15 March 2008

Linguists, Rejoice! Everyone else, skim.

Two days of etymology conference later, there are a lot of little points that I want to mention. Here's my really brief summary of the conference and list of trivia.

Summaries and Favorite Bits
• Excerpts from Jacqueline de Romilly's new book: interesting thoughts on etymology from a really interesting lady. I wish I'd gotten to meet her, but she couldn't come to the conference because of reduced mobility in her advanced age. I ordered her book on Amazon and I'm looking forward to reading it.

• Onomastics (study of proper nouns) and philology (loving languages) in JRR Tolkien: interesting talk, even though I'm not a Tolkien fan. I think it's cool that he originally said that The Hobbit was written by Bilbo, that he was translating. And he actually did very sophisticated translation of place names, respecting both the sound and the meaning of the original (original in both senses of the word) names.

• Onomastics in Joseph Conrad's work: also interesting, though I knew almost nothing about Conrad before. I found it interesting that part of the reason he wrote about exotic locations and peoples is that he was too unfamiliar with British culture when he began writing to do so convincingly.

• Etymology of proper nouns and Thomas More: this talk was done by a really really old priest, who wrote a handful of Greek and Latin words on the board instead of using a PowerPoint presentation like many other presenters. He was adorable. His talk was also quite interesting. My favorite bit was an anecdote about one of his professors (in the 40s) who, when asked if he knew Russian, answered, "Je connais seulement un /morys/, c'est Thomas." Here's a translation for those who don't read French or IPA:
/morys/ sounds like "mot russe," which means "Russian word." However, it also sounds like Morus, which is Thomas More's last name in Latin, and how he was known in France at the time. The sentence therefore sounds like it starts out "I only know one Russian word" but then it turns into a very erudite pun.

• Etymological pronunciations of present-day English: the case of yogh: This was also interesting, and it was given in English. I felt bad for the other people though, since it's a really specific topic and it must have been hard to follow for the non-native English speakers. I had no problem though, and I learned a lot. Yogh (ȝ) only disappeared about five hundred years ago, but it still makes pronunciation of people's names difficult. One example is Menzies, where the z is a replacement for the yogh which turned the n into what we'd see is an "ng" sound. So it's correctly pronounced "ming-iss," and incorrectly pronounced lots of other ways.

• The Love of Language(s): this one was also in English, and was about the problems that ambiguity poses for translation. Even words that don't seem to be ambiguous in any way can pose problems, and attempts to reduce ambiguity can backfire. The presenter gave a lot of interesting examples. One that I particularly liked was the difference in meaning of "room" in "The room burst into flames" and "The room burst into applause." She didn't even mention that burst isn't quite the same. Quite ambiguous. As a native speaker, I think it's fun and charming. It must be very frustrating for translators though!

• Toponyms in New Mexico: they come from "Indian" languages, Spanish, and English, and they're weird. I love English toponyms: we have really weird names for our towns and such. This talk inspired some interesting reflection on my part. For example, in Native American languages a mountain range will have a creative name like "the big green mountains," whereas a Westerner will think that's a silly name and call them the Menzies mountains, since that's who found them. But it makes sense, since for a nomadic culture, a description is a lot more useful than an arbitrary name. And speaking of nomads, that cultural difference would have played a part during the conquest of the Americas. White men would put down roots in empty places, and as local tribes would move, they took over more and more. Which must have been very confusing for the local nomads. And their resulting anger would have flustered the white men. "They weren't using the land, but they wanted it anyway?" on one side, and "Why are they still in that same field?" on the other.

• Two etymological minorities in Central-American Spanish: much of this one flew right over my head, since I know so little Spanish. But I did find it interesting that such a high percentage of the terms unique to the region were borrowed from native languages.

• The origin of languages and the question of its relation with thoughts and objects: In my translation of the title I said objects rather than things to make it seem more serious, since otherwise it would seem like part of my usual paraphrase style. But you see, I'm trying to be serious with descriptions and stuff. This one didn't inspire me too much, since it was too philosophical for my taste. It was presented by a professor from the Ivory Coast, and my favorite thing he said was "Sorry... philosophers really like to talk. And to listen to themselves talk." Teehee.

