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Sanskrit and German

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[Originally posted to linguistics.stackexchange.com as an answer to a question by user Manishearth, who asked: "I've heard many times that learning German is easier for those who speak Sanskrit, and vice versa. Is there any linguistic basis for this? What similarities exist between the two languages that may be able to explain this?"]

This is an answer not to the part about whether it is easier to learn German after Sanskrit (I don’t know), but rather, a few more assorted points re. “What similarities exist between the two languages”, or even more generally, “Why would people make such a claim?”

As Cerberus [another user] noted, most of these claims come from people whose familiarity, outside of Indian languages, is with mainly English, and perhaps a bit of French (or rarely, Spanish or Italian). So even though many similarities noted between Sanskrit and German are in fact those shared by many members of the Indo-European family, the claim just means that among the few languages considered, German’s similarities are remarkable.

[My background: I have a reasonable familiarity with Sanskrit; not so much with German. For impressions about German I’ll rely on the Wikipedia articles, and, (don’t lynch me) Mark Twain’s humorous essay The Awful German Language — of course I know it’s unfair and not a work of linguistics, but as examples of what the average English speaker might find unusual in German, it is a useful document.]

With that said, some similarities:

Cases

German apparently has four cases; Sanskrit has eight cases (traditional Sanskrit grammar counts seven, not counting the vocative as distinct). As Cerberus [another user] notes, “Sanskrit and German have several functional cases, whereas French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Dutch/English/etc. do not. Those are the languages one might be inclined to compare Sanskrit with”.

Compound words

Although English does have short compound words (like bluebirdhorseshoepaperback or pickpocket), German has a reputation for long compound words. (Twain complains that the average German sentence “is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens”) He mentions Stadtverordnetenversammlungen and Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen; Wikipedia mentions Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz and Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. But these are nothing compared to the words one routinely finds in ornate Sanskrit prose. See for example this post. Sanskrit like German allows compounds of arbitrary length, and compounds made of four or five words are routinely found in even the most common Sanskrit texts.

Verb appearing late

It appears that German words tend to come later in the sentence than English speakers are comfortable with. I notice questions on this SE showing that German has V2 word order, not SOV. However, many English speakers seem to find late verbs in German worth remarking on. One of my favourite sentences from Hofstadter goes

“The proverbial German phenomenon of the “verb-at-the-end”, about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping.”

Twain too, says “the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb” and gives the analogy of

“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,”

and also

“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”

Well, this is exactly typical Sanskrit writing. Those sentences might have been translated verbatim from a Sanskrit text. Sanskrit technically has free word order (i.e., words can be put in any order), and this is made much use of in verse, but in prose, usage tends to be SOV.

Of Sanskrit’s greatest prose work, Kādambarī, someone named Albrecht Weber wrote in 1853 that in it,

“the verb is kept back to the second, third, fourth, nay, once to the sixth page, and all the interval is filled with epithets and epithets to these epithets: moreover these epithets frequently consist of compounds extending over more than one line; in short, Bāṇa’s prose is an Indian wood, where all progress is rendered impossible by the undergrowth until the traveller cuts out a path for himself, and where, even then, he has to reckon with malicious wild beasts in the shape of unknown words that affright him.” (“…ein wahrer indischer Wald…”)

(This is unfair criticism: personally, I have been lately reading the Kādambarī with the help of friends more experienced in Sanskrit, and I must say the style is truly enjoyable.) Now, the fact that this was a German Indologist writing for the Journal of the German Oriental Society somewhat goes against the claim of Sanskrit and German being similar. But one could say: for someone familiar with Sanskrit’s long compounds and late verbs that even Germans find difficult, the same features in German will pose little difficulty.

Adjectives decline like nouns

In Sanskrit, as it appears to be in German, an adjective takes the gender, case, and number of whatever it is describing. (Twain: “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”)

Gender of nouns has to be learned

By and large, it is so in Sanskrit as well. Twain notes that in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all”. (He goes on to write a “Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate.”) It does not seem quite so bad in Sanskrit, but yes, gender of words needs to be learned. (In Sanskrit there exists a word for “wife” in each of the three genders.) However this is a feature common to many languages (including, say, languages like Hindi or French that have only two genders) so I shouldn’t list it among similarities.

Spelling

This is something quite trivial, and linguists often don’t even consider orthography a part of the language proper, but spelling seems to be a pretty big deal to Indians learning other languages. The writing systems of most Indian languages are phonetic, in the sense that the spelling deterministically reflects the pronunciation and vice-versa. There are no silent letters, no wondering about a word spelled in a particular way is pronounced. Indian learners of English often complain about the ad-hoc inconsistent spelling of English; it seems a bigger deal than it should be. From this point of view, the fact that it is claimed that for German, “After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask” means that that aspect of German is easier to learn.

The harmony of sound and sense

This is extremely subjective and will be controversial, and perhaps I will seem biased, but to me, in Sanskrit, it seems possible to pick words whose sounds match the desired feeling, better than in other languages. I have seen people who knew many languages say the same thing, and also Western translators from Sanskrit etc., so it is interesting for me to see Twain make a similar remark about German. Anyway, this is subjective, so I’ll not dwell on this much.

Non-similarities

There are of course many; e.g. Sanskrit does not have articles (the, etc.) unlike German. It also has very few prepositions (has only a few ones like “without”, “with”, “before”), as the work of prepositions like “to”, “from”, or “by” is handled by case. The difficulty of German prepositions does not seem to be present in Sanskrit.

TL;DR version

Some alleged difficulties of learning German, such as cases, long compounds, and word order, are present to a far greater extent in Sanskrit, so in principle someone who knows Sanskrit may be able to pick them up more easily than someone trying to learn German without this knowledge. However, this may not be saying anything more than that knowing one language helps you learn others.

Written by S

Tue, 2014-07-01 at 20:25:02 +05:30

Posted in language, sanskrit

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The letter in Roister Doister

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An early English example of resegmentation for change of meaning: Merygreeke’s letter to the Dame Custance, from Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553), the first comedy to be written in the English language. [Aside: Shakespeare born in 1564 started had written all his plays before 1613, only 60 years from then.]

The example also shows that enjambment (no pause at end of line) did indeed exist in early English as well.

Scene 4

Sweete mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all,
Regarding your substance and richesse chiefe of all,
For your personage, beautie, demeanour and wit,
I commende me vnto you neuer a whit.
Sorie to heare report of your good welfare.
For (as I heare say) suche your conditions are,
That ye be worthie fauour of no liuing man,
To be abhorred of euery honest man.
To be taken for a woman enclined to vice.
Nothing at all to Vertue gyuing hir due price.
Whersore concerning mariage, ye are thought
Suche a fine Paragon, as nere honest man bought.
And nowe by these presentes I do you aduertise
That I am minded to marrie you in no wise.
For your goodes and substance, I coulde bee content
To take you as ye are. If ye mynde to bee my wyfe,
Ye shall be assured for the tyme of my lyfe,
I will keepe ye ryght well, from good rayment and fare,
Ye shall not be kepte but in sorowe and care.
Ye shall in no wyse lyue at your owne libertie,
Doe and say what ye lust, ye shall neuer please me,
But when ye are mery, I will be all sadde,
When ye are sory, I will be very gladde.
When ye seeke your heartes ease, I will be vnkinde,
At no tyme, in me shall ye muche gentlenesse finde.
But all things contrary to your will and minde,
Shall be done: otherwise I wyll not be behinde
To speake. And as for all them that woulde do you wrong
I will so helpe and mainteyne, ye shall not lyue long.
Nor any foolishe dolte, shall cumbre you but I.
Thus good mistresse Custance, the lorde you saue and kepe,
From me Roister Doister, whether I wake or slepe.
Who fauoureth you no lesse, (ye may be bolde)
Than this letter purporteth, which ye haue vnfolde.

