Posts Tagged 'english usage'

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 

Berks and wankers: A Canadian reaction to Kingsley Amis’s English.

My father, born and raised in Alberta, pronounced schedule with a sh- sound: SHED-jool. I don’t know whether he innocently inherited this quirk from his parents or teachers or the radio announcers of his youth, or whether he deliberately adopted it at some point to be perverse; whether he used it un-self-consciously right to the end, or whether he clung to it as a badge of linguistic distinction. Knowing him as I did, I think I can say he was free of any desire to lord his fancy pronunciation over anyone. He just loved language, loved to haul out five-dollar words, and since he must have noticed that his schedule was at odds with nearly everyone else’s, I guess he simply preferred it that way, and damn what anyone else thought.

That’s why I adopted it. Pulled in two directions, by the tides of North American English usage and by my father’s influence, I wavered between SHED-jool and SKED-jool through my teenage years, then settled consciously and definitely on the oldfangled pronunciation as I entered adulthood. It was done under the same impulse, no doubt, that makes me favour fedoras and bow ties, get sentimental about long-dead Hollywood actresses, and spend my leisure time re-reading Plutarch.

I can definitely say I never had a desire to lord my fancy pronunciation over anyone. But still my friends would sneer when I said SHED-jool. “What?” I would retort. “It’s how my father says it.”

A few years ago I was having drinks with friends and we wound up talking about words that irritated us. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but I probably mentioned “little ones” (a trendy substitute for “babies” or “kids” that makes me think of Victorian paintings of prancing fairies) and the short-A pronunciation of bathed (as in “bath-ing the little one” instead of “giving the kid a bath”) as two phrases that made my jaw instinctively clench. Someone said how much they despised SHED-jool and everyone groaned in sympathy.

“I say SHED-jool,” I peeped.

“I know,” my friend replied. “And I hate it.”

So I stopped saying SHED-jool, or tried to; I slip back into it without meaning to now and then. It doesn’t come up all that often – say a couple times a year – so it may take me the rest of my life to train myself to consistently say SKED-jool. By then, possibly, some new pronunciation will have come in vogue.

kingsley amis the king's english

In The King’s English, his idiosyncratic, cranky, and entertaining guide to English usage, Kingsley Amis divides abusers of the language into two broad classes:

Berks are careless, gross, crass, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Some pronunciations Amis identifies as useful wanker-detectors, like hors d’oeuvres (“few non-wankers over the age of, say, twenty-one try to say the words in any Frenchified way”), issue (“to say ISSyou is a piece of pressi-OSSity”) and words starting with wh- (“[n]o affectation is easier to detect than a phoney HW beginning to wh- words”).

I’m innocent of over-Frenchification and I don’t think I’ve ever said ISS-you, but I have been known, when reading aloud, to say HWICH and HWAT; I’ll stop. Amis has no entry on schedule, which of course as an Englishman he would have pronounced as my father did, but I suppose a Canadian edition of The King’s English would include SHED-jool among its wanker-detectors, along with other Anglicisms like ROWT for route and LEZHer for leisure; I’ve used these too. (In the latter case, I say it that way only in mock-grandiosities like “man of leisure” or “at your leisure”, where I think it’s okay.) Herb with a sounded H is the usual British pronunciation (as against North American ERB), but no Canadian has ever complained of my affected H; however toe-MAH-toe, spoken by a North American, would strike even me as highly suspect.

I mentioned Amis’s warning about hors d’oeuvres. He provides three useful pages of common French or French-derived terms along with the non-wankerish, non-berkish way to say them. Despite Amis’s general rule that a speaker should, “when the language of conversation is English, avoid any attempt at exact French pronunciation, which can hinder the flow of talk,” I would identify at least two of his suggestions, if used by a Canadian, as wankerishly Frenchified: penchant, for which he recommends PON(G)shon(g) while mocking Americans “who say penshant, as if they thought it was an English word”, and plaque, for which Amis prescribes “plahk rather than plack”. By contrast, his VALLit for valet and a-TATCH-y for attaché would in Canada be considered much more wankerish than the Frenchified versions, if they were comprehended at all. For macabre Amis memorably advises, “Imagine yourself addressing a Scot called Macarbrough”, i.e. muh-KAH-bruh; but I think muh-KAHB is perfectly comprehensible and better reflects the original French without injecting any distracting foreign sounds into the flow of talk.