• The etymology of the French word /galgal/: Why's one of the title words in phonetic transcription? No idea. I didn't get a handout, so I don't even know any of the multiple possibilities for its real spelling. I also don't know what the word means, and my dictionary didn't have anything possible. So this whole talk flew right over my head.

• Stories behind words, etymology and imagination in the Apocalypse: this one was really neat. It had a lot of interesting points about translation and faith, which I've been thinking a lot about lately. My favorite point she made was that to her, Angels are "God's prepositions." They say very little, but they serve as an influence and a guide to the other words/beings who are around them. They may not be as noticeable as other words, but they're very instrumental and they make God's work more stylish. Not only do I think it's an amusing comparison, I think it's quite apt.

• Etymology of oral languages and iconicity of signed languages: this one was fascinating. It was presented by my linguistics professor from last semester, and translated into French sign language (LSF) for the two deaf guests who came to hear the talk and respond to questions. LSF had a much rockier history than A(merican)SL (or B(ritish)SL or pretty much any other signed languages since it was forbidden for a long time. That led to stronger accents and more vocabulary differences than you might find in ASL. One thing I found particularly interesting was that there are hypocoristic terms in LSF just like in oral speech. Those are doubled terms, like mama using the first sound from mother and other "baby" words. For example, repeating the first finger movement for father gives you the word for Daddy. Neat.
Here are my two favorite words I learned in LSF:
- "Book" is simple, you just put your hands together and open the "book." Typical. For "dictionary," pretend like you're grasping two halves of a huge volume in your hands (so your hands are open and curved, not flat) and slowly open the book. There you have the orientation, configuration of hands, placement of hands, and movement.... fifth is the facial expression, which in this case is puffing the cheeks to emphasize how heavy the book is! Fun word.
- To sign "mayor," you use three fingers (thumb and first two fingers) to trace the mayor's sash. Why three fingers? For the three stripes of the French flag on the sash.

• Between common noun and proper noun: brand names: This talk was given by an etymologist from the Robert dictionary. She talked about the problem with listing words that now have been registered as a brand name, and listing brand names that have entered the language as common words. They have to take into account language that's "commercially correct" as well as "politically correct," which is an interesting idea. I'd always been kind of annoyed at English brands changing the spelling of words for a brand, like if a company sold "Pitsa" brand pizzas. But at least then there would never be problems with a company telling dictionaries not to list "pizza" because it was their trademark!

• Diachrony (how languages change over time) and synchrony (how languages are at a specific moment): footbridges of time: This one was an interesting look at how people don't realize that studying "dead" languages is useful. People complain about how modern language is changing without realizing that languages do so naturally. Her conclusion was an excellent thought: "Without roots, the tree dies." If we lose track of our past, and the past of our languages, there's no future.

• The conclusion, by the university's rector, talked about etymology in the religious world, especially the word/verb translation of "logos" in John. In English, you'll probably recognize the phrase "In the beginning was the Word..." Well, in French, God's called the Verb. I personally prefer the latter, since after all, God introduces Himself to Moses as "I Am." His name is a verb, not just any word.

Trivia and Other Little Notes
• An English-speaking person might drink like a fish... The French would drink like a sponge.
• In English (this has nothing to do with the conference, I just noticed it) "twiddle" is a really specific verb. The French just say "turn your thumbs" where we've got this great verb. Would you ever use twiddle for anything other than your thumbs? It's possible, but it just doesn't happen much.
• The Latin "ve ve ve" in Revelation is "woe woe woe" in English, and "malheur..." in French. However, it wasn't actually that word, it was an onomatopoeia of the Hebrew word for "ouch." So that would be a more accurate translation.
• In French, a neologism made from more than one word (like adulescent combining adulte and adolescent) is called a mot-valise, or a suitcase-word. According to Wikipedia, this is a translation of the English "Portmanteau word," a word which we obviously borrowed from them.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, which should be an adventure. For now, I need to try to get some sleep. À bientôt!

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