Tag Archives: wales

Summer hols!

Well, after a long hiatus, it’s time to update this blog. We’re currently on holiday in Wales and about to embark on something a bit different: walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

We’ve been doing some training hikes over the last few months, plus I’ve taken up running. Our latest hike was from Aberystwyth to Llanrhystud, offering some breathtaking views and hopefully a taste of the kind of thing we’ll be seeing over the next week.

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Yesterday we travelled down to Carmarthen with my parents, as Dad was booked to give a talk here in the evening (very good it was too – wouldn’t have missed it for the world!). Now, after a hearty breakfast, we’ll shortly be hopping on a train down to Kilgetty and starting today’s walk down to Tenby. A week of walking and B&B accommodation awaits, and we’re very excited!

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Filed under Out & about

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. 🙂

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Filed under History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

Five more things…

My friend Kavey suggested a new Five Things meme in which you tell someone else what you associate with them, and ask them to elaborate. So, here are the things she came up with for me.

1. (Foreign) Language and Literature

I’ve always loved language in general, and especially the way that the systems of different languages relate to one another. It makes for a complex puzzle of logic, with a degree of illogicality thrown in to keep it interesting. I have done languages not so much to increase my chance of communicating around the world, but more for this systematic / systemic approach and the window it gives you into different thought systems in different cultures.

Doing foreign literature was initially a necessary evil rather than a choice, but I did enjoy aspects of it. Favourite sorts of literature experienced include the Expressionist poetry and drama I did a course on during my BA, and the wonderfully named MA module “Sex, Lies and Manuscripts” in which we looked at medieval antifeminist (and protofeminist) literature from France, Italy and England.

I ended up doing a PhD on medieval German poetry. I’m not too sure how I feel about that at the moment – let’s say that it sometimes has something  albatross-like about it in both conversational and vocational terms – though the title “Dr” comes in handy occasionally.

The best move ever was to do A-level English literature. I cursed it at the time, but it taught me a lot more about my cultural heritage than anything else I have done (with the exception of O-level history).

2. Germany

Germany is where I have lived for the last almost 12 years.

Why? OK, I studied German, but that is only part of the story. There were family connections and school / orchestra exchanges that also influenced me positively when I was growing up, plus we had an excellent German teacher at school, ergo German outlasted French in my education.

Actually moving to Germany was not an entirely conscious choice. In 1997 my PhD scholarship was running out, and my supervisor suggested I go for a teaching job at one of our partner universities, Tübingen. Got the job, breathed a sigh of relief in financial terms, swallowed hard in emotional terms and told myself it was only for two years and that it might look good on my CV…

I’m not going to go into a “what I like / don’t like about Germany” excursus at this point. If anyone wants to know anything specific, you can ask me 🙂

3. Photography

I had very, very little interest in photography until May 2006. I was recovering from an icky bout of depression at the time and looking for new impetus creatively and socially, plus my then partner was into photography. I tagged along (I choose that expression deliberately) to one of the get-togethers organized by Kavey in London, armed with a point-and-shoot that my Dad had given me, to try to disguise the fact that I was a hanger-on. It was a daunting experience in the sense that I was still somewhat nervous around strangers and the technical talk went over my head at a million miles an hour, but everyone was so lovely and I suddenly found myself on an exciting treasure hunt, looking around for things to take pictures of and takng time to compose my shots. To cut a long story short, I was soon hooked. Here is one of the shots I took that day.

I pursue colour, detail and form in my photography, very much aesthetic goals rather than photojournalistic or purely technical ones. I like my pictures to look like the kind of paintings I like – abstract, expressionist, colourful. Occasionally purists will rail at me for boosting the colours beyond what looks natural. But hey, they are my pictures and they portray what I want to see / be seen.

4. Wales

I guess I’m one of those people who feels a greater attachment to where they are from if they are further away from it. I never felt particularly Welsh when I was living in Wales, but these days I sometimes feel very Welsh, depending on what is going on (be it a rugby match, exposure to some annoying Little Englanders, hearing a particular piece of music or whatever). Don’t ask me to define how this feels – it is neither static nor entirely definable.

It can be tough being a Welsh person in Germany. You find yourself sounding like a broken record when you tell someone for the nth time that no, Wales is not in England. Likely outcomes of this is that they think you are some nutty insular equivalent of a Bavarian separatist, you are a pedant, or you are indelibly marked down in their memory as That Exotic Welsh Person who is wheeled out on social occasions to provide quaint Celtic charm and required to give the Welsh angle on everything under the sun.

I wish I could speak Welsh better, as I said in a recent post here. For the first few years at school, we were subjected to a trendy, apparently antiauthoritarian approach to language teaching that omitted the grammar bit. Disastrous for me, as it meant I couldn’t extrapolate anything and didn’t have my beloved linguistic system to lean upon. The upshot of this was that I was far more resistent to speaking Welsh than to other languages.

5. Teaching

This is going to sound boastful, but I am proud to be a part of the fourth generation of teachers on both sides of my family, and the second generation of university teachers.

Having said that, until I was 26 the one thing I could say with any certainty that I most definitely did NOT want to do for a living was… guess what! The thought of having to be authoritative, knowledgeable and command people’s respect and attention was something I thought I simply didn’t have in me.

And then I ended up in a full-time teaching job in Tübingen, as mentioned above, and to my great surprise loved it from day one. It was a combination of things: the students were around my age so there was a peer-group atmosphere that we all enjoyed rather than a scary hierarchical relationship. They seemed dedicated on the whole, and to my great surprise they seemed largely to appreciate what I did for them, even expressing enjoyment at times. I, meanwhile, was on a very steep learning curve in terms of both subject matter and teaching methods, but I loved the challenge and the feeling that I was imparting knowledge and skills in a subject area that really mattered.

Nowadays, of course, the students are younger (!) and the atmosphere in class perhaps not quite so matey, but I value the fact that students tend to comment on the positive, motivating atmosphere in my classes, and they seem to continue to enjoy what I do (within reason – there are boring bits that I still need to work on). It’s a hugely rewarding job for me.

What about you?

If you’d like to leave a comment on this post, I’ll be happy to nominate five things that I associate with you, which you can then expound upon in your own blog (or we can find some other solution, if you don’t have a blog :)). Also, if there are other things you associate with me more strongly than these things, I’d be intrigued to know and would be happy to comment on those.

Do please provide a link to your blog if you do your own version of these five things.

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Filed under Books & reading, Intercultural & interlinguistic, Photography, Up close and personal, Work stuff