Tag Archives: Linguistics

Basque Musings

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I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain.  I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country.  There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.

As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)!  Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round.  Here are some highlights:

Guggenheim Museum:  The building itself is well worth the visit!  The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line…  it’s an engineering feat, to say the least.  Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark.  There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider.  Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons:  “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.

The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.

Pintxos:  You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant!  You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner.  They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal.  12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer.  Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies.  Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain.  Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls.  If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.

Language:  The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse.  But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path.  Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point:  “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”.  It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe,  with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically.  It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown.  It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!

One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…

 

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Singularity vs. Anomaly

On our recent holiday in Scotland, my husband and I discussed the difference between singularity and anomaly; specifically, we were trying to decide whether we would call the Corryvreckan one or the other (as one does).

Corryvreckan WhirlpoolThe Corryvreckan, which is the strait between the isles of Jura and Scarba off the West Coast of Scotland, contains the world’s third largest whirlpool (following the Saltstraumen off of Norway, and the Moskstraumen, also off Norway), and is considered by many as the most dangerous scuba dive in the UK (there’s only a few minutes’ safe diving time there; when your bubbles start to go down, not up, you’ve overstayed your welcome).  Planted underwater in the middle of the strait is a giant pinnacle of basalt (the same rock that created the Scottish Isle of Staffa, and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland); its position means that when tides flow in or out, they end up being churned into a broiling mass of suck-ships-under sea.

The name of Corryvreckan comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  The English word whirlpool comes from Old English wirfelmere; in German this word paints the image of rolling dice (Würfel) on the ocean (Meer).  Harmlessly small swirling vortices of water are known as whirlpools, and you can see them when you drain a sink or flush a loo. But the more appropriate word for the ship-eating monster-vortices is the Norwegian word Maelstrom; since they have several of the largest, most dangerous ones, I think it’s only fair that they get to name them.

Now, is it a singularity or an anomaly?

Singularity:  “Anything singular, rare, or curious; the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual.”

Anomaly:  “Something or someone that is strange or unusual; any event or measurement that is out of the ordinary regardless of whether it is exceptional or not.”

Our debate on which word to apply to the Corryvreckan is a tie, I think.  While it’s not singular as far as being the only maelstrom in the world, it is distinct, unusual and extraordinary; it’s an anomaly in the geological and topographical sense, which gives it its power and dangerous currents.  If you ever decide to check it out, don’t do it without a local guide unless you’re insane; if you are insane, enjoy washing your clothes with Cailleach Bheur.

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Writing Tip: Layering

Lightning BugIf you’ve ever painted a picture more than a colouring book or a paint-by-number, chances are you’ve learned something along the way about layers.  Layering is also a digital graphics technique in programs such as Photoshop, and as each layer is made, the image changes, taking on the shapes or colours as you add the consecutive elements.

Besides being a writer, I am also a vocal coach.  I only take on students who are already in bands, or preparing for recordings or competitions, and one of the things I teach them is layering within a vocal performance:  The nuances of thoughts, the power of imagination, the colouring of the vocals through not only the physical placement of the tone within their instrument (their body), but the placement of their imagination.  One can communicate boredom or interest or empathy with the exact same wording by merely varying the intonation, and that comes through the layering of the performance.

Writing is much the same way:  It is through the employment of grammar, spelling and punctuation that we signal the reader to prepare for a particular experience; as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  

Oh, the difference between, “It was rainy last night,” and “It was a dark and stormy night”!

So the next time you feel like your manuscript or poem is falling flat, take a minute to think about the layers, and see what creative brush strokes you can give your work.

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Ye Olde Spelling Laziness

runesymbols

Have you ever wondered about the old-fashioned “ye” in shop signs?  It was a lazy printer’s solution to saving space for “th”, and should be pronounced as “the”, not “yee”!  The Old English character “y” was a graphic alteration of the Germanic rune “Þ” (which came over with the Viking raiders and the Norman King Canute and his rabble, but that’s another story).  When English printing typefaces couldn’t supply the right kind of “P” they substituted the “Y” (close enough, right?).  That practice continued into the 18th century, when it dropped out of use.  By the 19th century it was revived as a deliberate antiquarianism – to give a shop a pedigree, so to speak (read “marketing scam”), and soon came to be mocked because of it.  And now we think of it as the quaint way they used to write…

For a short, fun video on the topic, click on Ye Olde Web link, below.

ye-olde-web-link

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Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an extensive list of euphemisms, please click on the image.  That website also has lists of anagrams, clichés, metaphors, oxymorons, palindrome and pleonasms, so it’s worth bookmarking for writers!

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

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Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

Toe the LineRecently I used the title’s idiom, and to be honest I don’t know if I’d ever used it before in writing; I’ve heard it said onk-times, but never had much use for it so far in written form.  Then came the question, is it “toe” or “tow”?  Actually the original phrase is nautical; but that could still be either spelling.  I did a bit of research, in both etymology dictionaries and a book of naval slang, online and in my library.  The consensus, I present here.

