Language Monthly: May 2020, English

proud like an English lion

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.

I am a huge fan of etymology, and was excited to find a useful and reliable resource on English etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary. It publishes regular posts on language issues, for example, this one on the so-called Janus words, this one on language in a time of Corona, and this one on understanding relations between different languages by Mediaeval Europeans.

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.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait

if youth but knew

Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.

The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.

Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).

Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?

It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.

The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.

In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.

An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:

quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,

νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλαὶ (ou βουλὰς) δὲ γεραιτέροισιν.

C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:

ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων

C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.

Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of  30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.

In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:

A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.

Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?

Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.

The enth of Marchember

Набережная Неисцелимых, Pavement of the Incurables

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.

Blue prince

blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?