Saturday, March 09, 2019

in which I ponder the passage of time

Y'all, I am getting old. If the high blood pressure, the creaking knee and other assorted ailments weren't a strong enough sign, earlier this week, I had and took the opportunity to call a 20-something person a sopliak (a Slovak derrogatory term for a young person, literally "runny-nose-haver") to their face and ... well, I actually felt a perverse sense of pleasure doing so. I swear to God, I am one condescending fiam (Hungarian for "my son") away from becoming my grandfather, Lord rest his soul. And the more I realize this, the more it weighs on my mind that perhaps I will not be able to learn all languages that there are (or at least the real interesting ones, because life is too short to learn Japanese). This morning's Youtube feed was a stark reminder of that fact: in addition to the usual assortment of media criticism (these days mostly of the "Star Trek: Discovery sucks" variety because hell yeah it does), US late night comedy, cooking shows and - for some damn reason - relationship advice, the almighty algorithms served me up this:
Now unlike those relationship advice videos where I am baffled - BAFFLED I say! - as to why anyone would think I would be in need of or even interested in such a thing hastilyclickssubscribe, I know where this comes from: earlier this month, I had been made aware of the existence of a (predominantly) Afrikaans-language South African soap opera (or soapie, as they are apparently referred to in South African English) called 7de Laan and having found a channel with the latest episodes, I binged the hell out of them. So it did not surprise that the allpowerful and wise Google thought I would be interested in its sister show, Muvhango. What surprised me, however, is that - heavy code-switching with English notwithstanding - this show is not primarily shot in Xhosa or Zulu, the major Bantu languages of South Africa, but rather in Venda, a Bantu language with some 3 million speakers total. Now this is my first exposure to Venda (save perhaps for a mention in Routledge's Bantu Languages, but I honestly don't recall) and in situations like this, my first instinct is to find a grammar or a textbook of said language and try to at least get a handle on the basics. Not this time, though: first, it would appear there are very few resources for Venda available (this is essentially the only usable grammar guide I was able to find) which makes me wonder about the whole social and economic context of the language (e.g. interesting how a nation of less than 2 million L1 speakers has this many pretty decent actors and more than decent creative people). Secondly and most importantly, while I could spend a few days trying to attain at least some level familiarity with the language, I can't afford to spend any more time than that and ultimately, it would just end up on the metaphorical pile of all the other languages I will probably never learn to any usable level (hello Tagalog, Korean, Tamil and Lithuanian) and that just wouldn't be fair. So it's for the best to just walk away without wondering what might have been and just accept that I will never learn to speak Venda or maybe even any Bantu language at all. Sucks, but c'est la vie.
Then again, I do want to find out how Marang's engagement turns out...

P.S.: Check out timestamp ~8:27-8:30 and the glorious ejective [kʼ] in the second [k] in the English word "conclude".

Friday, September 18, 2015

in which I harvest jam

I often give Slovak translators, especially those working on dubs and subtitles, a hard time for their stilted language (where "motherfucker" is commonly translated as something akin to "ruffian"), stupidity (I still recall episodes of Babylon 5 where the term "destroyer" was translated as "ničiteľ" - i.e. someone who destroys - instead of the proper nautical "torpédoborec") and general lack of creativity. This time, however, I want to highlight some inspired work translating the English idiom "to be up shit creek" in the 2003 version of The Italian Job. When I first caught it on TV some time ago I could not believe my ears and so I resolved to record it next time it airs and check whether I indeed heard what I heard. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do so recently - and even had the proper equipment ready to go - and so I present you with the clip in question (don't forget to turn on the subtitles).

The Slovak version used in this scene is "do X lekvár kosiť" which translates as "to go harvest/reap (as in 'using a scythe') jam/preserves/fruit spread to X" where X is a location. The most common version goes "do Kambodže lekvár kosiť" with X = Cambodia and it is in itself somewhat rare - indeed this was only the second time I had heard this phrase, hence my initial disbelief. The translator is therefore to be commended to have the guts to use such this colorful phrase, but that apparently wasn't enough for our intrepid friend, because they then replaced Cambodia with Jackson for the final "do Jacksonu lekvár kosiť." Why Jackson (and which Jackson), I don't know and probably never will, but damn, mad props.

