Category Archives: Intercultural & interlinguistic

A linguistic excursion: from industrialization to nature via the sports field

Linguistic excursionToday’s entry is going to be rather bitty – though with a long ornithological excursus towards the end that non-bird-nerds should feel free to skip – but I do have what I hope are some interesting word- and phrase-related snippets to share. Some are new discoveries, others welcome jogs to the memory I’ve come across over the last few days.

On stereotype and cliché

I knew that the term stereotype came from printing, but professional cornucopia of knowledge Stephen Fry added some further insight into the matter on this week’s QI (a BBC quiz programme, in case you didn’t know). The term was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1798 and it applied to a process whereby once a page of print had been (manually) typeset in its final format, a mould was made and a single metal printing plate cast from this mould. It was easier and quicker to print multiple copies of any page from this plate than from the original made up of all those small pieces of metal lined up in a frame.

Given that manually setting movable type was a laborious and time-consuming business, printers had discovered that if they had phrases that were frequently reused, it made sense to make a cast of the whole phrase so that it could be quickly inserted in one fell swoop. And these mini-stereotypes, metal strips of interconnected print “characters” representing well-worn phrases, were known as clichés. Some say that the etymological origin of the name is the verb cliquer, meaning “to click”, on account of the clicking sound the metal made as it was poured into the mould.

On jacquard and sabotage

Also on QI, there came a discussion of technical developments including prototypes of the computer and other “programming” systems. The broadcast of the episode almost coinciding with the birthday of Ada Lovelace (born 10 December 1815), mention was made of her work with Charles Babbage, and the discussion turned to developments preceding their work on the Analytical Engine.  The machine made use of punch cards of a kind developed in 1801 by French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard for insertion in a special patented loom to add a degree of automation to the weaving process by “pre-programming” a pattern into the cloth. To this day we associate the term jacquard with certain ornate types of woven fabric, damask being one example, and it was thanks to the punch-card system that the process of producing these complicated patterns was made very much quicker and more efficient. I remember becoming fascinated by the idea of the Jacquard loom during a visit to the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre (South West Wales) some years ago, but at the time I hadn’t completely cottoned on (geddit?!) to the extent to which the reach of this invention went so much further than producing cloth.

Not everyone, though, was as inspired by Jacquard’s invention as the likes of Babbage and Lovelace. Just as the Luddites in England revolted against the introduction of machine looms a few years later, fearing that their status as skilled handloom weavers would become worthless, their French counterparts were similarly aghast at Jacquard’s innovations and set out to destroy these new-fangled machines. Their weapons of choice? Their wooden clogs – sabots – and thus the word sabotage came into being. Or at least, that was Stephen Fry’s line – Wikipedia suggests that the term might actually go back to Dutch weavers in the fifteenth century, though in a similar scenario.

On throwing people curveballs and knocking them for six

This morning on Twitter, Kellie (@belouise) was asking what a “curveball” was, not in the original baseball sense but in the figurative expression “to throw someone a curve[ball]“. I didn’t know what it meant either – we Brits don’t do baseball or baseball idioms, on the whole – but I did a bit of poking about on t’internet and found out that it basically means to confuse someone or throw them off track by doing something surprising or unexpected. It struck me that in British English we tend to use the expression “to knock someone for six” with much the same meaning, though interestingly the expression is based on the (unexpected) behaviour of the batsman in our case, not of the bowler, and – not so surprisingly – it is derived from cricket rather than baseball.

It is also no real surprise that there are many sport-derived idioms that have developed differently in American English and British English (as well as a lot more that share meaning and form). While translating a text with colleagues recently, I found that while I had written “the ball is in the politicians’ court” (= tennis), an American colleague had written “the ball is in the politicians’ corner” (= baseball again). In the wider context, it is certainly the baseball terms that have come to the fore in the international boardroom, though interesting that phrases such as “to touch base” and “a ballpark estimate” frequently make it onto British-based lists of most hated “management speak” or jargon. Is this due to a knee-jerk anti-Americanization drive, because they sound alien or false when used by a non-American, or simply because a few people use them too frequently in an offhand, cliched manner? I really don’t know and am not going to be the judge of that here.

On eagles, hawks and kites

Moving away from contentious issues, it seems to be a fact internationally acknowledged that birds of prey have good eyesight, and this fact has given rise to its fair share of idiomatic expressions, some dating back to ancient lore. An observant or scrutinising person can be described as having eyes like a hawk or keeping an eagle eye on something, and in German you can use either Falkenauge (= hawk, falcon) or Adlerauge (= eagle), or related phrases, to get the same idea across; I’m sure many of you reading this could provide further parallel examples from other languages, too.

My heart did a little skip the other day, though, when I discovered that a Welsh expression for this seems to be llygad barcud, i.e. “eye of the kite”. Now, eagles are extremely rare in Wales – the golden eagle, once a native species, has not been resident for over 400 years and sightings are thus extremely rare, and the white-tailed eagle seems also to be only a rare visitor. It may in fact be that neither was ever really prevalent in the area, so that the absence of these species from everyday expressions would not be that surprising. Kites are a rather different case in point, having been present in Wales for longer than anyone knows, though not without their challenges, as I’ll explain in a moment.

