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Thoughts on French

Many people traveling in France would share the frustrating experience that they are ignored speaking English. Although English has borrowed and adopted French words, the French language has not welcomed the invasion of English words. They have been more resistant than most. The French have had a low against the encroachment of foreign words since as early as 1911, but this was considerably bolstered by the setting up in 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law, which introduced fines for using illegal anglicisms. You may safely conclude that the French take their language very seriously indeed.

No you won’t be fined for speaking English, but you won’t go very far either. In some of the old Paris dining establishments, especially the ones removed from the tourists’ tread, a hamburger is a steak haché (not le burger). A steak haché is made from minced beef, which is formed into patties ready for cooking and originates from France. Filet mignon generally refers to pork rather than beef. Some menus might provide a one-line English descriptions but don’t expect it to be the convention.

Estimates of the number of anglicisms in French have been estimated to be 2-3 percent or less. So it is altogether possible that the French are making a great deal out of very little. I suppose what really ranckles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them. From the outset the government conceded defeat on a number of words that were too well established to drive out: gadget, holdup, weekend, blue jeans, self-service, and many others. They do recognize the global importance of English but prefer to speak French. But it’s a different case when it comes to relaxing at home in the evening.

But the English-speaking world can be better at looking after the borrowed words than the French were. Quite a number of words that English has absorbed no longer exist in France (at least not widely spoken). The French do not use nom de plume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur, or R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plaît. Instead they write prière de répondre.

Thoughts on English Pronunciation and Spelling

In 9th grade, I had a “study skills” class that reviewed the basics of English grammar and honed writing skills. Mr. Twegbe emphasized correct grammar and perfect spelling. Every class began with a spelling quiz that comprised of five words. It’s not until I read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue that I realize no other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently. The one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling does not hold true in English. Over a long period of time there is a tendency to compress and mangle words. Despite slip-ups and slurping, we are usually good at distinguishing between the most subtle gradations of sounds. Nut pronunciation does not often correspond to the spelling. Indeed spellings in English can be treacherous, and opportunities for flummoxing so abundant, that even the authorities themselves sometimes stumble. Is it millennium or millenium? Irresistable or irresistible? Despite anomalies, English language possesses three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings—the irregularity and anomaly Mr. Twegbe addressed. The consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.—and, above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so many people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.

Who is Svetlana Alexievich?

I stumbled upon her Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Svetlana Alexievich is the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. She’s the 14th woman to win this prize—half of these wins have been in the past 25 years. Alexievich is a Belarusian who was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. She is known for deeply researched works about female Russian soldiers in World War II and the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Ms. Alexievich’s works often blend literature and journalism. She is best known for giving voice to women and men who lived through major events like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that lasted from 1979 to 1989 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, in which her own sister was killed and her mother was blinded.

In an interview posted on the Dalkey Archive Press website, Ms. Alexievich said her technique of blending journalism and literature was inspired by the Russian tradition of oral storytelling. “I decided to collect the voices from the street, the material lying about around me,” she said. “Each person offers a text of his or her own.”

Reading Philosophy


This year I have branched out of my comfort zone and read more nonfiction. I select a boor or two from history, religion, linguistics, and current affairs. Philosophy is one subject matter that I’m most hesitant about, partly because it’s very abstract. A little research leads me to Professor Thomas Nagel’s book, an introductory treatise for anyone who has not a clue in the field.

What Does It All Mean? is a really accessible introduction to philosophy and it captures much of what drew me to philosophy in the first place. The book focuses on some of the philosophical problems that, as Nagel notes, “reflective human minds find naturally puzzling.” Nagel discusses nine philosophical issues, including whether we can know anything, the mind-body problem, free will, the nature of justice, ethics, and the nature of death. What I like most about Nagel’s approach is that you don’t have to know anything at all about philosophy to understand and appreciate the puzzling nature of the problems he presents.

“Crime and Punishment”

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

According to Goodreads, Fyodor Dostoyevsky came up with the idea for his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment after he gambled away most of his fortune. He wrote the book hoping that, at the very least, the sale of it could pay off his debts.

The crime is committed at the very beginning and the rest of the book depicts the perpetrator’s punishment, more mental, meted by his conscience, than physical. The book gripped me from the beginning when I first read it in high school. Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel.

Reading “Mother Tongue”


Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is funny and informative. He explains how English is a global language, more flexible and versatile athan any other languages because despite many booby traps of the language, English still has some of the simplest spellings and pronunciation.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, but good enough for general reading. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language include: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, pendant, and some 1700 others?

Bryson reassures us not to worry about American English and English English are drifting apart so remorselessly that one day the two nations may not be able to understand each other at all. But if Briton and American of the future baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won’t confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. The Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refuelling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages.

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz


“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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