Thursday, September 21, 2006

Get Fuzzy Slang

If you read the comic strip Get Fuzzy this morning, you may have wondered what Fuzzy's British "cousin" was saying. No worries, LG is here to translate for you.

British slang   American translation
Been havin' a butcher's for your flat all day, mate, thought I'd cocked summat up!
I'm well knackered, I can tell you!
I could do with a bevvy and a kip!
  I've been looking for your place all day, man, thought I'd really screwed up!
I'm totally beat, that's for sure!
I could use a drink and a nap!
Some bloke diddled me brolly in the queue for the khazi back in Blighty.   Some guy ripped off my umbrella in the line for the john back in England.

Vocabulary words, thanks to A dictionary of slang:
bevvy - an alcoholic beverage
Blighty - slang term for Great Britain
butchers - (short for butcher's hook, which rhymes with) look
khazi - slang term for lavatory
kip - a nap, forty winks
knackered - worn out, tired out

Posted at 21:48 PDT  Link | Tags:

Monday, September 18, 2006


Arrr, me hearties, do nay forrrget t'be rattlin' on like pirates tomorrow. Here be a fine video for learnin' the ropes o' pirate-talk. Aye, gruffness and rum, that be the secret! Or use th' handy sea dog translator. Yarrr!

Posted at 22:05 PDT  Link | Tags:

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Fun Meme

Inspired by this Language Hat post, I hereby list my top ten unread books in the category of language geekery. They're ordered by how likely it is that I will actually get around to reading them.

Boris Akunin, Любовница Смерти and Любовник Смерти
I know, that's two books... These are the 8th and 9th books in Akunin's Fandorin series of thrillers set in 19th century Russia. I've read the first 7 and they were wonderful. However, it takes some effort to gear up the brain for reading Russian, and mine has been stuck in neutral.

Andrew Robinson, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: the story of Michael Ventris
I'm looking forward to reading this biography; Robinson's previous book Lost Languages was well-written and had plenty of nitty-gritty language details.

Wayne P. Lammers, Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar & Structure
This book will be a fun grammar review when and if I get back to studying Japanese. The author was involved with the magazine Mangajin (I have most of the 70 issues in a box somewhere).

Andrey Bely, Petersburg
Language Hat recommended this, and I am definitely going to read it someday. Seriously.

Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch
I blogged about this book last year; it got great reviews and is supposed to be quite funny.

Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention
Sometimes I buy books because I want to learn the subject matter, but then never get around to actually reading them. Here's a good example.

Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
See previous entry.

Mark Collier and Bill Manley, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself
See previous two entries. I just love hieroglyphics!

Giles Murray, Breaking Into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text
I actually read the first chapter, The First Night by Natsume Soseki, and listened to the sound file. Must get back to Japanese...

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El Club Dumas
This is a little embarassing. I ordered this book on Amazon, but accidentally clicked the original Spanish version instead of the English translation. Now that I have it, I keep intending to revive my exceedingly rusty high-school Spanish and try reading it. Get in line, Spanish, behind Russian and Japanese. And Euskara. And Egyptian hieroglyphics. Sigh.

Amazon links, for those with fewer unread books than I:
The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, Lost Languages
Japanese the Manga Way, Breaking Into Japanese Literature
Born to Kvetch
The Unfolding of Language, Empires of the Word
How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs
El Club Dumas

Posted at 20:45 PDT  Link

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Japanese Names

I'm sure everyone has heard by now that the Japanese Imperial Family has a new male heir to the throne. 万歳三唱! The baby has been given the name Hisahito 悠仁. Various news articles have translated this name as "serene one", "serene and virtuous" (BBC), or "virtuous, calm and everlasting" (CNN and just about everyone else). It sounds like a lot to ask from a baby, ね? The NewIndPress explains:

Hisa translates as serene in Japanese. Hito, which means virtuous, usually comes at the end of boys born to the imperial family. “The name carried the wishes of the prince and princess that the new prince would have a long and serene life,” an imperial household agency official said.

The character for Hisa can also be read in combination with other characters as yukyu, which means eternity, or yuzen, which means serenity.

“As in yukyu and yuzen, the character has a meaning that one is ‘perennial’ and ‘calm,’” the palace official said.

Language geeks can take this opportunity to learn some new kanji. The first character 悠 has Kun readings とお(い)、はる(か)and On reading ユウ. ひさ is not given as a standard reading, although according to Japanese Names this character can be used to write the male names Hisashi and Hisao 悠夫. Some kanji compounds beginning with 悠 are:

  • 悠然 (ゆうぜん) calm, perfect composure
  • 悠長 (ゆうちょう) leisurely, slow, easygoing
  • 悠々 (ゆうゆう) calm, composed, leisurely
  • 悠揚 (ゆうよう) composed, calm, serene
  • 悠久 (ゆうきゅう) eternity, perpetuity
(Source: Hadamitzky and Spahn, character #1597)

The second character 仁 has Kun reading ひと and On readings ジン、ニ、ニン; for example, 仁義 (じんぎ) "humanity and justice" (H&S character #1619). Japanese Names lists several masculine names that can be written with this character: Hitoshi, Masashi, Hiroshi, Yasushi, Hisashi, Tadashi, Shinobu. Sometimes it seems that when choosing a name, Japanese parents are more concerned with how it looks than what it sounds like! (The subject of Japanese names is complex. See this long article in Wikipedia if you dare to delve into it.)

