Labels and authenticity: How true is a true name?

Have you ever been walking on Wall Street and realized you were walking on Wall Street?

When I was in college, I spent a few touristic days in Bruges, Belgium. While strolling along the old cobblestones one night, I suddenly realized that the street name “Langestraat,” which sounded so exotic to my American ears, simply meant Long Street. The idea hit me with great force. I stopped walking and looked it up and down. Long Street. Everything about that town was so ancient and lovely, dripping with medieval ornament like some Flemish Disneyland. But this street name was a fraud… why there was nothing to it. The street was long so they called it Long Street. The church was old, so they called it Old Church. Plain old names! I had paid good tourist money for my exotic artifice, and here it was evaporating before my eyes.

We want from names two things: meaning and magic. The first is a consequence and the second is a sound, but it’s easy to forget how tangled together these two things are. This entanglement puts me in mind of Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream brand with the fanciful and fabricated name. To their credit, they tell you right on their web site that company founder Reuben Mattus “called his new brand Häagen-Dazs, to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship.” It doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means what it sounds. And it has an unbreakable code: you’ll never find out that it means old cheese in Dutch, or that Messrs. Häagen and Dazs were Nazi collaborators. The name is a pure confection. But stack it up next next to a utilitarian name like Langestraat and it doesn’t fare well. The beauty of Langestraat, as I came to appreciate, is in its tough old bones, whereas Häagen-Dazs simply melts away.

One of my favorite blogs, Strange Maps, has a post on the Atlas of True Names. Some researchers in Germany have put together an atlas that dwells on the “deep etymology” of place names. Dublin becomes Blackpool, London becomes Hillfort, and so on. Even if some of the etymology is dubious, as is so often the case, it’s good fun. Back in North America, I have often wondered why we kept the transliterations of Indian place names but translated the names of many Native Americans. So we say Mississippi, not “Great River”, but we say Sitting Bull, not Ta-Tanka I-Yotank. Which version has more magic?

One final note before closing: from Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, I learned about Anglish, the imagined modern language that might be spoken in England had William the Conqueror been merely William the Unsuccessful. Pluck out the Greek and Latin and you end up with a more “self-evident” language, or so goes the theory. Writer Poul Anderson even wrote a treatise on atomic theory in Anglish which he called Uncleftish Beholding. Unclefts are small motes that no knife can cut. Get it?

What not to do on the U-Bahn

Many years ago, while doing the college Europe thing, I found myself on an underground train in Munich. I had just come from London, where they mostly speak English, by way of Amsterdam, where they all do. I speak no German. So Munich was the first place where I was completely unable to communicate with vast swaths of the population. Except for, you know, in that hand-flapping chicken-pantomime kind of way, stabbing the map, sawing the air. “Is it THIS way? Yes? No?! THAT way?”

It was humbling. I felt like my IQ had dropped 100 points on the overnight train.

So there I was, absently leaning against the door of a U-Bahn subway car, rattling through Schwabing when this little boy, no more than seven, pointed to a sign next to me and read it aloud in clear, high voice. Then he stared at me, a little menacingly it seemed to me, and looked proudly at his dad. Smart kid, I thought. He can already read German, and I am a mute imbecile. Rising to the challenge, I decided to try to decipher the sign through sheer force of will. Here is what the boy read: “Bitte nicht an die Türen lehnen.” You can see it coming, but I had to sound out every word.

Bitte, hmm, I’ve heard people say that. It’s like the German version of prego. It must mean please here. Nicht … is that night? No that would be Nacht, like Stille Nacht. This means not, I think. Türen. This could be a cognate, and I remember from Grimm’s Law that T and D are close friends. Hey, this sign is on a door, so this is probably the plural of door. Let’s see: Please not… on the doors… lehnen.”

That’s when I noticed the kid was still staring at me like a bird dog. I straightened up from my door-leaning position, losing some of my pride at decoding the sign.

Shower with your telescope

Fargo North Decoder, of Electric Company fame, once helped a character played by Rita Moreno with her dangerously loose interpretation of a No Fishing sign. Her version went like this: “Private Property? No! Fishing Allowed.” She was wrong; trouble ensued.

In a similar vein, here is a good one from Steve Crandall’s blog. It appears he was actually sent the following email ad.

There really is a meteor shower early this morning, but I’m guessing that by the time you read this it will be long gone. For the record, I should point out that you should not, in fact, shower with your telescope. If the optics are dirty, it’s far better to run it through a car wash on the back of a pickup truck. Just remember to use lots of bungee cords to hold it in place. Although I suppose there do exist people who, upon seeing the Perseid Meteor, are moved to do mysterious things with their equipment. How about this: “Watch the Perseid Meteor. Shower with a Celestron Telescope. Smoke a Marlboro Cigarette.”

It’s just as well there were no pictures with the ad.

In other space news, today was Cassini’s big Enceladus flyby in which the Saturnian probe dipped to within a few hundred miles of frosty Titan’s spicy little sister. No pictures as of this writing, but there should be some good ones before long. In the meantime, you can contemplate NASA’s latest headline.

