May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Helen DeWitt (whom I first mentioned here) was saying on her blog (here and here) that she has been taking some introductory Dutch classes, and was enthusiastic about some of the phonological differences between Dutch and German. She writes:

“G is a harsh guttural, like Arabic kh: geboren = khebore(n), gegeten (G. gegessen) = khekhete(n).”

Geboren and gegeten are the Dutch equivalents of born and eaten. English has dropped the perfective aspect prefix ġe- (from Proto-Germanic *ga-) a long time ago; it can still be found in Middle English verb forms with prefixes y-, i-, and ȝe-, and in remnants such as handicraft (note: there are many functions to this prefix; the perspective aspect is just one of them). In Dutch, as in German, it is maintained and still productive in the formation of past participles. Geboren, like English born, is kind of an orphan participle. Where in English the link with bear (‘normal’ past participle spelled borne, for some reason; the distinction is only a few centuries old though) is still more or less clear, in Dutch the connection with the verb baren, ‘to give birth to’ (which has long since turned weak: baren, baarde, gebaard) is even more tenuous to contemporary speakers. But that is not what I wanted to talk about.

Nor is this.

The Dutch [g] is often a source of wonder or frustration to foreigners, who attempt in vain to reproduce it. Now first of all, there is no one [g]-sound in Dutch (even disregarding <ʒ> in loanwords such as garage); one of the most well-known differences between the Dutch of Holland and Flemish, the Dutch of Belgium (although this is much too crude a dichotomy, of course, but it will do for present purposes), is precisely the one between “hard g” and “soft g”. DeWitt mentions Amsterdam, so presumably she has been confronted with the Northern Dutch pronunciation, which can indeed be described as a lot “harsher” than the Southern one – though to transcribe [g] as /kh/ is a bit weird. She calls this sound a guttural, which is kind of a vage term; let’s have a look at the precise phonetic values. But before we do that, can we first agree that Dutch and Flemish are not different *languages*, but merely dialect groups of the same language? This belief seems to be uncommonly stubborn, but let me tell you: if you want to speak of two separate languages in this case, you’d probably have to break up English into about 10 different ones. Now, the sounds:

The Dutch sound spelled [g] is pronounced:

Holland (North) voiced velar fricative <ɣ>
Flanders (South) voiced palatal fricative <ʝ>

Then there’s the sound spelled [ch]:

Holland (North) voiceless velar fricative <x>
Flanders (South) voiceless palatal fricative <ç>

The Northern variety <x> is the sound English speakers know as the quaint [ch] in Scottish loch.

Note that instead of palatal fricatives, the Flemish sounds are sometimes labeled front-velar. In any case, they are still distinct from the Northern velars.

It’s all these fricative sounds that bewilder the English speaker: English has maintained the original plosive g (as in “go“), which we have lost. German has both plosive g (as in “gehen“) and voiceless (but not voiced) velar and palatal fricatives (famously distinguished as the ach- and ich-sound, allophones in complementary distribution). Among the Dutch sounds the most problematic one for foreigners is the Flemish “soft” g (which DeWitt probably hasn’t encountered in Amsterdam; actually almost every time I address anyone in Amsterdam, in my prettiest Flemish, they immediately switch to English, while I understand them perfectly), the voiced palatal fricative. This is a very rare sound: Wikipedia mentions only seven languages that have it, and Southern Dutch is one of them. Modern Greek is another.

The neat picture outlined above is blurred by the fact that most Northern Dutch speakers pronounce a voiceless velar <x> (or a uvular <χ>) across the board; that is to say, they have lost the voiced fricative. This probably explains the harshness perceived (by DeWitt, and everyone else) in the sound of Northern Dutch, the kind you would hear in Amsterdam especially. Northerners will often refer to the Flemish “soft g” as “cute”. To us Southern Dutch speakers, it is actually their tendency of eliminating voiced fricatives that is one of the most distinguishing traits of the dialect group we refer to as “Hollands” (we don’t say Nederlands, because the Flemish, or Vlaams, we speak is also Nederlands). This trend doesn’t limit itself to velar fricatives, but extends also to the labial, alveolar and glottal fricatives. In other words, the distinction is more or less lost between:















Ask a Flemish child to imitate a “Hollander”, and they will eliminate the entire right column from their speech, and opt for the voiceless equivalents. That, and exaggerate the diphthongs and leave final -n after [ə] unpronounced (as DeWitt also indicates by putting n between brackets, above; in everyday speech, we Flemish will much sooner drop the [ə] and maintain the -n); but those are different matters.


Distances from some imaginary perfect standard Dutch

Another point of interest is that the evolution from plosive to fricative g in Dutch has gone further in the South-West (the dialects that make up West-Vlaams), where a process apparently called debuccalization has taken place: instead of <ʝ> they pronounce <ɦ>, because they are too lazy to raise their tongues. In more or less the same region an original glottal ([h] or [ɦ]) deletes altogether, probably under French influence, but maybe also in a kind of domino-effect: g turns to h, so original h has to make way and change also; in this case, by disappearing. This leads to funny cases of hypercorrection when West-Vlamingen try to speak standard Dutch, and add initial h- where there never was one, in the exact same way as Arrius in Catullus 84, with his chommoda and hinsidias.

One more thing. The past participle gegeten mentioned by DeWitt (from eten, “to eat”), like Germ. gegessen (from essen), has an interesting peculiarity. Where does the second -g- come from? Strangely, etymological dictionaries ignore this unique feature completely. In Grimm’s German dictionary (which can be consulted here) we find this:

nhd. bilden wir heute zu essen, asz [note: this is the preterite, today spelled ] ein part. gegessen, statt des organischen, noch bis ins 16 jh. allgemein gültigen gessen, geessen, wie Keisersberg, Luther, Hans Sachs, Fischart und alle ihre zeitgenossen richtig schrieben: und Adam sprach, das weib, das du mir geben hast zu einer gesellin, die hat mir geben von dem holz und ich hab davon gessen.

Don’t blame me, she gave me from the Holz

Note, in the Bible quote, the participle geben (instead of gegeben), from geben “to give”. This could be explained by pointing out that the ge-prefix is used to indicate a perfective aspect, and wasn’t deemed necessary in German – until the 18th century, at least – when the simplex verb itself already has perfective aspect (“to give” can hardly be construed as a stative verb). For instance, the famous choral from J.S. Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium goes “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” (“He has (is) come to Earth poor” – kommen, not gekommen as modern German would have it!). This does not explain, however, why we find gessen in the same quote, which does have a g-. It looks to me like the ge-prefix was added, contracted with the e- of the verb, and in the later standard form gegessen was added once again, because it was felt to be lacking in “gessen” (sort of like how children is a double plural, with superfluous –en added because cildra or cildru was no longer recognized as a plural). The Dutch situation is then probably entirely parallel. In fact, in Flemish everyday language we actually do still say “geten” instead of “gegeten“. So I’m assuming this explains the strange past participles in Dutch and German. Still, would it hurt those dictionary writers to comment on this, instead of letting us figure it out for ourselves?


In reading some more about the “soft g” I came by this great quote by Pé Hawinkels (1942-1977), author, poet, Nietzsche translator etc. He was born and raised in Limburg (the Dutch part of it; the other half is in the North of Belgium), and his Dutch was therefore not as “harsh”-sounding as more Northern varieties. The quote can be found in Het land der letteren. Nederland door schrijvers en dichters in kaart gebracht (1982), by Adriaan van Dis and Tilly Hermans (edd.):

“Ik spreek de g niet uit alsof er iemand met een platte schop over de stoeptegels schuurt en maak als een beschaafd mens onderscheid tussen g en ch, terwijl er verder in mijn vocalen wel eens een toonhoogtewisseling wil vigeren die volgens mij nogal aardig afsteekt bij de betonnen klanken die elders te beluisteren zijn.”

A quick and unsatisfying translation (especially thrive, but what can one do… the original is too well-written to be adequately translated), sticking rather close to the original for the benefit of those who want to pick up some Dutch:

“I don’t pronounce the g as though someone were scraping a flat spade over sidewalk tiles, and as a civilized human being I make a distinction between g and ch, while furthermore there tends to thrive at times a variation in pitch in my vocals that acts as a rather nice foil, I think, for the concrete sounds that can be heard elsewhere.”

Amsterdam fricatives

PPS. If anyone is actually reading any of this, you have now noticed that yes, it can and will in fact often take me weeks to come up with a new post. Take it or leave it.


April 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

I lol’ed ever so gently the other day while reading some more in Alkire & Rosen’s Romance Languages, mentioned in the șalul post. On pp. 285-6, in the Exercises section of the chapter on Romanian, the 7th question is entitled ‘Really vulgar Latin‘. Here it is in full:

“Given the source, derive the unrefined word for ‘backside’ in these four languages. The reflexes are all regular.

Latin CŪLU ‘ass’
> Italian ………………
> Spanish ………………
> French ………………
> Portuguese ………………
> Romanian ………………

So why did Romanian need a new word for ‘run’? Mention specific sound changes.