“Toe the line,”  according to Naval History & Heritage, comes from the practice of waterproofing between deck boards with a layer of oakum, pitch and tar, thus creating a striped deck; when the crew was ordered to fall in at quarters they would line up at their designated area of the deck, toes to the line to ensure a neat line for inspection.  Toeing the line was also used as a form of punishment for lighter misdemeanours aboard a ship, such as younger crew members talking at the wrong time; they were made to stand at the line for a specified amount of time to remind them to behave.  A logical leap later and we have our idiom, because the young lads were warned to “toe the line” – they were to mentally toe the line to avoid getting in trouble.

Tow the LineHowever, “Tow the line” could be seen as a malapropism, a mondegreen, or an eggcorn.  A malapropism (also called Dogberryism) is the substitution of an inappropriate word or expression in place of the correct and similarly-sounding word.  Example:  “Officer Dogberry said, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  A mondegreen is an error arising from  understanding a spoken word or song text incorrectly.  Example:  “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind” (the answer my friends) – Bob Dylan.  An eggcorn is an idiosyncratic (but semantically motivated) substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that sound identical, or nearly so, at least in the dialect the speaker uses.  Example:  “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.  Depending on your view of things, “tow the line could fall into any of those categories.  But it has so often been misused that it has begun to develop its own connotation independent of the original idiom:  While “toe the line” indicates a passive agreement or adherence to a particular regulation or ideology, “tow the line” implies more of an active participation in the enforcement or propagation of that “line” whether political, social, or business policy, as towing an object is not passive, but participative.

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The Jabberwocky and the Totemügerli

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of Alice in Wonderland; at the least your curiosity might have been piqued enough to read it after seeing The Matrix, or be mistaken in thinking that you don’t need to read the book if you saw Tim Burton’s film with Johnnie Depp.  The sequel to Lewis Carroll’s most famous work (mentioned above), called “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There“, written in 1871, contains the famous nonsensical poem called the Jabberwocky, which I present here:

“Jabberwocky”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Many of the nonsensical words are what Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) coined Jabberwockyas “portmanteau words” meaning the combination of both sound and meaning of two words into one; e.g. frumious being “fuming” and “furious”.  Some of the words have since made it into the English language, such as galumph or chortle, while some were words he revived, such as gyre and beamish.  And personally I think some of his words deserve wider use, such as brilling, slithy, snicker-snack and Bandersnatch!  Click on the photo to the right to hear the poem read.

 

Now… “what is the Totemügerli,” I hear you ask?  It is the Swiss-German version – not a translation, but an original story by Franz Hohler, a Swiss cabaret performer; Bernese German, to be more precise.  Bern is the political capital of Switzerland, and historically has one of the richest, most colourful dialects of all the Swiss German dialects; I am fluent in the Zürich dialect, and can understand all the other Swiss-German dialects, including Walliserdïïtsch, which is the oldest of all Swiss dialects; and I can guarantee you that the Totemügerli story is 90% nonsense, and yet tells a clear tale!  For those of you interested in the text, here it is:

Ds Totemügerli

von Franz Hohler

Gäuit, wemer da grad eso schön binanger sitze, hani däicht, chönntech

vilicht es bärndütsches Gschichtli erzelle. Es isch zwar es bsungers

uganteligs Gschichtli, wo aber no gar nid eso lang im Mittlere

Schattegibeleggtäli passiert isch:

Der Schöppelimunggi u der Houderebäseler si einischt schpät am Abe,

wo scho der Schibützu durs Gochlimoos pfoderet het, über s Batzmättere

Heigisch im Erpfetli zueglüffe u hei nang na gschtigelet u gschigöggelet,

das me z Gotts Bäri hätt chönne meine, si sige nanger scheich.

«Na ei so schlöözige Blotzbänggu am Fläre, u i verminggle der s Bätzi,

dass d Oschterpföteler ghörsch zawanggle!»

«Drby wärsch froh, hättsch en einzige nuesige Schiggeler uf em Lugipfupf!»

U so isch das hin u härgange wie nes Färegschäderli amene Milchgröözi,

da seit plötzlech Houderebäseler zu Schöppelimunggi:

«Schtill! Was ziberlet dert näbem Tobelöhli z grachtige n uuf u aab?»

Schöppelimunggi het gschläfzet wie ne Gitzeler u hets du o gseh. Es

Totemügerli! U nid numen eis, nei, zwöi, drü, vier, füüf, es ganzes

Schoossinjong voll si da desumegschläberlet u hei zäng pinggerlet u

globofzgerlet u gschanghangizigerlifisionööggelet, das es eim richtig agschnäggelet het.

Schöppelimunggi u Houderebäseler hei nang nume zuegmutzet u hei ganz

hingerbyggelig wöllen abschöberle. Aber chuum hei si der Awang ytröölet,

gröözet es Totemügerli:

«Heee, dir zweee!»

