Archive for the 'Language' Category


I have a long-standing interest in the process of how words are borrowed from other languages. This article in Rebelión, about Northern Ireland, contains the following term, which the writer appears to deem self-explanatory:


The interesting thing, from my point of view, is that it is a literal translation of an English word (securocrat) which is in itself an amalgam of a Latin word -securitas, and a Greek word- kratos. I’d never seen it appear before in Spanish -and a google search doesn’t produce any results- so if I would be inclined to include it -along with the Titanic and Gloria Hunniford- as another great Northern Ireland export.

The Point of Information as Free Kick

People often say to me, in the course of generally pointless meetings:

Your point is well taken.

To which I feel an urge to reply: my compliments on your capacity for comprehension, but don’t go getting a big head about it.

The secular power of bum cheese, or what’s Ottoman Turkish for ‘theologocentrism’?

Would someone please explain to me what Mr Kevin Myers means by the following:

He emancipated women, gave Turkey a form of democracy, and aware of the religious power of language, replaced Arab script with Roman.

On my holidays in Turkey last year, I was very grateful for this particular instance of Ataturk’s modernisation. It meant that I could recognise some words to help me overcome my near complete ignorance of the Turkish language, with the aid of a guidebook. It was not enough, however, to stop me –sans guidebook– holding an imaginary bottle to my head and making glugging noises in front of a puzzled ice-cream vendor and a queue of people in a Turkish village, in my search for some water.

But that is a distraction. What does Myers mean when he says that language has ‘religious power’? One infers that Myers thinks that Turkish written in Arab script has less ‘religious power’ than Turkish written in Roman script. But –and this is where I get confused- it is still the same language. If one Turk says to another ‘by God I am going to batter the lugs off you’, it is hard to see how his words hold less ‘religious power’ by dint of the fact that the language is widely printed in Roman script instead of Arab.

Perhaps Myers means that the language reforms instituted by Ataturk, including the replacement of Arabic and Persian loanwords with Turkish words deemed more suitable, were intended to put in place a language with less ‘religious power’. But that does not lead us any closer to the question of what constitutes ‘the religious power of language’.

My brethren, there is vocabulary in every language that has particular religious associations. Verily I say unto ye, these associations may be manifest not only in vocabulary, but also in the style of speaking and writing. Yet this does not mean that one language has more ‘religious power’ than another.

Does one think that the words of the millions of Arabic-speaking atheists out there hold ‘greater religious power’ than their French- or modern Turkish-speaking counterparts? Is the Farsi rendering of ‘just this bottle of Jeyes Fluid please’ more religiously charged than its Irish version?

O blog readers, in the beginning there was the Word, but it was not an English Word. What came next was what people made of it.

An example, perhaps, of the ‘religious power of language’?

A Hitler By Any Other Name

Jihad is a fairly common first name in Arab countries, not least since according to Islamic tradition jihad need not mean brandishing an AK-47 and other such activities. But that is its meaning in Arabic.

In German (and indeed English), it tends to mean something else entirely, and it is for this reason that the German interior ministry wants to prohibit a father from giving his child that name. According to the Guardian report, in Germany you are not allowed to call your child Hitler or Stalin either.

When my mother was taken along to the chapel for baptism, the priest refused to baptise her under the name my grandmother had chosen for her. Instead, in a flash of non-inspiration, he assigned her the name of Christianity’s most famous virgin. In the long run, his impromptu editorialising made not a whit of difference, since the name Mary was abandoned as soon as the baby had left the church, and my mother is still known by the name her own mother had chosen for her.

On the surface, the German state’s rules on this, apparently ‘to prevent a child from becoming a victim of ridicule or confusion’ may not differ all that much from the authoritarian stance of the intransigent priest. Yet there was no question of my mother being called Hitler, and I am quite grateful to my grandparents for this.

You might not be state or church property, but you aren’t the property of your parents either. They don’t have any right to sell you for cash or hire you out as slave labour or use you as a draft excluder. And it seems to follow from this that they don’t have any right to call you something that has a good chance of making your life miserable. A rule that prohibits people from naming their children in a way that is almost certain to cause difficulties for the child therefore seems a fairly sensible protection.

The question then arises as to whether this particular case -calling a child ‘Jihad’ demands that this protection be applied. The traditional meaning of jihad may have nothing to do with hijackings, bombings and the like, but unfortunately its common meaning in the West is precisely that. In fact, it looks as though the father of the child seems fairly happy with its Western meaning.

