Monthly Archives: February 2012

Random interlinguistic thoughts for the week

I don’t seem to have a concrete topic to write about this week, but I have been saving some snippets of thoughts about language, especially connections or contrasts between languages, that have occurred to me while in the shower, through overheard conversations or just in the course of everyday activities.

1. There’s a hole in my bucket

One of this week’s mundane but important tasks was to repot several large plants and trees that seem to have accumulated in the flat. We needed to make some drainage holes in the bottom of a galvanized metal pot, and M set to work at this, humming away (as you do). And it was at that point that I had what Germans call – and I love this term – an Aha-Erlebnis (“aha experience”), as I realized he was humming the tune to “There’s a hole in my bucket”, which I remember very clearly from childhood. Except, of course, that the muttered fragments of text that were audible were German.

It turns out that the song is in fact in all likelihood of German origin, the earliest known version being attested from around 1700 – I really hadn’t imagined it was that old. It later became known as “Heinrich und Liese” (Henry and Liza in the English version, of course) and was widely believed to be a folk song from Hesse. Interestingly, it may have entered English through Pennsylvania Dutch, as versions were collected in some mid-20th century collections of Pennsylvania Dutch folk songs.

It wasn’t until about 1960 that the English version became popular – notably through Harry Belafonte’s recording of it with Odetta, which reached no. 32 in the UK singles chart in 1961. Oddly enough, while I hadn’t imagined the song’s history to go back as far as 1700, I was also surprised at how recent an addition it is to the English-language repertoire of nursery rhymes and so on.

 
Daisies 1

2. Daisy

No, I’m not going to regale you with the story behind another childhood song here (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”) – this time it’s the word itself that interests me. Or more specifically, the name of this flower in different languages.

The English name is, I guess, pretty “meaningless” (in the sense of not having an obvious, substantial semantic component) to the casual observer – it has a feminine quality, not just because of its association with a flower but because it doubles as a girl’s name. It was only when I learned the Welsh name for it that I had another of those Aha-Erlebnisse – it’s widely known as llygad y dydd, which translates literally as “eye of the day” (which is, incidentally, the exact English term Chaucer used for it), shortened to “day’s eye” and hence the cognate of the English name.

The other languages whose words I know for the same flower have rather different names for it. In standard German it’s a Gänseblümchen (literally: little goose flower), this name coming, apparently, from the fact that it tends to be found in areas where the grass is short, and in olden times such suitable habitats would often have had their grass kept short by e.g. geese grazing on it.

The French word for the larger ox-eye daisy, marguerite, has something in common with the English word “daisy” in that it doubles as a girl’s name. What I didn’t know until very recently, though, was that the English girl’s name Daisy was, in former times, most frequently a nickname for a girl called Margaret. Ordinary daisies, it seems, are called pâquerettes in French, in connection with the fact that they tend to make their appearance around the time of Easter (Pâques).

3. Out(ge)sourced language

German is full of anglicisms these days, especially in areas such as advertising, fashion, telecommunications and marketing. I’m sure you can work out why some people in these areas might find it cool, impressive or whatever to pepper their sentences (if they manage sentences, that is) with this foreign jargon. Other people’s sensitivities can flare up, though, when more everyday language becomes noticeably affected.

I used to try to avoid unnecessary anglicisms when speaking in German, but at some point you realize you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to avoid them altogether, and I’m not keen to sound stilted, old-fashioned, snobbish or foreign for avoiding these words. Plus languages have always borrowed from one another; it’s an inevitable element of language change.

However, I continue to find some of the English words that have been adopted into German to be really rather awkward, even embarrassing to use, especially the verbs that you can conjugate as if they were German verbs. One example that I heard used numerous times on a talk show at the weekend was the verb outsourcen, especially the past participle outgesourced. Now that’s just yucky. As it happened, the host and about half the guests on the programme seemed rather uncomfortable using it, too, so I did find myself wondering why they bothered.

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On the (sometimes dubious) merits of being a university language teacher

There’s been an internet meme in circulation recently, most prominently on Facebook, that – like a great many of its sort – raised a faint smile the first couple of times you saw it but grew increasingly inane and irritating the more (non-)variations on the theme popped up.

It is my (certainly very dubious) pleasure to announce that said meme is the inspiration for today’s post.

The meme looked at different professions and various people’s preconceptions of said professions, varying from the general public to one’s family and friends, and extending to superiors or subordinates in some cases. Among the professional groups I saw represented were journalists, graphic designers and doctors. You get the idea (and probably enough of a taste of the ennui) just by looking at those three examples: various contrasting exotic / risqué / misinformed / ridiculous / overblown images of a given profession are contrasted with “What I really do” – humdrum paperwork or other admin work (in most cases). The best of the rather more cynical takes on it – and one which saves me saying any more on the meme itself, I think – was this one here.

