Monday, 25 January 2016

El Gato, the nameless cat

It was revealed last week that Jeremy Corbyn's cat does not have a name, and he simply calls it 'el gato'. Or is that El Gato? It was in an interview with the Independent, and you can't hear capital letters, so we may never know. Perhaps it doesn't matter. But perhaps it does!

Image result for corbyn el gato
El Gato, the cat. 
Corbyn himself appears to regard this as not a name, as he goes on to talk about how cats don't know their own names anyway. However, El Gato could be a perfectly good name, if he chooses to think of it that way. Yes, it means 'the cat', but we can use common nouns as proper nouns quite easily. My friend does exactly this, as her car is nicknamed El Gato. Another friend's mother has a cat whose name is The Little Cat. Ella Fitzgerald and all the other Ellas are just called 'her', by the same token, but we think of it as a name. Adam West and all the other Adams are just called 'man', but again, no problem here.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A-g-nother g-nu

In the recent series of University Challenge: The Professionals, shown at Christmas time, Jeremy Paxman asked a question involving a gnu. A gnu is an animal, also known as a wildebeest. Here's what they look like:

Brilliantly, Wiktionary captions this photo as 'a few gnus'
It's pronounced the same as 'new', where the 'g' is not silent, exactly, because it changes the pronunciation of the 'n', but it's not pronounced as a /g/. However, in the well-known Flanders and Swann song The Gnu, some of the joke is centred around the pronunciation /gnu:/, with a hard 'g'. This animal isn't that commonly talked about, so you most often hear it in the context of this song, which means that it can be quite hard to remember it's not actually pronounced /gnu:/. Paxman apparently failed to remember this as well, as he pronounced the 'g' when he said it. I'll add this to the list of 'language influenced by comedy'.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Ne translatez pas les languages

A friend posted this photo on facebook the other day:

A number of highly intelligent people then missed the point of the joke and began to comment on how bad the translations are. I think they're pretty good imitations of the languages in question, with one big error: the 'German' looks (unmistakably) more like Dutch in the second half of the sentence.

These are not intended to be translations, of course, or rather they're deliberately not accurate. They're just meant to amuse the English-speaking audience by including funny words to compound the humour of the warning in English ('avoid pouring on crotch area'). After all, we love nothing more than when a foreign language does something in a funny way (cf. Welsh popty-ping for 'microwave' or German Handy for 'mobile phone') so it's nice to imagine that these might be for real.

Let's begin with the French. The grammar is fine, as far as I know: you'd make an imperative in French with the negative and the 2nd person plural inflection, just as it's done there. The phrase dans l'area seems OK to me, too. The vocabulary used just isn't French, that's all. The verb for 'pour' should, I think (Google Translate helped) be verser so you'd have ne versez pas. I don't know if you'd also need a pronoun in there (don't pour it) or not. And, of course, no French person ever says ooh-la-la, but it's stereotypically French and referring to ones' crotch that way goes nicely with the French reputation for romance.

Next, the 'German'. This one caused a bit more controversy in the comment thread, because it very obviously isn't German. My German is less good than my French, but I'm pretty certain the word order here is wrong as well as the vocabulary and morphology. I think you would say literally 'drop you not...' rather than 'not drop...', which is what we appear to have here: nein is German for 'no'. Then the verb is obviously just English again, with droppen instead of pourez. I think they've simply selected words that have a combination of letters that resemble the language in question (so French has a word pour, for instance, but it doesn't look very Germanic).

Next, though, I think we've got a nice case of representing an accent in words that look like (or indeed exist in) the language. So ze haut kaffe does not mean 'the hot coffee' in German (haut apparently means 'skin', for instance, and the German for 'coffee' is in fact kaffee, which they could have used instead), but it looks German-ish and sounds like someone saying the hot coffee in (some kind of representation of) a German accent. It reminds me of this a bit. Notice also that the 'German' has an overt object with article, while the French has nothing at all ('don't drop _ on the crotch area' vs 'don't drop the hot coffee on the crotch area').

Then it most definitely switches to Dutch-looking words, if we hadn't already. Dutch word order is a little bit more familiar to English speakers as well, I think, although I know even less Dutch than I do German. Anyway, here we've got a dead giveaway for Dutch: that word oont. It just has a Dutch-like feel to it, though I don't know why (double 'o'? final 't'?). And then finally the lovely phrase, ze knakkers. Again, this is definitely Germanic and in fact Google Translate does give 'knackers' as the translation of this as a German word (it gives 'frankfurter cherry' if you tell it knakkers is Dutch!).

Good work, coffee-cup-humour-producing-person!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Oldman, not old man

Another thing I watched over Christmas was a repeat of A Touch of Cloth, a comedy detective series by Charlie Brooker. There's a character in it called Detective Oldman, and many jokes are had around her surname and the phrase old man. The thing is, the name is pronounced differently from the phrase. You pronounce the name with a reduced second vowel, so it's [ˈɒldmən], whereas the phrase old man is pronounced something like [ɒldˈmæn] (the first vowel varies a bit). Even if you don't read IPA, you can see they're different in the vowels used and where the stress is placed. This meant that in the programme, for the jokes to work, her name had to be pronounced like the phrase rather than in the usual way, which sounds decidedly weird. 

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Seen as this is the 1930s

I watched ITV's Harry Price: Ghost Hunter over the Christmas break, which starred Rafe Spall as the eponymous psychic investigator/faker/unmasker.

One linguistic fact of note is the spelling of his first name, which I assume is a respelling reflecting the pronunciation of the name Ralph, which is now usually pronounced as it looks.

But what caught my ear was the very modern-sounding language. One character used vowels which I would have said were characteristic of Estuary English or MLE: monophthongs where RP would have had a diphthong, for instance. And Rafe Spall himself said, at one point, seen as rather than the normatively correct seeing as (meaning more or less because or since). I'm hesitant to say that this is anachronistic, as it's almost invariably a 'recency illusion' when anyone makes an argument like that. Rather, it's probably just that we expect posh and middle class people in period dramas to speak in RP, and when they don't we find it jarring. But I can't find out how old this variant is, because it's virtually ungoogleable and I'm not sure where else to go to look for it. Seen as has indeed increased massively since 1960, but I can't filter out the false hits like we were seen as inferior, where it's not the same thing. Anyone happen to know about this? (Sorry if the chart is not the right size - html skillz are failing me today. Follow the link above to the original.)