Scene 5

Sweete mistresse, where as I loue you, nothing at all
Regarding your richesse and substance: chiefe of all
For your personage, beautie, demeanour and witte
I commende me vnto you: Neuer a whitte
Sory to heare reporte of your good welfare.
For (as I heare say) suche your conditions are,
That ye be worthie fauour: Of no liuing man
To be abhorred: of euery honest man
To be taken for a woman enclined to vice
Nothing at all: to vertue giuing hir due price.
Wherfore concerning mariage, ye are thought
Suche a fine Paragon, as nere honest man bought.
And nowe by these presents I doe you aduertise,
That I am minded to marrie you: In no wyse
For your goodes and substance: I can be content
To take you as you are: yf ye will be my wife,
Ye shall be assured for the time of my life,
I wyll keepe you right well: from good raiment and fare,
Ye shall not be kept: but in sorowe and care
Ye shall in no wyse lyue: at your owne libertie,
Doe and say what ye lust: ye shall neuer please me
But when ye are merrie: I will bee all sadde
When ye are sorie: I wyll be very gladde
When ye seeke your heartes ease: I will be vnkinde
At no time: in me shall ye muche gentlenesse finde.
But all things contrary to your will and minde
Shall be done otherwise: I wyll not be behynde
To speake: And as for all they that woulde do you wrong,
(I wyll so helpe and maintayne ye) shall not lyue long.
Nor any foolishe dolte shall cumber you, but I,
I, who ere say nay, wyll sticke by you tyll I die.
Thus good mistresse Custance, the lorde you saue and kepe.
From me Roister Doister, whether I wake or slepe,
Who fauoureth you no lesse, (ye may be bolde)
Than this letter purporteth, which ye haue vnfolde.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21350/21350-h/21350-h.htm

See also https://plus.google.com/+MohanKV/posts/MXGPBQfAsMz

Written by S

Tue, 2014-02-25 at 07:30:28 +05:30

Posted in language, literature

Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”: Foreword

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I reproduce below the line below Stephen Fry’s entire foreword to his book The Ode Less Travelled, because I find myself frequently referring to it and would like to be able to direct friends to some place to read it‌ — this is now such a place.


I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noël Coward‎ painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But poetry?

I have a friend who drums in the attic, another who has been building a boat for years. An actor I know is prouder of the reproduction eighteenth-century duelling pistols he makes in a small workshop than he is of his knighthood. Britain is a nation of hobbyists—eccentric amateurs, talented part-timers, Pooterish potterers and dedicated autodidacts in every field of human endeavour. But poetry?

An adolescent girl may write poetry, so long as it is securely locked up in her pink leatherette five-year diary. Suburban professionals are permitted to enter jolly pastiche competitions in the Spectator and New Statesman. At a pinch, a young man may be allowed to write a verse or two of dirty doggerel and leave it on a post-it note stuck to the fridge when he has forgotten to buy a Valentine card. But that’s it. Any more forays into the world of Poesy and you release the beast that lurks within every British breast—and the name of the beast is Embarrassment.

And yet…

I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to ‘respond’ to a poem.

For me the private act of writing poetry is songwriting, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration and spiritual adventure all in one inexpensive package.

Suppose I want to paint but seem to have no obvious talent. Never mind: there are artist supply shops selling paints, papers, pastels, charcoals and crayons. There are ‘How To’ books everywhere. Simple lessons in the rules of proportion and guides to composition and colourmixing can make up for my lack of natural ability and provide painless technical grounding. I am helped by grids and outlines, pantographs and tracing paper; precise instructions guide me in how to prepare a canvas, prime it with paint and wash it into an instant watercolour sky. There are instructional videos available; I can even find channels on cable and satellite television showing gentle hippies painting lakes, carving pine trees with palette knives and dotting them with impasto snow. Mahlsticks, sable, hogs-hair, turpentine and linseed. Viridian, umber, ochre and carmine. Perspective, chiaroscuro, sfumato, grisaille, tondo and morbidezza. Reserved modes and materials. The tools of the trade. A new jargon to learn. A whole initiation into technique, form and style.

Suppose I want to play music but seem to have no obvious talent. Never mind: there are music shops selling instruments, tuning forks, metronomes and ‘How To’ books by the score. And scores by the score. Instructional videos abound. I can buy digital keyboards linked to programmes that plug into my computer and guide me through the rudiments, monitoring my progress and accuracy. I start with scales and move on to chords and arpeggios. There are horsehair, rosin and catgut, reeds, plectrums and mouthpieces. There are diminished sevenths, augmented fifths, relative minors, trills and accidentals. There are riffs and figures, licks and vamps. Sonata, adagio, crescendo, scherzo and twelve-bar blues. Reserved modes and materials. The tools of the trade. A new jargon to learn. A whole initiation into technique, form and style.

To help us further there are evening classes, clubs and groups. Pack up your easel and palette and go into the countryside with a party of like-minded enthusiasts. Sit down with a friend and learn a new chord on the guitar. Join a band. Turn your watercolour view of Lake Windermere into a tablemat or T-shirt. Burn your version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ onto a CD and alarm your friends.

None of these adventures into technique and proficiency will necessarily turn you into a genius or even a proficient craftsman. Your view of Snow on York Minster, whether languishing in the loft or forming the basis of this year’s Christmas card doesn’t make you Turner, Constable or Monet. Your version of ‘Fur Elise’ on electric piano might not threaten Alfred Brendel, your trumpet blast of ‘Basin Street Blues’ could be so far from Satchmo that it hurts and your take on ‘Lela’ may well stand as an eternal reproach to all those with ears to hear. You may not sell a single picture, be invited even once to deputise for the church organist when she goes down with shingles or have any luck at all when you try out for the local Bay City Rollers tribute band. You are neither Great Artist, sessions professional, illustrator or admired amateur.

So what? You are someone who paints a bit, scratches around on the keyboard for fun, gets a kick out of learning a tune or discovering a new way of rendering the face of your beloved in charcoal. You have another life, you have family, work and friends but this is a hobby, a pastime, FUN. Do you give up the Sunday kick-around because you’ll never be Thierry Henry? Of course not. That would be pathologically vain. We don’t stop talking about how the world might be better just because we have no chance of making it to Prime Minister. We are all politicians. We are all artists. In an open society everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright. It is up to us to claim it.

