Sunday, December 29, 2013

Of Mice and Men Linguistically

The Canard Enchaîné (to which I am a proud subscriber) edition of December 11, 2013 published an article entitled “Do you speak franglish.”  This article was in response to an article in the Parisien of December 9, 2013 decrying the large scale entry of English expressions into French.  The gist of the Canard Enchaîné article was to question why, since English has no problem with French borrowings, the French should have a problem with the English language imports.  Among the cited examples of Frenchisms in English are matinee, je ne sais quoi, deluxe, cul-de-sac, petite (size), and bra.

This issue is not new.  I am reminded me of the Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which correctly noted that the upper class spoke a Russian that was strongly French, to the point of barely being able to have a conversion in pure Russian, like many Israeli Russians today.  To the best of my knowledge, this weakness in their native tongue did not seem to bother the vast majority of Russians, poor and rich alike.  In Israel when the Technion was founded, German was the mother language of most of the professors and was almost declared the language of teaching, not Hebrew.  Today in Germany, many job interviews are conducted in English, which I somehow find shocking given how important national pride is often connected with language. So, the matter of the acceptability of linguistic mercantilism, i.e. not allowing imports, is far from straight-forward.

It appears that countries that are secure in their cultural identity have no problem allowing foreign words to enrich their lives.  The expression it is no skin off my back would seem to apply.  By contrast, more insecure cultures, including the French in my opinion as they insist too much on their superiority, fret over the loss of linguistic “purity”.  In response to the Parisien article, the “language of Molière” disappeared long before Macdo and en direct live arrived in France.  Is modern French any less expressive than 17th century French?  Is modern English less rich than Shakespearean English?  They are clearly different and include words from much wider sources.  However, each language is clearly distinct from each other in form and identity. 

It takes a confident person to accept and embrace change and novelty.   Likewise, it takes a confident culture to accept that foreign words can enrich the existing vocabulary, even if a native word already exists.  As English has proven, there is no problem being able to use tiredness and fatigue.  Neither word has become extinct due to its competition.  France has been struggling with the domination of English for some now.  I believe that while English will not disappear, nor will French, albeit a bit a franglished.  Vive la difference.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Computer Program Verbalization

Many years ago, when I operated a photocopy machine (sounds funny, but true) at a large legal office in Los Angeles, the Xerox technician would correct us if we dared say the term “to Xerox a copy”, immediately reminding us that the term was to make a Xerox copy.  The reason for this insistence was the fear of over-identification of a company with a process or products, specifically the unique company name would become a public domain item, as in aspirin, originally a specific product.

Today, this concern has disappeared, especially in the software field.  People, including non-computer nerds, regularly google for information, photoshop their picture to eliminate the red eyes, and skype with their relatives abroad, or at least understand what these expressions mean.  Note that these verbs are not capitalized although they are registered trademarks nor does their trademark holder seem upset by their use.

Similarly, social media application developers love that people can icq each other, twitter a message to an athlete or just a friend, or chat by writing a text, not sitting and talking like it used to be.

These extreme successes make developers of other software drool. I am sure the Ways’ new owner would just love to have it replace the verb to gps.  Can you imagine the ecstasy of Microsoft if Windows became a synonym for panacea (like Ford’s Edsel once signified a completely lemon of a car)? Yahoo’s stock would reach the moon if to yahoo something meant provide a complete service.  Not everybody is so lucky, alas.

So, in a world when anybody can rent a limousine or tuxedo and even afford caviar from time to time, the symbol of ultimate success may, rather ironically, be found a two line entry in a dictionary. To paraphrase that Frank Sinatra song, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere……”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wintery language thoughts

As I sit writing in my home of Karmiel in the Galilee with the unfamiliar sight of snow covered the hills around me and a crispy temperature of 2 degrees centigrade, just slightly above freezing for those living in Fahrenheit countries, my thoughts wander off to weather terms.  Specifically, I consider how each language expresses those common or not-so-common winter phenomena that have to be expressed in words, especially by the news media.

English, being a root-rich language, prefers the precise single word.  It is cold, note the verb to be, but most other terms have their own specific verb form: it snows; it rains; it hails. English weather needs no help.

Nor does French. “Il fait froid”, this time using the verb faire, to have, but il neige; il pleut; il grēle.  This one-verb form makes leaning the terms much easier, eliminating the mistaken helping verb.  Of course, Americans will often say “Il est froid”, the literal translation of the English construction, but the French will understand that if they so chose.

Aside from the cold term, the Russian language goes places. The single term  [holodno] expresses the three word English phrase.  By contrast, in the Russian winter, идет снег [idyot sneg]; идет джодь [idyot djod]; идет град [idyot grad].   In all the cases, the weather, whether it is snow, rain, or hail, goes, presumably downwards.

In Israel, these phenomena clearly travel towards the ground.  When זה קר [ze kar], meaning it is cold, and ורד שלג  [yored sheleg],  יורד גשם][yored geshem], or  יורד ברד [yored barad], the snow, rain and hail literally drop.  Since we don’t know get enough of the first two, it makes sense they can be called “drop in the bucket”. 

So, if you are lucky enough to be watching the weather from the warmth of your home (with the electricity working), think about how your language expresses the complex act of precipitation.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

1 + 1 > 2

Marriage is an important part of society, however that ceremony is played out.  Of course, individual attitudes towards getting married vary, requiring or engendering a wide variety of phrases, separate but not quite equal to each other.

In neutral terms, people get married or marry, possible derived from ancient word meaning young girl, referring only to the legal status itself. The modern understanding of this term does not specify taking a husband or wife. In more archaic terms, they betroth, coming from an old English root meaning truth, or even espouse, based on an old French root meaning to take as wife, but who would actually say those?

For those more pessimistic or even negative about the whole matter, a couple could tie the knot.  This apparently derives from a Celtic tradition of a couple holding hands and making a figure eight together, following by a cord being attached between them, which was only cut when then ceremony was over.  Getting hitched is a bit of quick decision based on the attaching (or hitching) of the wagon with the wife’s possessions to the fresh groom’s horse.  The both apply a bit of fatalism about the whole matter.  Still, that is better than a shotgun marriage, where the pregnant bride’s father insists on the groom doing the “right thing”, whether he wants to or not.

Since marriage is often more of a societal act than an individual choice, it has often reflected official status.  So, the priest would join the couple in matrimony, meaning without his approval it does not count.  Similarly, the father would bestow his daughter in marriage since women’s rights are a modern phenomenon in most places.

In more equal terms, modern independent couples walk down the aisle, at least in Christian circles.  Even more egalitarian, they join together in marriage as is their right to do so.

Even if, as that old joke says, that the biggest cause of divorce is marriage, people keep on believing in synergy, i.e. 1 + 1 > 2.