Monday, August 25, 2014

in which I consider the way in which English profanity is borrowed into Slovak and Danish

On or about July 23rd, as I made my way through the local supermarket, I passed a guy about my age with a daughter who was about five or six. They were apparently engaged in the usual "buy me this - no, I won't" tug of war and just as I got within earshot, the dad concluded the discussion by saying the following:
"... pretože je strašne šitné a hneď sa zlomí." 
because is terribly šitné and immediately REFLEXIVE break.FUT. 
Yes, you are quite right: "šitný" [ʃitni:] (of which the form given above is the neuter) is an adjective derived from "shit". I guess we can now add it to the growing list of English borrowings which made it into mainstream Slovak (as opposed to geek speak), but what's more interesting is the pragmatic aspect: by using the word with his pre-school daughter, the dad apparently doesn't consider the adjective vulgar or profane, it's just another way of saying "of bad quality".
I was reminded of this incident last week when I was visiting Copenhagen*. Being who I am, I naturally intended to partake of the offerings of local bookstores, however, due to time constraints I only had the time to visit Politikens Boghal and only for a few minutes. This turned out to be enough, because just as I entered (and passed Tom Rachman discussing his latest book), I ended up right under the "New arrivals" section which included a book titled Dansk i skred. 52 sproglige opstrammere (roughly: "Danish in a downward spiral. 52 linguistic eye-openers"). "Linguistic and current, perfect, even if happens to be just your standard peevology tome," I thought and proceded to the counter to make the purchase with just enough time to make the flight home.  When I finally sat down to read it, I quickly found out that my fears about the nature of the book were unfounded. First, its author is an actual linguist and and an accomplished one at that - someone who wrote Udtaleforskelle i Danmark: Aldersbestemte, geografiske, sociale ("Pronunciation variation in Denmark: Age-determined, geographic, social") just knows too much to be a peevologist. Second, the Foreword includes this explanation of the title:
Bogen hedder “Dansk i skred”, ikke fordi sproget er ved at miste fodfæste, men fordi det hele tiden tilpasser sig nye udtryksbehov og derfor må udvikle sig.

This book is called "Danish in a downward spiral" not because the language is losing its footing, but because it constantly keeps adapting to new needs for expression and therefore must evolve.
And in fact, the same Foreword includes this example of such an adaptation and its effects (pardon my translation) that has direct bearing on the "šitný" incident described above:
... For både sproget, stilen og tabuerne ændrer sig. Danmarks Radio laver temaudsendelser i primetime med titler som Kussen, Pikken og Røven, uden at nogen tilsyneladende tager anstød af det. På den måde afmonterer man tabuerne, men man støder også en hel del fra sig, og de grænsesøgende må søge nye veje, fx gennem import af kraftudtryk som fuck og shit, som heller ikke har bevaret deres kraft i moderne sprogbrug. Når en 13-arig pige til sine bedsteforældre kan sige "fuck, hvor er jeg glad for den kjole", har det for barnet samme valør, som når man tidligere sagde “nej, hvor er jeg glad” eller "gud, hvor er jeg glad." Men sådan opfatter de ældre generationer det ikke.

... Because both the language and style as well as taboos change. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation makes primetime shows with titles like Cunt, Cock and Ass, apparently without anybody batting an eye. In this way, taboos are destroyed but, one also removes a large part of oneself. Those wishing to push boundaries must then look for new ways to do so, such as importing profanities like fuck and shit, which, however, did not retain their vulgar status in modern use. When a 13-year old girl says to her grandparents "fuck, I'm so happy about the dress", to the child it is the same as when one used to say "oh I'm so happy" or "God, I'm so happy." But the older generation doesn't see it that way.
This has happened before, this will happen again and I suspect only more so once English is spoken as widely in Slovakia as it is in Denmark.

* If you ever go, make sure to wear comfortable shoes and visit La Glace for a piece of HC Hat.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

in which I try to recover from an hour-long motivation session

As you may or may not now, dear readers, I am employed by a certain large corporation chiefly known for its hardware, but actually offering a wide range of IT and other related services for other enterprises, large and small. Recently, the HR department of our corporation launched a new initiative, something about culture or engagement or some such nonsense I usually don't pay attention to because I'm, you know, busy doing actual work and creating value for our shareholders*. This time, however, there was a bit that made me sit up and listen and that bit is the name of the initiative: Arete. According to the initiative website:
Arete is pronounced [ahr-i-tey].
Arete is a Greek word and it means “being the best you can be” or “reaching your highest human potential.”.
And there it was, a subtle but unmistakeably new note in the usual deluge of corporate bullshit which my finely-atuned nose could not miss. My Greek may leave a lot to be desired, but a) this sounds way too lofty and b) I don't trust corporate types when it comes to anything, especially language (danger + opportunity, anyone?). So right after the meeting, I opened my copy of Liddell-Scott, fired up Perseus and soon came up with what I think is the actual word: ἀρετή = "goodness, excellence, virtue". The Perseus Project's first citation leads to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2 and the translator's remark that "ἀρετή is here as often in this and the following Books employed in the limited sense of ‘moral excellence’ or ‘goodness of character,’ i.e. virtue in the ordinary sense of the term."
Of course, I don't think our management reads Aristotle on a regular basis, so I would expect that the direct source of the term can be found in one of those idiotic management guides. And indeed a cursory search on Google Books found one example, another one and I'm sure there are more. None of them, however, provide the definition given above. That can be found, verbatim, in the Wikipedia entry for the word. I will leave the assessment of that definition to those more competent in Greek, I just wish they would have stuck with - as the first book put it - functional excellence. That way, they would at least say what they mean without having to pretend they care about me.