And you know, you might be the real thing, or someone with the potential to give as much pleasure to others as you derive yourself. But how you will ever know if you don’t try?

As the above is true of painting and music, so it is true of cookery and photography and gardening and interior decoration and chess and poker and skiing and sailing and carpentry and bridge and wine and knitting and brass-rubbing and line-dancing and the hundreds of other activities that enrich and enliven the daily toil of getting and spending, mortgages and shopping, school and office. There are rules, conventions, techniques, reserved objects, equipment and paraphernalia, time-honoured modes, forms, jargon and tradition. The average practitioner doesn’t expect to win prizes, earn a fortune, become famous or acquire absolute mastery in their art, craft, sport-or as we would say now, their chosen leisure pursuit. It really is enough to have fun.

The point remains: it isn’t a burden to learn the difference between acid and alkaline soil or understand how f-stops and exposure times affect your photograph. There’s no drudgery or humiliation in discovering how to knit, purl and cast off, snowplough your skis, deglaze a pan, carve a dovetail or tot up your bridge hand according to Acol. Only an embarrassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring. Sensible people are above simpering at references to colour in music, structure in wine or rhythm in architecture. When you learn to sail you are literally shown the ropes and taught that they are called sheets or painters and that knots are hitches and forward is aft and right is starboard. That is not pseudery or exclusivity, it is precision, it is part of initiating the newcomer into the guild. Learning the lingo is the beginning of our rite of passage.

In music, tempo is not the same as rhythm, which is not the same as pulse. There are metronomic indications and time signatures. At some point along the road between picking out a tune with one finger and really playing we need to know these distinctions. For some it comes naturally and seems inborn, for most of us the music is buried deep inside but needs a little coaxing and tuition to be got out. So someone shows us, or we progress by video, evening class or book. Talent is inborn but technique is learned.

Talent without technique is like an engine without a steering wheel, gears or brakes. It doesn’t matter how thoroughbred and powerful the V12 under the bonnet if it can’t be steered and kept under control. Talented people who do nothing with their gifts often crash and burn. A great truth, so obvious that it is almost a secret, is that most people are embarrassed to the point of shame by their talents. Ashamed of their gifts but proud to bursting of their achievements. Do athletes boast of their hand-eye coordination, grace and natural sense of balance? No, they talk of how hard they trained, the sacrifices they made, the effort they put in.

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Browning’s cry brings us back, at last, to poetry. While it is perfectly possible that you did not learn music at school, or drawing and painting, it is almost certain that you did learn poetry. Not how to do it, almost never how to write your own, but how, God help us, to appreciate it.

We have all of us, all of us, sat with brows furrowed feeling incredibly dense and dumb as the teacher asks us to respond to an image or line of verse.

What do you think Wordsworth was referring to here?
What does Wilfred Owen achieve by choosing this metaphor?
How does Keats respond to the nightingale?
Why do you think Shakespeare uses the word ‘gentle’ as a verb?
What is Larkin’s attitude to the hotel room?

It brings it all back, doesn’t it? All the red-faced, blood-pounding humiliation and embarrassment of being singled out for comment.

The way poetry was taught at school reminded W. H. Auden of a Punch cartoon composed, legend has it, by the poet A. E. Housman. Two English teachers are walking in the woods in springtime. The first, on hearing birdsong, is moved to quote William Wordsworth:

TEACHER 1: Oh cuckoo, shall I call thee bird
Or but a wandering voice?
TEACHER 2: State the alternative preferred
With reasons for your choice.

Even if some secret part of you might have been privately moved and engaged, you probably went through a stage of loathing those bores Shakespeare, Keats, Owen, Eliot, Larkin and all who came before and after them. You may love them now, you may still hate them or perhaps you feel entirely indifferent to the whole pack of them. But however well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poems?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.

Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry: Anything goes.

But that’s how modern poetry works, isn’t it? Free verse, don’t they call it? Vers libre?

Ye-e-es…And in avant-garde music, John Cage famously wrote a piece of silence called ‘4 Minutes 33 Seconds’ and created other works requiring ball-bearings and chains to be dropped on to prepared pianos. Do music teachers suggest that to children? Do we encourage them to ignore all harmony and rhythm and just make noise? It is important to realise that Cage’s first pieces were written in the Western compositional tradition, in movements with conventional Italian names like lento, vivace and fugato. Picasso’s early paintings are flawless models of figurative accuracy. Listening to music may inspire an extraordinary emotional response, but extraordinary emotions are not enough to make music.

Unlike musical notation, paint or clay, language is inside every one of us. For free. We are all proficient at it. We already have the palette, the paints and the instruments. We don’t have to go and buy any reserved materials. Poetry is made of the same stuff you are reading now, the same stuff you use to order pizza over the phone, the same stuff you yell at your parents and children, whisper in your lover’s ear and shove into an e-mail, text or birthday card. It is common to us all. Is that why we resent being told that there is a technique to its highest expression, poetry? I cannot ski, so I would like to be shown how to. I cannot paint, so I would value some lessons. But I can speak and write, so do not waste my time telling me that I need lessons in poetry, which is, after all, no more than emotional writing, with or without the odd rhyme. Isn’t it?

Jan Schreiber in a review of Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures, says this of modern verse:

The writing of poetry has been made laughably easy. There are no technical constraints. Knowledge of the tradition is not necessary, nor is a desire to communicate, this having been supplanted in many practitioners by the more urgent desire to express themselves. Even sophistication in the manipulation of syntax is not sought. Poetry, it seems, need no longer be at least as well written as prose.

Personally, I find writing without form, metre or rhyme not ‘laughably easy’ but fantastically difficult. If you can do it, good luck to you and farewell, this book is not for you: but a word of warning from W.H. Auden before you go.

The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

I cannot teach you how to be a great poet or even a good one. Dammit, I can’t teach myself that. But I can show you how to have fun with the modes and forms of poetry as they have developed over the years. By the time you have read this book you will be able to write a Petrarchan sonnet, a Sapphic Ode, a ballade, a villanelle and a Spenserian stanza, among many other weird and delightful forms; you will be confident with metre, rhyme and much else besides. Whether you choose to write on the stupidity of advertising, the curve of your true love’s buttocks, the folly of war or the irritation of not being able to open a pickle jar is unimportant. I will give you the tools, you can finish the job. And once you have got the hang of the forms, you can devise your own. The Robertsonian Sonnet. The Jonesian Ode. The Millerian Stanza.

This is not an academic book. It is unlikely to become part of the core curriculum. It may help you with your English exams because it will certainly allow you to be a smart-arse in Practical Criticism papers (if such things still exist) and demonstrate that you know a trochee from a dactyl, a terza from an ottava rima and assonance from enjambment, in which case I am happy to be of service. It is over a quarter of a century since I did any teaching and I have no idea if such knowledge is considered good or useless these days, for all I know it will count against you.

