Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Some Finnish Words

We’ve been rather too neglectful of Finnish, the language so beloved of Tolkien. The South-African-born philologist and mythmaker described his introduction to the Finnish tongue as being “like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.” Aside from Tolkein’s love of the Finnish language, Elias Lönrott’s Kalevala epic was a central influence on the creation of The Lord of the Rings, as numerous scholars have written about.

I mentioned kaupunkilaissuomenruotsalaiset on Facebook the other day, and Sara piped up with the remainder of the following list of Finnish words. (more…)

September 8, 2011 8:18 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

À bas l’Académie anglaise!

Proponents of an Academy of English are guilty of leaps of logic

IT STANDS AS one of the great monuments of autonomy and decentralisation that ever existed — the English language. But this great monument is under threat from an unlikely source: one sworn to defend it. The Queen’s English Society has announced plans to form an “Academy of English” along the lines of the Académie française for French or the Real Academia Española for Spanish.

“People misunderstand things if language is not used correctly,” argues Rhea Williams of the Queen’s English Society. “Misuse of apostrophes is the best-known problem, but people also don’t seem to know about tenses any more, for example, you hear ‘we was’ a lot.”

“An academy is needed because the correct information is not something that people can find easily. I suspect that many people in this country have easier access to a computer than to a reference book. They will be able to search without embarrassment, although people should be unafraid to say that they do not know what a word means.”

“At the moment, anything goes,” says Martin Estinel, the founder of the new academy. “Let’s set down a clear standard of what is good, correct, proper English. Let’s have a body to sit in judgment.”

No less an authority than Gerald Warner of Craiggenmaddie has waded into the debate, asserting on his Telegraph blog that “all champions of literacy will wish the society success.”

The complaints raised have a great deal of justification behind them, but the establishment of an academy does absolutely nothing to solve them. Indeed, the very complaint that the misuse of English is rampant and on the rise correctly presupposes that we are already able to discern proper English from improper English.

Rhea Williams and her confrers assume that when a person says “we was”, he is also claiming that it is right and proper English for him to say so. But, on the contrary, if you heard someone on the bus say “we was” and then inquired “Is that proper English?” he would almost certainly, if perhaps sheepishly, admit that it is not.

Similarly we hear complaints about “text speak”, as the shorthand version of English used in text messages (also known as SMSs) is called. But text speak similarly makes no claims to being acceptable as proper English. None would dream of preparing a job application, for example, in text speak.

Furthermore, the Queen’s English Society does not even use proper English on its website.

The Society aims to start using its BLOG [sic] again, following a period of inactivity.  If you have something to say about the English language, in the context of education, employment, the media and feel able to contribute to the debate, we invite selected guest bloggers to send in their blogs.

“Blog” is a contraction of “web log” which has rapidly achieved legitimacy, and refers to the entirety of a blog, but the QES almost certainly used the word “blog” instead of what they actually meant, “blog entries”.

The very word “blog” itself is a perfect example of the threat to English that establishing an academy poses. I dislike the word myself, but its usefulness is inescapable. We needn’t refer to that wide and varying array of websites which are in fact an agglomeration of personal writings and links to other items of note — we can simply say “blogs”. An English Academy, on the other hand, might have banished “blog” from its fatuous version of what constitutes proper English early on, in which case the language would be all the poorer, or at least all the more cumbersome.

English speakers know good use from poor use, and when they’re not sure they overwhelmingly defer to those who do know. An Academy of English would do more harm than good and would solve none of the problems that would provoke its foundation. A massive and broad-based information campaign, on the other hand, paired with the return of authoritative teaching in schools, would aid the better use of English infinitely more than a body of pedants to settle disputes that do not exist. Pressure must be exercised against broadcasters, who spread improper English through a misguided attempt at authenticity, and we must also challenge the widespread perception of a social bias against proper speaking.

All these things can be done without any academy, and indeed establishing one would take energy away from these efforts. I’m sure therefore that, pace Mr. Warner, all champions of literacy will join me in shouting “À bas l’Académie anglaise!”

July 12, 2010 8:00 pm | Link | 8 Comments »

Titles in Afrikaans

ROYAL, NOBLE, AND common titles in Afrikaans are, like most of the language, descended from Dutch antecedents which, in turn, come from German. The Cape knew not the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was established after the Dutch relinquished the colony, but was founded as an outlet of the Dutch East India Company (or V.O.C., to give its Dutch acronym). After a brief period of British occupation, Dutch dominion over the Cape returned during the Batavian Republic before finally being seized by the British in 1806 and erected as a British colony in 1814. When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, the country had its first king, George V, though the sovereign was generally only referred to as ‘King of South Africa’ from 1927 onwards.

The country has had no emperors, though some like to attribute that title to Shaka, the greatest King of the Zulus. Typically, however, he is known as king (as in King Shaka International Airport, Durban’s brand new landing-place). South Africa’s royalty have tended to be either native (like Prince Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela) or German (like Prince Hubertus of Prussia, d. 1950, and a few Blüchers, etc.). (more…)

May 9, 2010 8:24 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

An Old Dutch Holdout

The sign on the façade of No. 7 Wale Street, Cape Town in this 1891 photo informs us of its status as a police station in the two official languages of the day, English and Dutch, not Afrikaans. ‘Politie’ is the Dutch word for Police, while the Afrikaans is ‘Polisie’. Afrikaans only became an official language of South Africa in 1925, but was so alongside Dutch and English until 1961, when Dutch was finally dropped.