Latin CŬRRŌ ‘I run’
> Italian corro
> Spanish corro
> French cours
> Portuguese corro
> Romanian alerg”

I always appreciate a bit of comic relief in these academic volumes. It seems pretty clear what happened here: usage of the descendant of Lat. curro probably dwindled because through regular sound change it became homonymic with a dirty word.
The Romanian reflex of currĕre would be a cure (degemination of double consonants: rr > r), 1st p. sg. cur (the ending -o > -u and then deletes unless it is needed for cluster support; for instance Lat. ambulare > Rom. a umbla, 1 sg. umblu, with -u intact because of the -mbl- cluster). And indeed, cur also turns out to be the word for ‘ass’.

So where does cur‘s replacement alerg come from? The infinitive is a alerga, and its semantic range includes ‘run, race; chase; search; incite; trot (of horses)’. The etymology is quite surprising: it is believed to descend from a post-classical Latin verb allargare, from ad- + largus. The original meaning of largus is ‘generous, lavish; plentiful, copious’. It lived on in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese as largo, and in French as larc, large. The fem. form won out and now it’s simply large; this was also the form borrowed by English. The meaning of the word quickly bleached to simply ‘big’. Now what would the primary meaning of a derived verb allargare be? ‘Make large(r)’? Maybe ‘put at a distance’? Did the primary Romanian meaning ‘run’ develop from something like the latter? This is not unthinkable, but not very clear either. Apparently some have doubted this etymology and have invoked Lat. legare, ‘bind, unite’, but this seems even more far-fetched both formally and semantically. Are we even certain it stems from Latin? Bottom line: it’s uncertain where a alerga came from, but it seems to have taken over a large chunk of the semantic field that used to belong to currere / a cure. Although I do get the impression that a fugi (< Lat. fugere, ‘to flee’), which often means simply ‘to run’ (though the original meaning also survives), is perhaps used even more than a alerga.

[The 2nd person sg. alergi, ‘you run’, looks a lot like alergie, ‘allergy’. Aren’t Romanians at all bothered by that? Is ‘allergy’ so much better than ‘ass’? Maybe it’s time to look for a new verb?]


If this blog triggers this kind of reaction on your skin, I apologize.

Next, how did Latin culus turn into cur? Thusly:
– In Vulgar Latin the use of the accusative (culum, in this case) spreads and the nominative disappears.
– The final -m is hardly pronounced at all anymore (evidence suggests that even in Cicero’s day casual speakers didn’t pronounce a full-blown -m at the end of a word, but rather nasalized the preceding vowel, sort of like in modern French); so: *culu (notice how Alkire & Rosen take this as the Latin form to start from, as is common practice in Romance linguistics).
– In Romanian, an original single -l- between vowels falls prey to rhotacism, that is to say, it turns into -r-. So: *curu.
– Final -u deletes (unless, etc., see above). Et voilà: cur.

So, why did Romanian need a new word for ‘run’? Because ‘I run’ sounded exactly like ‘ass’.

Now, if we’re looking up naughty words in the dictionary anyway (ah, to be 12 years old again!), let’s have a look at some of the (quasi-)synonyms of cur:

șezut, ‘bottom’; from the verb a ședea (of which it is also the past participle), from Lat. sedēre ‘to sit’. This seems to be a polite word (hency my translation, ‘bottom’ rather than ‘ass’), a bit like the awkward Dutch word zitvlak (a level plane to sit on, as it were).
popou: ‘bottom’; a German borrowing. Germ. Popo is a children’s word for ‘bum, bottom’. In Dutch we have a similar word: poep, with <oe> pronounced /u/ (although, I should say in Flemish. In Holland the word poep means ‘shit’ and is, perhaps surprisingly, etymologically unrelated. Their poep is not our poep.). At first I took the link between Flemish poep and Rom. popou for granted. Fl. poep is a borrowing from Fr. poupe, related to It. poppa, both from Lat. puppis, all 3 meaning ‘stern (of a ship)’ (and that’s as far back as we can go, apparently. In his Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages (2008) Michiel de Vaan bluntly states: “No etymology.”). It turns out I was too hasty though; Kluge mentions that Lat. podex (which does have a further etymology: it is related to Lat. pedĕre – whence Fr. péter  and Gr. βδεῖν, ‘to fart’), meaning ‘the anal orifice’, as the OLD informs us, was used in German in the 17th century (probably because it’s Latin and sounds clinical, and is therefore less dirty than native words), and through reduplication entered children’s language as Popo (presumably in the more general meaning ‘heinie’ or ‘tushy’ or whatever English-speaking kids call it). So this is the word that entered Romanian as popou – nothing to do with Fr. poupe etc., nor with the variety of poep they have in Holland for that matter (that one is from an onomatopoeic verb that originally meant ‘to fart’ as well, as it turns out). Romanian did also borrow the word poupe from French though, again with the meaning ‘stern (of a ship)’: pupă. Semantically this link between ‘stern’ and ‘ass’ presents no problem. Remember how in the Friends episode ‘The One With Joey’s New Girlfriend’ (Season 4 Episode 7), Chandler was sitting in a canoe in the middle of his living room for some reason. Joey’s (new) girlfriend Kathy, when asked which part of the canoe she would prefer to sit in, the bow or the stern, said she had no special preference, what about him? And he went ‘I like it in the stern’. Then suddenly he panicked, realizing how this might be misinterpreted, so he hastened to add, with much emphasis: ‘of the boat!’. Anyway. The Rom. verb a pupa, ‘kiss’, by the way, has nothing do to with any of this (no osculum obscenum or anything here); it stems from a Late Latin verb *puppare.]


Not sure what's happening here.

fund: the ‘bottom’ or ‘backside’ of something, in general; hence also the kind of ‘bottom’ we are concerned with here (< Lat. fundus, ‘bottom’; never used for ‘buttocks’ in classical Latin though, as far as I know. The OLD mentions nothing of the sort. The standard work on these issues, J.N. Adams The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, mentions one isolated metaphor in Plautus where fundus hints at something kinky. The line is from Asinaria, 874, where Demaenetus’ wife Artemona says: ‘Fundum alienum arat, incultum familiarem deserit’, or in Henry Thomas Riley’s 1912 translation: ‘Another’s farm he ploughs, his own he leaves untilled.’ That other meaning of fundus, ‘farm’, comes into play here. This is all the dirt we have on classical fundus, and there’s no reason why it should mean ‘ass’ here (the farm is simply a metaphor for the wife, and the ploughing I think speaks for itself). Besides, as Adams mentions, ‘such symbolism was so widely recognised that metaphors could obviously be coined freely’ (p. 84).) [Fundus, by the way, comes from the same Indo-European root as Eng. bottom, but if we go into that now, all hopes of finishing this post are lost forever.]
bucă: one ‘butt-cheek’ (pl. buci); < Lat. bucca ‘(lower part of the) cheek’ – again, not used of the ass yet, though.
fesă: also ‘butt-cheek’; < Lat. fissum ‘cleft, fissure, split’ (past participle of the verb findĕre: ‘to split apart, cleave’). The plural of this neuter turned into a singular feminine noun in vulgar Latin – as happened in many other cases -, fissa; apparently this meant both ‘buttock’ and ‘anus’, but the latter meaning seems to have disappeared in Rom. and also in the French reflex fesse(s): ‘buttock(s)’.
obraz: the only word in the list of Slavic descent (< OCS obrazŭ, ‘sight; look; form’). Romanian has two of these however: The first obraz (n., pl. obraze) means ‘countenance, appearance’, and fig. ‘honesty, dignity’. The other obraz (m., pl. obraji) means ‘cheek’, in slang also ‘buttcheek’.

The classical Latin word for ‘buttocks’, by the way, is nates (sg. natis), which may or may not be cognate with Gr. νῶτον, ‘back’. In post-classical times people preferred a diminutive form of this word (this too is a common phenomenon), *natica, which lived on in French as nache or nage until the 16th century and then fell into disuse.


How did this blog end up in the gutter so fast?

But enough of all this ribald talk, let’s turn back for a minute to currĕre and the situation in Romanian. As it turns out things aren’t as clear-cut as Alkire and Rosen present them. Apparently the reflex of currĕre does exist, to this very day. The verb a cure (‘run; flow; drain’) is still in the dictionaries, though labeled archaic. Dex Online refers us to curge (apparently mostly used for liquids: ‘flow; run; drip’), a variant form of cure that seems to find its origin in the influence of other verbs like a merge, ‘to go’. This verb has a pretty wide semantic range and also appears in expressions like ‘cum merge?’: ‘how goes it?’. It stems from Lat. mergere, ‘to immerse’, so there’s another difficult semantic shift worth investigating (‘to plunge oneself from one location into another’, hence ‘to walk, go’??), but we’re drifting off course again. Anyway, the -ge in the semantically related and presumably very frequent verb a merge seems to have copied itself onto the ending of a cure. Maybe this can also be explained by the urge to steer clear of naughty double entendres?