Little Hisahito's parents didn't have as much leeway as one might think when choosing a name. Not only do Japanese names have to use kanji from an approved list, but the weight of 1000 years of tradition dictates that the 2nd character must be hito 仁, as in Crown Prince Naruhito 徳仁, the current Emperor Akihito 明仁, his father Hirohito 裕仁 (Emperor Showa), Yoshihito 嘉仁 (Emperor Taisho), Mutsuhito 睦仁 (Emperor Meiji), and so on back through history. Good luck, kid! You're going to need it.

Posted at 09:20 PDT  Link | Tags:

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Graveyard for Languages

While driving in the Bay Area today I heard a radio broadcast of an interview with Douglas Massey, professor of sociology at Princeton University, who recently published a study of immigrants from Latin America into the U.S. and how well their fluency in Spanish holds up. The answer is: Not very well. By the third generation, the kids mostly refuse to speak anything but English.

Immigrant after immigrant group has come into the country, and as one sociologist put it, the United States really is a graveyard for languages, and the current wave of Latin American migrants is no exception. ...

The immigration backlash has a funny effect. When you start pushing people and telling them "You can't speak Spanish" then they start insisting on their right to do it, and It can actually backfire. If you just let things go according to their own pace, the language tends to die out over time anyway. ...

It always amazes me how worried Americans can be about English language use, 'cause if you go down to Mexico and look at it from their point of view, English is all over the place down there. Everybody is keen to learn English... Why are we so worried?

Don't worry, you can listen to a podcast of the interview on the KCBS website, or read more about the study in the International Herald Tribune or the News@Princeton.

Posted at 22:15 PDT  Link | Tags:

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Prescriptivism considered harmful

In the age-old battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists, I lean towards the D side. I love clever phrases, puns, and neologisms, but it drives me bonkers when I see mispellings (sic) and misused apostrophe's (really sic). I guess that makes me an ascriptivist (but in a good way!).

What brought this on was finding a review in the Guardian Unlimited of a new book by David Crystal called The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. The review says that "Language expert [Crystal] lashes Lynne Truss's zero-tolerance approach to punctuation. ... Describing the approach as 'misconceived', he adds:"

Her book is humorous, clever, clear, pretty accurate, well crafted, and deeply unnerving. Zero tolerance. She uses metaphors of vigilantes, balaclavas, militant wing, criminal damage. It's a joke, of course. Yes, it has to be a joke. But it's a funny sort of joke.

I hate it when jokes aren't funny... A lot of folks jumped on the Truss bandwagon a couple of years ago when her Eats, Shoots, and Leaves came out, including moi. I read a couple of the mildly amusing chapters, put it down, and never got back to it. After a while all this language punditry starts to look like a tempest in a teapot, a typhoon in a teacup, a hurricane in a hand basin, a cyclone in a cistern. People have bemoaned the so-called degeneration of English, French, and so on for centuries; maybe they should just get over it. According to Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language,

In its most general sense, prescriptivism is the view that one variety of language has an inherently higher value than others, and that this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. ... The variety which is favoured ... is usually a version of the 'standard' written language, especially as encountered in literature, or in the formal spoken language which most closely reflects this style. Adherents to this variety are said to speak or write 'correctly'; deviations from it are said to be 'incorrect'.

All the main European languages have been studied prescriptively, especially in the 18th century approach to the writing of grammars and dictionaries. The aims of these early grammarians were threefold: (a) they wanted to codify the principles of their languages, to show that there was a system beneath the apparent chaos of usage, (b) they wanted a means of settling disputes over usage, (c) they wanted to point out what they felt to be common errors, in order to 'improve' the language. ... In this early period, there were no half-measures: usage was either right or wrong, and it was the task of the grammarian not simply to record alternatives, but to pronounce judgment upon them.

These attitudes are still with us, and they motivate a widespread concern that linguistic standards should be maintained. ... In our own time, the opposition between 'descriptivists' and 'prescriptivists' has often become extreme, with both sides painting unreal pictures of the other. Descriptive grammarians have been presented as people who do not care about standards, because of the way they see all forms of usage as equally valid. Prescriptive grammarians have been presented as blind adherents to a historical tradition. The opposition has even been presented in quasi-political terms - of radical liberalism vs elitist conservatism.

That said, which of these statements best expresses your position on this issue?