To learn and love a language.

My vocabulary is beginning to improve. I treasure each acquisition, remembering the exact circumstances—time, place, company—under which it was made. English is a trust fund, an unearned inheritance, but I’ve worked for every bit of French I’ve banked… 

Schnapsidee—the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija—Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari, ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for “post-sex hair.” Gümüş servi means “moonlight shining on the water” in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. 

Words like these are marvellous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of various passports have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck—“grief bacon”—will always win the day.) They’re fun to say. They’re funny to think about, in their Seinfeldian particularity. They expand and concentrate the world, making it bigger-spirited while at the same time more specific. In Russian, you can’t call the sky “blue.” The language obliges its speakers to make a distinction between siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue), so that what is in English one color becomes in Russian two.

— from Lauren Collins, Love In Translation. Go and read the whole thing; it’s very much worth the investment.

Frozen in time?

Two ideas:

1. While London was undergoing arguably the period of greatest growth and change in its history, the London perpetuated in literature barely changed:

Even as physical London expanded madly, fictional London stayed small, contained within the historic city center and the wealthy West End… The rest of London—where most of the growth was actually taking place—never really mattered. In the course of the nineteenth century, real London radically changed—and fictional London hardly at all.

Sarah Laskow for Atlas Obscura

2. We all have some concept of London as a snowy winter wonderland because Charles Dickens grew up in an Ice Age:

There happened to be snow every Christmas of the first eight years of Charles Dickens’ life, which probably explains why white Christmases are a consistent feature of his stories. His snowy childhood has its origins in the colder climate of the period 1550-1850 when Britain was in the grip of a ‘Little Ice Age’. Winters were particularly persistent and severe – 1813-14 was the last winter that a ‘frost fair’ was held on the frozen River Thames in London. Before the change of calendar in 1752, which effectively brought Christmas day back by 12 days, snow was even more likely as Christmas comes at the beginning of the season for snow. Wintry weather is more likely in January.

QI

And two observations:

  1. If writers only write what they’re familiar with, and readers only read what they’re comfortable with, the blinkers stay on.
  2. The stories we read (or see or hear) don’t always tell the whole story. Nobody’s life is as beautiful as their Instagram account, and it’s probably unwise to get all your news from Twitter. (Man, I swear I was writing cautionary Media Law essays about this a decade ago, and yet here we are.)

Anyway, to my main point: Read something you wouldn’t usually read today. It doesn’t have to be long, although more than 140 characters is a good idea.

  • Don’t much go for finance? Pick a story on Bloomberg.
  • A sucker for political analysis? Get some poetry in you.
  • Head-in-the-clouds fiction lover? Take a moment for something sober.
  • Filling your days with serious work and serious learning and serious thoughts? Take a break for something silly.
  • Don’t really read anything much (except this blog, it seems)? Read anything!

 

Don’t be like 1800s literary London. Expand your horizons. Realise there are perspectives other than your own. Open your mind and pop something new in there. Knowledge is a known antidote for fear of the unknown.

 

PS. I wasn’t expecting to get from Dickens to Instagram, but in 2017 that’s somehow not so surprising.

Aviation English and the “high romance of flight”.

Flying highThe language of the skies is a special one, and commercial air travel is my favourite thing on (above?) earth. Have you ever listened in on the in-seat cockpit-to-air-traffic-control radio channel? Try it some time. But also read this lovely piece about the parlance of pilots.

“I like how different the language of the sky is from everyday English – indeed, we might give it its own name, Aeroese (though it’s also sometimes, and less aspirationally, called Aviation English). Above all, I love how Aeroese can somehow manage, in its technical, obscuring precision, to capture the high romance of flight – an aspect of my job, no matter how much I love it, that in the cockpit we rarely have reason to consider directly.

…Imagine a plane that flies from London to Bangkok. The pilots speak first to British air-traffic controllers but, just a few minutes after takeoff, the British controllers hand them over to Belgian or Dutch ones, who soon pass them to German controllers, and then to Czech, to Hungarian, to Romanian, to Turkish, to Iranian ones, and so on. It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or English-derived Aeroese). When a Venezuelan pilot speaks to a New York air-traffic controller, or when a pilot from Brooklyn speaks to a controller in Caracas, they speak in English. It’s something to marvel at, the first time you fly to Tokyo, say, and you hear an exchange between a Japanese pilot and a Japanese air-traffic controller, both speaking carefully in Japanese-accented English. It’s standardisation and globalisation by force of bare necessity, by force of speed.

Though Aeroese has predominantly English roots, a handful of common meteorological abbreviations have French origins (as do the words fuselage and aileron, of course). BR is Mist (brouillard) GR is Hail (grêle); HN is Sunset to Sunrise (horaire de nuit). MI is Shallow (a usage derived from mince) and BC is Patches (from bancs).

