Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2012 February 27

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February 27[edit]

Why do languages that use the Roman alphabet spell words that can be different from their pronunciation?[edit]

This is actually bothering me somewhat. For example, in Japanese, when transliterated, words will always be exact. Example: 私はジョンです。"Watashi wa John desu". In this case, the particle "は" normally pronounced as "ha" is pronounced "wa" but that is an exception and not a rule. Normally, they would more or less exact, like 渚 = Nagisa, ハルヒ = Haruhi and 津波 = tsunami. But English has many examples of this. For example, the word rendezvous, pronounced "rendevoo"; what's wrong with spelling it "rendevoo," it sounds more logical. Also, island, pronounced "i land", why is pronounced that way? The letters c, q and x should probably not even exist since they can be replicated by k or s, "kyu" and "eks" respectively. Why is it like that? Yes I know there's the Shavian alphabet, but it is not widely used. And it's not only English, I can think of many French examples as well. Narutolovehinata5 tccsdnew 10:31, 27 February 2012 (UTC)

It's like that because no-one makes the rules, and because languages evolve. What we call rules are really only conventions, and, for English especially, they vary a lot all around the world. I'm Australian. When I order a Coke in America they seem to have no idea what I'm talking about. It's revealing to listen to voice recordings from early last century. The language is distinctly different. Give it several hundred years in multiple locations and you have massive differences, and seemingly illogical pronunciations. Another issue is that English contains many words from other languages. They break the rules too. HiLo48 (talk) 10:41, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
I take it "coke" there means any soft drink. If so, how do you specify a preference for Coke over Pepsi ? Do you use the full name, and call it "Coca-Cola" ? StuRat (talk) 21:22, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
Yes, the solution to the ordering problem is to use the full name of the beverage, but there's still a linguistic issue. My surname contains exactly the same vowel sound as Coke, and many Americans struggle with that too. Spelling doesn't help, because the letter "o" has the same, incomprehensible to Americans sound. HiLo48 (talk) 07:56, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
So, you pronounce it "kyowk" instead of "kowk" ? StuRat (talk) 09:22, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
Even languages more phonetic than English tend not to respell loanwords, at least not instantly. In Czech the word "menu" is pronounced "meny", because it is borrowed from the German menü and they perceive the ü sound to be closer to i/y than to u. But it will take many years for its spelling to change to "meny". A language would have to be extremely prescriptive to require re-spelling every loanword instantly. As for the letter C not needing to exist, this is incorrect. The rules of English orthography would have to be changed a great deal to remove the letter C. Consider the words "advice" and "advise", if you replace the C in "advice" with an S because that's what it sounds like, you then have to replace the S in "advise" with a Z to further disambiguate. The digraph CH would at best have to be respelled "tsh" which I'm sure you'll agree looks pretty messy, and in any case, there is a phonetic distinction between the CH in "church" and the TSH in "nightshirt". As for rendezvous, I personally pronounce it "rondayvoo" in English, there are usually many ways of pronouncing French loanwords based on the speaker's dialect/how educated they are. The word "croissant" for example is rarely ever pronounced "krwassont" in American English but almost always is in British English except, I can only assume, by people who've never ever studied French or eaten at a café. - filelakeshoe 11:11, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
(Edit conflict) You might be interested in our article on spelling reform, which is about the very issues you raise. In a nutshell: the reason that the spelling/phonology of most European languages is odd is a mixture of various vowel shifts (where the sounds of words change but the way they're written doesn't) and heavy borrowing across different languages (since different languages have different ideas of what certain letter combinations sounds like). rendezvous is spelt as it is because it's a loanword from French. We could start spelling it "rendevoo" (although the /ɑ/ and /eɪ/ sounds mean it might be better represented "rondayvoo"), but the French spelling provides a hint of its meaning to anyone who knows French (and indeed, in French "rendez vous" is a perfectly logical spelling - in French, "ez" has an "ay" sound, "ous" has an "ou" sound). Intellectuals would generally object either that the language is being dumbed down or that the phonetic spelling is ugly - given that writing is disproportionately done by intellectuals, their opinions tend to carry a lot of weight when it comes to language. island meanwhile is a hypercorrection - it was spelled "iland" (the Dutch and Germans still spell it "eiland") but the "s" was added because of the mistaken belief it was related to the French word "isle". In fact, Japanese had many of the same problems until the 1946, when spelling rules were made largely logical. As an aside, "c" couldn't really be deleted from the language without causing trouble, since although on its own it usually makes a k or s sound, it's an important part of consonant clusters - "church" is a different word to "khurkh" or "shursh". Smurrayinchester 11:18, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
But what about Tagalog/Filipino? Its loanwords' (usually English or Spanish) spellings are changed to make them sound more Filipino. Like candy becomes kendi or jeep becomes dyip (although in casual speech, they can be spelled in their original spellings) Narutolovehinata5 tccsdnew 11:30, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