Now, we still have to answer the second part of the ‘very vulgar Latin’ question, so let’s ask ourselves how the other Romance reflexes of curro came about. Those reflexes are, by the way:
Italian: culo
Spanish: culo
French: cul
Portuguese: cu

Final -u becomes -o. That’s it as far as Italian and Spanish are concerned. In French the long /u/ in the stem is still spelled <u> but pronounced /y/ (or in other words, like German <ü>). What else? The <l> in French cul is just an orthographic reminiscence of the Latin word; it is no longer pronounced. In French syllable-final /l/ after a vowel undergoes velarization (it starts to approach a /w/ sound, like a Polish <ł>, which incidentally is also the phonetic symbol commonly used for this type of ‘dark’ l). So /yl/ > /yw/. This secondary diphthong is later simplified to a monophthong, so: /y/ (all the while still spelled cul, or possibly the <l> disappeared in spelling as well and was added again much later, as often happened, because it looks distinguish to at least have a visual reminder of the Latin roots of the words, even if you can’t hear it anymore.). A similar thing occasionally happens in Portuguese: syllable-final /l/ probably velarized into oblivion here too. Either that or the /l/ deleted between vowels, which also happened at some point in the early stages of Portuguese. Does this account for the fact that cu turned out to be a monosyllabic word? You tell me. This will have to do.

We have limited ourselves to the main Romance languages, but there are of course a bunch more, and they all seem to have a reflex of culu(s). Wiktionary provides a list:
Aromanian: cur
Catalan: cul
Dalmatian: čol
Friulian: cûl
Galician: cu
Megleno-Romanian: cur
Romansch: tgil
Sardinian: cólu, cu, culu
Sicilian: culu
Vegliot: čol

Some of these look interesting too, especially the ones where the initial c- seems to have palatalized, but I guess we’d better not take this any further. It’s about time I got off my cur anyway…


April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

As I was rewatching Seven Samurai a few days ago, I noticed there was one of those old-fashioned intermissions halfway through (I had forgotten about that). The movie is interrupted for several minutes, and we get some music and this screen:


I know this word: 休憩 (kyūkei): ‘break’. It was one of the first words we ever learned in evening class. The first kanji is also a very popular one in introductory courses. Often the miracle of kanji is illustrated along these lines: “We know the character 人, which means ‘person’. Surely you can see the person in there! We also know 木: ‘tree’. That one is also pretty obvious: look at those branches! Now watch what happens when we squash the person a little (亻) and put him right next to the tree, as if he were leaning against it: we get 休, which means ‘to rest’. Isn’t that great? And that’s how kanji work.”

Of course this is not how the vast majority of kanji work, like cute little pictorial puzzles – often you’ll just have a radical and then some other element that has no semantic link with the new character at all, but was just chosen because more than a dozen centuries ago (in the Chinese homeland) the extra element had the same reading (that is to say: pronunciation) required for the compound. But they don’t tell you that right from the start of course, that would just be discouraging…

If you want to find out the origin of a kanji character, this book provides some insight:

Henhall, Kenneth G. (1988), A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. Tuttle Language Library.

Under 休 (kanji number 13 in this book) we find:
“亻 is person 39 and 木 is tree 69. 木 is partly used phonetically to express stop/stay, and partly semantically as tree, i.e. a shady place where people stop to rest. Now means stop or rest in general.

So even in this classic pictorial example, apparently the non-radical part was chosen as much for its sound as for its meaning.

How is this character pronounced, you ask? Remember that most kanji have 1 “Chinese” and 1 “Japanese” reading (but there can be more of each as well, and quite a number of kanji only have a Chinese reading). The on’yomi (“the modern descendant of the Japanese approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character at the time it was introduced” – Wikipedia) of 休 is kyū. The kun’yomi (“a reading based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word (…) that closely approximated the meaning of the Chinese character when it was introduced” – id.) is the first two syllables of the verb 休む (yasumu), ‘to rest’Henshall gives three sample words for each character. Under 休 we find:

休日 kyūjitsu: holiday (日 means day, so: rest+day; makes sense)
休戦 kyūsen: truce (戦 means war; equally logical)
夏休み natsuyasumi: summer vacation (sure enough, 夏 means summer)

I’m not going to broach the problem of ‘how do you know which reading is used when’, here.

Actually I wasn’t interested in 休 here at all, it was the second character that drew my attention. 憩 also means ‘rest’.
On’yomikei (The New Nelson also mentions katsu, which is justifiably omitted in most smaller dictionaries; JDIC doesn’t know a single compound word with 憩 where this reading is still used).
Kun’yomi: the first two syllables in ikou (憩う, ‘to rest’) and ikoi (憩い, ‘rest’). These words are far less common than 休む etc. (Longman’s English-Japanese Dictionary gives 7 basic translations under the verb rest, but 憩う isn’t one of them). Still, they’re apparently still common enough for these readings to be mentioned in even the less bulky kanji dictionaries.

This too wasn’t what I was interested in when I saw the intermission screen though. I just seem to have some trouble getting to the point.

What struck me was that the character on the screen wasn’t 憩 exactly. First let us look at the 3 elements 憩 consists of.

– the bottom half is what 心 (kokoro, ‘heart’) looks like when used as a bottom radical; this is called shitagokoro (shita means ‘under’, here). Examples: 忌, 忠, 悪, etc. There’s also a left part ‘heart’ radical, which is called risshinben and looks like this: 忄. Examples: 忙, 性, 恨, etc.

– the top left corner bit looks like 舌 (shita, but not the same shita as mentioned above): ‘tongue’. [But in fact it isn’t; see below]

– the top right corner looks like 自 (ji, mizuka(ra)): ‘self’ (ultimately though this is supposedly a drawing of a nose, and the meaning ‘self’ “stems from the Oriental practice of pointing to the nose to refer to oneself, as opposed to the chest as in the West” (Henshall)).

Put all that together and you get:


Only of course on the screen that last element (upper right) isn’t 自, it’s 甘 (as in 甘い (amai): ‘sweet’). For a brief moment I considered whether this could be a completely different kanji, but of course it isn’t – it would have to mean more or less the same thing, would look very much like 憩, and form a compound with 休 as well which would, to top things of, also have to mean ‘break’ – so yeah, it’s much more likely to be a variant form of the same one. And sure enough, Nelson knows it:


[If you happen to wonder why there’s only one sample word given in such an extensive dictionary, it’s because The New Nelson only lists compound words where the character in question comes first.]

Exploring further, I noticed that Hadamitzky & Spahn’s Kanji & Kana also lists this alternative form. It’s probably an archaic variant; who knows, maybe in the fifties (Seven Samurai came out in 1954) it was the dominant form? I just wonder how it came about, since according to Henshall the top right element doesn’t only look like, but in fact is 自, ‘self’. He also mentions 息 (iki), ‘breath’ (but also ‘son’, for some obscure reason – I don’t see the connection); this character is basically 2/3 of 憩, without the 舌, and with the 自 a bit wider to fill out the upper half.

“A combination of breath/rest 息 332 q.v. and hollowed space 舌 244. The latter acts phonetically to express stop and rest, and may also lend an associated idea of not being busy / having free time (see 1109 [閑]). Thus stop and reststop and ‘take a breather’. Suggest taking 舌 as tongue 732, and 息 literally as heart 心 147 and nose 自 134.

Seriously, has anyone ever used these mnemonics to study kanji? You’d have to be mad to try to tackle them that way. I also like how you get to hear the real meaning of 舌 here, and then are advised to forget about it and convince yourself that it’s something else.

But anyway, back to 憇 (yes! after trawling through dozens of other kanji I was able to select this variant look too). My question was, if I remember correctly, why would they change 自, which seems to be the original element, to 甘, which, to complicate things, already exists with a completely unrelated meaning. The answer is easy: because they’re Japanese, and if they can think of any way to complicate things further, they’ll go for it – just to keep things interesting. But anyway, we have confirmation:


In conclusion, let’s look briefly at the whole 舌 confusion, which is just another example of the same principle just mentioned.

The ‘hollowed out space’ element Henshall refers to in his description of 憩 is the same one we find as the right half in 活 ‘activity, life’, and has nothing to do with 舌 ‘tongue’, as mentioned earlier. In this case 舌 is just a stylized derivative of a 氏 ‘scoop’ on top of an 口 ‘opening’, but this doesn’t seem to exist as a separate kanji (I’m sure the Chinese have it though; they have everything). Couldn’t they stylize it into something at least slightly different from 舌 ‘tongue’? No! That would be the easy way out – typical western attitude. So anyway, its shape ‘accidentally’ merged completely with that of 舌 ‘tongue’, which stems from a 口 ‘mouth’ below a ‘forked thrusting weapon’: 干 (but originally with a curved top stroke: ‿). The 干 was already used phonetically as ‘dry’ (also its current meaning), but according to Henshall it’s the original meaning that is intended here, because you see, a tongue can be thrust out of the mouth (almost like a dagger), and 干 could also conceivably be a fork, and some animals have forked tongues (very free paraphrase). Whether or not the ‘dry’ meaning might also figure into all this (my tongue is dry sometimes, I don’t know about yours) is not considered.

When we’re not looking, the Japanese all have a big laugh at the expense of us poor western fools whom sheer hybris led to believe we could make sense of their language and writing system.