In a heavens-transiting industry, angels are ‘an echo caused by physical phenomena not discernible to the eye… sometimes attributed to insects or birds flying in the radar beam’… Dry snow ‘can be blown if loose, or, if compacted by hand, will fall apart on release’, while Wet snow, ‘if compacted by hand, will stick together and tend to form a snowball; specific gravity: 0.35 up to but not including 0.5’.”

— Mark Vanhoenacker, The Parlance of Pilots

Other highlights:

  • On approaching touchdown, a disembodied voice tells pilots to “DECIDE” whether to proceed or back out.
  • “Speedbird” is cockpit shorthand for a British Airways flight. The maintenance office is “Speedbird Library”.
  • There are set pronunciation rules, especially for numbers, to avoid confusion.
  • Waypoints are identified by five-letter abbreviations, some very wry. “Many waypoint names are gibberish, but others are more colourful – DRAKE in the English Channel (for Sir Francis); BARBQ near Kansas City; WHALE in the Mediterranean, off Benghazi. When descending to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, fans of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons will enjoy this sequence: ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT (followed by IDEED).”
  • The on-board satellite phone is actually called the Batphone.
  • The pilot-to-pilot ‘chat’ frequency is 123.45Hz.

Rules vs guidelines. Perfection vs style.

Most copy editors conceive of themselves as something between traffic cops and U.N. peacekeepers, and adverbs are not illegal. They are not war crimes. Which is just as well, because I don’t think immersion in either rules or theory can do much for style, and the question of adverbs is, in the end, a question of style… Whether you venerate or violate prescriptions, it’s diction that really matters, diction and word order. We are first of all slaves to our eyes and our ears, not to that wondrous document The Chicago Manual of Style.

– Christian Lorentzen, Can We Just Lose the Adverb (Already)?

As I’ve said before over on the Editor Group blog, I feel the same way about proofreading (and editing and writing) as I do about baking. (Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever.)

Yes, there are rules, and it’s important to learn the rules — mostly so that you know which ones are unimpeachable, and which ones are more like guidelines.

A piece of writing riddled with errors is one kind of horrible.

Even worse*: writing that’s technically perfect but completely devoid of any spirit — any echo of the human mind that created it.

Now that’s a nightmare.

 

*Okay, maybe it’s not worse, but it’s definitely more disappointing than you’d think.

Perqs of the job.

Guess what? It’s not “perks” of the job. It’s perqs! Short for “perquisites”.*

Not to be confused with “prerequisites” … Although the two do share the same Latin root: perquisite = perquīsītum and prerequisite = prerequīsītus, both modified past participles of “sought for”.

See also: “request” (requarere: to seek) and “require” (requīrer: to search for). Which explains why we ask questions  (request) when we seek (require) answers, and when we’re searching for something, we go on a “quest” (quaesītus).**

In other words, there is a definite connection between what you ask for and the perqs you get.

So thank you, StarTalk, for delivering this enlightenment straight to my inbox. And to think, if I’d only heard it in the podcast and never seen it written, I’d be none the wiser.

And the moral to that story is: read your emails.

 

*Who knew? My computer even tried to autocorrect the title of this post.
**Disclaimer: My knowledge of Latin is close to nil, informed only by etymological investigations, so feel free to challenge me on any of this.

List: Untranslation.

“A foot brushes your ankle on a peak-hour bus
Someone’s hand on the small of your back as they pass
A shopkeeper’s fingers while handing you change
Can lightly brush yours without feeling too strange.

But why I felt so alive I can’t quite determine
There could be a word to explain it in German…”

Elbows, Darren Hanlon.

I feel I’m forever hearing that non-English languages are much better at describing profoundly complex, delicately nuanced concepts with simple, single words and phrases.

The example that comes to mind is the Japanese phrase mono no aware, which I first heard described as “the bittersweet impermanence of all things, as epitomised by the beautifully brief cherry-blossom season”.*

{ from Wordstuck, which you should definitely be following }

Such an astonishingly complex description of a profoundly human condition. To encapsulate so much meaning in six syllables is a truly adept feat of human language. In a word, deft.

The internet, often visually, alerts me to other lovely and/or gigglesome examples:


{ vague and nebulous }

large
{ via weheartit }





{ more from Wordstuck }

Not-so-plain English

The thing is, English is also riddled with magical words that somehow pinpoint un-pin-downable ideas. One need only read one of Mark Forsyth’s books (or just his blog, actually) to realise that. If you’ve thought “there should be a word for that” it’s quite likely there is a word in English for it. But it’s also quite likely that word has fallen into disuse — from lack of utility, or despite its seemingly timeless utility.

