Friday, May 30, 2008

“Let them sa-si, if they can speak no better.”

Today’s post is about allophones, speech impediments, and onomatopoeia — with a little Tolkien thrown in for good measure. (What isn’t improved by the addition of a little Tolkien? ;)

Browsing Omniglot today, I came across a great WOTD: the Czech verb šišlat, which means something like “to lisp”. More specifically, it refers to the substitution of /∫/ for /s/ (whereas, lisping in English is the substitution of /θ/ for /s/). The word is marvelously onomatopoeic, isn’t it? It’s lovely how the word includes the very sound in question, isn’t it? Just as the English lisp contains the very sibilant a lisper can’t pronounce. Wait, did I say that’s lovely? I think I meant rather that it’s a bit of a cruel joke on lispers. ;)

While the Czech refers to a speech impediment, Spanish speakers are aware of a deliberate regional variation in the pronunciation of the sibilant sound. Speakers in parts of Spain and Argentina recognize a distinción between /s / and /θ/, meaning that casa and caza are not homophones. The so-called Castilian lisp. In Mexico and most of the rest of Latin America, by contrast, these are allophones. Where pronounced like /θ/, the term used is ceceo; where /s/, seseo. Those terms, once again, exhibit an apt onomatopoeia. Have I lost you? Perhaps it’s me; try Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation.

The Czech word šišlat also reminds me of the story of the shibboleth. In the Bible, there is a passage in the Book of Judges where the pronunciation of the Hebrew word שיבולת (”shibboleth”) proved quite significant. There, the same distinction between /s/ and /∫/ identified members of rival tribal groups. For anyone who couldn’t pronounce the shin (ש) properly, the price was death. Once again — are you hearing an echo? — the word shibboleth contains the sound in question, though in this case, it’s not inventive onomatopoeia, but rather an existing word with an identifying pronunciation which gave the speech pattern its name.

J.R.R. Tolkien — I promised I’d be coming round to him eventually! — adopted this terminology to describe a similar phonological distinction in his Elvish language, Quenya. In the late essay, “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” (circa 1968, published in The Peoples of Middle-earth), Tolkien discusses the change from Quenya /θ/ to /s/ — though Tolkien uses the letter Þ in place of θ in the essay. As in the Biblical story, the Quenya pronunciation became a matter of political struggle. Tolkien writes that:
Into the strife and confusion of loyalties in that time this seemingly trivial matter, the change of Þ to s, was caught up to its embitterment, and to lasting detriment to the Quenya tongue. Had peace been maintained there can be no doubt that the advice of Fëanor, with which all the other loremasters privately or openly agreed, would have prevailed. But an opinion in which he was certainly right was rejected because of the follies and evil deeds into which he was later led. He made it a personal matter: he and his sons adhered to Þ, and they demanded that all those who were sincere in their support should do the same. Therefore those who resented his arrogance, and still more those whose support later turned to hatred, rejected his shibboleth.
A fascinating and diverse collection of words for describing the pronunciation, or mispronunciation, of sibilant sounds, eh?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One year online!

So now I can say tempus *really* fugit. It’s been a full year since the inception of Lingwë – Musings of a Fish. :)

Some 136 posts on a variety of topics — many of them quite arcane, I suppose, but judging by the growing feedback I have been receiving, welcome nonetheless. My daily traffic hasn’t grown a great deal yet, which may be for the best because it still allows me the freedom to respond to each comment individually. But I’ve had almost 3,500 unique visitors, with more than 10,000 pageviews. And the number of countries to have discovered Lingwë has grown sharply. I’m on the map, so to speak, in 95 countries, including such surprising visitors as Uzbekistan, Martinique, Bahrain, Cameroon, and Saudi Arabia. Still no ping from Iraq (despite hearing from most of its neighbors) — but I suppose the folks there have other priorities.

I should apologize for the sound of crickets around here over the last two weeks. I’ve been busy at work and at home, and I had another cold on top of that — my fourth in six months; what is wrong with my immune system?! But I’m back now and should be posting again regularly.

