Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Foreign Languages' Category

Shmon: Eight and Body Search

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

An old acquaintance, Daniel Razumov, sent me an interesting Russian word with an unexpected story. Here is the story he tells:

“I have very nice example of Russian word “shmon” (шмон)  ‘body search’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word “shmone” ( שמונה )  ‘eight’.  My friends and I thought the similarity odd but coincidental.”

“Then we discovered that in the Soviet GuLags there was a body search at eight ‘clock each morning, and since many Jewish people were serving time in those prisons due to their ‘wrong’ political perspective in those days, the Hebrew word ‘eight’ was transferred from Yiddish or Hebrew to Russian slang as a body search.”

The semantic drift of words can be absolutely fascinating but also tell us so much about our history, where we are coming from and where we are going.

Squalid Fish Scales

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Andrea wrote a few days ago in reference to our Good Word squalid the following:

“In response to the squalid Good Word: the minute I read in your text that squalare meant meant ‘to be covered with a rough, scaly layer, be coated with dirt, be filthy,’ I thought of scales and wondered whether the concept “squalid” is related to fish scales. [This] would also make sense because of the identical word for a large fish in Latin squalus and filthy. So not that fish become stinky, but that being covered in scales when you are a fish and to be so dirty that you are scaly (when a person) are similar.”

In fact, I can mentally picture a squalid house falling apart like fish scales fall from a fish, so I am in sympathy with Andrea’s connection. In fact, I tried to suggest that without committing myself to a firm connection since I could find no etymologist who would agree with me.

The problem is that if this were the case (and I believe the similarities too close for it not to be), it was the case before Latin developed from other Italic languages and we have no record of words that are ambiguous between “scaly” and “squalid”. So we have to rest on “in all probability”. That is as far as even I have courage to wander.

Two Poached Steaks

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

This morning my wife and breakfasted at a local Pennsylvania Dutch (= Deutsch “German”) restaurant where two new and very young waitresses served us. My wife ordered two poached eggs. A few moments later the manager came out and asked if she really wanted two poached steaks. Apparently, poached steaks were not ordered very often at Ards Farm Market & Restaurant.

Well, my wife didn’t order two poached steaks either, but it is easy to understand how someone raised among the German-Americans in our area would have made the mistake. My wife asked for two [potsht egz]; that is the way she pronounced it.  At the end of German words, however, voiced consonants like [g] and [z] are pronounced without voicing (vibrating the vocal cords), so [g] becomes [k] and [z] becomes [s]. Our cook heard the waitress order two [potsht eks] = “poached steaks’. Now that is exactly how someone with a “Dutch” accent would pronounce poached eggs but not how someone without an accent would hear it.

Final unvoicing, changing a voiced to an unvoiced consonant at the end of a word, is common. The incident reminded me of my first breakfast in Serbia decades ago. My wife and I had never breakfasted in Serbia before, so we were not sure what to expect. However, we were in the big city, Beograd, and in Beograd they are prepared for the foreign tourist. For that reason the most prominent menu entry was “hemeneks”. My wife wondered what in the world that was. I explained to her that this would be the way she would hear “ham and eggs” pronounced for the coming year.

Podunk Potemkin Villages

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Yvonne Owens couldn’t help being struck by both the phonetic and the semantic similarities between our recent Good Word podunk and Potemkin and wondered if the two words were related.

For all its similarity, Potemkin has nothing to do with Podunk. Podunk is a word from an American Indian language while Potemkin comes to us from Russian. The Russian word is a commonization of the name of Grigory Potemkin (or Potyomkin, as it ir pronounced in Russian). Potemkin was a favorite of Catherine, probably her lover, and for the majority of her reign, the most powerful person aside from Catherine in Russia.

Grigori PotemkinAccording to European legend, in order to impress Western European dignitaries visiting Russia, Potemkin very quickly built several settlements in territories taken by Catherine from Turkey in order to convince those dignitaries that the land now belonged to Russia and that Russian would not surrender it under any circumstance. To make the point, Western Europeans had to see Russian putting the land to Russian use, even though the peasants compelled to move into them left soon after the dignitaries departed.

Although unrelated to podunk, Potemkin’s action bears a striking resemblance to the action of Israelis in building settlements in the West Bank territorities siezed during the Six Day War. Both instances are based on the assumption that “possession is 9/10 of the law” plus the additional difficulty of undoing what has already been done. The difference, of course, is that Israel is building real settlements; Potemkin built nothing more than empty shells of buildings grouped to look like settlements in an unsettled territory.

