Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ancient Yiddish Proverb

Once again I will steal an idea from Language log, where there has been talk (or type, I suppose) lately about the provenance of various purported ancient Chinese sayings. If you hadn't figured it out yet, their provenance is, in a word, dubious.

I wasn't surprised. I try to keep tabs on who's blogging about Yiddish and what they're saying. Mostly, I find lists of how to say "I love you" in a jillion languages (usually the Yiddish is garbled but recognizable), as well as "Yiddish sayings." Here's some I've found:
If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.

If you want to give God a good laugh, tell Him your plans.

If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.

The eyes are the mirror of the soul.

To assume is to be deceived.

There is no heart more whole than a broken heart.

Love is like butter: it goes well with bread.

If you play with a cat, you must not mind her scratch.

When you get scalded from hot food, you blow when you're served even cold.

Some of these may in fact be Yiddish sayings - one is clearly a fanciful amplification of one - but I'm fairly sure that most of these are as kosher as smoked oysters. Which aren't kosher. My point here is not to marvel at the amount of misinformation in the world, a state of affairs I have contributed to plenty myself, but rather to point out that Yiddish, like Chinese, has become a coat hook on which to hang pithy, gnomic sayings. I've always felt that if you truly love a subject matter, you hate to see it fetishized, but part of me is relieved that Yiddish has gone from being thought of as funny to being thought of as wise. And part of me is disappointed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gotta Love That Glottal Stop

Some themes I've touched on before that I will attempt to bring together in this post:

1. British pop song pronunciation
2. The astonishing ability of musicians to be huge in England and practically unknown in America
3. Good music you may not know

Here goes. Ahem...

One of the most popular musicians in England right now is Corinne Bailey Rae. In a month or so she will be popular in America too (her album just came out in the states a few weeks ago), though she probably won't have the same meteoric rise that she did in England, where her debut album -- umm -- debuted -- at #1 back in February. The hit single from this album is "Put Your Records On," and it's fantastic. You can hear it here. It's retro but not derivative, has a great melody and smart production. I fear it's popularity may wind up killing it, but at least it won't languish in obscurity.

I'd been led to believe she writes her own music, but a little research suggests she's just the lyricist. Oh well. When will people learn that writing the lyrics to a song doesn't make you a songwriter? I went through the same disappointment with Norah Jones and Macy Gray. In a way it's sad that artists like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera don't at least get some critical respect for writing their own material, which, whether you like their music or not, bespeaks of much deeper musicality than merely having a good voice. Female R&B artists seem especially snubbed in this regard.

So on to pronunciation. Bailey Rae is from Leeds in Yorkshire, and like fellow overnight sensation Yorkshiremen (Yorkshirepeople?) Arctic Monkeys, she opts out of employing the generic American-British singing pronunciation I've written about before, using features instead of her own dialect. One of these struck me as odd -- she replaces some [t]s with a glottal stop ("three li?le birds", "go?a love that afro hairdo"), a feature I always thought of as limited to the London area. In fact, this feature is found in Leeds and Manchester as well, at least according to one website. I wonder if this feature is found independently in these cities, or whether it spread as a marker of urban working classness.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I sure am prolific. At not posting. I've been out of town working on a very exciting project, the details of which I'll share when the project is complete. "And if that don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansas."

There's been a bit of contention lately at Language Log over Geoff Pullum's discovery - and condemnation of - what he dubs linguifying: to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate. Most of his examples have involved claims like "the words 'hard' and 'worker' have never been used in the same sentence to describe me" or "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence." What irks Geoff, and not without reason, is that these claims are usually absurd beyond the degree to which they're meant to be absurd. For instance, if I were to say "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence" to mean "The Shaggs are not musical" - well, you see where I'm going with this.

Part of Geoff's claim is that this is a new phenomenon, and he asked for examples from before 1987. Mark Liberman took him up on this, but broadened it to include sentences like "'The Shaggs' and 'musical' should not be uttered in the same breath." Of course, this allows him to find much older examples. And this brings me to my topic.

There is a sort of professional translationese when it comes to published translations from Yiddish into English - conventions of how to render common bits of Yiddish into English. One of these involves the now-archaic seeming phrase about uttering x and y in the same phrase. It's used to translate the slippery Yiddish expletive "lehavdl," which literally means 'to distinguish,' and in practice is thrown in when making an unseemly comparison, i.e. between Begin and Rabin, lox and bacon, people and animals, Jewish things and non-Jewish things, etc. I have no problem with this convention, and can't think of a better way to translate 'lehavdl,' really.

But other such Yiddish translationisms grate on my nerves somewhat. For instance, the word 'heymish,' meaning home-like and thus comfortable and familiar, is sometimes rendered 'homely.' Yes, I know 'homely' can mean just that in British English. That doesn't excuse it. These are usually Americans, who ought to know better.

A strange bit of translationese is using the English phrase "neither here nor there" to render the Yiddish phrase "nisht ahin, nisht aher," which literally means "neither thither nor hither" and figuratively means "in between," which is a far cry from the sense of "neither here nor there" that I'm familiar with, that is 'unimportant.'

But my least favorite translationism is 'just so.' Anytime I see this I know that it is an attempt at translating 'glat azoy/stam azoy,' which means 'just 'cause,' not 'just so.' This is a calque of the common slavic phrase that in Russian is 'proste tak.' The Yiddish calque of this was in turn calqued into Israeli Hebrew as 'stam kaḥa.' Funny how that works.

I'm left wondering, then, if this happens with all translation, i.e. that little conventions develop that aren't always accurate. Since Yiddish and English are the only languages I read (and I don't read either language that well) I can't generalize beyond what I've presented.