Researcher Excited As
Moon Probed Open
Season for Satellite Science

Okay, that was my best effort. Let’s hear your “unfortunate break” headlines.

Noodling around with Chinese characters

Here’s a fun image: the most complex Chinese character in common use.

You have to arrange 57 little lines just so to make that character. What it means (besides “Chinese is hard”) is a kind of noodle, the biang biang noodle. Now let’s imagine you work at a noodle shop in China’s Shaanxi province where these noodles are popular. It’s busy and hot, and you’re taking orders on your little pad with a stubby golf pencil.

CUSTOMER ONE: I’ll have the biang biang noodles please.

YOU: [scribbling furiously] One… order… of… biang biang… noodles…

CUSTOMER TWO: And I’ll have a double biang biang please.

YOU: Hold on, I’m still writing…

CUSTOMER TWO: Could you just write biang biang twice? That would signify my double order.

YOU: [mumbling]One order biang biang biang biang… aghh… hand cramping… can’t write.

CUSTOMER ONE: Christ, my lunch break is almost over. Let’s go get a pig.

As is my wont, I am reminded of the Monty Python skit about the great composer Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplendenschlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdangledungleburstein von knackerthrasherapplebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlichgrumblemeyer spelterwasserkürstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabend-bitteeinenürnburgerbratwustlegerspurtenmitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaber-shönendankerkalbsfleischmittlerraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

I suspect this biang biang character is more gimmick than anything else, much like the Llanfairpwll railway station in Wales (so many letters! so few vowels!), but it does raise a question that I’ve always pondered. In terms of semantic content per ink-inch, is Chinese more efficient than English? Chinese is more compact, but you have to cram a lot more pen strokes into that space. I recently learned at work that when we localize our software for Japanese, you simply can’t shrink a Japanese font below ten points. It goes all gray and mushy. Here, for example, is the biang biang character writ small:

By my count, 57 strokes of ink gets you almost entirely through the writing of ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM. But ultimately, is ink-inch efficiency (IIE) a metric worth optimizing? It’s very tempting to consider which language is “best” in this or that sense. But to young human brains learning languages, none of this seems to matter. Languages all have the same shape. You pick them up here and you do this with them. See what I mean?

[First seen on the Cynical-C Blog]

Forvo, the pronunciation wiki

There was a time, years ago, when even clever, well-informed programmers pronounced name of the operating system “Linux” much like the name of Charlie Brown’s friend Linus. Lye-nix. One of the things that eventually set people straight on this (it was certainly the thing that set me straight) was a little audio recording of Linux author Linus Torvalds himself pronouncing it. It was an argument stopper: don’t argue with Linus. As this video shows, he doesn’t much care how you say his name, but there is only one way to say Linux.

That’s good news, so far as it goes, but we can’t run to Linus Torvalds and ask him to pronounce everything for us. For instance, suppose you want to know how to say São Paulo. What is up with that little twiddle thingy? I’m not even sure that Linus speaks Portuguese.

Via MakeUseOf.com (which, in turn, I learned about from St. Frank) I learned about Forvo, which is a kind of wikipedia of pronunciation. Want to know how to say São Paulo? They’ll tell you.

Forvo is very cool, but it’s also got the upside and downside of all wikis. Anybody can improve it, but then again anybody can damage it too. It seems to be working pretty well, but who knows? I could be learning joke pronunciations for all I know.

Another problem stems from the very international flavor of the site. If you don’t know how to read the script, then there’s not much you can do to find the pronunciation. I have heard that the country name Qatar happens to combine in one small package the three most difficult Arabic sounds for an English speaker to reproduce. Qatar, Gutter, Cutter, Khattr, Flickr, none of the transliterations comes close to the right sound. So how do you say it? Take a look at this list and pick the right one.

It’s a trick question. It’s not on there (as of this writing, anyway).

But Forvo can tell you that you’ve been mispronouncing Lech Walesa all these years. So it goes. The web can settle all arguments, and here is one more way for tedious know-it-alls with WiFi access to correct you.

Color My World

Which word is more colorful: color or colour?

If you’re American, do you ever color your “colors” with an occasional “U” to lend your prose a sense of savoir faire? At any rate, have you ever wondered where the U went? A lovely blog called COLOURlovers addresses this question with an informative post called Color vs. Colour – The Great Spelling Battle. The short version is that when Noah “Dictionary is My Last Name” Webster saw colour he saw red. If you know what I mean.

By the way, from the COLOURlovers site, I also recommend the Color Legends posts (Part I and Part II).

When it comes to teasing apart the idiomatic weirdness of language, no one is better than Rambles contributor Alan Kennedy. So we are tickled pink this week to have Alan tell us about the strangely liberal and incoherent use of color across cultures. Take it away Alan…

Continue reading “Color My World”

Everything is a myth

Good stories always trump facts. A good story is like brain glue. It stabilizes loose piles of memory inventory, thereby relieving some of your mental strain. This is why we have famous people say the things they should have said: because your brain is always trying to relax.