Friday, May 9, 2008

New languages at Google — not quite ready for prime time

For some time now, Google has offered a suite of online language tools, including automatic translation for text and web pages, dictionaries, and more. The idea was to compete with the tried and true Babelfish, about the only useful surviving piece of the once-great Internet search giant Altavista. For most of its life so far, Google Translation hasn’t offered very much more than Babelfish: rather clunky, but certainly serviceable, translation between a dozen or so languages. Recently, however, Google broadened its offerings.

Like most of the new widgets coming out of Google on what seems like a daily basis, there was little in the way of fanfare. I made the discovery accidentally, in fact, when I happened to drop by there earlier this week. The front-page interface (linked above) looked the same, but I noticed eleven new languages — Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, and Swedish. This brings Google’s total to a whopping 22 different languages, double what Babelfish offers (though Babelfish still offers two forms of Chinese script: traditional and simplified). It used to be that I had to resort to obscure sites for languages like Finnish and Polish. No longer!

But how accurate is it? For its more well-heeled languages, Google is pretty good. As I said above, clunky but serviceable. But for the newer ones, there are some significant problems. Testing out Hindi, I made quite an alarming discovery, in fact.

I don’t speak Hindi myself (though I am learning some from my friend Arun). He volunteered to help me check a few simple phrases. You can probably guess what I tried — the names of some of Tolkien’s books. Perhaps I thought to test these out in Hindi because there is, so far, no Hindi translation of The Lord of the Rings or even The Hobbit. For “The Lord of the Rings”, Google was right on: अंगूठियों का मालिक. But add a full-stop to the phrase, and Google tacks a है onto the end that simply shouldn’t be there. “The Two Towers” also had problems. In the translation suggested by Google, इस दो टॉवर, the first word you see there doesn’t belong; to get the correct translation, दो टॉवर, you have to strip the definite article off of the phrase you feed to Google. Finally, and this is the alarming discovery I mentioned: just try “The Fellowship of the Ring” — without hesitation, Google gives back: राजा की वापसी. What’s the problem? This actually means “The Return of the King” in perfect Hindi!

How could this have happened? My guess is that somebody used the feature where Google allows human beings to suggest their own “better translations” — but whomever supplied this one probably made a bad copy-paste. Tsk, tsk. The service is bound to improve, and it is free, but at the moment, it appears rather unreliable. My friend Arun helped me identify many problems with the Hindi, and I would suppose the other new languages have their share of beta problems as well. Perhaps other readers will test out the Scandinavian and Slavic additions. I know I’ve got Polish readers — how is it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

More on Sir Gawain: Trolls, Ogres — and Rings?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — in particular, about the choices he made in two or three specific lines of the poem. This has continued to gnaw at me. Was Tolkien’s solution the only one, or even the best one? It certainly was a faithful one, if we believe Shippey’s theory that Tolkien intended his translation to mimic an error on the part of the author. But was that faithfulness worth abandoning a word of clear Germanic origin for a more Romantic one (in the linguistic sense)? In that case, one kind of fidelity comes at the cost of another.

The question continued to bug Marjorie Burns, too. She sent me this response:

In the back of my mind is the urge to try rewriting the ogre line for Tolkien and so avoid ogre. It seem obvious to me that ogre works for the alliteration. Shippey is dead right about that; but I don’t see why recognizing Tolkien’s alliterative intent locks us into the use of ogre. Surely some other word and alliterative string would work as well. Tolkien has already used troll two lines above [for the Middle English wodwos], but there must be something else. Couldn’t we have a line like: “And with trolls that trailed him from the tall heights of the fells.” Of course, then we’d need something else where Tolkien uses “wood-trolls” two lines above. Still, I’m sure that too can be solved — not that Tolkien cares or that anyone is going to change what he wrote, but only for the sake of exercise. Trolls and giants are often interchangeable in the sagas, as Tolkien well knew. So I’d go for one of several ways to indicate giant, or wood-giant in this case. I’ll leave that for another day or for some other inventive mind.

My own suggestion for ME wodwos would naturally be “woodwose”, a word Tolkien used in his fiction. Most readers will remember the Woses in The Lord of the Rings; but also, in the Narn i Chîn Húrin (in Unfinished Tales and in the more recent Children of Húrin, based on the Narn), Saeros refers to Túrin, contemptuously, as a woodwose. Picture a wild, aboriginal man of some kind, scarcely distinguishable from an animal of the woods. This would work in place of “wood-trolls”, I think, and although arcane, it has the added benefit of being extremely close to the original (OE wuduwása). Certainly better than “satyrs” [1] or “fauns” [2].

