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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)

I picked up this book expecting to start reading, then get bored, start skimming for interesting bits, and sooner or later give up. I didn’t. I read steadily from beginning to end, feeling educated, enlightened and even enthralled. This is intellectual history at nearly its best, as David Wootton sets out to prove what is, for some, a controversial thesis: that “Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks” (introduction, pg. 1).

He does this in a clever and compelling way: by looking at the language used in science across Europe. If there was indeed a scientific revolution and science was indeed a new phenomenon, we should expect to see this reflected in language. Were old words given new meanings? Did new words and phrases appear for previously inexpressible concepts? They were and they did. “Scientist” itself is a new word, replacing earlier and less suitable words like “naturalist”, “physiologist”, “physician” and “virtuoso”. The word “science” is an example of an old word given a new meaning. In Latin, scientia meant “knowledge” or “field of learning”, from the verb scire, “to know”.

But it didn’t mean a systematic collective attempt to investigate and understand natural phenomena using experiments, hypotheses and sense-enhancing, evidence-gathering instruments. Science in that sense was something new, Wootton claims. He assembles a formidable array of texts and references to back his thesis, which is part of why this book is so enjoyable to read. As Wootton points out, the “Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible simply because it has been so astonishingly successful.” Quotations like this, from the English writer Joseph Glanvill, make it visible again:

And I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but Rumors, verified into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661)

Glanvill’s prescience is remarkable and he’s clearly writing in an age of pre-science or proto-science. He wasn’t just a powerful thinker, but a powerful writer too. So was Galileo and Wootton, who has written a biography of the great Italian, conveys his genius very clearly in The Invention of Science. You can feel some of the exhilaration of the intellectual adventure Galileo and other early scientists embarked on. They were like buccaneers sailing out from Aristotle’s Mediterranean into the huge Atlantic, with a new world before them.

Wootton also emphasizes the importance of Galileo’s original speciality:

The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers. The philosophers controlled the university curriculum (as a university teacher, Galileo never taught anything but Ptolemaic astronomy), but the mathematicians had the patronage of princes and merchants, of soldiers and sailors. They won that patronage because they offered new applications of mathematics to the world. (Part 2, “Seeing is Believing”, ch. 5, “The Mathematization of the World”, pg. 209)

But there’s something unexpected in this part of the book: he describes “double-entry bookkeeping” as part of that mathematical revolt: “the process of abstraction it teaches is an essential precondition for the new science” (pg. 164).

He also has very interesting things to say about the influence of legal tradition on the development of science:

Just as facts moved out of the courtroom and into the laboratory, so evidence made the same move at around the same time; and, as part of the same process of constructing a new type of knowledge, morality moved from theology into the sciences. When it comes to evidence, the new science was not inventing new concepts, but re-cycling existing ones. (Part 3, “Making Knowledge”, ch. 11, “Evidence and Judgment”, pg. 412)

Science was something new, but it wasn’t an ideology ex nihilo. That isn’t possible for mere mortals and Wootton is very good at explaining what was adapted, what was overturned and what was lost. Chapter 13 is, appropriately enough, devoted to “The Disenchantment of the World”; the next chapter describes how “Knowledge is Power”. That’s in Part 3, “Birth of the Modern”, and Wootton wants this to be a modern book, rather than a post-modern one. He believes in objective reality and that science makes genuine discoveries about that reality.

But he fails to take account of some modern scientific discoveries. The Invention of Science is a work of history, sociology, philology, and philosophy. It doesn’t discuss human biology or the possibility that one of the essential preconditions of science was genetic. Modern science arose in a particular place, north-western Europe, at a particular time. Why? The Invention of Science doesn’t, in the deepest sense, address that question. It doesn’t talk about intelligence and psychology or the genetics that underlie them. It’s a work of history, not of bio-history or historical genetics.

In 2016, that isn’t a great failing. History of science hasn’t yet been revolutionized by science. But I would like to see the thesis of this book re-visited in the light of books like Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007), which argues that the Industrial Revolution in England had to be preceded by a eugenic revolution in which the intelligent and prudent outbred the stupid and feckless. The Invention of Science makes it clear that Galileo was both a genius and an intellectual adventurer. But why were there so many others like him in north-western Europe?

I hope that historians of science will soon be addressing that question using genetics and evolutionary theory. David Wootton can’t be criticized for not doing so here, because bio-history is very new and still controversial. And he may believe, like many of the post-modernists whom he criticizes, in the psychic unity of mankind. The Invention of Science has other and less excusable flaws, however. One of them is obvious even before you open its pages. Like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid Madge Allsop, it is dressed in beige. The hardback I read does not have an inviting front cover and Wootton could surely have found something equally relevant, but more interesting and colourful.

After opening the book, you may find another flaw. Wootton’s prose is not painful, but it isn’t as graceful or pleasant to read as it could have been. This is both a pity and a puzzle, because he is very well-read in more languages than one: “We take facts so much for granted that it comes as a shock to learn that they are a modern invention. There is no word in classical Greek or Latin for a fact, and no way of translating the sentences above from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] into those languages.” (Part 3, “Facts”, pg. 254)

He certainly knows what good prose looks like, because he quotes a lot of it. But his own lacks the kind of vigour and wit you can see in the words of, say, Walter Charleton:

[I]t hath been affirmed by many of the Ancients, and questioned by very few of the Moderns, that a Drum bottomed with a Woolfs skin, and headed with a Sheeps, will yeeld scarce any sound at all; nay more, that a Wolfs skin will in short time prey upon and consume a Sheeps skin, if they be layed neer together. And against this we need no other Defense than a downright appeal to Experience, whether both those Traditions deserve not to be listed among Popular Errors; and as well the Promoters, as Authors of them to be exiled the society of Philosophers: these as Traitors to truth by the plotting of manifest falsehoods; those as Ideots, for beleiving and admiring such fopperies, as smell of nothing but the Fable; and lye open to the contradiction of an easy and cheap Experiment. (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654)

The Invention of Science is also too long: its message often rambles home rather than rams. If Wootton suffers from cacoethes scribendi, an insatiable itch to write, then I feel an itch to edit what he wrote. It’s good to pick up a solid book on a solid subject; it would be even better if everything in the book deserved to be there.