Well that's a matter of that language. I understand your frustrations, but would much rather (personally) have a language which creates itself though use than through top-down reorganisation. English is beautiful precisely because of its failings, faults and contradictions. "Knee", "island", "debt", "croissant" - all of them and more could be spelled (or spelt(!)) differently, and at the moment, are not. Now maybe a generation or five of Twitter users and Internet savvy teens will see this change - the battle between "colour" and "color" writ large across thousands of other words we don't even realise cd b splt difrnt'ly. doktorb wordsdeeds 11:41, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
The answer is simply "convention and tradition." Some people insist that eggs need to be peeled ("the way my father and his father used to do it"), others think it's ok to take a knife and chop it. There's also no reason why traffic lights are green in some places and blue elsewhere. Choyoołʼįįhí:Seb az86556 > haneʼ 11:42, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
Narutolovehinata5 -- traditional Tibetan orthography is not Latin-script, yet is more convoluted and non-phonetic than the vast majority of standard Latin-alphabet spelling systems... AnonMoos (talk) 18:58, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
And Lithuanian language does use the Latin alphabet (with minor modifications), but its words are read just as they are written (although, for example, "trukdo" is pronounced as "trugdo"). But, of course, there's a reason why Lithuanian accentuation gets a separate article (and not a short one)... --Martynas Patasius (talk) 19:49, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
Apart from Tibetan, the orthography and pronunciation of Modern Greek, to a lesser extent, also exhibit certain differences from each other, as the language has undergone a number of historical pronunciation shifts which has remained unrecorded in the contemporary spelling. But in general it's true that non-Latin scripts usually have a reasonably good correspondence between orthography and pronunciation. This, by the way, applies to Latin-based alphabets too. Lithuanian exemplifies this, and English is more of an exception than a rule. --Theurgist (talk) 20:54, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
Spelling it "rendevoo" wouldn't help matters; you're already introducing an inconsistency when going the other way (i.e. from text to speech) with the letter e.  Omg †  osh  19:42, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
And what about lingerie. Some English speakers more or less approximate how the French say it, but others make an art form of getting it hopelessly wrong (lon-zhe-ray). But for them, that is their English way of saying the word. Should we respell it at all? But if so, in accordance with which pronunciation? -- Jack of Oz [your turn] 20:27, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
Most western European languages are associated with a very strong ideology of standardization, meaning for instance that a particular spelling is considered correct, and deviations from that spelling are considered indicative of a lack of education. Therefore words tend to retain their spellings even once the spellings are no longer well adapted to the pronunciation. This wasn't always the case in English; at one time there could be much variation in the spelling of a single word. As for loanwords, there are some languages that adapt their spelling as soon as they're borrowed. This is the case in Spanish, which writes béisbol for "baseball". Some languages go even further, respelling proper names. For example, see az:Corc Uoker Buş, lv:Džordžs V. Bušs, tk:Jorj Uoker Buş. (talk) 21:51, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
In the case of Japanese, the current regularity is the result of post-WWII spelling reform. Before that it was quite a bit less phonetic—for example, the syllable pronounced shō, and now spelled しょう, used to be spelled せう or しやう, depending on the word. For some reason some quirks were kept, like the particles はへを and しょう instead of しょお. Also, there used to be more kanji, and more readings, in common use—but Japanese pronunciation is horribly complicated even now if you include the kanji. -- BenRG (talk) 03:28, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
My understanding is that even words that are not really imported (or have been a part of English for a very long time), such as "knight" or "knock" are spelled the way they are because they were once pronounced that way. We no longer talk about mad ka-nife-wielding ka-nights ka-nocking on the door, but the 'k' remains. I think that maybe even the "gh" used to be pronounced in "knight", but I'm not sure. Falconusp t c 16:16, 29 February 2012 (UTC)
At one point, the Middle English pronunciation would have been IPA [kniçt]. Of course, the Monty Python pronunciation is [kənɪgət]! -- AnonMoos (talk) 18:52, 29 February 2012 (UTC)
One very good reason for preserving "obselete" non-phonetical spellings is that they provide information on the history of the English language and its relationship to other languages. For example, as seen above with "knight", the "gh" in English words is generally no longer pronounced. But preserving it allows us to know that these words are of Germanic origin and have German cognates - "knight" is cognate with the German "knecht", "night" with "nacht", "through" with "durch" and "though" with "doch", for example. If "through" was spelled "thru", and "knight" was spelled "nite," that knowledge would be lost. Not to mention that "threw" would presumably also have to be spelled "thru", and "knight" and "night" would both be spelled "nite," thus ending one source of confusion but creating another. Intelligent Mr Toad (talk) 10:55, 2 March 2012 (UTC)
In my opinion there is another major reason that hasn't been touched on and that is Backwards Compatibility. If English spelling was made totally phonetic and the system were universally adopted, then after a generation, all hard copy texts written or printed prior to the reform would require special training to read. Rabuve (talk) 23:18, 4 March 2012 (UTC)

