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Category: language

When an umlaut is not an umlaut

The New Yorker has taken to the Internet to explain that what looks like an umlaut in its pages is not, in fact, an umlaut. It's a diaeresis. On its Culture Desk blog, Mary Norris explains:

The special tool we use here at the New Yorker for punching out the two dots that we then center carefully over the second vowel in such words as “naïve” and “Laocoön” will be getting a workout this year, as the Democrats coöperate to reëlect the President.

Those two dots, often mistaken for an umlaut, are actually a diaeresis (pronounced “die heiresses”; it’s from the Greek for “divide”). The difference is that an umlaut is a German thing that alters the pronunciation of a vowel (Brünnhilde), and often changes the meaning of a word: schon (adv.), already; schön (adj.), beautiful. In the case of a diphthong, the umlaut goes over the first vowel. And it is crucial. A diaeresis goes over the second vowel and indicates that it forms a separate syllable. Most of the English-speaking world finds the diaeresis inessential. Even Fowler, of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” says that the diaeresis “is in English an obsolescent symbol.”

That obsolescence proves complicated, apparently, when it comes to auto-correct functions. And it's also troublesome when it comes to readers; many write in, uncoöperatively, to complain about its use.


Why Finnish is cooler than English

Festival of Books: The new magnetic poetry and you

Wherefore art thou, refudiate? Sarah Palin as Shakespeare

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Festival of Books: The new magnetic poetry -- you

IMG_1542 Along Trousdale Parkway on the USC campus is the making of the world’s largest refrigerator magnet project.

At Chapman University’s booth at the Festival of Books, you pick a word. Any word. Write it down, snap a photo, and your face and the word are uploaded into Chapman’s online database of "word magnets" ready to be arranged into poetry. 

“This is the beginning of writing … of how we write," said Mark Woodland, Chapman’s vice president for marketing. 

On Chapman’s website, you can pull from any of the hundreds of words already uploaded to form a sort of human haiku, a collage of words and faces. 

Your word can be a noun, an adjective, a number; it can be a word in another language or a word in a language you’ve made up. “Love” and “happy” were popular choices all day Saturday, but “we’ve had some very thoughtful words,” Woodland said. “Suddenly, that became a very powerful decision. People would stand here for minutes to come up with the word.”

Continue reading »

Wherefore art thou, refudiate? Sarah Palin as Shakespeare


On Sunday, Sarah Palin's Twitter feed appealed to "peaceful Muslims" to speak out against a proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from ground zero. While this might be troublesome to those who don't share her political perspective, what's particularly interesting is her choice of words.

In her first tweet, Palin didn't write "speak out"; she used another term -- "refudiate." A few minutes later, the Tweet was rewritten with "refudiate" -- which is not actually a word -- removed, replaced by "refute." While not correct, "refute" was a step up -- it can actually be found in the dictionary.

Another day, another malapropism, right? Nevermind that the Language Log notes another instance of Palin using the word recently (and science fiction writer John Sladke using it in 1984). The word caught someone's attention, because a few hours later Palin refused to refute "refudiate," she tweeted that she's just following in Shakespeare's footsteps.

"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

So is Sarah Palin like Shakespeare? According to the I Write Like tool, Palin's 2008 speech to the Republication National Convention, in which she said, "I was just your average hockey mom," is like Dan Brown. Her keynote speech at the inaugural Tea Party Convention in February 2010 reads like -- wait for it -- Cory Doctorow.

But those are speeches, which of course read a little differently than what appears on the page. Could Sarah Palin's book "Going Rogue" be written like Shakespeare?

Alas, alack: no. The first several hundred words of Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" read like H.P. Lovecraft. And she didn't mention Cthulhu once.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sarah Palin in May 2010, speaking at the Susan B. Anthony List "Celebration of Life" breakfast. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Ho Chi Minh, punning poet

Chai ZiHo Chi Minhpoemwordplay

When Ho Chi Minh was arrested by Chinese authorities in the early 1940s, he sat down to write some poetry. Not surprisingly, it was political. But it was also, as British doctoral student Rachel Leow explains on her blog, full of puns that come from the deconstruction and reconstruction of its characters:

This poem is entitled 拆字 (Chai Zi), which might be translated as “split-word.” The term Chai Zi is also known as 测字 (Ce Zi); it was known in earlier times as 破字 (Po Zi) during the Sui Dynasty, and 相字 (Xiang Zi) in the Song. The concept behind the term is loosely analogous to numerology, except with Chinese hieroglyphics: it’s the idea that you can break up a Chinese word or phrase into its radicals, add or subtract strokes from words to turn them into different words, and conduct divination or tell fortunes from the results.

Ho Chi Minh's poem -- which she translates as "Wordplay" -- reads like this.

Prisoners loosed from prison can build their country
From great misfortune arises true fidelity
The most troubled souls are the most virtuous
When the prison doors open, the real dragons emerge.

Sounds like your basic revolutionary ideas: lock us up, and we'll emerge strong to build a nation. But when she splits the words, she shows how there is a real sense of play in his sentences.