But if the book weren’t so good in some ways, I wouldn’t be complaining that it was less than good in others. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished it at all and I wouldn’t be heartily recommending it to anyone interested in science, history or linguistics. But I did and I am. The Invention of Science is an important book and an enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it and look forward to reading it again.

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Rok 1984 by George OrwellRok 1984, George Orwell (MUZA SA, Warszawa 2001)

It’s an odd experience to pick up a famous book in an unfamiliar language. I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times in English and also tried it in French, Spanish and Italian. Reading it in English is like picking up a perfectly ripe apple and biting into it. I don’t have to think, I just have to experience.

It isn’t like that in French, Spanish and Italian. The book isn’t a ripe apple any more: it’s an exotic fruit with a tough skin that has to be peeled and cooked. I have to think about what I’m doing and it takes much longer to eat much less.

In Polish, Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes a coconut with an exceptionally tough and hairy shell. And I don’t have any way of getting inside. All I can do is pick it up and shake it, hearing the swish of the milk inside and feeling its solidity. I know there’s good eating in there, but I can’t get at it.

Of course, to a literate Pole Rok 1984 is a ripe apple, ready to be experienced without conscious effort. Languages aren’t like ordinary phenomena. A knife is a knife. A bird is a bird. A cloud is a cloud. Billions of human beings for thousands of years have perceived those things in more or less the same way. But human beings haven’t named them or talked about them in more or less the same way. Language both defines humans and divides us. No-one can be familiar with all languages, so everyone can have the experience of picking up something familiar that is suddenly encased in something impenetrable.

Here’s the opening line of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English:

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And here it is in some other languages:

• Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece.
• C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures.
• Era una luminosa e fredda giornata d’aprile, e gli orologi battevano tredici colpi.
• Był jasny, zimny dzień kwietniowy i zegary biły trzynastą.
• Был холодный ясный апрельский день, и часы пробили тринадцать.

English suddenly looks anomalous: “and” in all the other languages is represented by a simple vowel and “thirteen” starts with “tr-”. You see English differently when you look at other languages and you realize that English doesn’t have a fixed form. It changes when you look at from the perspective of another language.

So does every other language. To a speaker of Russian, Polish is partly familiar. To a speaker of English, Polish seems almost wholly unfamiliar, although English and Polish have a fairly recent common ancestor and have a lot of words in common, beneath the disguise of orthography and historic change.

One of those shared words is readily apparent in the opening chapter of Rok 1984 (which I assume means “Year 1984”):

Była tak namalowana, że oczy mężczyzny zdawały się śledzić każdy ruch przechodzącego. WIELKI BRAT PRATZY, głosił napis u dołu plakatu.

Most readers of the English version will remember that Winston sees a poster and a slogan at the beginning, so the meaning of WIELKI BRAT PRATZY isn’t hard to guess. Wielki Brat must mean “Big Brother” and pratzy must be “is watching” or some equivalent. Brat is closer to “brother” than French frère, from Latin frater.

But brat behaves like the Latin word. A little further into the book, you’ll see this:

PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM

Which must the part where Winston repeatedly writes “Down with Big Brother” in his new diary. Wielki Brat has become Wielkim Bratem. So Polish inflects like Latin. And the last line of the book (before the “Aneks”, or Appendix) is: Kochał Wielkiego Brata – He loved Big Brother.

Then there are phrases like Policja Myśli, Dwóch Minut Nienawiści and Ministerstwie Miłości, where Winston is asked what he thinks of Wielki Brat and replies “Nienawidzę go” – “I hate him.” “Nienawidzisz go,” O’Brien says. “You hate him.”

So you could gradually work out a lot of Polish vocabulary and grammar using simply your memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English. With an actual copy of the English version, you could compare and contrast line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. In short, you could learn Polish from Rok 1984.

There’s a much simpler way to do that, of course, but I can imagine a story about a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an unknown language falling into this universe from a parallel one. Then linguists would have to use the Rosetta stone technique.

But what if the book from a parallel universe were in a wholly unfamiliar script too and didn’t have any images? This Polish copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is instantly recognizable as such. It’s called Rok 1984, names the author as “George Orwell”, and one edition has the face of Stalin on it. In Russian, “George Orwell” becomes Джордж Оруэлл. It’s stepped away from English. What if it stepped a lot further? What if an unknown version of Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t use an alphabet but an ideography like Chinese or Japanese?

I still think it would be identifiable, given sufficient computing power. In fact, I wonder whether any sufficiently long text in any conceivable human language might be comprehensible to a sufficiently powerful computer, based simply on the relationship of the patterns within it. I don’t mean that the computer could identify it as related to a known text in a known language: I mean that any text at all might be comprehensible, because there are only a limited number of things one can say about the world, even if there are an infinite number of ways of saying those things.

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Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

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