Amis justly complains that “that right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion” by the forces of pedantry and political correctness. He mourns the loss of mar-SAILS for Marseilles – now shorn of its terminal S and universally pronounced in something like the French manner – and such long-established place names as Peking and Ceylon. (Since he wrote, Burma and Bombay have gone the same way.)

I would have liked some advice on what to do with foreign names containing non-English sounds. I vaguely recall a Woody Allen movie where someone’s (Diane Keaton’s?) insistence on pronouncing van Gogh with a guttural -gh sound at the end marked that character as a pretentious twit. I think self-respect demands van GO, and more or less BOCK for Bach and LOCK for a Scottish lake (with just the slightest effort to move the K sound to the back of the mouth; I was once scolded by a Scot for not trying harder, but I don’t see why I should be obliged to croak out non-English sounds while travelling in an English-speaking country). What else? There’s that hopeless German diphthong ö; I say GER-bels and GER-tuh for Goebbels and Goethe. Yet I guess I’m not quite self-respecting enough to insist on George Lewis BORE-jis for Jorge Luis Borges; I say HOR-hay lu-EES BORE-hess because I don’t want people to think I’m a total dummy. (For the same reason, I pronounce forte, in the sense of a strong suit, in the Italian style, for-TAY, even though I’m aware it derives from the French and is correctly pronounced FORT. What use is being right if everyone thinks you’re wrong?)

***

Complaining mildly of the crowding out of the older sense of gay by the newer, Amis concedes that

once a word is not only current, but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

But just thirty pages earlier, in his passage on disappearing English place names for foreign places, Amis has demonstrated that words can be thrown out quite rapidly, indeed willy-nilly, if there is a political will behind their banishment. Around the time (1997) The King’s English was published, Oriental, once the ordinary and uncontroversial term in North America for people who traced their ancestry to Asia’s Pacific rim, rapidly became taboo and was replaced with Asian. In the UK, Oriental is still used for our Asians, while Asian generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent, whom over here we now call South Asians. Since this arrangement – the lexical monopolization of a whole continent by the natives of one or the other of its coasts – seems patently inadequate, I expect it too will be overturned in my lifetime. I’m hoping the helpful word Desi will come into wider use among English-speakers for the people and cultures of South Asia. But I’m aware of no comparable word for East Asia. Mongoloid might have done the trick if it hadn’t been made poisonous by its association with mental retardation.

Right now gay is undergoing a comparable renovation. A friend who works in a library told me about a poster that recently went up in the young adult section with the slogan, “That’s so gay is so yesterday.” In other words, the remaining negative connotations of gay – of effeminacy, uncoolness, overexcitability, trying too hard – are now to be swept away by fiat. I’m sure the campaign will be successful, although, in semi-conscious reaction against it, I lately find myself using or at least thinking gay in the “that’s so gay” sense more than I have since I was a teenager.

In theory there’s no reason why the two meanings of gay can’t coexist, the way black the racial group coexists with black the adjective meaning grim or gloomy. But of course blacks as a group aren’t thought of as particularly grim or gloomy, so the persistence of the other meaning doesn’t threaten them. Whereas gays as a group can be kind of gay, in the “that’s so gay” sense, as a look at the dudes shimmying on the floats at the Pride Parade will demonstrate. So unless “that’s so gay” can be purged of its meaning entirely – say, turned into a synonym for ugly or bland or some other concept that isn’t associated with gays – its use will necessarily be perceived as a slur.