I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it. You will be relieved to hear that I will not be burdening you with any of my actual poems (except sample verse specifically designed to help clarify form and metre): I do not write poetry for publication, I write it for the same reason that, according to Wilde, one should write a diary, to have something sensational to read on the train. And as a way of speaking to myself. But most importantly of all for pleasure.

This is not the only work on prosody (the art of versification) ever published in English, but it is the one that I should like to have been available to me many years ago. It is technical, yes, inasmuch as it investigates technique, but I hope that does not make it dry, obscure or difficult-after all, ‘technique’ is just the Greek for ‘art’. I have tried to make everything approachable without being loopily matey or absurdly simplistic.

I certainly do not attempt in this book to pick up where those poor teachers left off and instruct you in poetry appreciation. I suspect, however, that once you have started writing a poem of any real shape you will find yourself admiring and appreciating other poets’ work a great deal more. If you have never picked up a golf club you will never really know just how remarkable Ernie Els is (substitute tennis racket for Roger Federer, frying pan for Gordon Ramsay, piano for Jools Holland and so on).

But maybe you are too old a dog to learn new tricks? Maybe you have missed the bus? That’s hooey. Thomas Hardy (a finer poet than he was a novelist in my view) did not start publishing verse till he was nearly sixty.

Every child is musical. Unfortunately this natural gift is squelched before it has time to develop. From all my life experience I remember being laughed at because my voice and the words I sang didn’t please someone. My second grade teacher, Miss Stone would not let me sing with the rest of the class because she judged my voice as not musical and she said I threw the class off key. I believed her which led to the blockage of my appreciation of music and blocked my ability to write poetry. Fortunately at the age of 57 I had a significant emotional event which unblocked my ability to compose poetry which many people believe has lyrical qualities.

So writes one Sidney Madwed. Mr Madwed may not be Thomas Campion or Cole Porter, but he believes that an understanding of prosody has set him free and now clearly has a whale of a time writing his lyrics and verses. I hope reading this book will take the place for you of a ‘significant emotional event’ and awaken the poet that has always lain dormant within.

It is never too late. We are all opsimaths.

Opsimath, noun: one who learns late in life.

Let us go forward together now, both opsimathically and optimistically. Nothing can hold us back. The ode beckons.

Written by S

Sun, 2013-08-04 at 18:27:35 +05:30

Posted in language, literature, quotes

Translating metaphor into English: Time and Motion?

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In a book called A History of Kanarese Literature, by Edward Rice (1921), he makes the following comment (p. 106):

The other is that a Kanarese poem defies anything like literal translation into another language. To give any idea of the spirit of the original it would be necessary to paraphrase freely, to expand the terse and frequent metaphors into similes, and to give a double rendering of many stanzas. An example will make this clear. The opening stanza of the Jaimini Bharata is given in Sanderson’s translation as follows:

May the moon-face of Vishnu, of Devapura, always suffused with moonlight smile, full of delightful favour-ambrosial rays—at which the chakora-eye of Lakshmi is enraptured, the lotus-bud heart of the devout expands, and the sea of the world’s pure happiness rises and overflows its bounds—give us joy.

The following is an attempt, by means of a freer rendering, to retain something of the spirit of the original:

When the full moon through heaven rides,
Broad Ocean swells with all its tides ;
The lotus blossom on the stream
Opens to drink the silv’ry beam ;
And far aloft with tranced gaze
The chakor bird feeds on the rays.

So, when great Vishnu’s face is seen,—
Whom men adore at Devapore—
Like to the sea, the devotee
Thrills with a tide of joy ;
Like to the flower, that blissful hour
The heart of the devout expands ;
And Lakshmi Queen, with rapture keen,
Watches with ever-radiant face
For her great Consort’s heavenly grace.
O may that grace be ours !

I’m wondering about this change. Apart from the versification—you know, being an actual poem instead of stilted prose—when it comes to just the idea, is it better? Why? How? Is it more readable? More understandable? Most importantly, does this change better “retain the spirit of the original”?

[Aside: just to be mischievous, we can with the wonders of technology do the following:

moon moonlight rays chakora bird lotus sea
Vishnu's face smile his grace Lakshmi's eye heart of the devout world's happiness

to ruin the poem.]

For one thing, he has changed the metaphor (rūpaka) of the original into simile (upamā).
Probably the reason is that the compressed quality of the original, a prominent characteristic of Sanskrit and other classical Indian literature, is unsuitable for English, whose readers are typically unprepared for it. Is there more to it? Is this a general difference between the two literary cultures?

I’m wondering all this because Daniel Ingalls says something along similar lines in his honestly-written general introduction “Sanskrit poetry and Sanskrit Poetics” (from his translation of the Subhāṣita-ratna-kośa anthology):

As a result, Sanskrit is lacking in what is perhaps the chief force of English poetry: its kinesthetic effect. What I mean can be shown by an old ballad:

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
and shake the green leaves off the tree…

One can feel the leaves shaking, and one shivers in the next line to the “Frost that freezes fell / and blowing snow’s inclemency.” One can find verses that produce this muscular effect in Bengali, and although I cannot speak at first hand of other modern Indian literatures, I imagine that one can find the effect in them as well. But it is only rarely that one finds it in Sanskrit. The powers of Sanskrit are of a different order.
[…]
[The following verse] is by Yogeśvara, an excellent poet who is capable of better things. In it he uses a strikingly elaborate metaphor:

Now the great cloud-cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moon
from the saucepan of the sky.

The effect here is gained by intellectual, entirely rational means. The metaphor is complete in every detail: cat, tongue, cream, and saucepan—cloud, moon, lightning, and sky. It is almost like an exercise from a manual of logic under the chapter “Analogy.” Compare the verse with a well-known passage of T. S. Eliot which uses several similar ideas, but uses them very differently:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …

This from one who is often called an intellectual poet. And yet Eliot gets his effect in every line from the irrational, the strong but imprecise memory we have of fog and cats, the childhood associations of certain words and idioms. Consider the line: “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” It brings to sudden flower certain homely and completely natural phrases: “licks his tongue around the bowl,” or “licks his tongue into the corner of the dish.” The idiom is suddenly transfigured by bringing it into juxtaposition with the last three words, “of the evening.” This transfiguration of language becomes impossible without a natural-language basis.

Is there a general point here that English poetry uses vague, fuzzy, but “kinesthetic” effects where Sanskrit (or classical Indian) poetry uses compressed metaphors that paint a precise and detailed picture? I think there is some merit to the idea that, by and large, Sanskrit poetry is “static”, not “dynamic”. It is not a stream in motion; it hasn’t any “flow”. It is more a pearl in itself, that dazzles as you read. If poetry is imagination and the evocation of something other-worldly, it seems to me that Sanskrit poetry in general / at its best, conjures a world that one can calmly dwell in for a while, not an evocative fleeting idea that escapes as you try to grasp it, one which has appeal more in the chasing. Consider the importance accorded ultimately to stability / sthāyī-bhāva in all Indian arts, from poetry to theatre to dance.