The most troubled souls are the most virtuous: 人有憂愁優點大 

Literally, “men who worry are the most meritorious.” The word for man (人), in slightly altered form, also functions as a radical (亻). According to the Chai Zi reading, then, if you add the radical for man (亻) to the word for worry (憂) you get the word for merit or quality (優).

In other instances, he's played with the multiple tones used in Chinese; see Leow's site for the full explanation of the puns in his poem. It's a lighthearted side -- hard to detect through the veil of language -- of the revolutionary leader who was known in America for saying things like "Those who wish to seize Vietnam must kill us to the last man, woman and child."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ho Chi Minh, in white, with China's Deng Xioping in an undated photo. Credit: Reuters

From Bromance to Schwa: UCLA's slang guide


If I told you that the brand-new book "UCLA Slang" is Obama, would you have any idea what I was saying? Short answer: It's cool. Or, as we used to say, all that.

Compiled every four years by professor Pamela Munro of UCLA's linguistics department with the help of her students, "UCLA Slang" is now in its sixth edition. "People in general are very creative and come up with lots of wonderful new words that may or may not catch on, and our goal is to capture the vivid, colloquial words and phrases associated with a specific subculture -- UCLA students," Munro said. "Slang seems to originate on the West Coast and move east."

According to Munro, slang tends to sink in when we're in our teens and 20s and then stick. So the phrases college students use today may be around for long enough to sound as stale as "let's blow this clambake." Some new terms in the book that you can expect to hear ... and keep hearing:

"bellig" -- belligerent and drunk
"bromance" -- extremely close platonic friendship between men
"brothers from another mother" -- male friends as close as siblings
"destroy" -- to do well at something
"epic fail" -- big mistake
"FOMO" -- fear of missing out
"get all up in your biznatch" -- meddle in your business
"mija" -- female friend
"Obama" -- cool
"off the hezzie" -- cool
"papi chulo" -- male friend
"presh" -- precious
"schwa" -- wow
"sisters from another mister" -- female friends as close as siblings

The 160-page booklet is available for $10.95 from UCLA's linguistics department.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jason Segel, left, and Paul Rudd in the bromantic comedy "I Love You, Man." Credit: Paramount Pictures

Does language shape our thinking?



An essay on how language influences thought from the pop-science anthology "What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science" has been posted on The Edge. Author Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford, writes:

Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let's take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book." Let's focus on just the verb, "read." To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.

She brings up experiments and other examples involving use of language and direction, time, color and gender, all of which seem to demonstrate that yes, language shapes how we think.

But my favorite is this example above. Only a linguist -- or perhaps a social scientist -- would put Chomsky in a hypothetical.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: poplinre via Flickr

Two sides of Mexico's best short fiction


The new anthology of short stories "Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction," edited by Álvaro Uribe, is out now from the Dalkey Archive Press. Nothing unites the writers "beyond the quality of their work," Uribe writes in his introduction. "I decided to reverse the usual chronological order so that the reading begins in the present day and ends in a vanishing point in which today's Mexican narrative merges with the rich tradition it inherited." The book begins with Vivian Abenshushan (born in 1972) and ends with Héctor Manjarrez (born in 1945).

At more than 500 pages, it's a big book for containing only 16 stories -- but that's because they are printed in both Spanish and English, side by side (Spanish on the left-hand pages, English on the right).

It's a lovely idea, encouraging a dual reading of the works, all of which appear in English for the first time in this collection. But will those who don't know Spanish really try to read it?

At first, I didn't. My Spanish-language training consists of a quarter-long seventh-grade class. I've picked up a little bit of Spanish from the signs I've seen and conversations I've heard as an Angeleno.  I can say please and thank you and hurl an insult or two, but I can't put a sentence together.

In Álavaro Enrigue's story "On the Death of the Author" -- a marvelously spiraling work of a professor trying to tell the story of the last Native American, alternating between sincerity and skepticism, I found a way into the Spanish version. The culprit was an American colloquialism:

As I imagined it, my ex-wife and I would drive from south to north as if navigating a hip dream; we would see huge things; we would linger in impossibly sinister places; we would talk with free spirits and radical types.

En ese viaje, tal como lo pensaba, mi ex mujer y yo manejaríamos de sur a norte como navegando el sueño de un hipster y veríamos cosas descomunales, nos detendríamos en lugares imposiblemente siniestros, y hablaríamos con espíritus libres y francamente irregulares.

Because the phrase "hip dream" sounded strange to me, the italicized "hipster" on the opposite page caught my eye. And it made me wonder -- isn't "hipster" a certain type of person, rather than the equivalent of the adjective "hip"? Does "the dream of a hipster" (which is how the Spanish phrase seems to read to me) mean something slightly different from "a hip dream"? I am absolutely unqualified as a translator -- I know almost no Spanish, and any familiarity I have with the culture of Mexico is filtered through Mexican-American-Angeleno culture -- but my curiosity was sparked.

The sentence above shows another difference beyond hipster/hip: The chain of semicolons in the English version is in the Spanish version a series of phrases connected by commas and the conjunction "and" ("y"). The rhythm has been changed by translator C.M. Mayo.

