French with tears

November 10, 2006

Toto, manufacturer of the world’s greatest toilet, no doubt derived their name from the leading character in the French textbook I used when I was a kid, written by a wretch named Whitmarsh. Toto had two sizeable handicaps as far as we were concerned. One he was French and two he was a spineless little twerp who invariably ended up doing whatever his authoritarian father and simpering mother asked him to. But he wielded his irregular verbs and subjunctives like we would never be able to. His only sign of independence came in about lesson 3 when, I remember distinctly, “Toto frappe sur la table.” I believe our hero was demanding an extra helping of mousse au chocolat and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get it. It is, of course, possible that his offspring were manning the barricades in ’68 but I somehow doubt it. Our French teacher also had an inveterate hatred of everything French as he was rumoured to have had an unpleasant experience with some Pétainistes during the war. The school was right next to a slaughter house and Monday mornings we had to interrupt the French lesson while the unfortunate beasts were led past. ‘Listen’, he used to say as the cows mooed their last, ‘that’s the sound of the French ‘u'”. His normal method of punishment, meted out mildly if there was some indiscipline and with savage ferocity if someone forgot the passé composé of ‘aller’ was ‘la friction’, when consisted in him rubbing his knuckles vigorously along the skull of the offender. “Si j’eusse partir” some hapless pupil would mutter in response to a question and ther would be a whoop of delight as Mr H bounded over calling out ‘la friction, boy, la friction’. Mr H’s francophobia did not extend, however to other parts of Europe and he always came with us on school trips abroad- as long as we avoided France. On one occasion we were taken to a Heuriger outside Vienna to try the new wine. After severe warnings from the teachers, the boys were on their best behaviour, had a few sips of the sourish liquid and remained steadfastly sober. The teachers, however, had their arms round the young female guides, were singing Viennese drinking songs in a drunken cacophony and ended up falling into a fountain. We sixth formers were not amused. One of Mr H’s colleagues told me that the time the school went to Paris (Mr H did not accompany them) the masters decided to take the boys to the Folies Bergeres as they were pretty sure if they didn’t the lads would find their own way there. The teachers sat with eyes popping out of their heads at the amount of female pulchritude on display then one of them heard a boy whisper ‘ Look at that Rolex, do you reckon it’s genuine?’ The boys were ignoring the goings-on on the stage and were busy ogling the expensive technology on display in the audience. I can tell you, things would have been different in my time. Our exhaustive study of the copies of ‘Health and Efficiency’ which were passed round surreptitiously under the desks would have seen to that. Amazingly, I see that ‘A New Simpler French Course’ by W.F.H. Whitmarsh is stillI in print and available on Amazon (though it is only listed as 261,327th in terms of sales). I must get myself a copy for Christmas to see how old Toto is getting along.


This is a phrase that really causes my hackles to leap upwards. ‘Feel free to take a brochure.’ Presumably the use of the imperative here is an invitation or a granting of permission rather than an order. In which case, why not simply ‘Please take a brochure’? I don’t need anyone’s permission before I feel something. All I need these wretches to do is to tell me whether taking one of their brochures (presumably without paying for it) is allowed or not. Either I am free to take one of their pathetic bits of publicity or I’m not and if not they should put them under lock and key where my prying fingers can’t reach them. But the weaselly ‘feel free’ doesn’t actually give me permission to take a brochure, it merely allows me to think I can take one. My feelings of freedom could turn out to be unfounded- there could well be a policeman lurking there just waiting to pounce. Their lawyers would have a field day. I imagine a particularly malicious dictator who allows people to ‘feel free’ to do things before calling in the midnight police and banging them up in jail.I can feel free to commit a crime either believing that I can get away with it or just not caring. Feelings can often bear little relation to objective reality- I can feel cold in the summer heat and vice versa. I may feel free even if I am imprisoned in all sorts of ways I am unaware of or choose to overlook.
Anyway, my feelings are my business and they are not things that I expose to any Tom Dick or Harry. As Brassens said, on a slightly different subject: “Je ne fais voir mes organes procréateurs A personne, excepté mes femmes et mes docteurs.” I resent the implication that if I do take one of their wretched bits of publicity it’s because I am sheepishly grateful to them for having given me their permission to harbour feelings of freedom. I imagine fingers pointing in my direction and a whisper running round the asembled crowd ‘look at him, we know what he’s feeling.’
Sadly, that otherwise irreproachable body, the European Commission blotted their copybook with a campaign entitled FEEL FREE TO SAY NO (to tobacco). Enough to make me want to take up smoking, but fortunately the offensively termed campaign is over so I won’t. Having recovered from that, I now read that “British style maven James Dyson plans to open a free school where teenagers can experiment with hands-on projects and problem-solving design’ under the label “Feel Free to Fail.” Not something, I say cynically, in which the average teenager needs much encouragement. Equally insulting to my mind is the slogan of Project Liberty, ‘which was created in 2001 to provide supportive crisis counseling to individuals and groups affected by the World Trade Center disaster:’ ‘Feel Free To Feel Better.’ Do people really have to be told that they are allowed to get over tragedies? The dubious morality of ‘feel free’ is highlighted in this article about Wal-Mart: ‘Wal-Mart: Feel free to steal cheap stuff. – Wal-Mart is altering its zero-tolerance policy and will now only prosecute shoplifters who are between 18 and 64 and try to steal merchandise worth more than $25.’ As my age precludes me from prosecution I shall feel free to leg it over to the US of A and grab as many $24.99 goodies from them as I can stuff in my pockets. That really would be a holiday to remember.

