Posts filed under ‘Language’

Door #6: Uncommon Consent

Tonight’s session of my social science research methods class covered research ethics: Institutional Review Boards, vulnerable populations, confidentiality, risk/benefit ratios, etc. Although the lecture sparked some lively discussion, the most interesting part of the evening was my teacher’s use of consent as a transitive verb.

Midway through the discussion of informed consent, the professor started a sentence “Before you consent someone…,” meaning, I gather, before you get them to sign an informed consent form.

There was a time when I might have used this as an occasion to rail about the decline and fall of the English language. But now, after a couple of linguistics courses and a lot of time spent reading Language Log, I’m just thrilled that English can still grow and change and surprise me with new meanings and usages.

6 December 2007 at 22:31 Leave a comment

Lost in Transcription

One of Mark Liberman’s recent language log posts has turned me on to my latest guilty YouTube pleasure: foreign language music videos subtitled with a phonetic transcription of the lyrics that makes some sort of weird sense in another language.

Here for example is the Russian (?) German [so much for my linguistic acuity] group Dschengis Dschinghis Kahn singing their song Moskau, Moskau with the lyrics transcribed into an English-language approximation with lines like “Moscow, Moscow, please respect the caviar!” The “Golden Horde goes to Vegas”-style costumes only add to the appeal.

Liberman’s post contains links to other examples of this emergent video genre, which his informant, Ben Ostrowsky, has christened “Autour-de-mondegreens.” A mondegreen is a misunderstanding of a spoken or sung text. One of the best-known example might be the mishearing of “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” as “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.” Note that some of the video links are definitely not work safe.

A pleasant surprise was finding that these sorts of videos have been popular in Sweden where they’re known as “Turkhits.” Swedish Wikipedia provides links to some of the these videos including the most famous, “Hatten är din” (“The Hat is Yours”), a Turkhits version of the Lebanese song “Meen ma Kenty/Habbaytek.”

17 November 2007 at 23:59 1 comment

Wacky Swedish Word of the Day

For the last six months or so, I’ve subscribed to a Swedish mailing list called Om Ett Ord (About a Word). Every weekday, they send me an email describing the etymology of particular word. The editors often pick foreign loan words, which happen to be the same (or almost the same) as the equivalent English loan word, so I end up learning as much about English etymologies as I do about Swedish etymologies.

For instance, did you know that clementines were named after Father Clement, a French missionary in Algeria who discovered a clementine tree growing in his garden? I didn’t either until I read the origin of the Swedish clementin.

I was baffled by today’s entry when I saw the subject line in my in-box:

Toffelhjälte — literally “slipper hero.” (Pronounced tof’-el-yel-tuh, for those of you who don’t speak Swedish. I couldn’t imagine what a slipper hero might be until I read the explanation (here’s my quick and dirty translation):

A toffelhjälte is a man who’s bullied by his wife. Today, the word toffel [slipper] is used, quite simply, to mean the same thing. And not just for married men, but even guys who ignore their friends in favor of the relationship.

The word is used only to describe men. There is no female equivalent. The word was borrowed from the German Pantoffelheld in the end of the 1800s. This usage comes from the expression unter dem Pantoffel stehen,” to stand under the slipper. Shoes and feet have often been seen as symbols of power and soft shoes as something typically feminine.

Yes, it’s sexist, but nearly as bad as some of the equivalent English expressions.

13 November 2007 at 23:14 1 comment

Sounding Off

Yesterday Mark Liberman at Language Log posted about a Christian Science Monitor article by Matthew Rusling, an American expat living in Japan. Since Rusling picked up Japanese intonation and idioms from his Japanese girlfriend, he unknowingly picked up speech patterns that native listeners interpreted as female.

I had a similar problem the year I lived in Sweden, although I ended up sounding like the someone of a different age, rather than a different gender. Since I was attending classes at a folkhögskola — roughly equivalent to an American community college — I spent a lot of time listening to and talking with people in their late teens and early twenties.

By the end of the year, my Swedish was fluent, but it was fluent teenage-speak, which must have sounded ridiculous coming out of the mouth of a thirty-something woman with a vaguely American accent. Imagine a middle-aged immigrant in this country speaking fluent, American slang with a non-native accent, and you’ll get the idea — something like Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin’s two Czech brothers, the Wild and Crazy Guys of Saturday Night Live fame.

