to look back at oyèrónkẹ́ oyěwùmí’s The Invention of Women and see whether the interaction between sibling terms and seniority structures plays out the same in yoruba).

    and i’m inclined to doubt that there’s even a plurality practice for polite address to strangers in u.s. english – the norms vary wildly from context to context, with the speaker and addressee’s age, class, race, gender, and many other things conditioning them in varied ways.

  66. too late to add by editing: i also wouldn’t count what anyone calls me while they’re on the clock as meaningful data about the status of the words they use, for the speaker or in general. even when the form of address isn’t explicitly mandated (which is common even in the smallest-scale u.s. businesses), it’s determined by bosses’ expressed, implied, or inferred preferences more than by anything that has to do with the speaker. which is to say (among other things): by a group with a strong vested interest in maintaining a connotation of servility in the language that’s used, and in discouraging language that implies equality.

  67. @J1M, perhaps I learned memsahib from Kipling.

    Sahiba is the authentic form of address to be used for a female. Under the British Raj, however, the word used for female members of the establishment was adapted to memsahib, a variation of the English word “ma’am” having been added to the word sahib.” (WP, Sahib. But I’ll link Memsaab instead).

    It seems I’m missing something about the word.

    1. Google suggests memsahib in swahili. All right, let’s search for it…
    “memsahib [Khi] nm [a-/wa-] respectful address to a rich woman or one’s famale employer.”
    I did not know (or remember) that it is in use in Swahili

    2. “Memsaab or Memsahib, a variation of Sahib, an Arabic term, which is also a loanword in several languages.
    Memsaab is a title for a woman in a position of authority and/or the wife of a Sahib.” (WP)
    I wonder if these two meanings are different….

    3. In the article “Sahib” a form “saab” is only mentioned twice: “Some shorten sahib to saab.“, “The term sahib (normally pronounced saab) was used on P&O vessels which had Indian and/or Pakistani crew to refer to officers, and in particular senior officers. On P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises vessels the term continued to be used by non-Indian/non-Pakistani junior officers to refer to the senior deck and engine officers for many years, even when no Indian or Pakistani crew featured in the ship’s company.

    Yet they called the article about memsahib “Memsaab” and link an Indian movie from 1971 (“Memsaab” or “Mem Saab”, spelled as two words on the poster).

    I wonder where/why the contracted spelling is used. Is it now the main Indian variant?

  68. Thinking about this, I remember the Arabic tabib “doctor” in English travelogues too.

    But no memtabibs.

  69. maintaining a connotation of servility … discouraging language that implies equality.

    Specifically yesterday I was called “sir” by a totally right-on organic veggie stall at our local Saturday open-air market — who I’ve bought from practically every Saturday since the lockdowns eased.

    No boss. No McDonald’s/corporate culture. Weird! And I said so.

    At the same market, the organic olives/condiments stall doesn’t call me “sir”; neither the artisan cheese vendor (from Barnsley, so I get out my Leeds accent, sithee).

  70. Fräulein for noblewomen: Adelung’s 18th century German dictionary has “Ehrenname unverheuratheter adeliger Frauenzimmer”. Compare Goethe’s Faust I:

    FAUST. Mein schönes Fräulein, darf ich wagen,
    Meinen Arm und Geleit Ihr anzutragen?
    MARGARETE. Bin weder Fräulein, weder schön,
    Kann ungeleitet nach Hause gehn.
    (line 2605-8)

    In den bürgerlichen Kreisen vertrat die Stelle unseres jetzigen F. zuerst Jungfer und dann das frz. demoiselle (Mamsell), die von Haus aus gleichwertig waren, aber früher herabsanken (Paul, Deutsches Wörterbuch, 9. Aufl.)

    (By the 20th century, Adelung’s Frauenzimmer was — just like Weib — a term of sexist abuse).

    In German, Anna Scherer’s title would have been Hoffräulein. Didn’t Frances Burney fulfill a similar function at the British court (at a time when she was already a best-selling novelist)?

  71. David Eddyshaw says

    But no memtabibs

    A step too far. Let them practice medicine, and they’ll be wanting the vote next.

  72. For the Tsar, Secretary General or Putin?

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s good to have a choice like that.

    I don’t think that it looks good for the Secretary General to run unopposed. People might be tempted to wonder if the system is fully democratic at all.

  74. We are or at least were until recently ahead of many Western countries in this (gender equality). Because when you both are Church serfs, what inequality? And then Communism, gender equality was an important point. But if we were playing all those middle-class games (like elections) instead, who knows may be women would not be allowed to drive cars. Or men.

  75. David Eddyshaw says

    I used to know a man from Appenzell Innerrhoden

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appenzell_Innerrhoden#Modern_history

    He seemed tired of there being only one reason that people had heard of his canton …

  76. And then Communism, gender equality was an important point.

    Not so much gender equality as “Women get to have full-time jobs and take care of the house and kids, hooray!”