Clearly, Mayo knows what she is doing; she's fluent in Spanish. But these differences point up the fact that translation is also creative writing, not transliteration. This is obvious to people who think about works in translation, but it is a reminder to me that as much as I like this story in the version I can read, I'd really love to be able to consume it in its original form.

Which is perhaps one of the motivations behind setting the stories next to each other in their original and translated versions: to generate a thirst for the one you can't have.

Editor Uribe and contributor Cristina Rivera-Garza ("Nostalgia") will be at Skylight Books for a reading and discussion today at 5 p.m.; there will be, I hear, mini-burritos from the delicious L.A. restaurant Yuca's.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Daveness 98 via Flickr

Talk retro to me, baby

Iloveitwhenyoutalkret Do you know any of these phrases — “think of England,” “a gun in your pocket,” “go nuclear,” “rough and tumble, knock-down, drag-out” or “at the drop of a hat”?

Do you know what it means to “go to the mattresses”?

It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t.

What’s that? You think you know some of these sayings?

You think “go to the mattresses” means shooting a gun? Well, you’re close, but no cigar.

There’s no doubt that great American clichés are, well, clichés. Whether we speak with street slang or have a broad, beautiful vocabulary, we all use little bits of language in our everyday manner of speech that come from another time and place.

However you like to talk, it’s both funny and fun to discover where classic American phrases came from. Ralph Keyes sought to explain hundreds of these sayings, giving the history behind them, how they developed and how they are used today.

"I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech," which hits shelves next week, is for the linguists, the literary and the lovers of trivia.

Here’s Keyes, in his own words, discussing with Jacket Copy his new book with the retro comic book-like cover:

JC: Have you always loved language, particularly catchphrases and clichés? Why did you write this book?

Keyes: I've always been alert to catchphrases and slang. I'm writing a new book now on euphemisms called "Euphemania." When we use these phrases, we assume everyone knows what we are talking about, except when they don't.  An incident I like ... years ago, our younger son came up to his mother and asked: "Who's this 'Cher Noble' I keep hearing about?"

JC: What’s your favorite saying or phrase? Are there any that you use often?

Keyes: I love "98-pound weakling." I love "ka-ching." I love "secret decoder rings." It is just fascinating to me how old ads, old comic books and old movies leave behind a whole language. I love "cooties."

JC: Is there a saying that really bothers you?

Keyes: I used to love the word "kerfuffle," but it's so overused now.  And "man bites dog" — not everyone knows what that means.

What bothers me is when we use retro terms too much, assuming everyone knows what we're talking about when, really, we are confusing people.

JC: In exploring the origins of these phrases, were there any that really surprised you?

(Keyes' answer after the jump)

Continue reading »

Why Finnish is cooler than English


I admit, I don't spend a lot of time comparing English to Finnish. Someone far more qualified than me has, tho -- that's Tero Ykspetäjä, a science-fiction fanzine editor and recent guest blogger at Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days. In addition to posting about about science fiction in Finland, he came up with the Top Five Reasons Finnish Is Cooler Than English.

  1. Finnish is more equal. We don’t have gender-specific personal pronouns, there’s just “hän” meaning both “he” and “she”. This is sometimes a problem for translators, but otherwise pretty neat. It also means we don’t have a language-related problem with people who don’t identify either as a he or a she, and maybe are therefore a little better equipped to treat them more normally in other respects too. If you want, feel free to borrow the word from us. We don’t mind.
  2. We have more letters than you do. Your little alphabet ends with z, but we also have å, ä, and ö. And no, those aren’t umlauts. They are totally different letters that just look like a and o with umlauts. And more is naturally better.
  3. Finnish is elegant and economic. You can say so much more with just one word. For example “epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkään”. Ok, so that isn’t a word anybody would really ever use, but technically it’s still correct. It means something like, “even with his or her (notice how awkwardly I need to express that) ability to not make others more disorganized”. The downside to this is that if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo in Finnish, you have to produce quite a lot more content.
  4. Finnish is clear and logical. Each letter corresponds with exactly one sound, always. No exceptions according to which letters it follows or where in the word it is. (With the single exception of “ng” which just makes the rule more precise.) No silent vowels either, so you always know how a word is pronounced by looking at it, even if you’ve never heard the word before. And the emphasis is always on the first syllable. If every language were this practical, learning them would be so much easier.
  5. There’s no future tense in the Finnish language. The present tense is used instead. “No future,” as the Tähtivaeltaja slogan says. This makes it easy to seize the day, to live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow. At least in theory. There are some who insist on trying to introduce a sort-of future tense by artificial constructs like “you will come to know this,” but they are clearly in the wrong and should stop immediately.

I've heard "No future" before -- not just as the slogan for Tähtivaeltaja, which is a Finnish science-fiction magazine, but also in the Sex Pistols' song "God Save the Queen." But the idea of not having a future tense in your language? That blows my mind. What does it mean for conceptions of time in Finnish, when the future is expressed in the present tense? Wow, Finnish is cool. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Monika Bargmann via Flickr


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