As to the other line, I like Marjorie’s suggestion pretty well — “And with trolls that trailed him from the tall heights of the fells” — though it introduces an entirely new word (“tall”) purely for the sake of alliteration. I prefer not to do that if it can be helped, even though it’s probably permissible here, because “heights” could be said to imply “tall.” What else might we try? Puzzling over that very question led me to zero in on the ME anelede, which Tolkien translated “hounded” and for which Marjorie suggests “trailed.” Tolkien and Gordon give “pursued” in their glossary [3] and identify the source of the word as the Old French aneler. So my first reaction is this: Tolkien substituted a Germanic verb (hounded) for a Romantic one (anelede), so it’s not unreasonable he should achieve linguistic parity by changing a Germanic noun (etayne3) into a Romantic one (ogres).

But even more interesting is the Old French aneler. According to Stratmann (in his entry for anelen), OF aneler derives from Latin anhelāre, and means something closer to “pant after, puff at” [4]. One or two Old French dictionaries I consulted gave OF aneler = ModF aspirer, inhaler. One recalls the folktale of the Three Little Pigs. Well, far be it from me (but that’s never stopped me before!), but I can’t see how this etymology is correct. Rather — now stay with me here — I think the source is something much nearer and dearer to the good Professor. Namely, rings!

Turning to the Dictionnaire Historique de l’Ancien Langage François, sort of the Bosworth/Toller of Old French, the etymology given for aneler is very different. In part, it reads:

Figurer en cercle; tourner en boucles, en anneaux; courber, arquer. Garnir d’anneaux. Attacher, suspender, fermer avec des anneaux. On observera qu’en particularisant l’acception générale dont Cotgrave paroit être le seul garant, on a dit et l’on dit encore anneler, en parlant des cheveux qu’on frise et qu’on tourne en boucles. (Voy. Dict. de l’Acad. Fr.) [5]
For those who don’t read French, this means, more or less:
To form into a circle; to turn in loops, in rings; to bend, to arch. To garnish with rings. To tie, suspend, close with rings. One should note that in particularizing the general acceptance of this meaning, Cotgrave appears to be the sole source; it was said and one still says anneler [= “to form into rings”], speaking of frizzy hair that turns in loops. (cf. The Dictionary of the French Academy)

Related to OF aneler are anel “circle, ring” (= ModF anneau), from Latin anus “ring”; and anelet “a small ring” from Latin an(n)ulus “small ring” (cf. English annulus). One can’t help but remember Boromir’s words at the Council of Elrond: “The Ring! Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing?” Or those of the Sauron’s messenger to Dáin, calling it “a little ring, the least of rings.” How wonderfully disingenuous!

But the definition in the Dictionnaire Historique seems nowhere near the idea of pursuit; and yet, Tolkien, Stratmann, and others identify OF aneler as the source for ME anelen, which clearly has that meaning. The answer to this riddle? My thinking: an enemy who encircles, turning and looping back in the pursuit, drawing an ever tightening ring around his prey. Perfect. So if I am right, has anyone else proposed this etymology? And if not, why not? I admit I like this much better than Stratmann’s “huff and puff” etymology, but is it merely an overzealous delight in the Tolkienian implications? And if this is the etymology, one boggles at the thought that Tolkien could have resisted the temptation to do something metaphorical with rings in his rendition of the poem — especially since there is a literal ring later in the poem. Christopher Tolkien dates his father’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to “soon after 1950” — so Tolkien would clearly have had rings on his mind.

Well, if the idea of “ringing him round” or “circling him” ever occurred to Tolkien, he must have dismissed it for lack of a suitable alliterative substitute for etayne3. And I can do no better, in spite of wasting plenty of thought on it — curses! What about you? Care to offer a suggestion — “for the sake of exercise”? :)


[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. and E.V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: OUP, 1925, p. 229.

[2] Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle-English Dictionary. Rev. ed. London: OUP, 1891, p. 698.

[3] Tolkien and Gordon, p. 162.

[4] Stratmann, p. 24.

[5] Dictionnaire Historique de l’Ancien Langage François. Tome Premier A–AO. 1875, p. 441.