April 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

For today’s post I want to take a closer look at some song lyrics in Romanian. I haven’t studied any Romanian, but I can’t let a trifling detail like that stop me. I was particularly interested to see how many of the words in a random sample text would turn out to be of Latin origin. Despite being somewhat less transparently of Latin descent than, say, Italian or Spanish, there should be a lot of Latin in there, probably a lot more than is apparent at first glance. Quod est demonstrandum!

that stache

Dona Dumitru Siminică (1926-1979) was a Romanian singer of Gypsy origin. He was something of a legend in Bucharest, where he sang both in Romanian and in Romani. His androgynous falsetto voice is instantly recognizable and fits his sorrowful ballads like a glove. The easiest way to acquire some of his music outside of Romania is through Sounds from a Bygone Age ‧ Vol. 3 on the Asphalt Tango label. The informative text about Siminică printed on the digipack can also be found on the label’s website. Of course the whole concept of an ‘ethnic music’ label publishing exotic sounds often brings with it a certain disregard or even contempt for the particularities of the musicians’ language. This usually manifests itself in the way any accents or other diacritics that are unfamiliar to the editor are dispensed with altogether. Credit where credit is due: the good people at Asphalt Tango did their very best to add the necessary circumflexes, breves and commas on the song titles, and also managed to get the last letter of Siminică right, but this taxed their abilities to such a degree that when it was time to print the lyrics to only one of the songs on the album, they couldn’t be bothered to add the circumflex to the letter i where necessary, and replaced every letter â with ă, so that they could mingle freely with the actual ă’s. Furthermore, in the biography as found on the website, they couldn’t be bothered with accents and such at all anymore, so you’ll have to make do with Faramita instead of Fărâmiță (Lambru, accordionist), etc. Ah well, nihil novi sub sole, amirite? Curiously, the same text is printed on the CD packaging, and there those funny little characters are present.


The one set of song lyrics we get with the CD are those to La șalul cel negru, so we’ll have to settle for that song (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Let’s listen to it first.

Now, back to the lyrics. Apart from some 8 typos, there are three lines missing at the end. Let’s take a look at what we do have. I have silently corrected the mistakes.

La șalul cel negru
Iubeam cu dulceață
O tânără fată
Cu părul bălai
Cu ochi mari și negri                      (5)
Și rumena față (x2)
Și-un corp mlădios
Într-una din zile
Poftisem la masă
Câțiva buni prieteni                       (10)
Cu care vorbeam
Mă simțeam prea bine
Mă simțeam ferice
La nenorocire
Nici că mă gândeam                       (15)
Mă simțeam prea bine
Când stam lângă ea
Fără să-mi dau seama
Că altul iubea


What I did was simply to read the translation printed alongside the text, and then look up every word of the Romanian, while paying attention to its grammatical form and etymology. Perhaps you’ll find that something of interest may be gleaned from this (if not, go away).

For every line number, the translation provided on the CD is given first.


The black scarf

la (prep. + acc.): at; to, towards

[note that I will mention the cases nom., acc., gen., dat., abl. as if these still survived in Romanian; in fact they have merged two by two, but I’m referring to the underlying, original Latin cases.]

< Lat. illac (adv.): there

șal: shawl, scarf

șalul: acc. (except for pronouns, acc. is always the same as nom.) n. sg.

< Turkish şal; < Persian شال (šāl).

The suffix -ul is the definite article attached as an enclitic: șalul: the scarf. This is peculiar to Romanian (which I understand here to include Aromanian, Megleno-Romanian and Istro-Romanian) among all Romance languages. This kind of thing does occur elsewhere though; the first example that comes to mind is Swedish (dag: day; dagen: the day; brev: letter; brevet: the letter; etc.). Originally, the suffix would just be -l, attached to Latin words ending in -u (< -um, acc. m./n. sg.; the -m was no longer pronounced). Thus one would have for instance:

foc: fire (< *focu, acc. of Lat. focus (nom. was no longer used))

And with enclitic (< Lat. illum: that):

focul: the fire (really focu+l, but because of foc, without -u, gradually interpreted as foc+ul; so later on a suffix -ul was added to nouns that never had -u in the first place (this goes for șalul as well as altul on line 19).

cel (pronoun): the one (that is)

< acel (demonstrative, that) < Vulgar Lat. eccu illu < Lat. eccum (ecce + eum) + illum

This brings to mind Italian quello and Spanish aquel, of the same origin.

negru: black

acc. n. sg. (n. seems to be always the same as m.)

< Lat. niger

First impression: the word la is nowhere to be found in the translation. I’m not sure how closely bound to the following this line is. Is it just the title, a separate phrase, or is it an integral part of the first sentence?

Etymology count: 3 words from Latin, 1 from Turkish (itself from Persian)



I loved with all my heart


a iubi (IV, by which we mean: verb of the fourth conjugation): to love

iubeam: impf. 1 sg. (identical to 1 pl., by the way)

< OCS (Old Church Slavonic) ljubiti (compare Russ. любить (ljubít’), BCS (Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian) ljúbiti [although the standard word for to love in the modern languages is vóljeti, cognate to Lat. velle], etc.)

This form seems pretty transparent: -eam from Latin -ebam (and apparently also from -ebamus in the first person plural).

Notice how /l/ (from ljubiti) deletes before /j/. This is apparently a general rule in Romanian, as can be gathered from these examples, all from Latin:

folia: leaf → foaie (notice also: [oa] instead of [o] because of word-final –a; and also how <iă> converts to <ie> (the “Family rule”))
filiu: son → fiu
lepore: hare → iepure (notice also: low mid /ε/ > /jε / > /je/)
levat: lifts → ia (notice how v between vowels also deletes!)

These examples, by the way, and some other material inserted here and there, have been taken from this book, which I heartily recommend:

Alkire, T. & Rosen, C. (2010), Romance Languages. A Historical Introduction. Cambridge

In what follows, though, I will mostly refrain from commenting on the sound changes involved, because I don’t know enough about them to do so with any confidence.

cu (prep. + acc.): with

< Lat. cum + abl. (there’s no ablative left in Romanian, or in any other Romance language for that matter)

dulceață: sweetness; pleasure; etc. (also marmalade, but probably not here)

acc. f. sg.

< dulce + -eață, like It. dolcezza

< Lat. dulcis: sweet + -itia: -ness (note: in classical Latin the derived abstract noun is dulcedo, rarely dulcitudo or dulcitas, never *dulcitia)

Etymology count: all 3 words from Latin



A young maiden


un (indef. art.): a(n)

o: acc. (= nom.) f. sg.

< Lat. unus, una: one

tânăr: young

tânără: acc. f. sg., indefinite form

< Lat. tener: tender, delicate, young, frail,…

In printing tănăra, the Asphalt Tango people get it wrong twice over. I’ve already mentioned that they have printed ă for every â; and with the ending -a we would have the definite form, which is impossible after the indefinite article.

The <â> and <î> that help make Romanian text so easily recognizable (alongside the fricative <ș> and affricate <ț>) both denote the same sound / ɨ /, a high central unrounded vowel not found in any other Romance language. In modern orthography, <â> is used everywhere except at the very beginning or ending of a word, and for the prefix în, even when part of a compound and thus no longer initial (e.g. reîncepe: begin again). But only a few decades ago this word would have been spelled tînăr.

fată: girl

acc. f. sg., indefinite form

< Vulg. Lat. feta < fetus (sometimes incorrectly spelled foetus, with an unetymological diphthong); the Latin word is originally a u-stem noun (4th decl.; gen. fetūs), but this was changed to an o-stem (2nd decl.) in post-classical times, and a female form feta was invented. The original meaning (the act of producing, delivering (a baby); litter) was superseded by the the meaning young, child, which is also already found in classical Latin.

Similarly, the Romanian word for boy is făt (from Lat. fetus); or rather a word – the more usual term seems to be băiat (of unknown etymology), and the primary meaning of făt seems to be fetus (the English word this time).

Etymology count: all 3 words from Latin


With blonde hair

cu: see line 2.

păr: hair

părul: acc. m. sg., definite form

< Lat. pilus

bălai: blond

acc. m. sg., indefinite form

This is a suffixed form of băl, which also means blond (the word blond itself is also used). I don’t know what shade of meaning the suffix adds.

< OCS bĕlŭ ‘white’ (compare Russ. белый (bélyj): white; light, fair, etc.)

Etymology count: 2 new words, 1 from Latin, 1 Slavic


Big black eyes

ochi: eye

ochi: acc. m. pl., indefinite form

< Lat. oculus (compare It. occhio, pl. occhi)

mare: big (can also mean: great, mighty)

mari: acc. m. pl., indefinite form

< Lat. mas: male (an interesting semantic evolution, but the etymology is not entirely certain)

și (conj.): and

< Lat. sic: thus, so (another interesting etymology)

negru: see line 1

negri: acc. m. pl., indefinite form

Etymology count: 3 new words, all from Latin (probably)!


With rosy cheeks

rumen: rosy

rumena: acc. fem. sg., indefinite form

< OCS rumĕnŭ: red (cf. Serbo-Croation and Slovak rumen: pink)

Not red; that would be roșu (< Lat. roseus).

față: face

acc. fem. sg., indefinite form

< Vulg. Lat. facia < Lat. facies (5th decl.)

Etymology count: 2 new words, 1 Slavic, 1 from Latin



And a supple body

un: see line 3

un: acc. m. sg.