Of course it didn’t help that my classmates were always trying to get me to say things that they knew sounded goofy — either because they knew it was something I couldn’t pronounce quite right or because it was up-to-the-minute hipster slang. Even three years later, some of my Swedish friends will still try to get me to pronounce the words for frogs (grodor) and sprouts (groddar), two pronunciations I have a particularly hard time with.

One last point about Rusling’s original article and some of the responses to the Language Log post. Two other anglophone men mentioned similar problems with learning Japanese. One even concludes “…Just resign yourself to talking like a little girl for the rest of your life and hope to God that no one beats you up.” The underlying message is that, for men, sounding like a woman opens you up to ridicule, if not violence.” Interesting that, apparently even in Japan, the country that brought us the onnagata (male Kabuki actors, often renowned, who play female roles), one of the worst transgressions a man can commit is doing something that might cause him to be mistaken for a woman.

8 November 2007 at 23:00 Leave a comment

Waiter, Is That a Snowclone in My Sushi?

This morning I clicked on a link to a New York Times article on the effect depletion of tuna fisheries is having on sushi chefs in Japan and elsewhere. Just three paragraphs in I found the following sentence:

From maguro to otoro, the Japanese seem to have almost as many words for tuna and its edible parts as the French have names for cheese.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, snowclones are formulaic clichés of the type “X is the new Y” or “have X, will travel”. Snowclones got their name from the ever-popular discussion of Eskimos and their N words for snow. You can read more (much more) about snowclones and their seemingly infinite permutations on the Language Log blog. The crew of savvy linguists there have popularized the term.

The above example is interesting not only because it doesn’t follow one of the typical formulae like “If Eskimos have N words for snow, then X must have just as many for Y,” but also because the Eskimos and snow have somehow been replaced by the French and cheese.

Apart from the usual facile equation of number of words and cultural importance, the tuna and cheese analogy has another problem. The French, to the best of my knowledge (and I spent a year and a half as a culinary student in Paris), don’t have many words for cheese. They have many kinds of cheese, each with a different name. Drawing a cultural conclusion from this seems a little bit like saying “Boy, Americans must really love their families, each of their relatives has a different name.”

Anyhow, snowclone aside, it was heartening to see this article reach the top of the Times‘s list of most-emailed stories for today. Just last week, in a Salon.com interview, Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We eat, lamented the lack of media coverage of the depletion of the world’s fisheries.

My inner anthropologist is also interested in the discussion of what happens when reality (environmental reality in this case) forces chefs and consumers to reconsider the nature of sushi, which is arguably not just a food, but a national symbol for Japan.

In addition to Clover’s The End of the Line, I have three other books about sushi and or seafood in Japan on my pile of books to read:

  • Theodore Bestor’s Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World
  • Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket
  • Sasha Issenberg’s The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

I’ll try to post more after I’ve read these.

25 June 2007 at 12:37 1 comment

Sweden to Phase Out Å, Ä and Ö

In the fine tradition of April Fool’s Day media hoaxes like the hotheaded naked ice borer and the Swiss Spaghetti harvest, The Local, an English-language site with news from Sweden, posted an item about a parliamentary proposal to make the Swedish language more globally competitive by eliminating letters with diacritical marks.

When I clicked on the link to the story from my friend Susan’s post on a Scandinavian music and dance mailing list, I think I actually believed it was on the level, but then I’m not necessarily the best judge.

I not only believed Natural History‘s story about the ice borers, I told my entire family and a number of my friends about it. Fortunately, the whole thing happened before I got tangled up in the Web, so there’s no incriminating email trail my friends can resurrect to remind me how gullible I am.

I’ve bookmarked Slate.com‘s April Fool’s Day Defense Kit — a round-up of some classic media pranks — and set an alarm in my calendar program for next March 30, with a reminder to prepare myself.

Update: And speaking of April Fool’s pranks, I almost forgot to mention my pal Chopper, who temporarily transformed his site Cars! Cars! Cars! (A car blog. Only angrier.) into Krauss! Krauss! Krauss! (An Alison Krauss blog. Only fiddlier.).

2 April 2007 at 22:40 1 comment

Signs of Hope

After a slew of news stories about U.S. states and counties attempting to declare English the one official language within their borders, it was a heartening to read this item from the New Zealand Herald.

The New Zealand government recently voted to add New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to the country’s list of official languages, along with English and Maori, entitling NZSL speakers to interpreter service in all legal proceedings. They’ve also begun creating teaching materials so that middle and high school students will be able to study NZSL as a second language in public schools.

15 March 2007 at 22:46 Leave a comment

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