This requires more thought and elaboration, but one may as well quote the final lines of Ingalls’s introduction (emphasis mine):

One may argue today, as the Sanskrit critics argued in the past, the relative importance of the various factors of Sanskrit verse which I have discussed. Vocabulary, grammar, meter: these are all necessary. Figures of speech, both verbal and intellectual, furnish delight. Mood is what is sought, though the grand successes of Sanskrit I would say go beyond mood to a sort of universal revelation, to what James Joyce, drawing on the vocabulary of religion, called an epiphany. To achieve this success impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument. If I were to single out for admiration one factor above the others in this complex it would be suggestion, not because it is unknown in other languages but because the Sanskrit poets use it with such brilliance and because it seems to me the most intimately connected of all the factors with the excitement, the sudden rushing of the mind into a delightful, calm expansion, that one occasionally derives from Sanskrit poetry and that brings one who has once known it constantly back for further draughts.

Written by S

Sat, 2012-09-29 at 13:09:01 +05:30

Kannada dictionary online

with 11 comments

The absence of a Kannada dictionary online has been a source of pain for a while (unlike Sanskrit dictionaries). Mohan pointed me to the one at kannadakasturi.com with the warning that it is very slow. He also found that the Internet Archive has a scanned copy of the Kittel dictionary (A Kannada-English school-dictionary : chiefly based on the labours of the Rev. Dr. F. Kittel, by the Rev. J. Bucher (1899)). This is actually a fairly good dictionary and could serve most common purposes. Until someone digitizes it and puts it online (this version at least is out of copyright), we will have to make do with looking up words in this scanned copy. To make it easier to find the right page, below is an “index” to the dictionary. Look down the second column in the table below to find the approximate position of the word you want, then click on the corresponding link in the left column. The gap between successive entries is at most 10 pages, so you should be able to find any word with a click and at most 3 page flips.

http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/n13/mode/2up a
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/10/mode/2up        aDasatte
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/20/mode/2up        annu
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/30/mode/2up        artha
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/38/mode/2up A
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/48/mode/2up i
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/56/mode/2up I
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/58/mode/2up u
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/68/mode/2up        ura
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/70/mode/2up U, R
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/72/mode/2up RR, lR, lRR, e
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/76/mode/2up E
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/78/mode/2up ai
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/80/mode/2up o
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/84/mode/2up O
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/86/mode/2up au
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/88/mode/2up M H
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/88/mode/2up k
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/98/mode/2up        kampu
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/108/mode/2up        kAruNya
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/118/mode/2up        kusaku
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/128/mode/2up        kollAra
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/132/mode/2up kh
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/134/mode/2up g
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/144/mode/2up        gillA
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/154/mode/2up gh, G, c
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/164/mode/2up        citra
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/168/mode/2up ch, j
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/178/mode/2up        jIva
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/180/mode/2up jh, J, T
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/182/mode/2up Th, D
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/184/mode/2up Dh, N
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/186/mode/2up t
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/196/mode/2up        tAmbUla
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/206/mode/2up        tETu
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/210/mode/2up th, d
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/220/mode/2up        dumuku
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/226/mode/2up dh
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/230/mode/2up n
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/240/mode/2up        nikAya
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/250/mode/2up        neTTage
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/252/mode/2up p
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/262/mode/2up        parihAsa
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/272/mode/2up        punarnava
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/282/mode/2up        prabOdha
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/286/mode/2up ph
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/288/mode/2up b
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/298/mode/2up        bANali
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/308/mode/2up        bese
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/312/mode/2up bh
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/318/mode/2up m
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/328/mode/2up        marasuttu
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/338/mode/2up        mIru
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/348/mode/2up        mEle
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/352/mode/2up y
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/354/mode/2up r
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/362/mode/2up [?]
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/364/mode/2up l
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/370/mode/2up v
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/380/mode/2up        vidyamAna
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/390/mode/2up z
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/398/mode/2up S
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/400/mode/2up s
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/410/mode/2up        sambALisu
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/420/mode/2up        siddhAnta
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/430/mode/2up        sthAyi
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/432/mode/2up h
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/442/mode/2up        hiDi
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/452/mode/2up        hore
http://archive.org/stream/kannadaenglishsc00buchrich#page/454/mode/2up L, [?]
Note: Pages 262–3 are missing, so from there on, printed page = 2 + number in link

Future work:

  • Extend this data to all pages in the dictionary (around 454/2 = 227)
  • Write a web interface where you can type a word/prefix and be taken to the exact page

Feel free to take it up.

Written by S

Mon, 2012-04-30 at 00:26:10 +05:30

Wellerisms &c.

with 2 comments

[Originally posted to paronomasia/pun-ctilious.]

Charles Dickens at 24 was writing his first novel The Pickwick Papers, which was being published serially like all novels of the era. Sales were chugging along decently for the first three months, until the character Sam Weller was introduced. The career of Dickens would never be the same. The novel became a publishing phenomenon and from that moment on he was a star, and new instalments of Dickens’s novels were often more eagerly awaited than any Harry Potter book has been.

Among the characteristics that made Sam Weller so popular with the masses were his linguistic charms, one of them a form of quotation known as a Wellerism. This survives in American popular culture as the rather lame and narrow-in-scope “…that’s what she said” (or the British “…as the actress said to the bishop”), but turning to samples from Dickens himself:

“out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden.”

“How are you, ma’am?” said Mr. Weller. “Wery glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long ‘un, as the gen’l’m’n said to the fi’ pun’ note.”

“All good feelin’, sir—the wery best intentions, as the gen’l’m’n said ven he run away from his wife ‘cos she seemed unhappy with him,” replied Mr. Weller.

“There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squintin’.”

“Yes, but that ain’t all,” said Sam, [...] “vich I call addin’ insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.”

“Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament,” interposed Mr. Weller, who had been peeping through the glass door;…

More examples not from Dickens, from Wikipedia and elsewhere:

“We’ll have to rehearse that,” as the undertaker said when the coffin fell out of the car.

“Simply remarkable,” said the teacher when asked her opinion about the new dry-erase board.

“Don’t move, I’ve got you covered”, as the wallpaper said to the wall.

‘It all comes back to me now’, said the Captain as he spat into the wind.

‘Eureka!’ said Archimedes to the skunk.

“Each moment makes thee dearer,” as the parsimonious tradesman said to his extravagant wife.

“Capital punishment,” as the boy said when the teacher seated him with the girls.

“I’ve been to see an old flame,” remarked the young man returning from Vesuvius.

“I hope I made myself clear,” as the water said when it passed through the filter.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” said the king as he trod on the jester’s toe.

“These are grave charges,” murmured the hopeless one, as he perused the bill for the burial of his mother-in-law.

“Notice the foot-note at the bottom of the page,” laughed the court fool, as the royal attendant’s shoes emitted a squeak.

“That’s my mission in life,” said the monk, as he pointed to his monastery.

“Oh, how blue I am,” mourned the poet, as his fountain pen spattered upon him.

“That’s an old gag,” said the cashier, as the bandit stopped up his mouth.

“My business is looking good,” said the model.