Yet I think the name should stay, or rather, the state should not intervene in this case, and in general terms the protection should apply very sparingly. There are lots of Arab men and boys called Jihad who have nothing to do with blowing things up, and by banning the name the German state would be implying that, in fact, this is what their name really means. So to do so in this case would be bowing to popular ignorance, which is always a bad idea, and in any case I don’t think it should be a function of the state to fix the meaning of names. And if someone were to ask ‘but what about all the innocent Hitlers and Stalins out there?’, I would say, I’m afraid I don’t feel their pain.

Pile ’em slightly lower

As mentioned last week, I have obliged myself to read and review a pile of unread books I have accumulated before I buy myself another. Pain, as Freddie Mercury observed, is so close to Pleasure.

The first one up is Eduardo Mendoza’s Mauricio o las elecciones primarias .

I really can’t be bothered writing a full review of this. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book a lot, but most of what is there on those two links (in Spanish) gives a far better summary of the book than I could hope to.

When it comes to reading in another language, I always find myself mildly unsatisfied when I finish a book, however much I might have been bowled over by it. Part of this is because if you’re not a native speaker of the language in question, you are always aware that there may be lots of things you are missing in the course of reading the book. Even if you are at a level where you can understand the meaning of the words without having to look at the dictionary, you still feel a degree of separation from the words and the subject matter.

To illustrate: if the author is conveying the innermost thoughts of a protagonist from that protagonist’s point of view, you can try and empathise with the protagonist, but since you speak a different language, there is a limit to how much you can identify with his words. If I am reading a story in English about a man who says:

“What yer man needs is a good kick up the hole.”

I will probably be able to infer certain things about what has led that man to say those words at that moment in the story. I might be familiar with the place where the man finds himself, and might be able to judge if the man has issues, whether of class hatred, of inverted snobbery, an inferiority complex, or whatever.

The problem with reading in a foreign language, however, is that unless you’re so acquainted with that language and the culture that has produced the text that you can confidently say “I know why he said that thing there, and I know why the author is making him say this”, then you are saddled with the sensation of missing out on things.

Of course, most acts of reading entail having to put up with this sensation to some degree. The point is that this is heightened when you’re reading in a language that is not your own, and about a culture that may not feel like your own. If a non-native Spanish speaker is able to say of Mauricio o las elecciones primarias:

“Because a) I speak ah, very fluent Spanish and; b) I am well acquainted with the peculiarities of the Socialist Party of Catalonia of the post-dictatorship period, with its worker priests, come-all-ye singers, petits parvenus and so on, and with the spirit of the times in pre-Olympics Barcelona, I am more than able to interpret this book in keeping with the meaning that the author has intended, without missing a single reference.”

they would be either a) a cultural titan; or b) a bit deluded.

This is not to say that you need to be acquainted with such detail in order to get something out of the text. On the contrary: the text -as is the case with Mauricio o las elecciones primarias– might address universal concerns that transcend the specifics of language and culture: love, death, power, politics and so on. And if language constituted a barrier so great as to make it impossible to apprehend the intended meaning of the text, no-one would bother translating anything.

At this point, I’m not quite sure where I am going with this post. I might take up a couple of the loose ends when I write the review of the next book in Spanish – La velocidad de la luz (The Speed of Light). The next book for review, however, is The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen, which I’m half way through and enjoying very much, thank you.

Leroy Leroy Lama Sabachtani?

I was thinking about the use of ‘Allah’ to mean ‘God’ in English when talking about Muslim worshippers.

Brian Whittaker had a good piece in the Guardian on this recently:

There is no logical reason for this. Why use an Arabic word in English-language news reports when there is a perfectly good English word that means exactly the same thing?

Various Arabic words – “jihad” and “sheikh”, for example – have crept into everyday usage because no precise equivalent exists in English, but “Allah” is not of that type. It is simply is the normal word that Arabic speakers use for “God” – whether they are Muslims or not. Arab Christians worship “Allah” too, and the first verse of the Arabic Bible informs us that “In the beginning Allah created heaven and earth.”

This is what he ascribes the phenomenon to:

Essentially, this is a modern version of the orientalism that Edward Said wrote about in the 1970s, where western portrayals of Arab and Muslim culture highlight its “otherness” in order (Said argued) to control it more effectively.Since Said wrote his influential book, however, we have also seen the rise of another phenomenon which might be called “reverse orientalism”, where Arabs and Muslims deliberately “other-ise” themselves in order (they hope) to better resist western influence.

I would agree, but also highlight that what is happening here -where a word or phrase is lifted from one language to be used in another, like a fish out of water, to affect knowledge and therefore power-isn’t something confined to the western world’s relationship with the Islamic east.

Continue reading ‘Leroy Leroy Lama Sabachtani?’

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August 2020