  77. John Cowan says

    the norms vary wildly from context to context

    For sure. Shortly before my mother’s death, I learned from her in conversation that my father would have liked me to call him sir, but I always refused to. I had no memory of any such attempts on his part.

    I’m only called that by servile strangers.

    It occurs to me that maybe you don’t realize that servile means ‘like a serf/slave’, not ‘like a servant’, despite the etymology. The gap between these statuses is wide and getting wider.

  78. It occurs to me that maybe you don’t realize that servile means ‘like a serf/slave’, not ‘like a servant’, despite the etymology.

    I think this is unclear; both of your senses fit Merriam-Webster’s “1 : of or befitting a menial position. 2 : meanly or cravenly submissive : abject.” The question is whether the word was used in the mistaken sense ‘in the capacity of a server’ (without any hint of submissiveness); that’s not how I took it, and I doubt that’s how Y (an entirely fluent user of English) meant it.

  79. Stu Clayton says

    who knows may be women would not be allowed to drive cars. Or men.

    Women do drive men. These refer to themselves as “hen-pecked”.

  80. David Marjanović says

    Schwiegerschwager

    Never heard of it; do you mean Schwippschwager? That’s a northern term for some kind of distant relative by marriage, more often used in the extended meaning of “ridiculously distant relative, I can’t and won’t keep track of how distant”.

    Do you think Sir/Ma’am are servile?

    No, I just think they’re used by a vanishingly small proportion of the population these days. I can’t remember the last time I heard either.

    Not even in the South?

    …Actually, perhaps not ma’am. I once participated in a blog thread where a woman from North Dakota got addressed as lady. She was furious because she thought it was a barely disguised putdown. The author of that comment convincingly explained that sprinkling lady over sentences addressed to a lady was the normal polite thing to do where he was in the southeastern US.

  81. Not even in the South?

    Fair point; I should only have spoken about the parts of the US where I have lived.

  82. No, I just think they’re used by a vanishingly small proportion of the population these days.

    I’m not so sure about that, because I get the sense they’re an important part of military culture even in non-military situations, and servicepeople/veterans are not an insignificant part of the US population. I’m not military at all, but I definitely use sir/ma’am with strangers on occasion, if I’m trying to sound apologetic or respectful when making some request. I don’t think I would ever use them with anyone under about 35, though, and I would never use “miss” any more than I would use “signorina” in Italian. (I didn’t particularly like being addressed that way when waiting tables.)

  83. I’m not so sure about that, because I get the sense they’re an important part of military culture even in non-military situations, and servicepeople/veterans are not an insignificant part of the US population.

    Also a fair point!

  84. Australia:

    Mate is not a male-specific term of address. Women can and do call each other mate.

    It can even be used as a hostile form of address eg. “The back of the line is over there, mate!”

    It’s not as widespread as it once was, but has lost ground to other terms: bruh, cuz, champ, babe (last one for close female friends).

  85. I just learned the phrase “go off king,” which is apparently what Kids Today say for “I encourage you in your endeavors and wish you every success, my good man.”

  86. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely addressing random strangers as “you” rather than “thou” was originally “servile”? Or, to be more precise, it evolved into a politeness norm based on mutual “servility,” where people who are, at least for rhetorical purposes, social equals, each use deferential modes of address to the other on a symmetric basis — like the bygone practice whereby A would sign off his letters to B with something like “I have the honour to remain yr Lordship’s most humble and obedient servant” and B would sign off his letters to A with the same formula. (Obviously it then overshot – when V completely crowds out T in ordinary discourse such that there is no longer any working T-V distinction, nothing is being signaled by the use of the V- form.)

  87. it evolved into a politeness norm based on mutual “servility,” where people who are, at least for rhetorical purposes, social equals, each use deferential modes of address to the other on a symmetric basis — like the bygone practice whereby A would sign off his letters to B with something like “I have the honour to remain yr Lordship’s most humble and obedient servant” and B would sign off his letters to A with the same formula.

    Persian developed this into an entire system of discourse.

  88. Do the Engish say “ma’am”? I thought that was only for the Queen, and lesser women were “madam”. I worked in an office in Bedfordshire c.2006 where the cleaner called all desk workers by their first names, but if she didn’t know your name you were “sir” or “madam”, equally friendlily.

    wiki sv “Mateship”:

    During the 1999 Australian constitutional referendum there was some consideration regarding the inclusion of the term “mateship” in the preamble of the Australian constitution. This proposed change was drafted by the Australian poet Les Murray, in consultation with the Prime Minister of the time, John Howard:

    Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.

