Archive for the 'language' Category

June 23, 2006

On the difficulty of translating English jokes to German:

At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, “I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.” We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word “bus” was withheld from us. Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, “And that was just the teachers”, “I was 28-years-old” and “That’s the last time I attempt to find work as a research chemist in Paraguay.”

There is even a technical term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little, whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.


June 8, 2006

A list of Shakespeare quotes that have pervaded culture.

June 5, 2006

A Dictionary of Etymology. Where has this been all my bored moments?

May 24, 2006

On one professor’s attempts to recover a near extinct language called Chulym.

May 2, 2006

I love language. With all its tricks and complexities, mastering language requires creativity and a technical awareness without which you can look like a buffoon. So it’s always fun to find some of language’s gotchas, as Electrolite has done with his collection of sound alike cognates. My favorite – “for all intensive purposes”. Turns out there’s already a huge database of these hilarious mistakes, which are called eggcorns.