Premature Evaluation, pt. 4 (The Hungarians)

I suppose I should be happy that there is a recent, one-volume general history of the Hungarians. Their history is not exactly the stuff of bestsellers, even if Hungarians were crucial in everything from computers to the atomic bomb to Hollywood studios. Ten million people, give or take, speaking a non-Indo-European language in and around the Carpathian basin. Their exact origins unknown, their polity long divided, their armies prone to getting wiped out.
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Your mother, your rat, your infidel house, your God, etc.

Andrew Brown points us to an illuminating article by Bernard Nežmah on swearing in Serbian. Though the article is five years old, I daresay its theme is timeless.

According to Nežmah’s piece — published in Central Europe Review or, as we must now call it, Transitions Online — the Serbian language is blessed with a dazzling, perhaps unsurpassed richness of vulgarisms. Even English, no slouch at that sort of thing, pales in comparison: such are the subtleties of the Serbian variants on the F-word that Serbian-English dictionaries (the more comprehensive editions, one imagines) are reduced to explaining in an aside whether a given word for ‘fuck’ is jocularly offensive, just plain offensive, really really offensive, so offensive it should be used only in the event of war, etc.

A tip of the jaunty afoe fedora to Andrew (who surprises us by revealing he used to speak Serbo-Croat in addition to English, Swedish, Caenorhabditic and whatever else he has up his sleeve).

Dutch referendum: some background

Having been asked by AFOE to write a couple of posts for them in the coming weeks I am both honoured and horrified and apologize in advance for occasionally butchering the English language. A very short introduction: I am a Dutch translator now living in France after 30 odd years of residence in Belgium. I am totally incapable of producing fine scholarly essays but I can do my part of the vox populi pretty well? I hope.

To warm up I offer you some background relevant to the Dutch referendum before the official results start rolling in. First some figures, taken from a Eurostat news report (pdf) that was released today.

Dutch unemployment, while remaining well below the European average of 8,9%, has risen from 4.6% to 5%. By comparison, Poland has 17% unemployment and Ireland 4.2%. Eurostat also mentions that The Netherlands registered the highest relative increase in unemployment rates among the member states together with Portugal (6.5% to 7.2%) and Luxemburg (4.2% to 4.6%). Unemployment among young people in The Netherlands, while fairly high at 9.2%, is still modest compared to the EU average rate of 19%.
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The Value of Learning a Second Language

What is the value of learning a second language aside from the obvious practical benefits : the fact that you can talk to people who don’t speak your first language, can read things which have not been translated, can politely talk to people who don’t find it easy to speak your first language and can read things in the original.

When I was in high school adults tried to convince me to try to learn a second language by claiming that it broadens the mind. They failed. Since then I have, more or less, learned Italian. What have I gained ?

My impression is that my mind reminds just about as narrow as it was before.

I asked Elisabetta Addis (the woman to whom I am married) what she gained from learning English. She said it was very useful, because by learning a second living language she learned that there is more than one way to structure concepts, that is that the structure of Italian is not the structure of truth, but is rather just one of many equally valid structures developed for historical reasons. I confessed that I have had the impression that Aristotle was not always totally clear on the distinction between his immense contributions to understanding Greek and to understanding thought and logic and would have confidently claimed that true though was only possible in Greek. I was as usual speaking from ignorance.

Trying to understand my different impression, she suggested that math is, for this purpose, like a second language (she learned English and math beyond a fairly elementary level simultaneously and imagine how fun that was).

I said that I suspect that part of the reason is that no one could possible mistake the structure of English for the structure of truth. Partly, of course, English spelling is totally arbitrary and makes no sense. Also English is not logical because it is part German and part French. For example to find if a claim is true one verifies it. Or steer meat is beef and sheep meat is mutton. That is, since English is a weird hybrid, English is its own second language.

If so, this is important, since the only people who have a choice about learning a second language or not are native English speakers.

My unassisted thoughts on the topic below the fold.
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Sheffield a la mar

I have to confess to having had a fairly sucky 2004. Most of the causes are personal, and frankly not very interesting. But, as an example, my plan to spend the holiday season in Tunisia was abruptly cancelled because my wife got chicken pox. So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to 2005.

The wife got over her pox just a few days before Christmas, leaving us scrambling to find a vacation that both fit our respective work calendars, didn’t cost too much, and wasn’t booked solid. Consequently, I found myself at Zaventem airport at four in the morning on Christmas day fighting a miserable crowd so I could spend a week at Benidorm, Valencia, Spain.

I can’t claim I wasn’t warned. I did know that Benidorm – and the rest of the Costa Blanca – is something of a joke in the Dutch speaking part of Europe. After a week there, I still haven’t been in Spain. As far as I can tell, thanks to daily discount charter service between Sheffield and Alicante, the Costa Blanca is simply a warm, low-tax part of Yorkshire.
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Halfway There

This spring, the German newspaper whose web site isn?t quite as bad as another?s began publishing a series of 50 Great Novels from the Twentieth Century. It?s an admirable project in many ways — not least a cover price of EUR 4.90 per hardback. Thirty-seven books have been published so far, and I?ve now read about half of the whole list. Which is as good a point as any for taking stock.