See also this post by Krish Ashok, which has a stream of examples culminating in

“Looks like we still have gaps”, he pointed out, like Aamer Sohail to Venkatesh Prasad.

A subgenre is the “Tom Swifty”, with a pun on the adverb:

“The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom half-heartedly.

“The situation is grave,” Tom said cryptically.

“I’ve joined the navy,” Tom said fleetingly.

“I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.

“This is the real male goose,” said Tom producing the propaganda.

“I won’t finish in fifth place,” Tom held forth.

[See the paronomasia archives for more Tom Swifties from its members, like

"Let's put them in to bat now and bowl them out," Tom declared.

and of course everywhere on the internet.]

Written by S

Sun, 2011-08-14 at 06:16:21 +05:30

Posted in funny, language, quotes

Subtitles as translation

with 6 comments

Continuing with the theme of translation…

If you have ever watched Indian movies with English subtitles, you will be aware of how uniformly terrible they are. Everything is usually translated over-literally, into phrases that make no sense in English even for ideas common enough that non-literal equivalents exist. (Remember those award-winning regional-language films that Doordarshan used to broadcast at 11:30 pm on Sundays, which you used to watch after your parents had gone to sleep, and where you always had to guess what was meant by translating the English subtitles back into an Indian language?)

Sometimes—very rarely—the subtitles are done with more care, and any successful translation is always worth applauding.

Here is a post on the subject by Carla FilmiGeek, where she mentions a trailer in which a character is in a screen test, saying lines like Kitne aadmi the?, while the subtitles have lines like “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender” and “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

That is to say, instead of literally rendering the famous lines from the Hindi films (“How many men were there?” &c.) the subtitler chose a conceptual translation that slipped the category of “famous lines from Hindi films” to “famous lines from Hollywood films.” This rendition conveys the force of what is happening on the screen – the dog is reenacting famous movie scenes – much better than could have been done by a literal translation. [...] ; it is not a linguistic translation only, but also a cultural translation.

The comments there also mention this from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun:

“daal mein kuch kaala hai, bhaiyyaji”
“mujhe kaali daal to pasand hain”

Literally this translates to something along the lines of:
“there is something black in the lentils, brother”
“I love black lentils”

but the subtitles instead read:
“something is fishy!”
“I love fish”

This post was occasioned by the few Hindi movies I saw over the last couple of years—though I would have preferred watching them without subtitles, it’s hard not to read them when they’re forcibly displayed on screen—and was impressed by the English subtitles at times. I don’t think this is a general trend of better subtitles (though foreign markets are slowly growing in importance for Bollywood), but merely isolated examples.

The first was Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, where I was more impressed by the uniformly high quality of the subtitles than by the film. What I found most impressive was that the song lyrics were translated into rhyming verses while still remaining reasonably song-like: where the Hindi lyrics say:

Nazre milaana, nazre churana
kahin pe nigaahen, kahin pe nishaana…

the subtitles say:

The secret look. The stolen gaze.
Finds it’s mark, and yet it strays.

and so on. It may not mean exactly the same thing, but is close enough to whatever extent anyone pays attention to the meaning of song lyrics. Despite the “it’s”, I found it amazing how much care the subtitlers had taken throughout the film in finding the right phrases. Cliches are translated into cliches, colloquialisms into colloquialisms, and everything suggests much thought has gone into it. Subtitlers never get credit for their hard work, so let me acknowledge their names: the credits attribute “English subtitling” to “Renuka Kunzuru” and “Chirag Todiwala” (who also appear in the credits as the actress (“Renuku Kunzru”) who plays the character the film is being narrated to, and an assistant editor respectively).

The second example was the Munnabhai films. These are a special challenge because the films often rely for effect on slang Hindi, puns, cultural references and the like (you don’t realise how much until you try translating). The first film has passably decent and thoughtful subtitles, given the constraints, with even a few inspired choices. But the subtitles of the second film, Lage Raho Munnabhai ambitiously overextend themselves, often to lame effect. They so often make up new material that they seem to construct an entire (irrelevant) parallel literature: For instance, where in the original ‘Circuit’ politely explains at knifepoint to the professor that they should help each other in life, and that in exchange for information on Gandhi, he’d be perfectly willing to impart knowledge on “Shakeel Heda, Dagdu Dada, Afzal Tonda”, the subtitles mention “Franky four-fingers, Bullet-tooth Tony, Boris ‘the blade’”. This seems less an intentional tribute to Guy Ritche’s Snatch (nowhere present in the original) than simply a failure of imagination in coming up with gangster names, and distracts from what’s happening onscreen. Philip Lutgendorf seems to feel the same way; he dislikes Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar being mapped to Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and that “clever Hinglish puns are replaced by irrelevant and less-than-clever English word-play”.

The moral, I guess, is that though “cultural translation” can be better than literal translation in conveying the intended effect, and is always worth attempting, it is not the point in itself, and must be carried out only so far as the result is palatable, and the translation does not draw undue attention to itself.

(Aside: it is interesting to read about Bollywood from the perspective of non-Indians; one gets to learn about one’s own films by seeing what they “get” and don’t get, what they observe and find notable that we’d take for granted. Hilarious initial reactions are one thing, but for reviews by people intimately familiar with Hindi cinema (who have probably watched more Hindi films than I have), among the many many Bollywood blogs present online, I especially recommend Filmi Geek and “philip’s fil-ums”. Lutgendorf, for instance, seems to often pick up references to mythology that we’d not even notice, as we’ve internalized these stories so deeply.)

Written by S

Fri, 2010-08-13 at 16:20:40 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with , ,

New Number Nine

with 4 comments

What is the largest number?

45 billion? 24?

According to one bit of speculation, at some time, it was 8:

It is important to grasp that PIE [Proto-Indo-European] is not anything like “the first human language”, or even “the original ancestor of our languages”. [..] Nevertheless, PIE is sufficiently old that it may possibly have had properties that would make it seem not just “different” but somewhat “primitive”, if we could encounter it as an actual spoken language today. Nobody would expect PIE to have had words for “television” or “banana” — obviously. But, more interestingly, Mallory and Adams point out for instance that the PIE word for “nine” seems to derive from the word for “new”; they suggest that “nine” may originally have been called “the new number”, implying that having a name for such a big number ranked for PIE speakers as a whizzy technological breakthrough. (In English, the pronunciation of these two words has developed rather differently, but notice that in German “neun” and “neu” are closer, and in French “neuf” has both meanings.)

And Sanskrit has “nava” for both; in Hindi they become “nau” and “nayā”. Of course, the fact that the words for ‘new’ and ‘nine’ are similar or identical to each other in many Indo-European languages only means that the roots in Proto-Indo-European were similar or identical, without necessarily implying anything about the reason for it. (I find the theory implausible anyway; I’d think that larger numbers were already familiar even before the first counting words arose, and numbers probably weren’t treated with sufficient abstraction to consider the newness of a number itself.)


The passage quoted above is from Geoffrey Sampson’s PIE page, which contains a (very) short story in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, to demonstrate what it (must have probably) sounded like.

English

Once there was a king. He was childless. The king wanted a son.