și-un: a typical feature of Romanian seems to be the way conjunctions and prepositions seem to be taken together (and hyphenated) sometimes. I haven’t really looked into this closely. See also next line.

corp: body

acc. n. sg., indefinite form

< Lat. corpus (via German or Russian, or directly?)

mlădios: supple, agile, lithe

acc. n. sg., indefinite form

This seems to be from the verb a mlădia (I): to bow, bend, with the suffix -os (< Lat. -osus). There is also a similar adjective mlădiu: supple, flexible. All these forms are related to the fem. noun mlăda (f.): grove, coppice, thicket. This word in turn stems from:

< OCS maldŭ, young (compare Russ. молодой (molodój); Serb.-Cr. млад / mlad, Pol. młody, etc.; all: young); cognate with Lat. mollis and Skrt. मृदु (mṛdú), both: soft

Etymology count: 2 new words, 1 Slavic, 1 from Latin


One day

într-una: in a

This is a combination of întru (prep. + acc.: in) and unu (one; rel. to the article un: see line 3); the -u is lost in elision.

una: fem. sg.

< Lat. intro (adv.): to the inside, indoors

< Lat. unus: one (in other words, stressed forms were kept as the cardinal numeral one, unstressed forms eroded to become an indefinite article.)

din (prep. + acc.): on; from, out of

A contraction of de: from, of + în: in, into. Într-una din (taken together) seems to mean simply in, on.

< Lat. de (prep. + abl.): (down) from; about, of

< Lat. in (prep. + abl./acc.): in(to)

zi: day

I think this is acc. f. pl., indefinite form. Why plural? Because din seems to have partitive meaning here: one from (a number of) days. I’m not sure though.

< Lat. dies

Etymology count: all 4 words from Latin


I invited to my table

a pofti (IV): to desire, wish for; to invite

poftisem: pluperf. 1 sg.

< Common Slavic pohotĕti: to wish

This pluperfect form seems transparent to: compare Lat. -issem (Romanian doesn’t allow geminate consonants).

la: see line 1

masă: table; meal

acc. f. sg., indefinite form

< Lat. mensa: table

Etymology count: 2 new words, 1 Slavic, 1 from Latin


A few good friends

câtva: a few, some, several

câțiva: acc. m. pl.

This is a combination of the question word cât and the invariable indefinite suffix -va (some; this comes after the ending, hence f. sg. câtăva, etc.).

< Lat. quantus: how many, contaminated with quotus: of what number; how many

The suffix seems to be an eroded form of a vrea (II): to want.

< *vurea < Vulg. Lat. volēre (2nd conj.) < Lat. velle (irregular)

Other examples of the suffix -va:

cine: who(< *quene < Lat. quem) + va: some → cineva: someone
unde: where(< Lat. unde: from where) + va: some → undeva: somewhere
când(see line 16) + va: some → cândva: sometime
cum(< *quomo < Lat. quomodo) + va: some → cumva: somehow

A very similar thing can be found in Latin: quantusvis, quantavis, etc.: as large as you wish, of any size.

bun: good

buni: acc. m. pl., indefinite form

< Lat. bonus

prieten: friend

prieteni: acc. m. pl., indefinite form

< OCS prijatelĭ: friend (from prijati: to help, stand by (someone))

This one comes from a large group of Indo-European cognates containing friend (actually a present participle), free, Germ. Frieden (peace), Du. vrijen (to make love), etc.

Etymology count: all 3 words from Latin


With whom I spoke

cu: see line 2

care (rel. pron.): which, that, who

acc. m. pl.

< Lat. qualis (interr. and rel. adj.): of what kind, like what

a vorbi (IV): to speak, talk

vorbeam: impf. 1 sg.

< vorbă: word, talk, conversation, discussion

< Slavic dvorĭba: service of the court? < dvorŭ: castle; palace; courtyard.

This is an exact cognate of Lat. forum: market; court. Compare also Skrt. द्वार (dvāra: passage) and Lith. dvãras (estate).

This may have been contaminated with Lat. verbum (word) somewhere along the way.

Etymology count: 2 new words, 1 from Latin, 1 probably Slavic (with some Latin thrown in?).


I was having too good a time

eu (pers. pron.): I

: acc., unstressed form (the stressed form is mine)

< Lat. ego, acc. me

a simți (IV): to feel; (refl. a se simți: to feel, to be feeling)

simțeam: impf. 1 sg.

< Lat. sentire

prea (adv.): too

< Either from Slav. prĕ or Latin prae (adv., before) (or the one enforced by the other).

bine (adv.): well

< Lat. bene

Compare bun (line 10)

Etymology count: 4 new words, 3 from Latin, 1 probably Slavic.


I was happy

eu (mă): see line 12

a simți: see line 12

ferice (poet., arch.; invar.): happy

< Lat. felix

This adjective does not decline. Its use is poetic and/or archaic. The most common words for happy/glad seem to be fericit (from a ferici, a verb also derived from Lat. felix), bucuros (< Alb. bukur: nice, pretty) and vesel (< OCS veselŭ: joyous; compare Russ. весёлый (vesjólyj); cheerful).

Etymology count: 1 new word, from Latin


But to complete my misery

la: see line 1

nenorocire: disaster, calamity; misfortune, woe

acc. f. sg.

This noun is actually the long infinitive of the verb:

a nenoroci (IV): to make unhappy; ruin; cripple; plague

which consists of these two elements:

ne-: un-

< ne(-): not: this prefix is from Slavic and became very popular in Romanian as well

noroc (n.): luck, fortune

< Slav. naroku: good luck

Etymology count: 1 new word, from Slavic



I suspected nothing


nici: not even

< Lat. neque

In the lyrics as printed on the CD the next word is ca, but, though that also exists (than; as (< Lat. quam) / because (obs.); in order to (< Lat. quia)), it can’t be right here.

(conj.): that (also because)

< Lat. quod

Taken together, nici că seems to mean simply: not at all.

eu (mă): see line 12

a (se) gândi (IV): (intr./refl.) to think

gândeam: impf. 1 sg.

< gând (f.): thought; care

< Hung. gond: care; trouble, anxiety, problem (of unknown further origin)

Etymology count: 3 new words, 2 from Latin, 1 from Hungarian



I was having too good a time

= line 12



Next to her


când (adv./conj.): when

< Lat. quando: when; since, because

a sta (I): to stay; stand; sit (etc.)

stam: this is a syncopated form of stăteam: impf. 1 sg.

< Lat. stare: to stand

lângă (prep. + acc.): beside, next to, by

< Lat. longum + ad

ea: she

ea: acc. f. sg. stressed (unstressed would be o < *eaua < Lat. illam): her

< Lat. illam (acc. f. sg. of ille)

In other words, both ea and o (not the same o as on line 3) come from Lat. illam, tonic and atonic.

More literal translation of this line: when I stood next to her.

Etymology count: all 4 words from Latin



I didn’t notice

fără (prep. + acc.): without

< Lat. foras (adv.): outside

: to (subjunctive verbs are always introduced by this word; the Romanian subj. has taken over many functions of the infinitive)

< Lat. si (conj.): if (an interesting shift right here)

eu: I

mi: short for unstressed dative îmi, because of the combination with să: to me, myself

< Lat. ego, dat. mihi

a da (I): to give

dau: subj. 1 sg. (present, but there’s only one subj. left in Romanian; the same form as the ind., because only the 3rd p. forms (sg. = pl.) have separate forms)

< Lat. dare

seama: used in the expression:

a-și da seama: to realize (lit. to give oneself seama; și is short for își in this combination. Îşi (< Lat. se: oneself) is the unstressed refl. dat. form of 3rd p. pronoun el/ea (pl. ei/ele), nothing to do with conjunction și: see line 5).

Seama expresses an idea of mental calculation, of judging, establishing, observing. Interestingly, the original meaning seems to be number.

< Hung. szám: number

The Hungarian word in turn is borrowed from some Turkic language. Comp. Turkmen san: number, amount. I wonder if this is related to Turkish san: fame, repute; title, appellation?

Etymology count: 4 new words, 3 from Latin, 1 from Hungarian (itself from some Turkic language)


That she loved the other man

: see line 15

alt: other

altul: the other man (acc. m. sg.; -ul: see șalul, line 1)

< Lat. alter: the other (one)

a iubi: see line 2

iubea: impf. 3 sg. (-ea < Lat. -ebat)

Etymology count: 1 new word, from Latin

Grand total:

Out of 48 different words used, and disregarding for a moment the fact that not every etymology is certain, we find:

–       38 words are of Latin origin;

–       7 words are of Slavic origin

–       2 words come from Hungarian (1 of which can be further traced to some Turkic language)

–       1 word is borrowed from Turkish, and can be further traced to Persian

These results seem to confirm my initial suspicions and this endeavor has certainly turned out to be a profitable use of several hours.

As mentioned earlier, there are 3 more lines to the song that have been left out for some reason (lack of space?); since I don’t actually know Romanian (perhaps I should stress that again), I don’t know what they are (although I thought I heard ‘amor credea’ in there). If anyone has them, please comment.