I haven?t quite read 25 of the 50, but let?s face it, with Deutschstunde (German Hour, Siegfried Lenz, no. 28) clocking in at nearly 800 pages, and hefty volumes such as Jorge Semprun?s What a Beautiful Sunday! (Was f?r einen sch?nen Sonntag, no. 17) and Juan C. Onetti?s The Short Life (Das kurze Leben, no. 11), it?s going to be quite a while before I manage all of them.
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German Is Getting Sexy Again. Again.

The controverse reaction to Edward’s use of a French block quote in a blog that claims to be the place for intelligent English language coverage of European affairs, made me remember my first blogging conversation. It was a discussion about Germans not publishing in English and the stipulation by the Norwegian blogger Bj?rn St?rk that ??nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English.? So after speaking French all evening, and in light of the above mentioned comments as well as my imminent visit to the Frankfurt International Book Fair (link in English) I felt compelled to recycle my defence of linguistic diversity as a virtue of its own right, which was first published in a slightly different version in almost a diary on February 2nd, 2003.

Bj?rn St?rk had a look around the web and was astonished by the fact that he could find relatively few European, particularly German and French, (particularly political) blogs published in English. Contemplating the deeper issue at hand – the relation of national cultures and supra-national languages – in this case English – in an age of global interaction – Bj?rn made an interesting argument concerning cultural imperialism, linguistic protectionism, linguistic economies of scale and scope as well as the advantages of publishing in English instead of one?s native language.

No doubt about it – English has become some sort lingua franca in many respects.

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They’re Selling Postcards of……the Fiesta

It’s party time in Barcelona. There’s no circus in town, but there is just about everything else. In fact many of you may be surprised to learn that today is a public holiday here, and indeed it may surprise you even more to discover that the holiday is only Barcelona. This situation is strange for many outside Spain, and draws attention to the fact that decisions about public holidays (and of course, many other matters) are taken at three levels: national, autonomous community, and municipal. (Oh how well I remember the days of travelling round Europe, and needing to change money on just the day………that everything was unexpectedly closed). It also draws attention to the prevalence and social importance of public holidays and festivals here. Of note too is the way these holidays draw attention to that unique combination of the traditional and the modern which characterises contemporary Spain. (Actually, to be really pc here I should say ‘the modern Spanish State’ since this is the terminology adopted by those of its citizens who do not especially consider themselves to be Spanish, there is no equivalent of the British/Welsh/Scottish/English classification here, and Catalan, Basque, and Galician football teams are definitely not encouraged in the new ‘multicultural’ Spain).
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Two years in Europe

Two years ago today, I got off a Lufthansa flight from LAX to Munich and passed through Schengenland customs. I had originally been scheduled to fly on September 12, from San Francisco to Brussels via Frankfurt, but when it became plain that no one was going to be flying on September 12th, I called Lufthansa and changed my flight before the rush. After five hours in LAX getting past security (I had a very scruffy beard and a well-worn passport full of Asian entry stamps, so I got picked for a “special” screening) and ten hours in the air, I passed through customs in Munich, getting nothing but the most cursory glace at my Canadian passport and Belgian student visa from the Bundespolizei, even though it was barely a week after September 11. There was no passport check at all when I landed in Brussels.

My biggest surprise in moving to Flanders was how easy it is to get by here. Language doesn’t constitute a huge barrier either to school or to employment. My landlord doesn’t speak English, but he is old enough that he speaks fluent French, so my lease is actually in that language. I think finding an apartment is the only thing I’ve done here where I couldn’t use English.

There are a lot of non-natives living in Belgium who primarily use English, many of them are also non-native English speakers. There are so many that I’m beginning to think they form a sort of “Euroanglo” culture that merits some study. It is a culture that has adopted largely continental norms, but that still speaks English and has a set of common cultural references taken largely from the anglophone world.
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Creating Europe through tourism?

One of the long-running stories in the British media over the summer has been the antics of British tourists in the Greek resort of Faliraki on the island of Rhodes. Stories of the misadventures of ‘Brits abroad’ have been a staple of the British media over the last few years, fuelled by TV programmes like the Uncovered series that’s highlighted various resorts over the year such as Ibiza and Ayia Napa, but this year there’s actually been a real story for them to focus on. First, a British tourist was killed in a bar brawl and then others were arrested for lewd conduct and indecent exposure, giving the media a chance to moralise and ‘why oh why?’ about what goes on when British youth meets the Mediterranean.

However, while the existence of resorts like Faliraki is often portrayed as a new development, it can be seen as merely the latest incarnation of the British experience of the rest of Europe as a location for escape from the realities of life at home.
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