He asked his priest:
“May a son be born to me!”

The priest said to the king:
“Pray to the god Varuna”.

The king approached the god Varuna to pray now to the god.

“Hear me, father Varuna!”

The god Varuna came down from heaven.

“What do you want?” “I want a son.”

“Let this be so”, said the bright god Varuna.

The king’s lady bore a son.

PIE

To réecs éhest. So nputlos éhest. So réecs súhnum éwelt.

Só tóso cceutérm prcscet:
“Súhnus moi jnhyotaam!”

So cceutéer tom réejm éweuqet:
“Ihgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”.

So réecs deiwóm Werunom húpo-sesore nu deiwóm ihgeto.

“Cluttí moi, phter Werune!”

Deiwós Wérunos kmta diwós égweht.

“Qíd welsi?” “Wélmi súhnum.”

“Tód héstu”, wéuqet loukós deiwos Werunos.

Reejós pótnih súhnum gegonhe.

Several similarities both to Sanskrit and to Latin are obvious. The spelling above is artificially made “simpler” (English-like); the actual one (see Wikipedia page) has features even closer to Sanskrit:

To rḗḱs éh1est. So n̥putlos éh1est. So rēḱs súhnum éwel(e)t. Só tós(j)o ǵʰeutérm̥ (e)pr̥ḱsḱet: “Súhxnus moi ǵn̥h1jotām!” So ǵʰeutēr tom rḗǵm̥ éweukʷet: “Ihxgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”. So rḗḱs deiwóm Werunom h4úpo-sesore nu deiwóm (é)ihxgeto. “ḱludʰí moi, phater Werune!” Deiwós Wérunos km̥ta diwós égʷehat. “Kʷíd welsi?” “Wélmi súxnum.” “Tód h1éstu”, wéukʷet loukós deiwos Werunos. Rēǵós pótniha súhnum gegonh1e.

And by the time you get to Proto-Indo-Iranian, it’s almost entirely readable.

I have been looking at some comparative linguistics lately, and there’s no doubt that the essential features of the PIE reconstruction are more-or-less correct. The old view that “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages”, often repeated in India by non-linguists, is quite hard to believe after even a cursory look at the evidence available. (Note: I am not discounting the “Out of India theory”, that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was in India — my impression on that is that it seems just barely possible, though there’s no special linguistic reason to believe it, and a few not to — just pointing out that Sanskrit, in the form we have today or even in the Vedas, is most definitely the result of quite a few changes from the original PIE and it is impossible to consider it the original language.) Sanskrit is, however, one of the oldest available languages, and has preserved many features of PIE for centuries with unmatched accuracy. In the Indian context, it is the mother of all the Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, etc.). And even the Dravidian languages (Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam) have borrowed large parts of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, and often modeled their own grammar and literary tradition after Sanskrit.

Written by S

Thu, 2010-05-27 at 14:52:50 +05:30

Posted in history, language, sanskrit

Timespeak: Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind

with 3 comments

TIME magazine used to have a famously distinct style, a precursor of some of today’s awkward journalese (which Dan Brown foisted upon the world at large). Dubbed “Timespeak”, it consisted of some favourite adjectives, a disdain for articles, coined nouns of a type of which “Timespeak” is itself an example, and a sentence order famously parodied by Wolcott Gibbs as “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”.
(Those days are finally over: in 2007, the New York Times had an article titled With Redesign of Time, Sentences Run Forward.)

I just found the complete text of Wolcott Gibbs’s article, which is an unflattering, biting, full-length profile of Henry Luce, Time’s co-founder, written entirely in “Timese” and published in The New Yorker, 1936. The section where he describes the language:

Puny in spite of these preparations, prosy in spite of the contributions of Yale poets Archibald McLeish & John Farrar, was the first issue of Time on March 3, 1923. Magazine went to 9,000 subscribers; readers learned that Uncle Joe Cannon had retired at 86, that there was famine in Russia, that Thornton Wilder friend Gene Tunney had defeated Greb.

Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle. It was months before Hadden’s impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish. By the end of the first year, however, Timeditors were calling people able, potent, nimble;  “Tycoon”, most successful Timepithet, had been coined by Editor Laird Shields Goldsborough; so fascinated Hadden with “beady-eyed” that for months nobody was anything else. Timeworthy were deemed such designations as “Tom-tom” Heflin, “Body-lover” Macfadden.

“Great word! Great word!” would crow Hadden, coming upon “snaggle-toothed,” “pig-faced.” Appearing already were such maddening coagulations as “cinemaddict,” “radiorator.” Appearing also were first gratuitous invasions of privacy. Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst’s “great & good friend” was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the “cozy hospitality” of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

It ends with a flourish:

Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!

Preparation is all this for this post on the A Roguish Chrestomathy blog (On the lucidity of Yoda), where followed up are various prior analyses of Yoda’s syntax, including relations to Irish and whether use the past tense Yoda does.

Written by S

Mon, 2010-05-24 at 21:50:42 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with , , ,

On Translation: Exhibit 1

with 17 comments

Translating Sanskrit poetry into English presents unique difficulties. To be sure, translation is always tricky. Passing to a different language invariably loses some nuances and overtones. What can be naturally expressed in one language may require more effort in another.

With Sanskrit, though, even essential features are often untranslatable to a native English audience.

[Disclaimer: Before going further, I must point out that I am an amateur. Everything below is probably wrong, they are banal and pointless observations, anyway, and I amaze myself by my ability to take something interesting and make it boring. I thought I had something to say, but it took writing it out to realise I didn't.]

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Written by S

Fri, 2010-03-12 at 21:42:30 +05:30

Reading aloud

with 13 comments

There’s this poem, which you can read comfortably but trying to read which aloud is torture:

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Alternative last verse:

A dreadful language? Why, man alive!
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five.

So this poem is about spelling not corresponding to pronunciation and vice-versa. Wikipedia cites it as “From a letter published in the London Sunday Times in 1965 [...] The author was only listed by T.S.W.”, but it’s at least as old as 1961, possibly much older.

The other poem is called The Chaos, and it’s by the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité, illustrating how impossible it is to deduce pronunciation from spelling. It makes you doubt the pronunciation of many words you think you know. :-) He first published it in 1920, with 164 lines, and revised it many times until his death in 1946 (274 lines). It’s quite painful to read, so skim when it gets unbearable and save the rest for another sitting. Prof. David Madore has a version here, with the first few verses in IPA for AmE and BrE. What follows is a random excerpt only!

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
[...]
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say—said, pay—paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
[...]
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
[...]
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
[...]
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
[...]
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
[...]
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
[...]
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
[...]
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
[...]
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
[...]
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
[...]
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.

Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
[...]
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
[...]
Pronunciation—think of Psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying ‘grits’?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?

Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

There’s another version here. More poems here.

All of which reminds me of the following story about reading aloud. In the 4th century, where apparently it was common practice for everyone to read aloud, St. Augustine encountered a man (Bishop Ambrose) who read silently! He didn’t even move his lips! You couldn’t hear his voice while reading even if you stood very close to him! As Augustine reports (and it’s a matter of debate whether in amazement or in distaste):

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.

