Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Interesting Times

I've been brung down recently by the news, but I'm starting to feel better. In order to help you and me on that road to recovery I'll try and refocus our attention from troubling events onto superficial linguistic phenomena surrounding said troubling events.

1) The Spelling of Hezbollah

At the beginning of this war the press seemed to briefly go in for "Hizbullah," but changed their minds after a week or so.

2) The Pronunciation of Hezbollah

Israeli style - /χizba'la/or American style - /hezb'olə/? The jury's still out. This is a tricky one - where do you put the stress? How do you approximate that difficult Arabic pharyngeal consonant? Which English vowels are the best approximations, and do you base them on the vowels of Standard Arabic, Lebanese Arabic or Persian? Fortunately, one can always fall back on convention. What I've dubbed 'American style' is how I say it. You're free to say it however you want - just make sure you will be understood, and that you're aware that the real choice here is between sounding pretentious and sounding ignorant. Me, I pick ignorant.

3) Katyusha Rockets

The first conversation I had in a language that wasn't English was about the word 'Katyusha' - back in the spring of 1996 I chatted with my French professor after class about how we found the onomatopoetic quality of the word strangely amusing.

Anyways, as Americans we are virtually compelled by the 'sha' at the end of the word to put the stress on the penultimate syllable - foreign seeming and other new words that end in /a/ have to have penultimate stress in English, unless they end in something that looks like a suffix whose stress is farther back, like /ica/. I'm sure someone out there has described this phenomenon, and better than I can.

'Katyusha' is borrowed from Russian; it originated as a nickname for WWII-era soviet rockets, and is in fact a diminutive of the name "Yekaterina." Russian has stress patterns that are counterintuitive to English speakers, and has given us a number of words whose stress we've had to move to make them passable English words -- Stolichnaya, babushka, and others that I can't think of. My fledgling Russian instincts lead me to want to stress 'Katyusha' on the first syllable, but apparently in this case I should actually trust my anglophone instincts -- the Russian nickname Katyusha does indeed have stress on the penultimate syllable.

A further interesting factor is yod-dropping, namely that after certain consonants, including /t/, most Americans cannot have an upglide before a long [u:]. Thus, for instance, Ted Stevens characterizes the internet as a series of /tu:bz/, not /tju:bz/ or /tIubz/. Similarly, the 'tyu' part of 'Katyusha' sometimes comes out 'Katoosha.' In fact,

4) Lebanon

I've started noticing that some Americans are adopting the British pronunciation, wherein the last syllable is fully reduced to /
ə/. I'm not sure why this is happening, and perhaps it is nothing new, but it's new to me.

5) World War 3

I'm sure I'm not the only one to remark on this rather grim nickname for the ongoing conflict, but what I find striking about it is its staying power -- people are still using it, but I thought it would only last a week or so.


This reminds me of another phenomenon that interests me: the naming of ongoing events. I'll write about that later.