Wednesday, October 05, 2005

cunning linguist

I was recently given a bottle of beer from the Faroe Islands.

Look, I know the Faroes have the enormous seabird population you'd expect of a bunch of islands in the middle of the ocean, and I understand that seabirds will therefore have a sizeable place in the Faroese psyche, but that thing on the label is quite blatantly not a gull. It's a sheep.

The front label weirdness is, however, dwarfed by the quote on the back of the bottle.

It seems to rhyme doesn't it? I never knew John Lennon spoke Faroese. But even if he didn't and it's a translated quote, how utterly bizarre is it to quote him on beer?

Most tantalising is the question it raises, what quote is it?

Faroese, as it happens, is a North-Germanic language, part of the same family as Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian and Nor. Full respect to the people for keeping their language alive with a population of only a few thousand and centuries of pressure to change to the language of their Danish colonisers.

But it doesn't help me with the Lennon quote thing. No online translator I know gives Faroese to English.

I do love online translators. It's a great idea, and a valiant effort has been made in making them, but languages just aren't the mechanistic blueprints that devices like Babel Fish imply.

Languages are nuanced, they are the product of the cultures that invented and speak them, they do not simply overlay one another. There are several areas that illustrate this clearly.

Swearing tells you a lot about the taboos of a society. There are no swearwords in Japanese. The culture puts so much emphasis on social correctness and politeness that swearing is simply impossible. Whereas there are certain forms of address in some Australian Aboriginal languages where it is impossible not to be swearing.

Welsh had its swearing purged as the church brought its influence and became all but the custodian of the written language. You have to do elaborate constructions, but even then it's usually biblical and translates as 'you ugly devil from hell'.

Their word 'cont', clearly from the same root as 'cunt' is a friendly word for women, such as your mum might call the woman next door. My mum shouting over the fence, 'hey you cunt, how's it going' would create an altogether different atmosphere.

Another area of evidence is where a language has nicked words from another language. A concept is so sudden and new, it hasn't been in the culture so the language needs a swift off-the-peg word. It amuses me no end that the English have had to pinch words for chic, joie de vivre, and zeitgeist, being the frumpy miserable stick-in-the-mud neophobes that we are.

Online translators can actually help to give you a feel for how different languages are constructed. The best way to illustate this is to take a piece of writing you know well and understand, translate it into a language, then back into English.

You always get some accurate stuff, some comedy gobbledegook, and then a few bits that really show nature the language/culture.

Let's take the first and last verses of Ace Of Spades.

If you like to gamble I tell you I'm your man,
You win some, lose some, all the same to me,
The pleasure is to play, it makes no difference what you say,
I don't share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace Of Spades

Pushing up the ante, I know you've got to see me,
Read them and weep, the dead man's hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it's gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades

Put it into French and back again and it's really quite similar, as you'd expect from us both being Roman occupied lands, and then England becoming part of the Norman empire.

(Killer fact time: To this day, an Act of Parliament only becomes law in the UK once it's had 'Royal Assent'. This entails the monarch's representative standing up in the House of Lords and declaring in Old Norman French that the monarch approves of the law; 'le roy le veult' if we've got a king, or 'la reine le veult' if we've got a queen. We're still partially the unfree subjects of the Norman empire).

Anyway, from centuries of colonial despotism to Motorhead:

If you like to play me you say that I am your man,
you gain some, lose some, all the same one with me,
the pleasure must play, it does not make any difference what you say,
I do not share your avarice, the only chart that I have need is
the ace of the thimbles

Raising the ante one, I know you have to see me,
read them and cry, the hand of the man still died,
I see it in your eyes, take a glance and stamps,
the only thing which you see, you know that it will be,
the ace of the thimbles

German has, as one might expect, a greater air of precision in the language:

If you may play me explain to you the fact that I am your man
wins you some, loses some, all same to me,
who pleasures are,
it plays differentiates between none that you to say,
I divides not its having craze, the only one map,
which is I Karo As

Ante pushing up, white I, you, me see to have,
it read and, the dead hand of the man again,
I sees it in your eyes, takes a view and a cube,
the only thing, which you see, you knows to cry that it will be,
Karo As

Italian gives us:

If appreciate to play them you say that he is your man,
you gain some, you lose some, all the same ones to me,
the pleasure you must play,
it not fairies difference that what you say,
I not shared yours greed, the only card I have need of are
the ace of the staples

Pushing towards the high the ante, know have got to see it,
that you read to them and that you cry,
the hand of the out of order man still,
I you see it in your eyes, you take to a look and dice,
the only thing you see, you sapete that is going to be,
the ace of the staples

What it would be in Faroese is, as yet, unknown.


Anonymous said...

My favourite translator anomaly was from a German review of a Simon Ings novels, which apparently described the book as "packing, bang-hard cyberporno".

Packing book, Simon! Well fucking bang-hard!

Anonymous said...

That was really funny Merrick! To add to the theme I thought I'd try a Julian Cope song...

Firstly, English to French to English...