But anyway, the whole episode got me thinking of some of the odd, irritating or misconceived reactions I’ve had from people regarding the work I do, so I thought I’d gather a few of them here.

It starts when people ask for a job title. Speaking in German (which is what I do most of the time outside work), I might describe myself as a “Dozentin für English” (i.e. lecturer in English, as one might say in Britain). On mentioning this in one recent conversation, the response was (and I’ll paraphrase in English for the sake of brevity) an interested “Ah! Literature or linguistics?” My response: “Language, actually”. Their reponse: “Oh. Just language”. You get the picture (and I’ll return to the “just language” issue later).

Within the university hierarchy, the full-time foreign language instructors are often known collectively as Lektoren. Confusingly, though, to most people outside (and even to quite a number within) this sphere, Lektoren are people who work as proofreaders or copy-editors for a publishing house. So it’s not a good idea to use this term unless someone introduces it themselves. In any case, though, in recent years, universities seem to have stopped calling their language staff Lektoren in any case, and we now carry the rather fancy-sounding title Lehrkräfte für besondere Aufgaben. While Lehrkräfte is a fairly dry, neutral and unequivocal term for people who teach, the für besondere Aufgaben bit is potentially rather entertaining, meaning “for special purposes” and opening up a plethora of possibilities I might have put into my “What I wish I did” part of a meme for my profession. Understandably, perhaps, it’s not a term I drop into conversation, though …unless as a joke.

Once I have negotiated my way around the job title bit, we move on to the “What people think I do” part of the conversation. A lot of people will think back to their experience of learning languages at school – which was often quite some time ago – which means that this usually computes to yesteryear-tinted remembrances of learning by rote, vocabulary tests, tortuous, antiquated textbooks and half-remembered useless phrases of the la plume de ma tante variety. If I’m extra lucky, whoever it is I am talking to will switch into their half-remembered English schoolbook phrases at this point in the conversation; others will regale me with tales of the conversation class they and their friend took “just for fun” a few years ago and will express great envy that (as they see it) I can earn money just by chatting to people: “You have a funny job!” they say (actually, they mean “fun”).

And in actual fact, it IS a fun job (and sometimes a funny one, too, in either sense of the word). But it wouldn’t be fun or funny at all if I had to teach conversation classes, stick to a particular textbook or check that everyone had learned their irregular verbs off by heart. However, as with so many things in life, it is fairly inevitable that people will base their interpretation of what I do on their own experience that comes closest.

Friends, who by definition know me much better, tend to develop a much more accurate impression of what I do, though there are persistent surprises here, too… The science-faculty people who just can’t place you because you’re not a professor or a junior professor or a postdoc or a technician – you just don’t fit into their neatly compartmentalized world view. Or the people who, on hearing that you’ve had “a productive day” in the post-semester marking phase, make bright, well-meant enquiries as to whether that means you got through all your exams for all your courses in that one day.

Colleagues from other parts of the department can also occasionally be a law unto themselves. Though I would like to stress that I have had largely very positive experiences over the years, there sometimes arises a feeling that the language section plays a somewhat ancillary role to the big pillars of literature, linguistics and cultural studies. While linguistics is Sprachwissenschaft (literally, the science of language), we are Sprachpraxis (literally, the practice of language), and to some minds we might therefore be nicht wissenschaftlich – a term which could be interpreted as “not scientific” or “not academic”, neither of which has a particularly positive ring to it. In fact someone recently came up to me during a departmental function and asked, somewhat awkwardly, “Don’t you sometimes wish you taught … you know … something with content?” Just where do you start to answer a question like that? (I was evasive, not wanting to get into a philosophical discussion, let alone a rant.)

The content we cover in our courses spans areas covered by literature (e.g. text structure, style, genre, interpretation), linguistics (e.g. pragmatics, syntax, phonology) AND cultural studies (e.g. translation issues, intercultural communication, culture in Britain / the USA etc.), but I think at the end of the day it may be only us and our students that are entirely aware of this.

Most of our students come to us with the express intention of becoming secondary school teachers of English, so why anyone should see language as being “ancillary” in that connection is beyond my comprehension. Watching students’ own changing perceptions of the role and responsibilities of a language teacher is, however, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Many of them come to us having done well at school on the basis of getting stuff right, but it can come as a surprise to them to discover that just being good at English isn’t going to get them to the top of the tree in their professional life. In our grammar courses, for example, they quickly have to get used to a further step in the thought process: “OK, correct answer, but why is solution x more appropriate than solution y”. They grumble and squirm at first, but gradually they learn to use the tools of the trade to explain and analyse what is going on, so that later on in their course of studies you can have really quite subtle and nuanced discussions about the effect of changing this or that word or tense or syntactic pattern.

