A family isolated by language

April 15, 2018

Arja Kajermo’s short novel The Iron Age (Tramp Press, 2017) has a few passages that describe the difficulties of being linguistically marooned when you’re a child whose family moves to another country. The narrator is a Finnish girl transplanted to Sweden in the 1950s when her father finds work there:

We were now what Mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb Mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The children’s teacher, hoping to address the problem, sends a letter home with Tuomas, the girl’s brother. Their father translates it painstakingly with the help of a dictionary. Tuomas is to learn Swedish fast, and to do so he must forget his native Finnish and not speak it at all, anywhere: ‘It was for his own good and he would do better at school if he complied.’

Their mother considers this plan ‘ridiculous’, but their father accedes, being unwilling to go against the teacher’s instruction. A natural, secretive compromise ensues:

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Transcending mutual unintelligibility

March 25, 2018

A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.

Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.

The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:

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An Esperanto Saga

March 6, 2018

At the turn of the year I decided, finally, to start using Duolingo to learn another language. I considered brushing up on Irish, French, or German – chronic rustiness has set in for all three – or delving into Italian, Latin, or Russian. But then I took a notion to try Esperanto, and the idea stuck.

So I’m learning basic Esperanto, to build on the impromptu lesson I got from a stranger on the streets of Galway once. It’s more out of linguistic curiosity than any practical ambition; obscure William Shatner films aside, I seldom encounter the language in social or cultural context. So it was an unlikely but pleasing coincidence to come across Esperanto in a comic book.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples, and published by Image Comics, is a sci-fi adventure fantasy whose first two volumes (of eight published to date) I picked up on spec last week. It won’t be to all tastes – there’s graphic sex and violence – but it’s an uncommonly imaginative, funny, and unpredictable work for fans of heady, beautifully drawn graphic novels.

The main storyline follows Alana and Marko, lovers from worlds at war with each other, one a moon of the other. Alana’s home planet, Landfall, uses a language called Language – English, in the comic – while Marko’s home moon, Wreath, uses one called Blue which is actually Esperanto.

Marko speaks Language as well, but few people (or creatures) seem to know Blue except for the moon’s natives. This asymmetry can be bypassed with technology:

[click images to enlarge]

Frames from Saga comic: Marko says, "You don't have to do this. We just want to live our lives." A guard says to another, "Is that moony speaking *Language*?"

Marko says, "Mom, will you please let the translator rings do their thing? Alana doesn't know how to speak Blue yet."

Blue features liberally in Saga but is not translated in footnotes, so non-Esperantists must use context and educated guesswork to infer the meaning, or else patch the text into Google Translate. For the most part the sense can be grasped in situ.

For this reader, it helped that Esperanto draws on Romance languages. My knowledge of French would not have helped me much with the next line, but passive exposure to other languages did, along with the initial Duolingo training:

Two armed Wreath figures face the reader. The woman says, "KIE ESTAS MIA KNABO!"

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Good advice in Bottle Rocket

December 3, 2017

Even among fans of Wes Anderson, his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) remains relatively unsung, less seen and less acclaimed than the likes of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. It lost money and wrong-footed viewers, but over time it found its audience – some of them, anyway. Martin Scorsese, for one, loves it, and so do I.

Bottle Rocket is a sweet, slacker caper film about lifelong friendship and inept crime. It’s a heist film, road movie, and buddy comedy in one. Two of those buddies are Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson, brothers in real life, starring in their first feature film. Luke’s character has a love interest (‘Which part of Mexico are you from?’ ‘Paraguay’), which prompts the following reflection in a letter to his sister:

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Verbings, superlatives, and film catchphrases

November 7, 2017

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about various aspects of language use and innovation. Here are excerpts from the latest three posts, in chronological order. Click the titles to read the rest:

Verbing weirds language – but in a good way

When contact gained popular use as a verb (‘Please contact us later’), critics rejected it as a corruption and a ‘hideous vulgarism’. Nowadays most people are unaware it was ever a problem. But the same controversy has clung to the verbs impact and architect – even though both have been around for centuries. At major athletics events, there is always ‘harrumphing from the stickler brigade’, as Liz Potter reports, over the verbing of podium, medal, final and gold. For some, it’s still a tough ask.

Party on, film catchphrases!

Some films are so popular and linguistically memorable that their lines enter widespread use. It can happen with a line in a classic film, such as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (Gone with the Wind), ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (The Wizard of Oz), ‘I’ll be back’ (The Terminator), and ‘Play it again, Sam’ (Casablanca – even though that line is never used in the film). Sometimes it’s not a catchphrase but a new word that enters the language indirectly: gaslight from the 1944 film is a good example.

Good, better and best rules for comparatives and superlatives

Easyeasier and easiest illustrates another rule, one of spelling. When the adjective ends in a consonant plus y, the y changes to i (heavy heavier, not *heavyer). There are two other spelling rules. When the adjective ends in a mute e, add –r or –st, not –er or –est (latelater, not *lateer). And when it ends in a consonant after a stressed, single-letter vowel, double the consonant (fit fitter, not *fiter). Once we learn these rules, we can apply them broadly.


Real World English: a video series

September 7, 2017

Over the last year or so, Macmillan Dictionary (for whom I write a column on language) published 11 videos and blog posts in a series titled Real World English. I wrote the video scripts, which were then revised by the editors, jazzed up by the graphics team, and presented by Ed Pegg of the London School of English.

Like the dictionary itself, this material is aimed at English-language learners but may be of use or interest to others too. Its focus is on dialect differences in the workplace, mainly UK/US. The entries focus on vocabulary (greetings, education, holidays, etc.) or pragmatics (irony, directness, politeness, etc.). The introductory video gives the gist:

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You can access all 11 videos and blog posts (plus video scripts) on this page, or you can use the playlist above. Each clip is 2–3 minutes long, and the whole series comes in under 30 minutes. Real World English follows the popular Real Grammar and Real Vocabulary series of previous years. I hope you enjoy it.


Dictionary style labels: a Macmillan series

November 11, 2016

For my column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been looking at its style labels – supplementary terms like ‘humorous’, ‘formal,’ ‘offensive’, and ‘literary’ that are not part of a word’s definition but lend useful detail about it, especially for English-language learners:

Style labels help us become more familiar with the many varieties of English, especially if we’re learning the language. They enable us to use English more effectively and to interpret it more accurately when we hear or see it.

It’s a three-part series.

Part I looks at the formal–informal axis, with particular focus on the Scottish word bawbag. @MacDictionary’s tweet about bawbag – which stressed its ‘very informal’ status – made news headlines a few months ago.

Part II looks at the ‘offensive’ label, including the euphemism treadmill that sees terms like retarded go from acceptable to taboo, and words like lunatic that are now in a grey area. I also show how geographical and social factors can affect a word’s offensiveness.

Part III looks at other common labels, such as ‘spoken’, ‘journalism’, and ‘old-fashioned’. One interesting pair for pragmatics is the ‘showing approval’ and ‘showing disapproval’ labels. I also explain why Macmillan does not use the ‘obsolete’ label often found in dictionaries.

All my older posts can be viewed in my Macmillan Dictionary archive. Thanks for reading.