This beautiful old Dutch townhouse, with its typical dak-kamer atop, didn’t survive as late as 1961. The Provinsiale-gebou, home to the Western Cape Provincial Parliament, was built on the site in the 1930s. Those who viewed the 2009 AMC/ITV reinterpretation of “The Prisoner” might remember an outdoors nighttime city scene after the main character leaves a diner, with the street sign proclaiming “Madison Ave.” and plenty of yellow New York taxicabs streaming past. The large arches in the background are the front of the Provinsiale-gebou.

January 24, 2010 4:30 pm | Link | No Comments »

Tibetan Word of the Day

Our Tibetan word of the day is Rum-yül, the language’s traditional word for “Europe”. The word literally means “Rome-land”, giving a certain Bellocian tone to the Tibetan language — it was Belloc, after all, who said “Europe is the Faith; the Faith is Europe”.

November 30, 2009 8:02 pm | Link | No Comments »

The He/She/It Whatnot

Seraphic Spouse held a poll on what pronouns people prefer using when referring to God: 1) He/Him/Himself, 2) he/him/himself, or 3) avoiding male pronouns. The unsurprising results were 89% for the traditional He/Him/Himself, 9% for the New York Times option of he/him/himself, and just over 1% for the radical choice of avoiding male pronouns altogether.

“Some readers may be wondering why this matters so much,” saith Lady Seraphic. “The answer is that people do care about these things, and I don’t want any reader of the book to feel alienated. I want everyone who might read such a book to feel embraced. And just as a now-elderly generation of Catholic women felt alienated by masculine language for God, younger generation of Catholics want to conserve the great respect for God now lacking in secular society.”

Over at Epigone’s Eloquence, meanwhile, Turgonian watched a biased BBC documentary (those three words go together so often!) on Gnosticism and was inspired to write ‘Why God is a He’, looking to the Monologion of St. Anselm for the answer.

“St. Anselm has previously established that God is Spirit, not a body, and that it is therefore nonsensical to say that He is a man or a woman. He has also shown that it is reasonable to believe that God exists as Father and Son (the Holy Spirit will come later in the book). But, he asks, why Father and Son, rather than Mother and Daughter? Why not call them by feminine names?” Read on to find out.

October 7, 2009 2:05 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Il degrado della lingua italiana

The French are always the one’s worrying about the revolting infiltration of English upon their beautiful and august language — and rightly so — but in my experience it is the Italians who should be worrying. One need only look at their newspapers to see the wretched expansion of English into one of the most beautiful languages of Europe, and indeed the world. Carla Bruni is “la first lady”? What’s wrong with “prima signora” or some other such equivalent. (more…)

August 7, 2009 11:16 am | Link | 7 Comments »

NRC, among others, gets it right

The Netherlands’ premier broadsheet has gone partly English online

The moderate liberal Dutch broadsheet NRC Handelsblad is the latest of a series of European periodicals looking for a more international readership by translating part of their content into English for distribution on the world wide web. “NRC International” is partnered with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, itself a pioneer in featuring English content in an “international” section of its website. Aside from NRC and Der Spiegel, other news outlets now featuring web-only English-language content are Germany’s Die Welt and Hungary’s Heti Világgazdaság, while Eurozine features translated and original content from a broad spectrum of continental reviews and journals. Sadly, Sign and Sight recently had to reduce their “From the Feuilletons” — looking at the culture pages of German-language newspapers — from a daily to a weekly feature. Sign and Sight also features a weekly “Magazine Roundup” doing the rounds of a wide variety of European, Asian, and American magazines.

The move comes as print newspapers of the conventional variety across Europe and America are losing circulation. Some Manhattan newsstands have seen takers for the Sunday New York Times fall by as much as 80% in the past few years. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both recently narrowed their page width in a move to save paper costs; the change, however, also means less room for advertising and a more ungainly appearance.

South Africa’s Herald, meanwhile, has bucked the gloomy trend and increased its readership by 14.5% in the past year. The Herald, the Eastern and Southern Cape’s regional broadsheet, attributes its success to a visual redesign and reorienting content to encourage readers to link up with the newspaper’s website. South Africa is also home to The Times (not to be confused with the older Cape Times), a new upmarket broadsheet newspaper launched as a daily extension of the century-old Sunday Times. The weekday Times was started a year ago and its circulation since just June has seen a 10.4% increase.

A major problem for the industry is that formerly high-end newspapers have driven down the quality of their product to a suicidal extent over the past decades. The middle market, for better or worse, is dead, and publishers have three alternatives to this disappearing sector: 1) go lowest-common-denominator — as The Times of London has done, with only moderate success; 2) go up-market — The Times and Sunday Times of South Africa have proved worthwile; or 3) go niche — the New York Observer is still in business after two decades of aiming towards Manhattan’s yuppie community.

Whichever path taken, integrating print and web operations is vital for the survival of print newspapers and other “dead tree” media. That European newspapers are providing at least part of their content in English is helpful in keeping up with events and ideas in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Hungary as our native English-language media are tightening their belts and cutting foreign correspondents and coverage. I hope more non-English papers follow this trend and help to permanentize it.

October 2, 2008 8:12 pm | Link | No Comments »

My American English

Your Linguistic Profile::

50% General American English
30% Yankee
15% Dixie
0% Midwestern
0% Upper Midwestern

I generally concur with the results of this quiz.

May 24, 2006 8:23 am | Link | 6 Comments »
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