2005-02-20

Mercí per leggere mein mrežni balvan

Novi List is on a roll of linguistic purity. Today there is an interview with dr Lada Badurina of the Università di Fiume, who tries to set out an avenue of defence against the threat of English words entering the Croatian language. While making a case for some degree of balance and acceptance, she also proposes that:

»processes of linguistic globalisation must be monitored by linguistic experts, Croatist-standardologists, and their long-term activity (since a process is in question!) should be oriented toward seeking reasonable resolutions, appropriate substitutes for the growth of anglicisms. We are fortunate to have in our tradition a demonstrated model of such an effort, fortunate that the Croatian language has a developed self-defence mechanism.«

(Standardologists, here is the anglicism-free original: »procese jezične globalizacije moraju nadgledati jezični stručnjaci, kroatisti-standardolozi te da njihova trajna djelatnost (jer riječ je o procesu!) mora biti usmjerena na iznalaženje razumnih rješenja, odgovarajućih zamjena i za nadiruće anglizme. Sretna je okolnost da imamo u tradiciji ovjeren model takve djelatnosti, da je u hrvatskome jeziku razvijen samoobrambeni mehanizam.«)

There seems to be a viral analogy at work here. The healthy body of language is attacked by foreign viruses which threaten to undermine its purity, debasing and corrupting it from within. But what is this pure language that is under attack? I am reasonably certain that my dog speaks a pure language, in the sense that it is free of sounds (though probably not gestures) taken from the context of other animals. To the degree that it is a pure language, it is limited in its capacity for communication and expression. Fine for a dog, but humans would have a hard time operating within its boundaries.

What are called languages are, for the most part, the results of efforts by early modern intellectuals to make generalisations about habits of speaking in a territory and impose rules on them that make it possible for them to develop into habits of writing. This was for the most part a political project to 1) lay a ground for the development of a framework upon which a selection of other habits which would be called traditions could be laid, and 2) provide an alternative to the existing international languages of intellectual life, religion and government, especially Latin.

The process basically involved replacing the language of the cities with the languages of each city's periphery. But there was a problem: country people did not have words for all of the technological, mercantile and intercultural elements of urban life. The Greek-Latin hybrid telephone has made it in some form into most languages—it fills an expressive void, competes with nothing and threatens nobody. Where competition exists, it more often describes variety than edges out. It is useful to refer to more or less the same thing as Wienerschnitzel, tonkatsu, milanesa and chicken-fried steak, because if nothing else, they tell us about the sauces and side dishes that might accompany them. Thinking up ways of saying e-mail in a lot of local variants does not create knowledge. Thinking that thinking up neologisms to substitute for exoticisms is defence of a culture is just a sign of paranoia.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

In general I'm inclined to agree with you both about linguistic purism and about the futility of trying to promote neologisms as a replacement for linguistic imports. But I'd be willing to make some exceptions on practical and aesthetic grounds.

Some foreign borrowings turn out to be particularly ill-suited to the receiving language, either because they sound weird or are difficult to pronounce or because they suggest unfortunate meanings. A famous example of the latter was the brand-name Chevy "Nova" - which was a success in the US but never sold well in Latin America (where no va means "it doesn't run"). The manufacturer eventually figured out why and started marketing the model under a different name overseas, which solved the problem.

In the case of the hard-to-pronounce words, there are two solutions, both workable -- one is to alter the foreign word to make it more congenial to the local language and culture; the other is to coin a less awkward-sounding native word as a substitute for the import.

The first solution is the most common and is particularly easy in languages that are written in non-Roman characters and thus more inclined to spell foreign borrowings as they are creatively pronounced in the receiving language. But the substitution of native coinages can sometimes also be an elegant successful solution in such cases.

For example, grapefruit as an edible and as a word was unknown in the Hungary of my childhood. When it was introduced as an import (in both senses) in the late 20th century, there was a problem. Hungarian has great difficulty dealing with most consonant clusters and has no vowel glides or diphtongs. To the Hungarian ear, "grapefruit" -- or "grejpfrujt" -- sounds and feels like a dense tangle of consonants: something you couldn't pronounce, let alone figure out how to eat for breakfast.

A newspaper held a contest and some clever person came up with the word citrancs ("cs" being Hungarian for the sound "ch" as in church). This handy neologism is composed of the first half of the word citrom (lemon) and the latter half of the word narancs (orange), and thus reflects the grapefruit's mixed citrus ancestry and appearance. Unlike many other neologisms, this one caught on and has largely succeeded in displacing various local approximations of the English word grapefruit.

The Turks were not as fortunate. Unlike Hungarians, Turks can actually grow grapefruit along their sunny Mediterranean coast. But they can't pronounce it either, because of those messy consonant clusters. And when they try, it sometimes comes out sounding gross. There are many street vendors in Istanbul and Ankara selling fresh-squeezed fruit juice to passersby. The juicer is right next to the colorful piles of fruit, you can watch as the vendor selects and squeezes the fruit, and the prices are reasonable. A label gives prices for juice made from portakal (orange), muz (bananas, blended into a smoothie with milk and a spoonful of sugar) ... and the exotic but unappetizing-sounding fresh-squeezed greyfut juice (pronounced "grey-foot"). Sometimes you'll see it spelled gireyfurt. Some sounds just don't travel well.

AR

Anonymous said...

I dislike rabid nationalism as much as the other (refugee) guy, but I must say that I understand the urge to keep the language free from unnecessary Anglicisms. Why should we say imejl, when we have words for both electronic and mail? So that ceo svet would understand us? It's all too easy for an Anglo-American, whose language is still in no danger of extinction, to scoff at attempts to find native substitutions for Anglicisms. (But note how unnatural and annoying the unchecked usage of uncommon Latinisms and other "big words" among the academics, especially theory buffs, can get.) Some of these neologisms are ridiculous and bound to disappear, but some of them will stay, contributing to the richness of the language, alongside useful borrowings.

Eric Gordy said...

Naw, poruka or pošta work just fine. Nobody calls a server a poslužitelj, though, and brzoglas never took off either. But it's a mistake to think of language an a natural resource subject to depletion, it is renewed by use and openness to influence. What makes a language die out is that people stop using it for communication or cultural production. Narrowness and limitation can cause it to become less useful for those purposes. English is not "threatened" at least in part because it is not pure -- each generation uses it differently and it has a wide range of variation. The Hungarian grapefruit example that Andras gave is a good illustration of language expanding its possibilities by way of perceived need and creativity from below, no "standardologists" were involved. Though aesthetically I have to grant the point that some borrowings come out just plain ugly, even if I am one of those people who thinks that the word čiketina has a very nice štimung.

Eric Gordy said...

Maybe I might add that although I do live in a part of America called New England, I am not Anglo-American. One of the reasons my ancestors stopped using Ladino was that the grammatical and lexical standards of the sixteenth century were not adequate to the purposes of people who were not archivists or poets.

coturnix said...

Ja emajliram, ti emajliras, on, ona, ono emajlira, mi emajliramo... i svi znamo da to nema veze sa patinom na tanjirima.

filologanoga said...

Just for the record, Eric, in Croatia "poslužitelj" is gradually seeping from written into spoken language use. The computer people around here tend to stick very close to the current language standards (perhaps because of their technical background), so most uses of "pogrješka" and "podatci" on the net seem to originate from the computer science texts. Though it is merely a googled impression.

Eric Gordy said...

Wow, posluzitelj ... I meant that one as a joke. Konobar would be much better.