To backtrack a bit first: in English folklore and literature the kite traditionally suffered pretty bad press, being considered nothing more than a trouble-making scavenger: Shakespeare, for example, has King Lear refer to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite”. In Scotland the situation was no better as they were legally labelled as vermin in the 15th century. Not the stuff of noble idioms, then. Nor any surprise that the red kite was extinct in England and Scotland well before the end of the 19th century (with reintroduction only from 1989: see here).

I really don’t know how the red kite was viewed historically by the people of Wales – maybe someone else can enlighten me on this – but it is certainly the case that various individuals made efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prevent its extinction. They managed that, though only just – by the 1930s the population had continued to decline to an estimated <20 birds. What did happen, though, was that the local population became fiercely protective of these birds – not least against the efforts of egg thieves – and the red kite took on an almost mythical status that I can still remember from my childhood. Mid Wales was a place of hallowed pilgrimage for those seeking the last habitat of the UK red kite.

The situation has much improved since then and has been mirrored elsewhere in the UK through reintroduction programmes. In Wales, though, the red kite remains a symbol of triumph over adversity and has widely been used as an icon representing wildlife in the region. In a poll run by the RSPB and the BBC in Wales in 2007, the red kite was the clear winner: “an astonishing 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favourite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin – which came second with 15% of votes – and the barn owl in third place with 11%.”

I still feel a sense of exhilaration when I see a red kite – or even a pair of them – circling overhead, and all of this is why I was so pleased to find an expression that ennobled this lovely bird.

Thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far – that’s all for this week. :)

3 Comments

Filed under History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Intercultural & interlinguistic

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!

9 Comments

Filed under Intercultural & interlinguistic, Out & about

Crème caramel

Well, I don’t think I’ll be winning any prizes for food photography with this shot, but this is last night’s dessert, crème caramel. It was ever so good.

No one made any snide comments about the choice of a French dessert to follow my very British main course (which went down extremely well, by the way) – maybe people don’t think of it as being French but rather a fairly international dessert.

It’s a type of baked custard.

When I hear the word custard, I certainly think of hot vanilla-flavoured sauce poured over some very British dessert: apple crumble, spotted dick, treacle pudding… The French serve it cold and call it crème anglaise (which the Germans took over as Englische Creme, so they must have thought of it as typically British/English at some point, though I can’t find any more comment on the etymology of this.

The term custard has a wider meaning of course, ranging through various kinds of egg-thickened milk or cream concoctions, whether used for filling eclairs (as confectioner’s custard) or quiches (a savoury form). Many of these forms date back to the Middle Ages, when egg and milk mixtures were popular for filling flans and tarts – in fact the word “custard” is a corruption of crustade, an old word for a pie or pie crust (cf. French croustade). Classic French cuisine, meanwhile, has no specific word for custard, using the more general term crème instead. Maybe it was conceptually more important to the British, since they at least had a word for it.

Europeans took a wealth of custard recipes with them to the New World, though sometime in the nineteenth century the terms “custard” and “pudding” became confused in the United States, so that to this day “pudding” in American English denotes a set milk pudding. This new meaning of the word came back over the Atlantic and settled in German as Pudding. Cue confusion and strange looks when, as a Brit, you start talking to people in this country about Christmas pudding, steak and kidney pudding or black pudding, or even if you simply ask “What’s for pudding?”…

4 Comments

Filed under Food, History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Tomorrow I will be making another step in  my so far successful quest to convince German friends that British food goes beyond fish and chips, haggis, baked beans and spongy square white sliced bread (“untoasted toast” as one student once put it – I guess you have to have lived in Germany to get that one) and is actually rather good.

The main attraction is going to be beef and Guinness casserole with herb dumplings. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – a very quaint English-sounding mixture to those of us who grew up with the song “Scarborough Fair” and were aware that it was not written by a couple of folk-rock dudes from New York.

The line is a recurring refrain throughout the song, which in its simplest form is the lament of someone who has been left by his lover and imagines a string of impossible-sounding feats that will win her back. The herbs mantra seems at first sight (or hearing) not to make much sense, but centuries-old knowledge about the medicinal properties of these four herbs can be tied in to give a somewhat clearer allegorical meaning.

