‘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


In the last week I have learned, via social media, of the deaths of three older men who I met earlier in my life through my involvement in music in two different cities as I moved around – a cathedral organist/choir director/university lecturer, a pipe organ builder and a stalwart of the local music theatre company. I knew them well enough to remember them and to want to express my condolences, but not well enough to keep in contact with them as I moved around (though I did bump into one on one visit to that city). I left messages on the Facebook pages of their closest family member (two of whom I knew as well or better, and one of whom I only saw around and never actually spoke to, so I explained who I was). One replied briefly and the other two “hearted” my comment

The English phrase Rest in peace is often used in this context. This conveniently shares initials with the Latin phrase Requiescat in pace, but there’s a difference. Requiescat is subjunctive, and is better (and sometimes, maybe often or even usually) translated May (s/he) rest in piece. Rest by itself is imperative, so Rest in peace is Requiesce in pace (singular) or Requiescite in pace (plural). The plural of Requiescat in pace is Requiescant in pace. All of these are derived from the noun requies, which is best known in its accusative form requiem (as in Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, Grant them eternal rest, Lord. Requies, in turn, means re + quies, or quiet again.

So, Requiescite in pace David, Peter and Peter, though I’m not sure if “quiet” is an appropriate wish for an organist, organ builder and singer. I like to imagine them getting together somewhere and making a joyful noise.

In fact, rechecking those three Facebook pages, I have just learned of the death a few months ago of another musical acquaintance, so Requiesce in pace Mary as well. I may have to stop reading Facebook.

(Most of the Latin from Wikitionary.)

Harry Potter and the Overworked Translator

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was books, especially translating books between languages. Most of the students I’ve ever taught read very few books, and this class was no exception. Some of them had read books in English. I asked about Harry Potter, probably the most famous set of novels in English in the recent past, and available in many languages. Some had read at least some of the books either in their language or English, but not both. I asked about the titles. The first book is usually either ‘magic stone’ or ‘magician’s stone’, but the Korean word translates as ‘wizard’. The Nepalese students conferred, then said ‘shining stone’. Continue reading


Yesterday I emailed someone whose company’s domain name contains the letters q and g consecutively. It arose because the company’s name is a respelling of an ordinary English word ending with c, for example spelling Topic as Topiq. This is followed by the word ‘Global’, so (for example) topiqglobal.com.au.

No ordinary English word has q without u following. Websites (for example, Wikipedia) list words, but it is questionable how many of these are “English”. Most are borrowings from French or Middle Eastern, Chinese or North America languages.  Continue reading

Korean consonants

In October 2015 I wrote about the consonant sounds of Korean, especially the three series ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅ (plain, or unvoiced and unaspirated), ㅍㅊㅌㅋ – (unvoiced and aspirated),ㅃ ㅉ ㄸ ㄲ ㅆ (tensed). Yesterday I found a video by Talk to me in Korean which explains and demonstrates these. Even if you are not learning Korean, can you hear the difference? Bear in mind that English p and b, t and d, and k and g sound as alike to some speakers of some languages as these sounds to do us. 

By the way, I met Hyunwoo at an English teachers’ conference in Korea in 2015.