April 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last week I finally got around to reading Helen DeWitt’s wonderful novel The Last Samurai, in which a frighteningly intelligent child is raised by his single mother who, rather than allowing him to get acquainted with his real father (an untalented hack of a travel writer), keeps showing him Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (七人の侍) – more than enough male role models to compensate for any lack in that department. The boy also learns his first words of Japanese from this movie, simply by reading the subtitles and gradually trying to figure out which word corresponds to which. Seems like a daunting task with a language that is so inherently different from English, but hey, the kid’s a genius.

After finishing the book (and I recommend you read it too, it really is very good), I felt like watching the movie again myself.

As I, who am unfortunately anything but a genius, was watching, I grew disheartened by how little of the Japanese I understood – and this after 5 years of evening classes (3 hours every Monday, at a very leisurely pace)! One of many causes I can think of is that the vocabulary used in the film overlaps only partly with that of the awful Japanese for Busy People (‘Do you like to play golf?’ ‘Yes, you are allowed to take photographs here’). Another is that the language contains a lot of traits that aren’t part of the polite standard Japanse encountered in class (certain particles, elisions, dialectal pronunciations). The greatest hindrance, though, seems to me to be the breakneck speed at which various characters sometimes talk, swallowing every other syllable and screaming until their throat is presumably sore. You have to admire anyone, no matter how fictitious, who can learn Japanese with these tools, especially at age – what was it, 5?


Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to have the screenplay so I could read along with some favourite scenes (after looking up a few hundred kanji, of course). To my dismay, this screenplay turned out to be very hard to find. I can’t find it on the web; it can be ordered online in Japan, but at a ridiculously high price. This realization left me no choice: I was going to pick a scene and try to construct the Japanese lines through some creative googling, rewatching the scene a couple of dozen times, listening closely with headphones, and trying to solve whatever problems presented themselves.

In the following, some basic knowledge of the story is assumed.

The scene I picked is the one right after the samurai have figured out that the peasants they have promised to protect from a gang of bandits have themselves, in the past, been known to kill and rob a couple of fleeing or wounded samurai (referred to as 落ち武者狩り, ochimushagari: hunting for defeated warriors), because they’re too poor to consider the ethical problems this poses. Kikuchiyo, who has been allowed to join Kanbei’s posse but isn’t really a samurai at all, offers a vehement plea for the farmers, and shames the other six into silence.

But first, a brief overview of the names of the characters and the actors in both kanji and rōmaji, just because this is the kind of info you’d expect to find everywhere but always have to compile yourself. The Japanese order has been preserved (first name, here in italics, comes last).

島田 勘兵衛 Shimada Kanbei 志村 喬 Shimura Takashi
岡本 勝四郎 Okamoto Katsushirō 木村 功 Kimura Isao
片山 五郎兵衛 Katayama Gorōbei 稲葉 義男 Inaba Yoshio
七郎次 Schichirōji 加東 大介 Katō Daisuke
林田 平八 Hayashida Heihachi 千秋 実 Chiaki Minoru
久蔵 Kyūzō 宮口 精二 Miyaguchi Seiji
菊千代 Kikuchiyo 三船 敏郎 Mifune Toshirō

Mifune’s energetic country bumpkin’s real name is never revealed in the film (he claims to have forgotten it); Kikuchiyo is a name given to him by the others, in jest. It is actually two girl’s names combined (Kiku and Chiyo) – which is why the characters laugh so heartily when it is first bestowed upon him.

Now for the actual scene. It comes at approximately 01:28 into the film – at least on my barebones Dutch DVD edition (I can’t afford the swanky Criterion version, to my lasting regret). After a fraught silence, master swordsman Kyūzō rather bluntly utters his regret at having assented to protecting the villagers. Then comes Kikuchiyo’s passionate speech. Only his words and some of his laughter are presented here. For his delivery and actions, watch the movie.

[Note that among the Japanese sites that transcribe this scene, not one has the exact same version as any other. Even with the lines written out for you in rōmaji, you’ll have a tough time keeping up the first time round – be sure to give it a try!]

[Since my DVD only has Dutch subtitles, I made a free translation of my own.]





“Ore’a, kono mura no yatsura o kiritaku natta.”

“I’m starting to feel like killing the villagers.”




Koits’a ii ya!

This guy is good, huh! 
Yai, omaetachi!
Ittē hyakushō o nan da to omotte’ta n da?
Hotokesama da to de mo omotte’ta ka?
Hey, you guys!
What on earth did you think farmers were like?
Did you think they were saints?
Warawasecha ikenē ya.
Hyakushō gurai waruzure shita ikimono wa nē n da ze.
Don’t make me laugh!
There isn’t a wilier animal out there than a farmer.
Kome dase ‘cha, nē.
Mugi dase ‘cha, nē.
Nani mo ka mo nē ‘ttsu n da.
Ask them for some rice – there isn’t any.
Ask them for some wheat – there isn’t any.
Whatever it is, they say they don’t have any.
Tokoro ga aru n da.
Nan datte aru n da.
In reality, they do have some.
They have everything!
Yukaita hippegashite hotte mi na.
Soko ni nakattara, naya no sumi da.
Try ripping off the floorboards and digging.
If there isn’t anything there, there’s the nooks and crannies of the barn.
Dete kuru, dete kuru!
Kame ni haitta kome, shio, mame, sake.
It’ll turn up, it’ll turn up!
Stuffed in jars, there’s rice, salt, beans, booze.
Yama to yama no aida e itte miro.
Soko ni wa kakushida da.
Go look in the valleys between the mountains.
They’ve got hidden rice fields!
Shōjikizura shite, peko peko atama  sagete uso o tsuku.
Nan de mo gomakasu.
They try to look all honest, they lower their heads all servile, and feed you lies.
They’ll deceive you any which way they can!
どっかに戦でもありゃ、すぐ竹槍作って落ち武者狩りだぃ。 Dokka ni ikusa de mo arya, sugu takeyari tsukutte ochimushagari dē.
If there’s a battle somewhere, they’ll hurry and make bamboo spears, and then it’s time to hunt the defeated warriors.
Yoku kiki na.
Hyakushō ‘tte no wa na, kechinbo de, zurukute, nakimushi de, ijiwaru de, manuke de, hitogoroshi da.
Listen up.
Farmers are stingy, crafty, blubbering, mean, stupid, and murderous.
Okashiku ‘tte namida ga derā.
God damnit!
It’s so funny it makes me cry. 
Da ga na, konna kedamono tsukuri-yagatta no wa ittai dare da?
Omētachi da yo!
Samurai da ‘tte n da yo!
But who the hell made them into such beasts?
You did!
You samurai did! 
For fuck’s sake. 
Ikusa no tabi ni wa mura’a yaku,
tahata funtsubusu,
kuimono wa toriageru,
ninpu ni wa kokitsukau,
onna wa okasu,
temuka ya korosu.
In times of war you burn their villages,
you trample their fields,
you take their food,
you force them to labour,
you rape (?) their women,
and kill them if they resist.
Ittai hyakushō wa dō surya ii n da.
Hyakushō wa dō surya ii n da yo.
Chikushō, chikushō, chikushō, chikushō.”
So what the hell should farmers do?
What should farmers do?
Fucking hell!
God damnit (etc.)” 






“Kisama, hyakushō no umare da na?”

“You, you’re a farmer’s son yourself, aren’t you?” 

Here are some comments on the language used, and some problems:

–       The topic marking particler は (wa) is sometimes reduced to あ (a); this is also how it is spelled by several Japanese transcribers (often with a small ぁ): 俺ぁ instead of 俺は, こいつぁ instead of こいつは, 村ぁ焼く instead of 村は焼く.Here are some comments on the language used, and some problems:

–       Sometimes ai is rendered as ē. For instance, Kikuchiyo uses the word 一体 (ittai) a couple of times, but the first time he clearly pronounces it ittē, so I have spelled it いってぇ. Also, the negative copula ない (nai) is often pronounced (I have retained the spelling I found here and there: 無え), and towards the end we hear おめえ達 (omētachi) for お前達 (omaetachi, ‘you’ (pl.)).

–       In the lines 米出せっちゃ (kome dase ‘cha) and 麦出せっちゃ (mugi dase ‘cha) some rather extreme form of elision seems to have taken place. Elsewhere this was rendered 米出せって言や (kome dase ‘tte iya), so it seems best to interpret this as: ‘as soon as you tell them to come up with rice’ (with the same や (ya) as in the line, a bit further on, 手向かや殺す (temuka ya korosu): ‘as soon as they resist, you kill them’). In any case, the stem of the verb 言う (iu) seems to have been elided into oblivion (twice, if we consider thatって is short for いって, but I guess speakers don’t really feel the いう in that anymore).

–       何もかも無えっつんだ (Nani mo ka mo nē ‘ttsu n da): I’m not sure about the end of this line. If it is correct, is っつ (ttsu) some abbreviation of って言う (tte iu)?

–       The particle な (na) seems to be very popular here. It’s mostly used by males and indicates emotion or emphasis. In the line よく聞きな (yoku kiki na), ‘listen up!’, the なis short for なさい and forms a command. This seems potentially confusing, as the dictionary form followed by な constitutes a prohibition: 聞くな (kiku na): ‘don’t listen!’. The way these guys speak, I imagine it’s not always possible to hear any difference, but I guess the context will make clear which form is used.

