Monthly Archives: February 2015

Lost in translation

For some reason, Conrad Hackett — all the way from Washington DC — has revived a Telegraph graphic from last November:


First up, I’m wholly convinced that the loss of any language diminished all of us, because it denies tradition, and further narrows the cultural base.

However …

[You knew that was coming.]

I’m unconvinced.

Are all of those “languages”?

Surely some — if not many — are “dialects”. Now, I recall, dimly, as a student being educated — even  berated —on the distinction. Hence I stick to the OED definition:

dialect, n.

A form or variety of a language which is peculiar to a specific region, esp. one which differs from the standard or literary form of the language in respect of vocabulary, pronunciation, idiom, etc.; (as a mass noun) provincial or rustic speech. Also more generally: a particular language considered in terms of its relationship with the family of languages to which it belongs.

That’s a trifle confused and confusing, so I’ll gloss:

A language is common to a country, a people or a community. It abides by regular grammar and syntax structures. So Aberdeen can communicate with Anglophone Austin, TX, and Alicante with Hispanophone ditto. Differences are mainly usage and dialectical. Just take care over local applications and terminology, such as the myriad implications of wedge, not to mention wedgie.

Two further examples of “contrived languages”

1. Cornish is on that list of “threatened” languages.

Let’s be honest: true Cornish died with Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole in December 1777. It may have lingered on with bilingual speakers, such as John Davey of Zennor (though he, it is alleged, had only a few phrases).

What we have of Cornish today is a reconstruction, one of many variants attempted through the Twentieth Century. It is a construct, has to be heavily policed by self-appointed purists, and lacks much of the vitality of a living, changing language.

I used to illustrate how change in language works by asking students how they listened to music. The answer today might be “on my phone”, which is a further iteration from the previous list of terms, all the way back beyond Edison to the phonautograph of 1857. I’d suggest that the term in current use, along with the technology, changes every decade or so. I’d also hesitate today to use the early-1970s “tranny” (a small transistor radio) without misunderstanding.

2. Then there’s the curious business, back around 1960, of the Irish government’s attempt at a “new dictionary” of Irish.

Unwisely, a bounty was declared for “discovering” vocabulary. As I recall one had to provide a certain number of “words”, and in return one received a ten-bob note (a whole 50p!). The devious types at University College, Dublin, saw a ready way of financing their drinking habits. So it started with “sulfur” and rapidly progressed through dodgy Hibernicising of numerous scientific and technical terms. Sadly, or humorously (depending on your whim), this process persists to the present day — though monetary rewards apply no longer.


Filed under Daily Mirror, Ireland, reading

A tale of two Sams


You wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

She has one of the most published faces in the Tory Press, but today’s front page of The Times did her no favours:

The next time David Cameron asks his speechwriter to find an example of a famous business that has set itself up in a tax haven, helping to deprive Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs of millions of pounds, he may be given an answer a little too close for comfort. 

Smythson, the upmarket stationer where Samantha Cameron works as a highly paid “creative consultant”, has upped sticks from the UK for Luxembourg, one of Europe’s biggest tax shelters.

Company filings have revealed that Smythson, where the prime minister’s wife has worked for nearly two decades, is owned through a complex structure of trusts in Luxembourg and the Channel Islands.

This arrangement is likely to have helped the leather goods business, where a python-skin handbag will set well-heeled customers back £2,000, to avoid UK taxes.

The company is not accused of any wrongdoing — and there is no suggestion that Mrs Cameron has any involvement in the business’s tax affairs — but the news will nonetheless be an embarrassment to the prime minister, who has made clamping down on tax avoidance a feature of his premiership.

That is “news” only after the disaster that was Stefano Pessina putting the Boots in:

Pessina lives in Monte Carlo, with a fortune estimated at £7.5bn. Boots was targeted by tax campaigners when it moved its formal tax residence from Britain to Switzerland following Pessina’s private equity-backed buyout in 2007. Last year when Pessina merged Boots with US group Walgreens, there were plans to move the headquarters from the US to Switzerland for tax reasons, although the idea had to be abandoned in the face of a US political row and a potential customer backlash.

The weekend row started with Pessina, the 74-year-old acting chief executive of the newly-merged Walgreens Alliance Boots, saying that if Labour politicians acted in the way that they spoke “it would be a catastrophe”.

But the real horror must be the comparison of the two images above, both apparently from the same photo-op (“opening the Hong Kong outlet of Smythson”). The photographs are both credited to ImagineChina/Rex. On the left there is the web version, on the right a scan of the print edition.

The latter is a crying shame of a PSD (a Photoshop disaster).

On the other hand …

I find myself reflecting on a chain of coincidence:

  • Samantha Cameron (née Sheffield) is the elder daughter of Annabel (née Jones, and — a divorce and remarriage later — Viscountess Astor).
  • The Viscount Astor, William Waldorf Astor III, is the grandson of Nancy Astor.
  • Nancy Astor was the topic Hamish Henderson (or A.N.Other, for there are other claimants) celebrated in D-Day Dodgers:

Altogether now:

You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride:
We think your mouth’s too bloody wide…

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Filed under David Cameron, folk music, History, Quotations, Times