U denen isch i d Chnöde glöötet wie bschüttigs Chrüzimääl dure Chätschäbertrog.

Düpfelig u gnütelig si si blybe schtah wie zwöi gripseti Mischtschwibeli,

u scho isch das Totemügerli was tschigerlisch was

pfigerlisch binene zueche gsi. Äs het se zersch es Rüngli chyblig u

gschiferlig aagnöttelet u het se de möögglige gfraget:

«Chöit dir is hälfe, ds Blindeli der Schtotzgrotzen ueche z graagge?»

Wo der Schöppelimunggi das Wort «Blindeli» ghört het, het em fasch

wölle ds Härzgätterli zum Hosegschingg uspföderle,

aber der Houderebäseler het em zueggaschplet:

«Du weisch doch, das men imene Totemügerli nid darf nei säge!»

U du si si halt mitgschnarpflet.

«Sooo, dir zweee!» het ds Totemügerli gseit, wo si zum Blindeli cho si,

u die angere Totemügerli si ganz rüeiig daaggalzlet u hei numen ugschynig ychegschwärzelet.

Da hei die beide gwüsst, was es Scheieli Gschlychets ds Gloubige

choschtet u hei das Blindeli aagroupet, der eint am schörpfu, der anger a de Gängertalpli.

Uuuh, isch das e botterepfloorigi Schtrüpfete gsi!

Die zwee hei gschwouderet u ghetzpacheret, das si z näbis meh gwüsst hei,

wo se der Gürchu zwurglet.

Daa, z eis Dapf, wo si scho halber der Schtotzgrotzen

uecheghaschpaaperet si, faht sech das Blindeli afah ziirgge u bäärgglet mit

schychem Schtimmli:

«Ooh, wie buuchet mi der Glutz!»

Jetz hets aber im Schöppelimunggi böös im Schyssächerli gguugget.

Är het das Blindeli la glootsche u isch der Schtotzgrotz abdotzeret,

wie wenn em der Hurligwaagg mit em Flarzyse der Schtirps vermöcklet hätt.

«Häb dure, Münggu!» het em der Houderebäseler na naagräätschet;

u de het er nüt meh gwüsst.

Am angere Morge het ne ds Schtötzgrötzeler Eisi gfunge, chäfu u tunggig

wien en Öiu, u es isch meh weder e Monet gange,

bis er wider het chönne s Gräppli im Hotschmägeli bleike.

Totemügerli u Blindeli het er keis meh gseh sis Läbe lang, aber o der

Schöppelimunggi isch vo da a verschwunde gsi.

S git Lüt, wo säge, dass sider am Schtotzgrotzen es Totemügerli meh desumeschirggelet.

If you’d like to hear it read out by Franz Hohler himself, in a cabaret show recorded during the ’80s, just click on the image below.

 

Totemürgeli, by Willy Vogelsang

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The Separate Language

Having lived on both sides of the Puddle (that’s the Atlantic, for you Americans), I can confirm that English truly is a language that separates the Old World from the New.  While the American language seems to be simplifying through the school system and mass media (and don’t even get me started on the spelling!), I doubt that will ever happen in the UK… the language is far too entertaining to let it get boring.  Click on the image below for a few gems like “Donkey’s Years”, “it’s monkeys”, “to have a butcher’s”, and “up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire”.

Anglophenia

 

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One-Sentence Stories

One of the most challenging things as a writer is to remain succinct; “every word counts” needs to be printed on the back of my hands whether I’m working on a book manuscript, writing to a friend, or answering grammar questions on a forum I lead.  Occasional ramblings are far more acceptable than chronic ones; everyone has a friend, acquaintance or family member who rambles (or – you know who you are!):  I have a neighbour near our building who can turn the reply to a simple, “How are you?” into a 45-minute explanation of how her cousin’s frog’s nephew’s classmate’s teacher’s son’s uncle came by with a blue – or was it green?  You know the kind of green that looks like wilting grass, no, that’s too yellow… by the time she takes a breath she’s gone down so many detours I have NO idea what she’s talking about, or even what the original question was.  Needless to say, when I’m on a deadline I politely avoid that side of the house.

I’ve come across a website that would be a literal impossibility for that neighbour, and would even be a challenge for many of us who consider ourselves to personify the phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit”:  Click on the image below to see “One Sentence – True Stories Told in One Sentence”.  Take the challenge – can you write a story in one sentence?  And take inspiration from the site as well; there are some great starter-sentences there that could be expanded upon to make a short story, or even a novel.

Note:  Since this was originally posted, the site at the link below has gone offline.  Instead, just go to Google and search for “one-sentence stories“, and you’ll come across several great options.

That One Sentence

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Lost in Translation: Foreign Signs

I love it when signs or notices are translated by non-mother tongue English speakers;it can be anything from cute to funny, misleading or just downright embarrassing.  I especially love Asian translations!  Here are a few examples.

Lost in Translation 1 Lost in Translation 2 Lost in Translation 9 Lost in Translation 11 Lost in Translation 23

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