Watching students make this progress not just in their own language competence (which can itself be quite dramatic, especially if they spend a year abroad) but also in their analytical, intercultural and didactic skills, has to be the biggest perk of this job, and every case in which we can do anything to help to foster or encourage someone’s interest in the system of language as a vehicle for communication and cultural interchange, as the raw material of literature and linguistics, has to be seen as a worthwhile venture.

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On not judging a book by its cover

Earlier this week, Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) posted the following story on Twitter. I found it so striking that I asked if I could reproduce it here (he kindly said yes).

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong … [O]ne day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said ‘you think you’re nothing but you’re not’, and gave her a copy of ‘1984’. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends’ lives stalled, one dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest – because someone disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

This tale really speaks for itself, so I’m not going to distract from its value with a long commentary. What is clear, though, is not just the enduring power of books and reading as food for the soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it, but – more pointedly – how important it is to recognize and believe in people’s (often hidden) potential, and to act on your instincts in this area. I have no idea how many other pupils this teacher may have provided with books nor with what degree of  “success”, but somehow that pales into insignificance against the life-changing (or even life-saving) effect it clearly had on this one individual.

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Acanthus Ice

iPhone image processed in Camera+ (clarity + vibrant effect + square crop)

It’s just about a week on from my last post, and I’m still fascinated by the effects of the continuing cold weather. I’ve seen ice in countless forms – transparent, opaque, smooth, rough, brittle, solid, airborne, waterborne, shaped by the sun, the wind and by infinite crystalline forms.

Today’s ice treat was discovered on the (large and numerous) windows of a classroom where I was supervising an exam this morning. The rising sun was casting its weak, wintry rays obliquely across the grassed area outside the room, and this highlighted the most amazing patterns in the ice – amorphous blobs where it was beginning to melt at the edges, geometric arrangements reminiscent of school experiments with magnets and iron filings, and ornate, delicate leaf-like displays that were sometimes like ferns, at other times like acanthus leaves in a medieval book of hours.

The picture you can see here started life as a pale but detailed study of some of the acanthus-like patterns: blue, white and grey with just a hint of something reflecting the golden sunrise in the background, quite a long way away from the window. An interesting piece of documentary evidence, but not really very eye-catching.

A bit of bold experimentation with my camera app soon transformed it into the image shown above. Yes, its transformation was in technical terms pretty skill-less and arbitrary, merely a case of selecting certain presets to ham up saturation and contrast, and the image has been greatly denaturalized as a result, losing most of its photo-like quality.

But in this case I rather like the abstract effect that has resulted, mainly because it seems to allow a multitude of interpretations. I can see fire and ice, water, foam, clouds, rock and mud all at once. The brown-green shapes could be trees in a nightmarish Expressionist landscape, or peacock feathers, fountains or grasses. The colours and brush-stroke-like forms remind me of the painting styles of Turner and Munch in some kind of unlikely but not displeasing combination.

A slightly different crop with a (probably too heavy) frame can be seen on Flickr.

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The incredible dryness of cold

Frosted gingerbread roof

I’m not about to express surprise at the fact that it’s cold in winter. By the standards of a LOT of people I can think of, the temperatures we’re facing this week – an average of about -7°C during the day – are temperate, mild, even balmy by comparison with quite extensive other parts of the world.

But what never ceases to amaze me in Southern Germany is just how dry cold can be. Having spent my formative years in the insular climate of lowland areas of the UK, especially on the coast, I’m used to cold being accompanied by wet. I expect a daytime thaw even when there’s snow on the ground, and so the fact of the snow just staying the same for days on end, simply because it remains frozen and can’t go anywhere or change its consistency, is quite weird. It strikes me as eerily Groundhog-Day-like, so maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this post today of all days!

What’s struck me particularly today is that even though there is absolutely no snow or visible patches of ice on the streets here in the middle of the city (the picture above is of the North-facing roof of the house), the street surfaces nevertheless have an odd look to them, a pale, dusty, almost mildewed-looking grey. It’s like a thin salt crust or sprinkling of talcum, very dull and matte, and not in the least slippery. I’m guessing the tiny moisture droplets in the air are simply freezing on contact with the frozen ground and causing this strange effect. It’s definitely not salt as it darkens and then disappears if you warm it.

It’s odd how little details of a place’s climate can astonish you even after many years of living there, but at the same time it’s pleasing to be able to marvel at something that must strike many other people as ordinary or insignificant.

Postscript: Following on from a discussion of this with Rolf on Twitter, I have now been reminded that this phenomenon is called deposition or desublimation – in this case the direct transformation of water vapour (i.e. gas, not droplets) into ice in sub-freezing conditions. Thanks Rolf!

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