Beautiful Foreign Words in English

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Mark Conn is only the most recent reader of our “100 Most Beautiful Words in English” list to ask why so many seem to be French, not English. I guess it is time to put a reply up for everyone.

The reason is that well over 50% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he initiated the Norman Period of English history and the Middle English period of the language. Religious, legal, judicial, educational, and governmental institutions were conducted entirely in French and Old English became the language of the lower classes. Thousands of words were imported into English, a process that continued even after English reestablished itself as the strongly French-influenced national language again around 1300.

We can push the percentage of words borrowed from French and its mother, Latin, even higher if we include medical and legal terms, and higher still if we include the Greek language. The vast majority of current English vocabulary is borrowed, in fact. 

English doesn’t simply borrow words from other languages, it plunders other languages for their lexical treasures like a vocabulary pirate: Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, plus dozens if not hundreds more, have all seen their word stores scanned directly into the English lexicon.

Now, does that mean that English contains only a few thousand English words? That would be a hard case to make. Once we borrow a word like chatoyant (pronounced [shæto] then change its meaning and pronunciation (English [shætoyênt]), it is English. The fact that a French word is borrowed from a language associated with high culture, fashion, and epicurean sophistication does add to its beauty and allure, though.

The aspect of a native word like becoming, fetching, or comely that sets it off from the rest is a sense of being quaintly out of fashion, a warm, and cozy sense like that of a dowdy old aunt or grandmother. Here the distance is in time rather than place but it is still the sense of removal that adds elgance and grace to such such words.

That doesn’t mean that some current native words are not beautiful: love, lilt and offing certainly fill that bill. Certainly other aspects enter the lexical beauty equation. However, just as a sense of anachronism positively inclines us toward native words, the exoticity of distant cultures in words borrowed gains our vocabulary the same advantage.

I’m working on a longer, more detailed explanation of how beauty works in words for the book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English scheduled for August publication.

Hagia Sophia and Saint Peter

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

John Myes wanted to know if the hagia in Hagia Sophia is related to the hagios in our Good Word hagiographyHagia Sophia is the name of the museum in Istanbul that was once the seat of the patriarch (= pope) of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Indeed, Greek hagia “holy” is the feminine form of hagios, which is also the word for “saint”, so Hagia Sophia means “Saint Sophia”. (We find the same relation in saint, which was originally Latin sanctus “holy”.)

I always thought it interesting that the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church was a man, St. Peter, the Rock, while the patron saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church (once a part of the Roman Church), was a woman, St. Sophia, also the Greek word for “Wisdom”. 

The several historical attempts to (re)marry these two faiths have failed. They would seem to be incompatible despite all their common interests.

Russian Names: Oviches and Ovnas

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Kit Plunkett wrote today about a problem many non-Russian readers of Russian novels run into.

Kit wrote: “Hello! I am currently reading “Dr. Zhivago” and I am struck with the ending ‘vich’ at the end of proper names. My question is: What does it mean? Is it as simple as a common ending of a name, a ‘traditional’ form of saying “of” (as in the Irish ‘O’, ‘Mc’, ‘Mac’ meanig “Of”) or a term of endearment by gender? I’ve researched different sites on the Web and can’t seem to find any answer. Thanks in advance for insight you may have.

Kit, you are on the right track. These names are always middle names or “patronymics”. Russians are given only their first name. Their second name is the first name of their father plus the suffix -ovich (sometimes -evich) if they are males and -ovna (sometimes -evna) if they are female. Boris Ivanovich is Boris, the son of Ivan, and Marisa Borisovna is Marisa, the daughter of Boris.

Now, since their last name is the last name of their fathers, they are only given their first name. However, Russians who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even choose their first name. The Church publishes a calendar on which each day is associated with two or more saints (minimally one male and one female). If you are a true believer (and orthodox means “true belief”), your first name will be that of a saint associated with the day you were born.

Up until World War II, Russian Christians celebrated their “Name Day” rather than birthday, since they day of the birth gave them their name. Some Russians still refer to their birthday as their “name day”.

The suffixes -ovich and -ovna are combinations of -ov “of” (as you surmised) plus a suffix indicating something little, hence Ivan Borisovich would have meant centuries ago, Ivan the little one of Boris”. Today, no one has any sense of the historical meaning of these suffixes. In fact, the -ov- is seldom even pronounced. Ivan Borisovich is pronounced Ivan Borisich.