This, of course, is my cue to again poke you in the ribs and encourage a reading (or rereading) of Reading the OED. Having done so, I’d include apricity (the pleasant warmth of the sun in winter) in my active vocabulary for at least half of the year if it was fashionable to do so.** Living in any city, you would think there are plenty of occasions to use peristeronic (adj., suggestive of pigeons), solivagant (n., one who wanders about alone) and fornale (v., to spend all one’s money before it has been earned). But nobody does. And then we muse wistfully about the rambling-cottage-garden–like magnanimity of other languages, when it seems we’ve wilfully whittled our own language into something simpler and less eloquent, in some sort of 1984-ish search for efficiency.

Humbly untranslatable

Where things really get interesting is at the subtler, simpler level — the different between different varieties of regular, everyday English. On her blog Separated By A Common Language, M. Lynne Murphy has a semi-regular (annual) summary of “untranslatables”: UK English words that have no apparent natural analogue in US English — and vice versa. Many aren’t even as endemic as slang — think punter (UK) and trailer trash (US) rather than ma’m and rad.

The most fascinating realisation, as an Australian proofreader: although AU English often seems terribly akin to UK English while sharing traits that some would call “super American”, most of these untranslatables seem completely native to me — and I’m astounded to think that any native English speaker wouldn’t feel the same. Only Americans eyeball things rather than measuring them accurately? Americans don’t fancy other people in the romantic sense?

Then again, most of the 2012 untranslatables I’d never heard of at all (crunchy-earthy? GUBBINS?) so perhaps I just need to get out more. Who’d like to sponsor my extended transatlantic holida– …erm, research trip?*** I might have a touch of the old wanderlust. Itchy feet. Fernweh.

*Japanese also gives us kintsukuroi:
tumblr_mvhzylzYaE1qfvq9bo1_500
My mother is a potter, and as a little girl I was quite enamoured with those seemingly organic veins of gold winding through otherwise stony ceramics.

**Okay, so I do anyway.

***I might have said vacati– here, to the same effect. But Australia favours the British option here, and so must I.

“My darlings,…” : 12 hand-written letters from the desk of Nelson Mandela

I sincerely believe that sweet, heartfelt hand-written letters are the sign of a good soul. No chance to type and retype, to rearrange paragraphs, to embellish with lengthy hyperlinked asides.

This collection of Nelson Mandela’s hand-written letters is a permanent reminder of his gentle, earnest, good human spirit — not as a survivor or a politician, but simply as a person, when he could assume that no-one but the sole intended reader — his wife, his daughter, himself — would ever see it.

Vale.

Transcript:

23.6.69

My darlings,

Once again our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again. For long you may live, like orphans, without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection mummy used to give you. Now you will get no birthday or Christmas parties, no presents or new dresses, no shoes or toys. Gone are the days when, after having a warm bath in the evening, you would sit at table with mummy and enjoy a her good and simple food. Gone are the comfortable beds, the warm blankets and clean linen she used to provide. She will not be there to arrange for friends to tak you to bioscopes, concerts and plays, or to tell you nice stories in the evening, help you read different books and to answer the many questions you would like to ask. She will be unable to give you the help and guidance you need as you grow older and as new problems arise. Perhaps never again will mummy and daddy join you in House no. 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.

This is not the first time mummy goes to jail. In October 1958, only four months after our wedding, she was arrested with 2,000 other women when they protested against passes in Johannesburg and spent two weeks in jail. Last year she served four days, but now she has gone back again and I cannot tell you how long she will be away this time. All that I wish you always to bear in mind is that we have a brave and determined mummy who loves her people with all her heart. She gave up pleasure and comfort in return for a life full of hardship and misery, because of the deep love she has for her people and country. When you become adults and think carefully of the unpleasant experiences mummy has gone through, and the stubborness with which she has held to her beliefs, you will begin to realise the importance of her contribution in the battle for truth and justice and the extent to which she has sacrificed her own personal interests and happiness…

Transcript:

Flock of ducks walks clumsily into the lounge and loiter about apparently unaware of my presence. Males with loud colours, but keeping their dignity and not behaving like playboys. Moments later they become aware of my presence. If they got a shock they endured it with grace. Nevertheless, I detect some invisible feeling of unease on their part. It seems as if their consciences are worrying them, and although I feared that very soon their droppings will decorate the expensive carpet, I derive some satisfaction when I notice that their consciences are worrying them. Suddenly they squawk repeatedly and then file out. I was relieved. They behave far better than my grandchildren. They always leave the house upside down.

[This and 10 others on ABC News online.]