*Pardon me while I throw up.

Monday, October 28, 2013

in which I briefly ponder the morphology of greetings

Lately, for reasons that I may or may not explain in due course, I've been thinking a lot about the classification of words (parts of speech et al.). Normally what I do is consider the more nebulous categories (indefinite pronouns, quantifiers and alike), but today somehow I got to thinking about verbs and how - at least in Standard Average European and immediate surroundings - they tend to be easily identifiable based on morphological criteria only. And then I thought of "čau".
To explain: In addition to all the formal[1] and semi-formal[2] options, there are basically three standard informal greetings in Slovak: "ahoj", "čau" and "servus". The etymology is of course obvious and interesting in itself, the use of the first one tends to baffle German and English-speaking visitors to no end, but these are otherwise unremarkable interjections (Pauliny 1981:207). Well, not entirely unremarkable. You see, unlike with most other interjections in Slovak, when you use these to greet a group of people, you can add a suffix "-te", ending up with "ahojte", "servuste" and "čaute". What is that suffix, you ask? Why it's none other than the suffix of the second person plural imperative, i.e. a verbal suffix. This would fit nicely into the paradigm where second person singular imperative lacks overt marking for some verb classes (e.g. "rob" = do.2SG.IMP, "robte" = do.2PL.IMP), so one could argue that some Slovak interjections actually take some verbal suffixes.
Hang on, is that the only explanation? Well, no. One could for example consider the influence of analogy where these forms would be based on greetings like "maj(te) sa" which is a honest-to-Ninurta verb in the imperative: the full form is "maj(te) sa dobre" = "be well"[3] "mať", lit. "to have", metaphorically "to be in a X condition"[4]. The absence of the reflexive pronoun might "sa" would have to be explained, but surprise surprise, "čaute sa" and "ahojte sa" do indeed frequently occur and from there, it's just one step to the forms we've seen, so that's plausible enough. We would thus have greetings formulas formed by analogy with an existing one and I don't think it matters that "maj(te) sa" is exclusively a farewell greeting, while the rest are universal.
But here's the thing: in addition to 2PL.IMP suffix "-te", there is also a 1PL.IMP suffix "-me" (Pauliny 1981:178). And guess what? Yes, you got it, "čau" and "ahoj" take "-me", too, to form "čaume" and "ahojme" and there is even one instance of "servusme" on teh intert00bz. These definitely cannot be explained by simple analogy with the "maj(te)" greeting, since appears to be no greeting formula "majme sa (dobre)"[5]. And so even if the 2PL imperative forms of "čau" and "ahoj" arose in analogy with "maj(te) sa" (which is possible, but in no way certain), they developed in their own way: first, they dropped the reflexive (which is not possible for "maj(te) sa" since the verb would then lose its idiomatic meaning) and once they could take one imperative suffix, nothing prevented them from taking the other one.
So, to sum up: some Slovak interjections take the full set of imperative suffixes. Now that is some awesome shit.

1. "Dobrý deň", lit. "good day".
2. "Zdravím", lit. "I greet".
3. See Swedish/Norwegian "ha det bra".
4. Note that in Slovak, one can inquire about other person's well-being by simply asking "Máš sa?". Normally this type of sentence would require a sentence-final adjective (for a simple question), a sentence-final interrogative particle (for focus on the particle) or a different word order (interrogative particle - reflexive - verb), but "Máš sa?" is perfectly cromulant, if informal, Slovak.
5. The main reason could be that the 1PL.IMP form of "mať" is not specific enough to facilitate a pragmatic interpretation as a greeting. In other words, when I hear "majme sa", I expect the next word to be the next part of one of the multiword expressions "mať" often features in, like "majme sa radi" ("let's like each other") or "majme sa na pozore" ("let's be careful"). Also, the imperative of "mať" is fishy in general.

Pauliny 1981: Pauliny, Eugen. Slovenská gramatika: Opis jazykového systému. Bratislava: SPN.