The Chronos-Cronos Problem

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Virginia Becar sent us a note on our workup of anachronism, asking why “the Greek Titan, Kronos, was not mentioned as a source” even though she does “not know where the Ancient Greeks got that name for him.” We partcularly appreciated her continuing, “For that level I rely on my favorite words site—You!”

Well, we can help in this case for in an earlier, longer version of the Good Word article on anachronism we had a note to the effect that the titan Cronos (Greek Κρονος) should not be confused with Chronos (Greek Χρονος), a confusion that began with the Romans and continues in 90% of the Greek mythology websites today.

Cronos, as best I can learn, was the son of Uranus and Gaia and the youngest of the twelve Titans who produced Zeus and most of the other gods. Chronos was the personification of Time who existed before all the gods. Chronos later became identified as “Grandfather Time” since he was usually depicted in Greek art as an old man with a beard.

However, Chronos and Cronos were not the same originally. Chronos does not seem to have been a god or titan, just the Greek word for “time” used as though it were a name of a being. Chronos seems to have been a prior universal state that emerged from Chaos (Χαος), the original state of the universe.

All this begs the question, of course, which is where either name comes from historically.  Etymologists have no more idea about the answer to that question than Ms. Bekar.

Happy Punctuation Day!

Monday, September 24th, 2007

I am back from my foray into France, the land where everyone loves pain and a drink of water makes you say, “Oh!” It is a land where champs are flat and ordinary though everyone’s beau is good-looking. Hands are the main thing there. In France all pets are stinkers though the cats are rather chatty. You have to rue the streets even though everyone lives in chateaus for a personne is noone at all.

ApostropheHappy National Punctuation Day all! Apparently we do not celebrate Punctuation Day the way we celebrate Labor Day—by avoiding any hint of it. I am not sure what one does on National Punctuation Day; I am at my usual labors.  You can read more about it here.

Punctuation is, of course, very important to language. The most famous proof is the sentence, “A woman without her man is nothing”, which some English teacher is purported to have written on an unsuspecting blackboard, asking that the class punctuate it correctly. The men all punctuated it thus: “A woman, without her man, is nothing”. The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing”.

A more interesting example was given years ago by my phonetics teacher at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Pike. He offered the simple sentence, “I love you,” pointing out that the intonation (and, by extention, the punctuation) can reverse the meaning: “I? Love you?”

So don’t stop at watching your Ps and Qs; watch your punctuation, too.

Yes, we had a wonderful cruise down the Rhône from Beaune (a wonderful discovery) to Arles, then spending 4 days in Aix (where all married women are ex-wives), sallying out from there to Le Baux and other monuments worth seeing. It is good to be back home, too.

Apocalypto Now

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Mayan glyphI finally saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, months after putting together the prep page for that movie. It is certainly a film I will see again. As you might expect, I am convinced that the language in which an adventure is spun is an integral part of that adventure and plays a defining role in it. Filming this motion picture entirely in a Mayan language without compromising the quality of the acting was a monumental accomplishment equal to that of filming The Passion of Christ in Aramaic.

Culture and language are inseparable. In fact, the culture of a people is laid out in terms of the language: the way that people think, the art and music, the law, the education, up-bringing are all defined to some degree by language. Language is, after all, the basis of self-expression and communication in any culture.

While it is true you miss subtleties wound up in the differences between languages reading subtitles, you lose even more if the movie is shot from a translation or a script in the viewer’s language. This is because gestures, posture, facial expressions are all unique to the language being spoken.

My major criticism is that the plot of the movie is just a programmatic US chase sequence: bad guys and good guys chase each other until one catches up with the other, then the No. 2 bad guy and No. 2 good guy clash. If the No. 2 bad guy survives, the No. 1 good guy has to kill him and the No. 1 good guy. When all the bad guys are dead, the chase is over.

I’ve seen this scenario so many times in US movies I retch every time it begins to unfold. If cars are involved, the chase inevitably includes the destruction of some small cart or stand that provides a living for some poor family that elicits more sympathy from me than any of the participants in the chase.

This would be a flaccid plot for a movie in a contemporary setting but this is a movie about people in a much more primitive setting where life was little more than one chase after another. This movie is about a major chase in the life of a Mayan village. So I’m impressed that the courage and cleverness displayed by the leading characters is authentic.

Since I am woefully unaware of the Mayan culture, particularly of that time, it is difficult to judge the acting but, based on what I know of other jungle cultures, it seems to be excellent. Of course, since Mel Gibson directs this movie, expect gore and guts; however, it is not overdone as I felt it was in The Passion of Christ.