How to translate "Stadtoriginal"[edit]

The German word Stadtoriginal refers to an eccentric person of a certain local notability (usually for being eccentric) in their home town. See, for example, the German article on de:Original (Person). German WP even has an extensive Category:Stadtoriginale, and several specific lists of Berlin Stadtoriginale, Bonn Stadtoriginale, Viennese Stadtoriginale, etc. If one were to create such a category on English Wikipedia, what word would one use? The best I could come up with so far is something like "character", maybe "local character". Or is there no equivalent term in English? Thank you in advance! ---Sluzzelin talk 23:00, 27 February 2012 (UTC)

"Local character" is what popped into my mind, too. Dominus Vobisdu (talk) 23:06, 27 February 2012 (UTC)
"Local celebrity" maybe? Adam Bishop (talk) 07:44, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
And, if one wants to be a bit less generous, there's always the village idiot. StuRat (talk) 09:19, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
Would "unicum" be acceptable, or is it only used to describe things, not persons?. In German we've got Unikum. (talk) 15:06, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
Huh? That is not an English word. --Viennese Waltz 15:10, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
Actually, says it is, meaning "something unique". (talk) 15:20, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
OK, well there is this [1] from Wiktionary. It's a Latin word and it doesn't appear in my Chambers English dictionary. Its usage is very rare, so I don't think it would be suitable as a category here. --Viennese Waltz 15:26, 28 February 2012 (UTC)
I would go with "Notable eccentrics" as an appropriate English counterpart. It isn't exactly the same, but there doesn't seem to be an exact equivalent. John M Baker (talk) 23:35, 28 February 2012 (UTC)

Thanks for your replies and suggestions! The overwhelming majority of those German articles categorized as Stadtoriginale don't have their own article on en.wikipedia, so I probably won't be seeking to create the corresponding category very soon.

Both the concept and the examples of Stadtorginale appear to be more noteworthy in the German-speaking world. Of course I'm wondering whether eccentricity (as in non-conformity or individuality) is perceived as a more exceptional (or remarkable) quality in German speaking regions (with their cultural history of hometown-provinciality, to oversimplify it grossly) than it is in the Anglosphere, along that old and clichéd dichotomous notion of conformity v individualism, but I realize that this discussion doesn't belong at the language desk. Thanks again (and I welcome more thoughts and suggestions, of course). ---Sluzzelin talk 00:16, 29 February 2012 (UTC)

With regard to Dublin in Ireland, "characters" is the word used of people like Zozimus, Bang Bang and Matt the Jap. See e.g. Some Old Street Characters of Dublin or Ronnie McGrew – My Dublin: Episode 4. jnestorius(talk) 16:29, 29 February 2012 (UTC)