(Might want to take a look at this chapter from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.)
But James Fenton disagrees: see The Guardian, Saturday 29 July 2006:

It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud – a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong. […]
Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument.

In order to read aloud well, especially when a text is written without breaks between words (as was classical practice), it seems important to possess the gift to read ahead simultaneously. Silent reading is a necessary adjunct to the kind of reading aloud for sound and sense Nietzsche admired. What shocked Augustine was that Ambrose read silently in front of visitors and refused to share his reading matter, and his thoughts, with them. But Augustine was perfectly capable of silent reading, and describes a key moment in his conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend.

Finally, if I may rant again about spelling pronunciation: the character ~ is written “tilde”, but I wish people would stop calling it “till-day” or “tilled”! It is pronounced “til-duh”, as in the Australian ballad: “Waltzing Ma~, Waltzing Ma~…” or the name of the actress ~ Swinton (literally?)

TODO: Read about “the very notion of silent, individualized reading is scarcely known prior to the advent of the printing press (Goody and Watt: 42)” That’s Goody, Jack, and Watt, Ian, 1968, “The Consequences of Literacy.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies, edited by Jack Goody, pp. 27-68. Cambridge University Press. This is from Thomas Coburn, “Scripture” in India: Towards a Typology of the Word in Hindu Life, p.437. He goes on:

there has never been a happy marriage between the holy words of India, composed and transmitted orally, and the writing process. Particularly in contrast with, say, China, scribes in India have been of low social standing (Lancaster: 224-25), and the very act of writing was held to be ritually polluting: a late “Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka (5.5.3) states that a pupil should not recite the Veda after he has eaten meat, seen blood or a dead body, had intercourse or engaged in writing” (Staal, 1979:122-23). The profoundly spoken character of India’s holy words is a matter on which we will reflect below, but for the moment it will suffice to note that we should not be misled by the fact that most of these words have eventually found their way onto the written or printed page. This is not their primary home, and Staal is not simply being mischievous in discerning a symbolic significance to the fact that Indian books “still tend to fall apart” (1979:123).

Written by S

Fri, 2009-05-29 at 23:14:07 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with

Dan Brown parody

with 8 comments

Dan Brown is a hilariously bad writer. The Da Vinci Code was an outrageously successful book.
So it was only inevitable that in addition to all the delicious criticism of Dan Brown’s writing,1 there would also be a number of parodies of his books published, and indeed there have been several.2 While looking for something in the library, I found The Da Vinci Cod: A Fishy Parody by “Don Brine” (real name Adam Roberts) and quickly proceeded to borrow it and read it. It was a good two hours spent, which is more than can be said for Dan Brown’s books themselves. Although the author is a professor of literature at London University, the book manages to remain true to the awful writing and plot of the original. I heartily recommend reading the book if you come across it; for a taste of what it’s like, some excerpts follow. You can also see parts of the book at Google Books.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Sun, 2008-12-28 at 23:45:27 +05:30

Umrao Jaan Without Its Rekha

with 4 comments

It seems some people hate typefaces with letterforms that are intended to mimic another script. (E.g., these, or this logo of Café Spice, a terrible food place at MIT):

Café Spice logo

Here is Carla Filmigeek with some examples including the Arabic-esque Devanagari for the new Umrao Jaan, calling them

too cutesy, an ersatz fetishization that bastardizes the true beauty and diversity of the world’s writing systems.

Thanks to India Amos for commenting; there is this article by Jessica Helfand:

But on some level, the line is a murky one: what’s the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?

Similarly, here is Dan Reynolds, writing Indian newspaper search, part two, with an example followed by

Sadly, there was also some of this typographic nonsense.1 Note the “45″ to the right.

Now, I agree that these “exotic” letters can be annoying when used unnecessarily. As Maddox says,

Hey Forster, you know why we don’t need ethnic-looking fonts to illustrate the fact that we’re in another country? Because letters placed in close proximity to each other spell words that represent the names of those countries. That, and the obvious change in scenery. [...] Even my [mom] knows that using fancy fonts makes her a lameass.

But I’m inclined to cheer them for being clever and playful. As this article by Paul Shaw (thanks to Priya) says,

stereotypes, though crude, serve a commercial purpose. [...] There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy in a shop’s fascia. Restaurant owners want passersby (often in cars rather than on foot) to know immediately that they serve Chinese (or Greek, or Jewish) food, and a lettering style that achieves this is welcome.



1: Speaking of typographic nonsense, here’s an example: “K alphabet”. (Found via here.) There are a lot of disturbing things about it, but what really annoys me is people saying “alphabet” when they mean a single letter!

Written by S

Wed, 2008-05-28 at 08:49:24 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with

Ta

with 7 comments

From time to time, I encounter people on IRC saying “ta” in contexts that suggest they mean “thanks”. I had assumed “TA” was an acronym for “Thanks Again” or some such thing (some acronym site suggests “Thanks Awfully”), but I found out today that this is not the case: “ta” is not an acronym, it is a full word (interjection).

do people actually say “ta”?: It is apparently common in Northern England and parts of London, but it is colloquial, dial. etc. It is pronounced like “spa” or “tar” without the “r”.

Theories of etymology include Scandinavian origin (Viking remnant?) “The online The English-to-American Dictionary also suggests the possibility of Scandinavian origin.” Also, someone on Yahoo Answers (um…) says “The Danish word for “thanks” is “tak”. In Scotland and upper England it was common to drop the “k” at the end because of the way words were pronounced during the time of old English and Middle English.” The same on UrbanDictionary.
But:
Dictionary.com:

[Origin: 1765–75; by infantile shortening and alter.]

Online Etymology Dictionary:

1772, “natural infantile sound of gratitude” [Weekley]

Update:
OED:

An infantile form of ‘thank-you’, now also commonly in colloq. adult use.

So I guess that settles it, and the Scandinavian story is just a folk etymology.

Update:
Lynneguist says “The Urban Dictionary is a hive of folk etymology.” thus ending any credibility UrbanDictionary might have had :)

Written by S

Mon, 2008-04-28 at 20:53:11 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with

Deprecated

with 2 comments

AINDERBY QUERNHOW (n.)
One who continually bemoans the ‘loss’ of the word ‘gay’ to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn’t use it any more.

Before encountering computers, I had always seen the word ‘deprecate’ in contexts from which I understood that it was synonymous to disparage, deplore, condemn, belittle, derogate, and so on.

The computing world uses “X is deprecated” to mean that the feature X is discouraged, often because a recommended replacement has been found for it — thus X is obsolescent, and while using it will work currently, it is expected to stop working in the future, so one is recommended to avoid using it.

With the rise of technology and the decline in reading, many people have encountered the word solely in the latter context, and have taken it to mean something that is “old”, and for which a newer replacement exists: Thus I see people announcing, with no sign of self-deprecation, that “This blog is deprecated”.

Written by S

Sat, 2008-04-26 at 18:17:02 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with ,

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