  89. Kate Bunting says

    Using “Ma’am” for the Queen is not a special, high-status thing, it’s just a survival from the days when “Madam” was a common form of address (for example, from servants to their mistress) and often abbreviated to “ma’am” or even “m” (as in “Yes’m”).

  90. January First-of-May says

    Never heard of it; do you mean Schwippschwager? That’s a northern term for some kind of distant relative by marriage, more often used in the extended meaning of “ridiculously distant relative, I can’t and won’t keep track of how distant”.

    The website I used definitely said Schwiegerschwager; it looked weird and I couldn’t figure out what it meant from context, so I turned to Wiktionary, where it is indeed listed as an Austrian (!) synonym of Schwippschwager.

    The German Wikipedia article (also at Schwippschwager but also giving the other version as Austrian) gives specific diagrams of what the word means, which turns out to be exactly what I described.

    It does make sense that this kind of relationship would be used as a metaphor for “very distant relation and I don’t care about the details”.

  91. David Marjanović says

    Ah. The Wikipedia article says “in some parts of Austria” – and the relation is closer than I thought.

  92. Sometime in the late ‘90s flying back from Ukraine on Lufthansa, having not lived at that point in a German speaking country for over a decade, I carelessly tried to get a young flight attendant’s attention by saying “Fräulein!”

    She was not amused, and let me know that with typical German directness. I have not used the word since.

  93. John Emerson says

    Where I come from “Lady” as an address to more or less anyone is insulting to greater or lesser degree. I use it only as a mock insult with friends. Not even as a real insult to strangers, because they could then be indignant about my language and evade the content of the insult.

    “Man” or “hey man” work in some contexts (old people, informal contexts). With a rising intonation it’s polite, dragged out and droning it’s complaining. See Cheech and Chong.

  94. To my ears, “Lady” as a term of address is what a Rude New Yorker on TV says arguing with a female stranger. “Ladies” is heard in Ireland, jocularly genteel or creepily neckbeardy depending on context. “Ladies and gentlemen” is still a standard opening to a public speech, but its days are probably numbered.

  95. “Persons and other persons” will replace it any day now.

  96. Or perhaps “Folks and individuals.”

  97. David Marjanović says

    I’ve long been partial to “Laddies, gentlewomen, otherkin”.

  98. John Cowan says

    To my ears, “Lady” as a term of address is what a Rude New Yorker on TV says arguing with a female stranger.

    Quite so. I am, generally speaking, of mild and equable temperament, but I could easily begin an utterance with “Look, lady, …” at the last degree of exasperation. However, I must protest the term rude. Though we are often thought to be so, what we mostly are is direct and, if necessary, blunt. This is considered to exhibit a virtue, namely honesty.

  99. J.W. Brewer says

    Back to βάλλω versus τύπτω and the related issue of how to describe the interaction between David and Goliath. My wife was going through a file she keeps of memorable things our now-seven-year–old has said, and she found this one from when he was two or three:

    Older sister: NAME, did you throw your phone*?
    Toddler: Yes.
    Sister: Did you hit Mama?
    Toddler: No, my phone did.

    *This was either a toy phone or a derelict/non-functional phone abandoned by an older member of the household and thus usable as a toy.

  100. Bathrobe says

    [Mate] can even be used as a hostile form of address

    Indeed it can.

    It caused me some amusement many decades ago (during childhood) to hear one of my younger brothers address our mother as “mate”, an effort to (in his eyes) pull her into line with that domineering form of address.

    At some times I also remember my mother telling her sons “I’m not one of your mates”.

    I’m glad “mateship” didn’t make it into the Constitution. “Mateship” is a wonderful philosophy, maybe, but it also reeks of clannishness and nepotism and can also be a front for cutting people down to size with its egalitarian pretensions. Cutting people down to size is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing, either.

    For me, such attitudes are more likely to be brandished by the kind of people known in parts of Australia as “ferals” (used for uncultured, hostile, aggressive rednecks, a kind of sociological grouping who typically blight the reputation of towns where they are commonly found).

  101. I just rewatched Mad Max after many decades. Lots of ferals there. I wish I’d thought to listen for occurrences of “mate.”

  102. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat
    http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/madmax2.txt
    Mate only occurs as part of the word “stalemate”. Sorry about the delay, CL final…
    https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=mad_max_13103&p=12
    Fella, pal, man, Bubba–I saw no “mate”.

  103. Sorry about the delay

    Jeez, yeah, over an hour, try to do better next time, I want instant service! Oh, and thanks, that’s interesting to know.

  104. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, Duolingo marks me down if I don’t put Sir or Ma’am in English translations of Spanish señor/a. But I can’t think of anything else with the same “feel” in English either. If I had to translate running text I’m sure there would be other ways of Englishing, but for single sentences it’s harder.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Emily Wilson on a classic translator’s dilemma. […]

Speak Your Mind

*