room with a view

November 2, 2006


our ‘house in the country’
Linguists and other boringly serious (or seriously boring) people have often pointed out that a word in one language might carry different connotations from the equivalent word in another. Take ‘house’, for example. Westerners have a pretty good idea of what a house is like but the average house in the Thai countryside, in terms of robustness and comfort, would not, in our eyes, even come up to the standard of a garden shed. Being made of wood they are fairly easy to dismantle so when you move house you can literally move your house with you. When you buy a house in the country it’s worth checking first if you are buying the land too or just the timber that the made of. Hilltribe houses can be even flimsier- ours is pretty solidly constructed out of strips of bamboo with a sort of thatch covering (see picture).
When I first bought a flat in town the builders seemed rather surprised that I wanted a kitchen. Good cheap food is on every street corner so it’s an exceptional person who can be bothered to cook. In the countryside the ‘kitchen’ is often a small area outside where there is a charcoal stove and sometimes a bottled gas ring. Furniture such as chairs, tables, beds, is definitely an optional extra.The average Thai eats on the floor, that’s one reason why they are so fussy about people not coming in houses with outside shoes on and about keeping the floor swept clean. They don’t notice dust and cobwebs higher up as they rarely sit and eat on the ceiling. No Thai house, though, is complete with pictures of the King and an aged monk, or a shrine for offerings to the spirits. Most rural families I know use the house as such only for sleeping: other activities (cooking, chatting, working around the place, sometimes even watching TV) are done outside.
Then there’s the toilet/bathroom. In towns showers and flushed lavatories are becoming more common but the norm in the countryside is a large container full of water which you either pour over you as a shower or down the hole in the ground that serves as the toilet. Few Thais take hot showers, even in our winter (when temperatures can sink as low as 13 degrees celsius). The idea of a sitting in a bath strikes them at best as comical- ‘soaking in water, that’s what you do to clothes’, one said caustically.
I was reminded of these observations by seeing a house someone had just built nearby. The front is on a street with a straggly collection of uninteresting houses huddled together; the back looks over a beautiful expanse of rice fields with mountains in the distance. Where do you think the owners put the rooms with a view? Why, at the front of course; the back is a windowless surface of brick. Thais go to great lengths to keep the sun and, unfortunately, light out of their houses.I was once asked to explain the meaning of the phrase ‘it’s a nice sunny room’ to some Thais whose English was good enough to understand every word. What they could not understand was how a sunny room could be nice. When I showed the same two Thais (both doctors) my pictures of Angkor Wat, they said “but it’s all broken, how can you call that beautiful?” That more or less sums up the attitude of many Thais to old things, including houses. Certainly the Thais I know are very reluctant to live in an old house, or even one that has been occupied before. They claim they’re afraid someone has died there or that it has collected bad spirits. Not surprisingly, most builders are also experts in demolition.

the million dollar comma

October 30, 2006

Commas in the news again. As an unrepentant misuser of commas, I have some sympathy with the company who misunderstood one in this case (reported in the Language Log). The argument over whether a company can cancel a contract after one year turns on a single comma in the 14-page contract. The answer is worth 1 million Canadian dollars.
‘The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year.’
The other company, though, have a potential trump card- the French version, which is not included in the report, is apparently unambiguous in their favour. I guess that the French virgule, although even mightier than the English comma, would be used in the same way  to indicate a parenthetical phrase. So either the number or the position of the commas would be different in the two documents.
One or two other examples where commas can make a difference :

1. Jane walked on her pert bottom, wiggling provocatively.
2. The convict said the judge is a danger to society.
3. The Green party candidate who had the least money lost the election.
and one I spotted in an obituary a while ago:
4. He was brought up in Godalming in Surrey, the only child of a war veteran who had entered the print trade and a nurse.

How to make a cow happy

October 23, 2006

Three news stories courtesy of the Language Log. One is a spoof, in one the linguist has been misquoted and one is highly dubious.

1.   “A farm is supplying the British Mark’s & Spencer chain of stores with Welsh beef known for its  tenderness. The secret, according to an M&S spokesman, is that, at Cig Calon Cymru farm, the Welsh Black cows take their leisure on foam mattresses while farmhands whisper to them only in Welsh. The language, explains Manchester University linguist Martin Berry, “is more melodic than English,” and that relaxes the animals.”