  • Parsley is well known as an aid to digestion (remember Peter Rabbit?) and as a herb to counteract bitterness or acrid tastes (garlic might fall into the latter category). The jilted lover in the song presumably hopes to overcome his own feelings of bitterness.
  • Sage, whose Latin name salvia comes from the verb meaning “to heal” or “to be / feel well”, is symbolic of strength – it is no coincidence that even today it is used as a herbal remedy for excessive sweating, as a means to “strengthen” the stomach following e.g. a course of antibiotics, and as a more general boost to the immune system thanks to its antioxidant properties. An old rhyming aphorism tells us “He that would live for aye / Must eat sage in May”. The “I” of the song thus wishes for strength to overcome his adversity and recover. In German folk tradition, sage was also used to prepare love potions.
  • The herb rosemary represents loyalty and constancy (maybe partly because it is evergreen), love and remembrance (Nicholas Culpeper noted that “It helps a weak memory” and that it is good for “all the diseases of the head and brain”), qualities the singer of the song has not been receiving too much of recently, but precisely those qualities and feelings he hopes to rekindle in his beloved lady.
  • Thyme also contains potent essential oils (the name derives from the Greek verb thyo, “to perfume”) and symbolizes courage. Culpeper said that wild thyme was “excellent for nervous disorders” and that it was “a certain remedy for that troublesome complaint, the night-mare”. The Ancient Greeks believed it strengthened certain masculine characteristics (it does have proven aphrodisiac qualities, apparently), and in the Middle Ages knights often had thyme painted on their shields as proof of their mettle. Today, apart from its continued use in cooking, it has largely been relegated to a remedy for coughs, sadly distant from its rather grander reputation in older thymes …. err, times. However, the protagonist in the song was probably not thinking about his bronchial health.

1 Comment

Filed under Food, History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

When is a lime not a lime?

In the first part of our tour to Neuf-Brisach yesterday we passed some trees that were in a spectacular state of blossom. No leaves yet, but covered in the most vivid greenish-yellow flowers – I’d never seen the like before. We wondered what they were and had enough nous to rule a lot of tree types out, but we were still stuck, especially in the absence of leaves.

And then the linguist tried to get one up on the biologist – this kind of colour (it looked more greenish to us than it appears in the photo) is sometimes referred to as lindgrün in German. A close English equivalent might be lime green. The German colour is named after the Linde tree (Latin tilia), which in English is a linden (North America) or a lime tree (Britain). So the tree was most probably a Linde, I decided, and that was the end of the discussion, me feeling ever so slightly smug for having solved the puzzle.

I kept thinking about this all day, and it dawned on me that the “lime green” we refer to in English might (could, must, as the day went on) actually be from this same root, i.e. the lime tree of this variety rather than that on which the small green citrus fruit grows. This will strike most other people as über-nerdy, I guess, but I got really excited about this and started writing, in my head, the blog entry that might possibly reveal to my friends (the general public, the world, Wikipedia…) the real origin of the term.

When we got back I reached for my illustrated nature book and also stretched my fingers as far as Wikipedia and some image searches to bulk out my research a bit. It took a bit of time, but I did find out one highly relevant thing…

…This, ladies and gentlemen, is a picture of the blossom of the – ahem – Norway maple (acer platanoides). And the moral of the tale is to check your facts before writing your blog entry. And that I am a better linguist than I am a biologist.

Epilogue: Wikipedia tells us the following about the Linde / lime tree / linden:

‘Lime is an altered form of Middle English lind, in the 16th century also line, from Old English feminine lind or linde, Proto-Germanic *lendā, cognate to Latin lentus “flexible” and Sanskrit latāliana“. Within Germanic languages, English lithe, German lind “lenient, yielding” are from the same root.

Linden was originally the adjective, “made from lime-wood” (equivalent to “wooden”), from the late 16th century “linden” was also used as a noun, probably influenced by translations of German romance, as an adoption of Linden, the plural of German Linde.[1] Neither the name nor the tree is related to the citrus fruit called “lime” (Citrus aurantifolia, family Rutaceae). Another widely-used common name used in North America is basswood, derived from bast, the name for the inner bark.’

1 Comment

Filed under Intercultural & interlinguistic

Not a Good Friday for dancing

Yesterday I found out something I thought at first was an April Fool – public dancing events / activities are illegal throughout Germany on Good Friday. So if you were hoping to go clubbing late last night or this evening – forget it! The fact that it has taken me over twelve years of living here to discover this must attest to how often – cough! – I go dancing…

There are other days that have a similar prohibition in place, but it  varies among the laender, with the more Catholic ones like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg having the most such days. Good Friday is the only day with a nationwide prohibition.

Despite appearances – at least as I see it in this case – the German constitution forbids the identification of the state with any particular religious group, for reasons of neutrality. On the other hand, if you are Catholic, Lutheran or Jewish you pay “church tax” on top of your income tax. Individual religious freedom is, as you would expect, protected by the constitution, but in contrast to some other countries, an individual’s choice to practise a particular religion is not seen as exclusively part of his or her private life but is part of a person’s public role within society. This, it would seem, is what makes it possible for (at least some) German courts to prohibit e.g. female Muslim teachers at state schools from wearing the hijaab, since as employees of the state they are required to be neutral in their public role.

I think it’s going to take me more than another twelve years to make sense of all this…

4 Comments

Filed under Intercultural & interlinguistic