–       The だぃ (sic, in some transcriptions) I’ve transcribed as is probably the だい (dai) that, according to Jdic, ‘strengthens one’s judgement or conclusion’. This site explains that ‘In casual questions that would end in the copula だ (da), it sometimes gets exaggerated to だい (dai). This is generally a masculine usage.’

–       A very popular and forceful interjection is ちくしょう (chikushō; 畜生 in kanji, where the first character apparently means ‘livestock’?). Sometimes it’s spelled ちきしょう (chikishō). In Kikuchiyo’s speech towards the end the entire word is reduced to some vague affricate sound. This is from the entry in Jdic: (1) beast (i.e. any animal other than man); (2) {Buddh} (See 畜生道) person reborn into the animal realm; (3) brute (i.e. a contemptible human being); (int) (4) son of a bitch; for Christ’s sake; damn it.

–       I’m not sure how to interpret the verb 出らぁ (derā). I’m guessing that it is a colloquial variant of 出ろう (derō)? I hope I translated this line correctly.

–       The verb form 作りやがった (tsukuriyagatta) is composed of 作る (tsukuru, ‘to make’) and やがる (yagaru). The Jdic entry of the latter: ‘やがる (aux,v5r) (vulg) (after the -te form of -masu stem of a verb) verb suffix indicating hatred and contempt, or disdain for another’s action.’ Others only hear 作った here (it’s spoken so fast it’s hard to tell).

–       女は犯す (onna wa okasu): I’m not sure 犯す is the verb he uses. Japanese bloggers don’t seem to understand it either. Several of them suggest 漁る (asaru), ‘to fish’, hence ‘look for, hunt for, scavenge’. It doesn’t sound like that, but I’m not convinced that it sounds like okasu either.

–       The personal pronoun 貴様 (kisama, ‘you’) is used a number of times in the movie. Apparently it doesn’t necessarily have any negative/impolite connotations yet, or at least not always.

If anyone who actually speaks Japanese and is familiar with the scene should drop by here, I’d be most grateful for any assistance in some of the questions raised.


April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I encountered an interesting new word today (new to me, that is), while reading a French article about disturbances at a Hecker concert, held some 6 weeks ago at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Apparently some people were insulted or assaulted or both by his extreme sounds, someone raised his middle finger, and before long some expensive equipment was damaged. You’d think people would know what they are in for when they go see Hecker perform (I know I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near his set without multiple sets of earplugs), but apparently not. Anyway, here’s a quote from the article:

« Lorsque les gens vont au cinéma et qu’ils s’ennuient, ils prennent leurs affaires et ils s’en vont. Ils ne gesticulent pas débilement devant l’écran.
Pour moi, il s’agit d’une velléité totalitaire : ils se sentaient agressés physiquement par le son, et ne toléraient pas que d’autres (la majorité) apprécient le concert. »

I had to look up the word velléité. As it turns out, there is also an English equivalent, velleity. The OED defines it as follows:

  1. The fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.
  2. (With a and pl.) A mere wish, desire, or inclination without accompanying action or effort. Very common in the 17th c.; now somewhat rare.`

Further research also turned up, again through simple suffix adjustment, German Velleität and even Dutch velleïteit (Dutch uses a diaeresis, which we call trema, to show that -ei- is not a diphthong here: -eï-). All 4 of these languages also have a seldom-used derived adjective: Eng. velleitary, Fr. velléitaire, Germ. velleitär, Du. velleïtair.
Interesting side note: the French don’t seem sure whether to pronounce the -ll- as in ville or as in fille.

Apparently, the Latin word that lies at the origin of all these, velleitas, dates from the 13th century; I think it was coined by (Saint) Thomas Aquinas, who uses it to express something like an incomplete or conditioned will, or a willingness of something that is impossible. The meaning seems to have fluctuated a bit, at first. Here’s a typical occurrence in Thomas:

“Voluntas completa non est nisi de possibili quod est bonum volenti; sed voluntas incompleta est de impossibili, quae secundum quosdam velleitas dicitur, quia scilicet aliquis vellet illud si esset possibile. Electio autem nominat actum voluntatis jam determinatum ad id quod est huic agendum, et ideo nullo modo est nisi possibilium.”

“Wherefore the complete act of the will is only in respect of what is possible and good for him that wills. But the incomplete act of the will is in respect of the impossible; and bysome is called “velleity,” because, to wit, one would will [vellet] such a thing, were it possible. But choice is an act of the will, fixed on something to be done by the chooser. And therefore it is by no means of anything but what is possible.”

(Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 13, Article 5)

One does not simply define velleity.

It’s possible that he made up the quidam who supposedly used this word before him. Or maybe he did pick it up somewhere, perhaps in Latin translations of Aristotle?

I can see how this word could have been popular among preachers, who could accuse people of having no true volition towards ‘good’, merely a velleity, which was vanquished by a stronger desire for more instantaneous pleasures. In later times, the word seems to have had some currency in psychological circles as well, in cases of hypobulia or abulia.

In any case, velleitas joins a huge group of abstract nouns in -(i)tas, but is still kind of strange. Usually this suffix is deadjectival, and indicates a state of being:

vicinus vicinitas
ferox  ferocitas
gravis  gravitas
celeber  celebritas
pubes  pubertas

We can put the formations based on numerals in the same category:

unus → unitas
trini (‘three each’; ‘triple’) → trinitas

Every now and then, we find the suffix added to the stem of a noun:

civis → civitas
auctor → auctoritas
heres → hereditas
virgo → virginitas
aevus / aevum → aevitas (later syncopated to aetas) (‘age’; ‘lifespan’)

(In some cases it seems, rather than a state of being, words ending in -(i)tas indicate an abstract or concrete entity.)

Velleitas, on the other hand, is pretty strange in that the suffix was appended to what is most likely the stem of velle-m, imperfect subjunctive (used contrafactually) of velle, volo, ‘want, to wish’ (this seems more likely, at least, than the infinitive, ending and all). This was already hinted at by Aquinas’ quote. I guess we can interpret this word as ‘that mood where you’re all like “I’d be all for that, but, you know…”’.

As it turns out, those scholastic monks knew a thing or two about fantastical neologisms like this one; they also created such monstrosities as haecitas, ipseitas, quidditas and anitas (meaning a response to the question an sit aliquid, ‘if anything is’).

Apparently the first one to borrow the word velleitas into French was (Saint) Francis (François) de Sales, Bishop of Geneva from 1602 to 1621. As a philosophical term, it also turns up in Locke, Leibniz, and Voltaire, among others. The more I read about it, the more I grew to like this word, so I thought it would be fun to make a nice selection of sample sentences or passages from the various languages:

“O Saviour, how many parts of thee are here active? thy finger is put into the ear, thy spittle toucheth the tongue, thine eyes look up, thy lungs sigh, thy lips move to an Ephphatha: thy word alone, thy beck alone, thy wish alone, yea, the least act of velleity from thee might have wrought this cure.”
((Bishop) Joseph Hall, Contemplations on the New Testament, 1618)

“For whatsoever good is proposed, if its absence carries no displeasure or pain with it, if a man be easy and content without it, there is no desire of it, nor endeavour after it; there is no more but a bare velleity, the term used to signify the lowest degree of desire, and that which is next to none at all, when there is so little uneasiness in the absence of anything, that it carries a man no further than some faint wishes for it, without any more effectual or vigorous use of the means to attain it.”
(John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690)

“Pour ce qui est des Velleïtés, ce ne sont qu’une espece fort imparfaite de volontés conditionnelles. Je voudrois, si je pouvois, liberet, si liceret: & dans le cas d’une velléité, nous ne voulons pas proprement vouloir, mais pouvoir. C’est ce qui fait qu’il n’y en a point en Dieu, & il ne faut point les confondre avec les volontés antécédentes.”
(Gottfried Leibniz, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal, 1710)

“Dans le temps de la destruction des jésuites, on eut en France une légère velléité de perfectionner l’éducation. On imagina donc d’établir une chaire d’histoire à Toulouse.”
(Voltaire, Cathares: De la Croisade contre les Langedociens, 1756)

“To get rid of the ambiguity clinging to vulgar terms the words Volition and Velleity have been coined, and applied, one to that Will which gets the mastery and the other to that controuled thereby. Thus the young lady who excused herself from the invitation had a velleity to go but a volition to stay away. But velleity can scarce be called a power, for a power which never operates is no power at all: Velleity gives birth to none of our motions, it may strive and struggle a little but volition always carries the day.”
(Abraham Tucker, The Light of Nature Pursued, I, 1768)

“In your Lordship will is volition, clothed and armed with power – in me, it is bare inert velleity.”
(Jeremy Bentham, Letters on Scotch Reform, 1808)

Velleïteit, een barbaarsch woord der dialectici, om eenen zwakken, onvolkomenen wil, zonder ernst of kracht ter uitvoering, uittedrukken.”
(Pieter Weiland, Kunstwoordenboek of verklaring van allerhande vreemde woorden, benamingen, gezegden en spreekwijzen, die uit verschillende talen ontleend, in de zamenleving en in geschriften, betreffende alle vakken van kunsten, wetenschappen en geleerdheid voorkomen; Supplement, 1832)