2.’ Germans can be grumpy, unpleasant people—and it’s not because of post-Nazi guilt or a diet filled with bratwurst, says one American researcher. It’s because of their vowels. Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression. Myers added that the English sounds of “e” and “ah” naturally create smile-like expressions and may induce happiness. Clearly the solution for the Germans, much like the solution for every other people in the world, is to become more like Americans. The German Embassy would not comment on the findings, saying they were “too scientific.” “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”‘

3. FLINT, Mich.–The French ability to remain slimmer than Americans despite a diet higher in fats and overall calorie density has puzzled nutritionists for decades. But a new study suggests that scientists are looking in the wrong place for the secret of Gallic leanness, and that staying svelte may have nothing to do with food at all. “The answer is swallowed consonants,” said Dr. Eric Gross, professor of  biology at Lester College in Flint. “We’re finding that the pronunciation of these sounds can induce a feeling of satiety in French speakers, and can lead, over the long-term, to lower body weight.”

The spoof is number 3; number 2 was reported in all seriousness by the BBC. Language Log reminds us that  ‘William James famously argued that emotion itself is simply our perception of its bodily expression: “we feel sorry because we cry”‘. I can quite believe that someone saying an umlaut can look pretty grumpy but, reluctant as I am to argue with the illustrious academic, I can’t believe he’s right that saying one makes you feel miserable. I don’t cry that much- does it mean I don’t feel sorry sometimes? Mind you, if some linguists are to be believed, the sounds you make have some pretty strange origins themselves. I remember reading in a book by the French phonetician Georges Faure that he attributed the particular quality of English vowels to the weather, especially to the smog prevalent at the time.
Language log reports that when the ‘expert’ in number 1 was asked about this by a reporter, he replied that Welsh English is said to be more “lilting” than other varieties of English, which probably reflects a difference in pitch accent alignment, but that he had no idea whether cows find Welsh more relaxing than English. Goodness knows what would happen if someone spoke to the poor cows in German. Enough to curdle the milk.
What these three items seem to have in common is that people are reluctant to accept that language is just language. If it’s to be newsworthy, language has to govern thought, change personality, affect your health and calm cows. The idea that a lot of what we say is quite arbitrary is not going to make any headlines.

Viking fashion

October 21, 2006

A nauseating piece of writing quoted in the excellent Policeman’s blog introducing ‘Operation Viking’, the second paragraph of which reads

“The challenge of Viking is not to commit local Police to working harder, but through collaboration and effective, meaningful problem solving partnerships to work smarter. Problem solving models have been developed to address the root causes of crime and disorder in the Town and we will systematically dismantle these. Viking will forge new partnerships and balance respective agendas, enabling the realisation of intelligence led Policing.
Where we lack resources, we will be innovative, when we respond, we will be lawfully audacious and by harnessing the potency of collaborations, we will ignite synergy.
Vision, Transparency, Ingenuity – we welcome you to Operation Viking.”

So coppers ‘ignite synergy’ these days, here was I thinking they just nicked villains.
SilverTiger has a post today in which he asks ‘What motives do people have when they deliberately choose what style to wear?’ He suggests a few answers such as such as “To impress”, “To be different”, “To look professional”. The Operation Viking extract makes me wonder what makes people choose the words they do. To impress and sound professional certainly, sometimes to sound different sometimes to show they’ve joined the gang, quite often to cover things up and obfuscate and, very occasionally, to say clearly what they mean.

Found in translation

October 20, 2006

Some great new excuses I did not include in an earlier post after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been overheard joking about the virility of his Israeli counterpart, who is accused of multiple rape.
First excuse: Mr Putin’s spokesman said the joke was not meant to be overheard
Second excuse: Come on, Russkies you can do better than that.  The spokesman again: “Russian is a very complicated language, sometimes it is very sensitive from the point of view of phrasing. I don’t think that the proper translation is able to reflect the meaning of the joke.”

What Putin apparently said was: “What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped 10 women – I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all – we all envy him!”
The Russian media have been quick to try and defend their nation’s president, speculating that Mr Putin simply wanted to express support for Mr Olmert. So “I envy your President raping ten women” is diplomatic parlance for ” I think you’re doing a good job.” And I, naively thought ‘diplomatic’ language worked the other way round. Anyway, always ready to help a world leader out of a hole,  I dug into this business of translation a bit (I’m not a Russian speaker). The word for ‘rape’ (насиловать) can also, according to an online dictionary, mean ‘gorilla’; ‘jam one up’; ‘shake somebody down’, ‘snag’. ‘Woman’ (женщина) also has the meaning of ‘frail’; ‘furniture’  or ‘bit of mutton.’ So I imagine Putin really said something like ‘He’s a gorilla who really shook up the furniture’ or ‘there is a snag with his piece of mutton’. I’m quite prepared to believe this as I know how tricky a language Russian can be. I once sat in on a lesson conducted for British military intelligence people where the instructor explained a new word by saying: ” This word has two meanings. One, underpants. Two, Unconditional surrender.” Don’t mess with Russian translations, that’s my conclusion.