For example, did Galileo, while being tried in the Vatican for his heretical astronomy, say Eppur si muove (nevertheless, it moves)? Answer: no. But he should have. So he might as well have. Let’s just agree that he did and save ourselves a bunch of trouble, eh?

You’ve probably come across the “famous Goethe quote” that goes like this.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Sadly, Goethe said no such thing. My friend Bill (a Star Chamber contributor from way back) sent me this debunking link: German Myth 12 – The Famous Goethe Quotation. It’s a fascinating story. As the piece says, “Far too many online quotation sites have been slapped together and seem to ‘borrow’ quotes from each other, without much concern as to accuracy.” I’ve run into this phenomenon before myself, so I wasn’t surprised to find the “Goethe quote” here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s too bad, because it’s still a great quote, and a great quote looks better when it hangs off a big name. How disillusioning to learn that what Goethe really said (in Faust: Der Tragödie zweiter Teil) was “I am a jam doughnut!”*

Must all our favorite stories turn out to be untrue? It reminds me of that old line from Mark Twain: “Everything is a myth.”** Or was it Winston Churchill*** who said that?

* Not true.
** Also not true.
*** There never was a “Winston Churchill”

Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan

Today I’m happy to present another contribution from the classroom of Alan Kennedy, our correspondent from the front lines of teaching English as a Second Language. This time he’s talking about the surprisingly complicated dangly bits of English: articles and prepositions. You never notice them until they’re out of place.

One of the odd things about learning a language is that it’s easy when you’re young and hard when you’re old. We feel bad about having to teach our children the strange rules of language, but they aren’t really troubled by it. In a sense, they’re the ones who made the problem in the first place. Kids are the ones who cook simple pidgins into rich creoles. There is a time when our brain can effortlessly spin and juggle complex new grammars. In some cases, it seems to border on the extravagant flourish of a peacock display. The Luganda language of Africa, for example, has at least ten different noun classes (not counting the plural forms), essentially genders like masculine, feminine, neuter, large things, skinny things, wet things, and so on. Each one has a different associated affix to memorize. What on Earth were they thinking? Who made this up? You can bet it wasn’t some Luganda government subcommittee. It had to be the kids. You can’t learn this stuff as an adult. You can’t even make it up as an adult.

It seems baffling that difficult and exceptional constructions aren’t eroded from the language by use, as a tumbling stone is smoothed by a watercourse. But there you have it.

Alan teaches English to adults. That puts him in the hot seat when the language gets weird. Here’s what he has to say.

Continue reading “Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan”

Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions

Regular Rambles readers will recall my friend Alan Kennedy‘s last contribution: RIKE ORION. In it, he recounts some of his experiences teaching English as a Second Language in New York City. He’s back this week with some more transcultural observations.

The way names move across language barriers makes for a good spectator sport. I am reminded of what my nephew Ben wrote about the English names his students chose for an English class he taught in China. The difference, for example, between Shelly and Cherry can take a few tries to work out. And I recall a conversation from long ago in which Alan told me about some frustration he had with a Russian class. Russian names require special grammatical handling depending on the context. Ordinarily an imported American name escapes this special treatment, making life for an American student of Russian slightly easier than it might otherwise be. But Alan shares his last name with a former American president, and presidents (particularly Cold War presidents) get the full name treatment. So Alan was stuck managing complicated endings for his own name. Ach du lieber Himmel!

Here’s Alan…

Continue reading “Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions”

The word “virtual” is meaningless

When I was at Foo Camp last summer, I heard Philip Rosedale, the founder of the 3-D virtual world Second Life, describe how this community has not only virtual newspapers to serve its citizens, but paper versions too. They were handing out free copies copies. I picked up a tabloid that advertised stores and tourist traps that existed only in the electronic ether.

Moving in the other direction, which is to say a real reporter in a virtual world, Reuters recently announced that it will be assigning a regular correspondent to a Second Life beat.

“As strange as it might seem, it’s not that different from being a reporter in the real world,” Adam Pasick, the Reuters correspondent who will serve as the virtual bureau’s first chief, said in a Reuters report. “Once you get used to it, it becomes very much like the job I have been doing for years.”

So my question is: is it silly to put real person on a virtual newsbeat?

This leads to the question: what does the word virtual mean, anyway? And the answer is: nothing. Wherever you see the word “virtual,” strike it out and you’ll have a more compact phrase that means the same thing. Virtual newspapers are newspapers. Virtual neighborhoods are neighborhoods. Virtual economies are economies. A lot of money changes hands in Second Life, and the taxing authorities are starting to notice.

It’s always been troublesome to define a word like “virtual” because it describes something that both is and isn’t real. But increasingly it simply means “what you said, only on a computer.” I was curious to see what dictionaries are saying about the word these days. Sure enough, the answers.com dictionary entry has a long digression on this very topic.

Here’s my interpretation of the word virtual. It means “I’ve just removed from X something formerly considered an irreducible quality of X, and yet its X-ness is intact.” It is a linguistic onion peeler. You thought it was necessary to print a newspaper on paper, so you called my paperless newspaper “virtual”. But somehow its paperness remains intact. That which remains is nessful. That which was virtualized away is nessless.