“Tot dus ver inclineer ik om het stilzwijgen te bewaren; al is het dat ik somwijlen, bij het wikken zijner meeste argumenten, eenige velleïteit tot spreken gevoel.”
(Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer in a letter to Isaäc da Costa, 1845)

“Allein eine Bürgschaft der Dauer trug dieses Bündnis der Patrizier und der reichen Plebejer doch keineswegs in sich. Ohne Zweifel kam es auf Velleitäten dieser Art sehr wenig an und hat auch der bessere Teil der Geschlechter sich dieser trübseligen Verdrießlichkeitspolitik durchaus enthalten; aber ein Gefühl des Mißbehagens ließ sie doch auf beiden Seiten zurück, und wenn der Kampf der Gemeinde gegen die Geschlechter an sich eine politische und selbst eine sittliche Notwendigkeit war, so haben dagegen diese lange nachzitternden Schwingungen desselben, sowohl die zwecklosen Nachhutgefechte nach der entschiedenen Schlacht als auch die leeren Rang- und Standeszänkereien, das öffentliche und private Leben der römischen Gemeinde ohne Not durchkreuzt und zerrüttet.”
(Theodor Mommsen, Römische Geschichte, II, 1854)

“Il y a des envieux qui paraissent tellement accablés de votre bonheur qu’ils vous inspirent presque la velléité de les plaindre.”
(Edmond & Jules de Goncourt, Le Journal des Goncourt, 1865)

“Rousseau showed through life a singular proneness for being convinced by his own eloquence; he was always his own first convert; and this reconciles his power as a writer with his weakness as a man. He and all like him mistake emotion for conviction, velleity for resolve, the brief eddy of sentiment for the midcurrent of ever-gathering faith in duty that draws to itself all the affluents of conscience and will, and gives continuity and purpose to life. They are like men who love the stimulus of being under conviction, as it is called, who, forever getting religion, never get capital enough to retire upon and spend for their own need and the common service.”
(James Russell Lowel, Among My Books, 1870)

“La pire des politiques, en tous temps et en tous pays, a toujours été et sera toujours celle des velléités, celle qui ose et celle qui n’ose plus, celle qui ose assez pour compromettre tout et qui n’ose pas assez pour résoudre rien.”
(Émile de Girardin, Le dossier de la Guerre, 1877)

“Es ist das die typische Velleität des Künstlers: dieselbe Velleität, welcher auch der altgewordne Wagner verfiel und die er so theuer, so verhängnissvoll hat büssen müssen (— er verlor durch sie den werthvollen Theil seiner Freunde).”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887)

“»Lieber Stechlin«, begann er, »ich beschwöre Sie um sechsundsechzig Schock sächsische Schuhzwecken, kommen Sie doch nicht mit solchen Kleinigkeiten, die man jetzt, glaub’ ich, Velleitäten nennt. Wenigstens habe ich das Wort immer so übersetzt.”
(Theodor Fontane, Der Stechlin, 1897)

“Mais je suis loin de faire toujours ce que je me sens porté à faire. Je ne suis pas un caractère énergique. Je me connais. Par certains côtés, je suis ce qu’on appelle un velléitaire.”
(Jules Romains, Les hommes de bonne volonté, VII, 1910)

“Mais assurément j’anticipe, et vais gâcher tout mon récit si je donne pour acquis déjà l’état de joie, qu’à peine j’imaginais possible, qu’à peine, surtout, j’osais imaginer permis. Lorsque ensuite je fus mieux instruit, certes tout cela m’a paru plus facile: j’ai pu sourire des immenses tourments que de petites difficultés me causaient, appeler par leur nom des velléités indistinctes encore et qui m’épouvantaient parce que je n’en discernais point le contour. En ce temps il me fallait tout découvrir, inventer à la fois et le tourment et le remède, et je ne sais lequel des deux m’apparaissait le plus monstrueux.”
(André Gide, Si le grain ne meurt, 1920)

“Encore, si risibles que soient ces amateurs, ils ne sont pas tout à fait à dédaigner. Ils sont les premiers essais de la nature qui veut créer l’artiste, aussi informes, aussi peu viables que ces premiers animaux qui précédèrent les espèces actuelles et qui n’étaient pas constitués pour durer. Ces amateurs velléitaires et stériles doivent nous toucher comme ces premiers appareils qui ne purent quitter la terre mais où résidait, non encore le moyen secret et qui restait à découvrir, mais le désir du vol.”
(Marcel Proust, Le temps retrouvé, 1927)

“Ihm habe sich Anna in einem Moment letzter Verzweiflung anvertraut, wo sie bereits mit dem Leben abgeschlossen hatte, es sei ihm gelungen, sie aufzurichten, gewisse moralische Vorurteile und Velleitäten in ihr zu zerstreuen, der Missetäter hatte sich inzwischen aus dem Staub gemacht, hundert Gründe, die ihn verhinderten, wieder auf der Bildfläche zu erscheinen.”
(Jakob Wassermann, Der Fall Maurizius, 1928)

“A l’orgie latine succédèrent les ébats des Barbares, dignes héritiers de ces Romains gorgés de falerne et de sang, épuisés de stupre, sombrés dans les velléités.”
(Victor Méric, Les compagnons de l’Escopette, 1930)

“Het aantal werken die, bij verloop van jaren, zich bij den vakman als ‘litterair’ hebben aangediend, is gewoon niet te overzien. Zelfs de eenvoudige dagbladcritiek staat tegenwoordig voor een niet te volvoeren taak, waar ze de dagelijksche productie-aan-gedrukt-werk te schiften krijgt in waardevol en waardeloos. Wat zal het dan zijn met de literatuurgeschiedenis, die gesteld wordt vóór den overmachtigen stroom geschreven en gedrukte documenten, waarin een volk het heele verloop van zijn geestelijke beschaving heet te hebben uitgedrukt? En toch is dit de opdracht: onderscheid te maken tusschen litterair-blijvend en litterair-mislukt werk, tusschen levenskrachtig en velleïtair dichterschap.”
(Frank Baur & Jozef van Mierlo, Geschiedenis van de letterkunde der Nederlanden, I, 1939)

“From time to time, hoisting his weary head, from waist to neck his weary hold transferring, Watt would kiss, in a despairing manner, Mrs. Gorman on or about the mouth, before crumpling back into his post-crucified position. And these kisses, when their first feverish force began to fail, that is to say very shortly following their application, it was Mrs. Gorman’s invariable habit to catch up, as it were, upon her own lips, and return, with tranquil civility, as one picks up a glove, or newspaper, let fall in some public space, and restores it with a smile, if not a bow, to its rightful proprietor. So that each kiss was in reality two kisses, first Watt’s kiss, velleitary, anxious, and then Mrs. Gorman’s, unctious and urbane.”
(Samuel Beckett, Watt, 1953)

“Uit dat burgermannetje van niets, met zijn kleine behoeften en middelmatige belangstelling in alles, met zijn vervelend gezond verstand, had zij een figuur geschapen die buiten de muren van zijn huis overal met sympathie en passende eerbied werd begroet. Meer kon zij niet doen en zij was niet bang dat hij ooit uit zijn rol zou vallen, want ze had de enkele kleine velleïteiten van opstand in den beginne van hun huwelijk met vaste hand onderdrukt.”
(Marnix Gijsen, De Lange Nacht, 1954)

“Ethan looked toward the mainland again. Yes, it would have been easy. What was not easy was to realize that he’d just evaluated himself as of less worth than a bottle of gin, that the impulse to the act, the abandonment of Jacqueline and his son, and life itself, had not been a velleity, but a genuine impulse, of which he still even could feel the sickening and desperate volition.”
(Malcolm Lowry, October Ferry to Gabriola, 1957/1971)

“And he – passive as trance, allowing her beauty: to enter him or avoid him, whatever’s to be her pleasure. How shall he be other than mild receiver, filler of silences? All the radii of the room are hers, watery cellophane, crackling tangential as she turns on her heel-axis, lancing as she begins to retrace her path. Can he have loved her for nearly a decade? It’s incredible. This connoisseuse of “splendid weakness,” run not by any lust or even velleity but by vacuum: by the absence of human hope. She is frightening. Someone called her an erotic nihilist…”
(Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973)

“The consonance of the High Renaissance
Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours.”
(John Ashbery, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975)

“Wignall’s themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence, suburban shopping streets; they occasionally exhibited perverse velleities of a fetischistic order, though his droolings over girls’ bicycles and gym tunics and black woollen stockings were chilled by whimsical ingenuities of diction.”
(Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers, 1980)

““Astronomy in a Realm where Slavery prevails…! Slaves holding candles to illuminate the ocular Threads, whilst others hold Mirrors, should we wish another Angle. One might lie, supine, Zenith-Star position, all Night…being fann’d, fed, amus’d,— everyone else oblig’d to remain upon their Feet, ever a-tip, to respond to a ‘Gazer’s least Velleity. Hahrrh!”
“Mason, why thah’ is dis-gusting…?””
(Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, 1997)

“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations. Are we getting anywhere?”
(Don Delillo, Underworld, 1997)

In the end, it turned out not to be as much fun as I’d anticipated, but there you have it.