On the plaza

One of the choirs I sing in has just started rehearsing for a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen later this year. As part of my diligent preparation, I’m watching a full performance on Youtube, sung in French but subtitled in Spanish.

The first words in French are Sur la place (usually /plas/ but in the opera /pla·sə/) and in Spanish Por la plaza. The English translation provided by our conductor gives On the square, which a) is rather prosaic, and b) doesn’t fit the melody. If the opera was sung in English, this would have to be On the plaza (or possibly (not) In the main street).

English place, French place, Spanish plaza and Italian piazza are all derived from Latin platēa, street, courtyard, area and Greek plateîa broad street and  platýs broad, flat, as in platypus (broad foot). Plaza is now a full English word, and piazza would be understood by many English speakers but is probably not a full English word, while French place is not an English word and by itself would probably not be understood by many English speakers.

I might call the main square of Brussels /ɡʁɑ̃ plas/ or “the main square”, but not “the /plas/” and certainly not “the place” (“I’ll meet you at the place”).

Compare sur la plage (on the beach) which is certainly not English. 

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The first post for a while

I haven’t posted much recently for several reasons. In September my new job (as a magazine subeditor) unexpectedly came to an end. On my way home, I contacted the academic manager of my previous English language college, who said she’d arrange some classes for me, but that took some time. That afternoon, I looked at job advertisements, saw one for a subeditor position with another magazine, and applied. That also took some time, but I have now done two days casually, with a view to part-time ongoing then full-time permanent from next year. 

Around the same time, we were in the process of selling our existing house and buying a new one, which we have now done.

Then last week, my father died, so there were many things to be organised, most of which were done by my two sisters who live in that city. My wife and I, and another sister and her family, flew to that city for the funeral on Wednesday. 

I got a lot of my interest in English from my father. He was a regular crossword puzzle doer, preached in church almost every week, and would often go and get the dictionary if we challenged him over Sunday lunch about something he’d said. This did not extend to other languages, though; he failed Biblical Greek multiple times. One of his grand-daughters/my nieces has great interest in and aptitude for languages, but that might be through her father, not our side of the family. Continue reading

slew

A few weeks ago I posted about the following sentence which I spotted in the preface to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

A number of common spelling problems are also discussed briefly. While the emphasis of this work is on usage in writing, a small number of articles is devoted to problems of pronunciation.

(note: “A number … are”, but “a small number … is”.) I emailed the esteemed Geoffrey Pullum about this, and he wrote about it on the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education

His most recent article for Lingua Franca is about the south-eastern Indian language Telugu being the fastest-growing language in the USA, mostly because of the high number of people from that area employed in the IT industry, including the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella. He cites an article in Quartz India, and quotes the following sentence:

A slew of Telugu workers in the US has been shot dead in various incidents, from hate crimes to robbery attempts.

Continue reading

O great mystery

One of the choirs I’m singing in is rehearsing the motet O magnum mysterium by Tomas Luis da Victoria.

The text is:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

One more-or-less standard English translation is:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Every time I’ve sung it, I’ve been struck by how many of the Latin words have engendered English words. English is officially classified as a Germanic language, but many of its advanced words are derived from Latin. In fact, two of the words are Greek and two are Hebrew through Greek. Some words came into English via French rather than directly from Latin. Continue reading

‘The Bells’

In 1849, the American poet Edgar Allan Poe died and his poem ‘The Bells’ was published.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the Russian poet and translator Konstantin Balmont “very freely” translated it into Russian.

In 1913, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote a setting for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, choir and orchestra, originally titled (in Russian) Колокола, Kolokola (Russian WikipediaEnglish Wikipedia).

Some years ago (first guess 2001-2003) I bought a CD of this work. The booklet calls Balmont’s translation “more precisely, a re-interpretation” and includes his text transliterated into the Latin/‘English’ alphabet and translated into German, English and French. Whether the unnamed translator was equally free in translating Balmont’s Russian back into English or not, the result is very different from Poe’s original. Continue reading

hearten and encourage

An article I edited during the week quoted a person connected to a certain organisation saying that a recent event was “heartening and encouraging”.

Hearten and encourage are, basically, ‘the same word’. Courage is derived from French cour/coeur, which in turn is derived from Latin cor, heart which is related to Italian cuore, Spanish corazón, and Portuguese coração. Heart is related to Dutch hart, German Herz, Danish and Norwegian hjerte and Swedish hjärta. Both words have the morpheme en, on the end of hearten and the beginning of encourage.

In fact, the further back in history you go, the more literally ‘the same word’ heart etc and cor etc are. The Proto-Indo-European word was *k̂erd. In some languages, the /k/ remained as /k/ (Greek καρδιά kardia, Latin cor and its Romance derivatives). In others, it became /h/ (English heart and its Germanic cognates) and in some it became /s/ (Polish serce, Russian сердце serdtse). These changes are not random, and can be seen in a number of other words such as Latin cornu and centum (originally and still classically pronounced with a /k/) and English horn and hundred. Experiment a bit, and you will hear and feel how similar /k/ and /h/ are – a matter of a few millimetres at the back of the throat. /k/ and /s/ might seem further away, but consider electric and electricity. These changes have happened many, many times, which is how scholars have been able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European from the evidence of modern and documented historic languages.

My name is Indo-European

My very last lesson as an English language teacher provided an interesting insight into languages … twice. I was using the Schoolhouse Rock and Grammaropolis songs to illustrate the main points of English grammar. My students on that day were from South Korea, Colombia and Nepal, so along the way I commented briefly about similarities and differences between English and Korean (eg, basic word order of subject-object-verb), and English and Spanish (eg, basic word order of noun-adjective). I could say absolutely nothing about Nepali. The only two things I know about Nepali are that it’s Indo-European and most closely related to Hindi and Urdu. So towards the end of the lesson, I went to the Wikipedia page on Nepali  in the hope of gleaning something of interest. One of the example sentences is My name is Bryan Butler, which is given in Nepali script as मेराे नाम ब्रायन बट्लर हाे । and then transliterated as mero nām brayan batlar ho.

mero nām – Indo-European much?

The Spanish student provided me with mi nombre and I know the Korean 내 이름 (nae i-reum) (usual/natural) and 제 이름 (je i-reum) (polite). Clearly, Korean is not an Indo-European language. Continue reading