***

Two examples of non-linguistic wankerish behaviour. First is the milk-in-first delusion, which is the notion common among Canadians that it’s somehow classier to put the milk in first when you’re pouring a cup of tea, as the British are thought to do. The irony being that among class-conscious Brits, milk-in-first was once (and perhaps still is?) thought to be rather common; Martin Amis and his peers had an adjective, miffy, that signified hopeless middle-classness. (I’ve written about this at greater length.) The wankerish behaviour isn’t putting the milk in first, or putting the milk in second; it’s passing comment in any way on the order you or someone else put the milk in. Shut up about it. It’s milk.

Similarly, until quite recently in North America it was considered unremarkable, in fact it was the usual thing, to put ice in a glass of Scotch. This is frowned on among Scotch aficionados, particularly those who learned their drinking in the UK. That’s fine; no-one’s saying you have to put ice in your Scotch, mate. But if someone else likes to, shut up, you wanker.

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Under weigh? Right away!

(Some observations on language in Charles Dickens’ American Notes.)

Shortly after landing at Boston, and installing himself at a “very excellent” hotel, the author encounters an unfamiliar turn of phrase:

“Dinner, if you please,” said I to the waiter.

“When?” said the waiter.

“As quick as possible,” said I.

“Right away?” said the waiter.

After a moment’s hesitation, I answered “No,” at hazard.

“Not right away?” cried the waiter, with an amount of surprise that made me start.

I looked at him doubtfully, and returned, “No; I would rather have it in this private room. I like it very much.”

At this, I really thought the waiter must have gone out of his mind: as I believe he would have done, but for the interposition of another man, who whispered in his ear, “Directly.”

“Well! and that’s a fact!” said the waiter, looking helplessly at me: “Right away.”

The expression right away is now so ubiquitous that it’s practically un-Googlable, like the or and. TheFreeDictionary asserts that,

This idiom uses right as an intensifier and away in the sense of “at once,” the latter usage dating from the 1500s and surviving only in such phrases as this one and fire away. It was first recorded in 1818.

No citation is given for the 1818 appearance. I assumed, from Dickens’ confusion, that right away originated in the States and took a while to spread overseas. But the correspondents of the journal Notes and Queries – “devoted principally to English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism” – in 1880 investigated the phrase in response to an enquiry by an English reader named “Hermentrude”:

This expression is so familiar to me that until this moment I was not aware there was anything peculiar about it. If Hermentrude lived in these parts she might hear it every hour of the day. “Now, then, children, run off right away to school”; “She has been crying right away”; “It rained right away till tea-time”; “He has been working right away.” Even now I do not see much wrong about it. I should say it means not so much immediately as earnestly, directly. I think many of these forms of expression are very old.
— R.R., Boston, Lincolnshire

This is good North Lincolnshire. “It’s taken root and it’ll grow right away”; “I’m mending [recovering] right away, thank you.” It does not mean immediately. The young lady behind the counter meant that the boy was going straight past and along the road.
— J.T.F., Winterton, Brigg

This expression is a very common one in Liverpool, and always means immediately. I have never heard it used in the sense of a long distance, which Hermentrude seems to think the correct meaning.
— J.Y.W. MacAllister

This expression has for generations been used all over the south-west of Ireland in the way in which the Yorkshire shop girl applied it. “Right away” in Munster = immediately.
— Mary Agnes Hickson

Although there seems to be some vagueness about its precise meaning, these testimonies suggest that the phrase originated in Ireland or the north of England and spread via emigration to the United States, where Dickens mistook it for an Americanism and introduced it to the wider British reading public.

***

Note this weird spelling in Dickens’ description of a voyage by steamer on the Potomac River:

I wake, of course, when we get under weigh, for there is a good deal of noise.

Of course, I leaped to the assumption that Dickens, being nearer the wellspring of “pure” English, must have known what he was talking about, and that our word underway had derived from this extinct sailor’s term. But like right away, this is another example of a phrase that doubled back on itself: under weigh, it turns out, evolved from underway via the convolutions of folk etymology.

From Michael Quinion’s terrific website World Wide Words (the Notes and Queries of our time):

What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us – among many other nautical expressions – the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. […]

It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens […]

It was still common as recently as the 1930s … but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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