I saw my old man bursting of the tunnel. I knew what came afterwards. With identified the fresh scene which brought the fall of the distant days. Days distant accomodating the son from Claudius Rufus. Just another Sheepboy, call of duck, swansong. Wire of idiot of Kong ass. And I say, you should not be frightened love, ' cause I am a sure darling of surfer

Or how about Russian?

I saw, that my old person exploded from the tunnel. I knew it arrived then. Learned cold place it brought downfall distant days. Distant days greeting son Claudius Rufus. Exactly another Sheepboy, the bell of duck, swansong. Son of the idiot of donkey Kong. And I speak, you must not be the frightened love, ' reason I will be the safe darling surfer

Finally, through Greek...

My Evle'j'da ilikjwme'no from the tunnel. I knew what came then. It recognized the cool scene that brought the fall of distant days. Distant days that welcome the son Claudius Rufus. Precisely a other Sheepboy, call of ducks, swansong. Idiotic son of donkey Kong. And say, they is not essential you are fearred love, "cause that am sure love surfer.

To the best of Babelfish's knowledge, neither Russian nor Greek have a word for "Surfer".

I once came back from Holland on the ferry, and overheard an amusingly stereotypical rich American tourist (loud check trousers, camera, etc) telling a German guy (in English) why English is the best language in the world. It's certainly the most widespread, but this is down to history, and the imperial adventures of first the British, then of the Americans. It's the language of commerce, of air-traffic control, of a zillion and one things, but since the purpose of language is to communicate, any old tongue will do. If things had been different, the loud guy on the boat would have been proclaiming that Swahili or Spanish, or even Faroese was undoubtedly the best language in the world.

For many myths and stereotypes explored and exploded, I recommend a book called Language Myths, by Peter Trudgill and Laurie Bauer

KBz said...

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." John Lennon

Not so hard for a Swede!

merrick said...

Yay Krizz! Mystery solved! Thankyou!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Krizz got it, because I was going to post the same solution - but should add that, in fact, it does rhyme (both lines end in an '-ir' plural which counts as a rhyme I think!)
But the real thing I wanted to comment on was...

"...There are no swearwords in Japanese..."

Ah, a common misconception. From my diary: Saturday, January 22, 2005:
In the morning I talked to Mr Yamamoto*. He is reading Tom Sharp's Wilt in Nowhere. He has a remarkable talent for finding the most challenging and culturally rich items to help him with his English, but this one takes the cake. Unsurprisingly, he had some questions about the language, especially words like 'bastard' and 'fuck'. I found out a good bit about Japanese swear words too, in the process of explaining what Sharp meant.
There is a marvellous word "chikashoo", which is sort of like an equivalent to 'bastard' but in a very specific way.
'This word means, you have let me down,' Mr Yamamoto explained. 'You have made a promise and you have not kept it and I feel very upset and injured. It's a Buddhist word, and it originally meant 'animal' or 'devil'.'
There is also a word "baka", meaning foolish, but this is also very specific. It can mean a foolish person, or foolish behaviour, but...
'For example, suppose you spoke very good Japanese,' Mr Yamamoto said. I don't, by the way, I regret to say. 'Suppose you spoke very good Japanese and you tried to use the word "chikashoo". You would then sound "baka".'
There is another word that means something like the same as "baka", namely "ahoo", but if it is used by the people of Osaka, it is only moderately insulting. However, if you use the same word in Tokyo, you will be committing a considerable offense to people.
*[not his real name]

As for the origins of the word 'cunt'... don't get me started on that one. I've come to the conclusion that it is a word we brought with us out of Africa, and that it may even be pre-Human.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as for the other bottle... If Faroese is as similar to Icelandic as the other one suggests, then 'Gull' means 'Gold', I think. Still doesn't explain why it's got a sheep on it, though!

merrick said...

Astvinr, I have a confession.

I thought the gull/sheep thing was odd and funny. Then when I looked at the back label I saw the beer had won a 'gull medal', and realised gull meant gold. But I feigned ignorance for this post in order not to ruin the gag.

merrick said...

Thanks for the Japanese info there, astvinr, and welcome aboard the Badgerwagon.

I'd still contest that having a word meaing 'foolish' or 'you have let me down' is not really swearing.

Swearing is not only derogatory and offensive, but largely devoid of literal meaning. When someone's called a bastard or a cunt, we don't say they've let us down or anything, we merely declare in very strong terms that we don't like them.

If I call something a fucker, it tells you nothing of why I dislike it, only that I do.

It's that purity of offensiveness that I understand is missing from Japanese as a language.

If I may, I really would like to get you started on 'cunt'. My own half-arsed forays into the word have been fascinating (mentioned a bit here).

Do please add owt you can.

Anonymous said...

The Faroe Islands or simply Faroes (Faroese: Føroyar, meaning "Sheep Islands", Danish: Færøerne)

That's why there is a sheep on the bottle!

Edvin said...

I am half faroese so if u need a translation...

Life is that, which happens while you make other plans..


Leggur= this one actually translates to laying, as in laying plans or making plans.


Gull means Gold not Gulls :)