I have been learning Englishidioms with time units, and came across the expression eleventh hour.
To do something at the eleventh hour is to do it at the last possible moment, just before it is too late.
I have heard this expression before, but was never sure of its meaning, even less of its origin. Whereas expressions with numbers are frequent in many languages, some numbers, such as one, two, or seven, are clear favourites. Why on earth the eleventh?
It turns out the expression has a Biblicalorigin: it comes from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew xx.1-16), where some laborers appeared only at the eleventh hour (qui circa undecimam horam venerant). The eleventh in the expression does not refer to the last hour before midnight, but to the eleventh hour according to the Roman timekeeping, which started at sunrise, and roughly corresponds to the late afternoon, hence the meaning ‘at the last moment’.
Many Biblical expressions have their equivalents in multiple languages, but to my knowledge, not the eleventh hour. Perhaps, the reason is that some vernacular translations, such as Italian, localize the hour, and speak about five in the afternoon.
Speaking of eleven, its etymology is also curious. In English, eleven (and its twin sibling twelve) are odd ones in the sequence starting with thirteen and going to nineteen. Eleven derives from the Old English enleofan, literally “one left” (over ten), and is comparable to the Germanelf (and its twin sibling zwölf).
I also learned that in Lithuanian (which is an Indo-European language, but Baltic, not Germanic), the cardinal number from 11 to 19 use the same formation: they all end with -lika, which means “something that remains beyond ten”, and that –lika is related to the -leven/-lve in English. Hence, the English eleven has a Lithuanian cousin, vienuolika.
I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)
The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.
In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.
How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.
Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.
For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.
With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.
I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.
The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.
Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.
Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.
The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.
For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.
Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.
For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.
To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.
Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.
For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.
I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.
I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.
At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.
A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.
If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue. No day without a line, no day without a word.
To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?
It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.
Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.
This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.
Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.
At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.
This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.
Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.
The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!
The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.
This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.
I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.
When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.
I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.
A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.
she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.
The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:
After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.
The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.
As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.
Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.
Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.
I published a beautiful book
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
Did I plunge into grief?
I published another,
written with fervour –
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
started to write:
for men who rob the exchequer,
couples living in sin,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.
And when it was published
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.
Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.
The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name. Trīs grāmatas
bet visi veikali
no manas grāmatas.
Bet vai es noskumu?
Izdevu otru es
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.
es meklēju viņu
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
Un, kad es,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
smaršoja tikai vairs
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
auto šoferiem un
Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
manas grāmatas vārdu.
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
— Lai dzīvo! —
Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.
Today is World Poetry Day, celebrated every year on 21 March.
My relationship with poetry is contradictory. On the one hand, I know hundreds of poems in Russian from school, when learning by heart was required, and dozens of poems in Latvian, French, Spanish, and German, from my language studies.
My big poetic gap is English. I keep telling myself that it would be immensely beneficial to get acquainted with English poetry. yet I cannot recite a single verse in English!
For many years, I have owned several bilingual English-Russian poetry books: T.S. Eliot with Russian translations, an anthology of American poetry, and a couple of others.
Until last year, I had not opened any of them. I did not want to read these poems in Russian, assuming that translations would pale compared to the originals, and I did not want to read them in English, as my English was not good enough to appreciate poetic sophistication.
Last year, however, I began reading one book on a whim, and enjoyed it immensely: both the English originals and the translations. What’s more, the book proved to be a treasure for a language student, as some poems had several translations by different authors, which I could compare and analyse. Still a long way to go before reaching any degree of familiarity with English verse, but a welcome first step.
Today, however, to mark the day, I found one of my favourite Russian poems, by Joseph Brodsky, in the original and in English translation, coauthored by the poet himself. I knew the Russian original for years, and was astonished how the English version matches the spirit, the rhythm, and even vocabulary .
Ниоткуда с любовью, надцатого мартобря,
дорогой, уважаемый, милая, но не важно
даже кто, ибо черт лица, говоря
откровенно, не вспомнить уже, не ваш, но
и ничей верный друг вас приветствует с одного
из пяти континентов, держащегося на ковбоях.
Я любил тебя больше, чем ангелов и самого,
и поэтому дальше теперь
от тебя, чем от них обоих.
Далеко, поздно ночью, в долине, на самом дне,
в городке, занесенном снегом по ручку двери,
извиваясь ночью на простыне,
как не сказано ниже, по крайней мере,
я взбиваю подушку мычащим «ты»,
за горами, которым конца и края,
в темноте всем телом твои черты
как безумное зеркало повторяя.
From nowhere with love the enth of Marchember
sir sweetie respected darling but in the end
it’s irrelevant who for memory won’t restore
features not yours and no one’s devoted friend
greets you from this fifth last part of earth
resting on whalelike backs of cowherding boys
I loved you better than angels and Him Himself
and am farther off due to that from you than I am from both
of them now late at night in the sleeping vale
in the little township up to its doorknobs in
snow writhing upon the stale
sheets for the whole matter’s skin –
deep I’m howling ”youuu” through my pillow dike
many seas aways that are milling nearer
with my limbs in the dark playing your double like
an insanity-stricken mirror.
The picture above, of a memorial plaque to Joseph Brodsky, was taken in Venice, on an embankment called historically Fondamenta degli Incurabili (‘Pavement of the Incurables’, named after the nearby hospital Ospedale degli Incurabili). In Russian, “Набережная неисцелимых” is a title of Brodsky’s autobiographical essay dedicated to Venice, that was among his favourite cities.