Epépé by Ferenc Karinthy

Ferenc-Karenthy-Epepe metropole

Epépé (translated only 6 years ago into English as Metropole) reads like something out of an outdated nightmare. An academic linguist, speaker and connoisseur of more than a dozen languages finds himself, by fault of a misconnected flight, in an unknown country where communication proves impossible. No visible tourist information, no train stations or waterways, just an incomprehensible language and writing system in a land of too many busy people.

Today of course there would be the internet, or at least your phone’s GPS system to give you an idea of where in the world you were. Not such luck for our protagonist Budaï who happens to have been dreamt up by Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy in 1970. He is without mobile phone of course, desperately deciphering the local phone book in search of a helpful number. Without Google Translate or voice recognition software he can only pronounce queries in various languages to the blank stares of those before him.

Budaï’s ordeal is one of desperate loneliness among the masses, and of a sudden, deep incomprehension of the world around him. As days turn to weeks, he attempts, with not much luck, to decipher the local language, to communicate with other potentially lost souls, and to navigate the dense metropolis which surrounds him, endlessly.

Epépé is a work of sociology and veiled political criticism as well as world-class literature. It is also a frightening peek into an existence where, like a small child, our protagonist desperately seeks communication and understanding through a babbling which no one around him understands. Karinthy’s masterpiece forces us to reconsider the central importance of language and communication in our lives, and question how we, like Budaï, would cope without it, and what we would become.


Class and terminology

I was always pretty confused growing up in Scotland as to what exactly people meant by ‘tea’ or ‘supper’, whether there was any difference when it came to ‘dinner’ and at what time exactly you were supposed to have ‘lunch’. I had put all this bemusement behind me until I stumbled upon a class-based explanation in Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

It turns out, you see, that I must have had friends and acquaintances from quite a variety of social backgrounds to have come across all of these linguistic variations. ‘Tea’, when it is the evening meal taken at around 6.30pm, is very much an affair of working class origin, especially when referred to as ‘my tea’ or ‘your tea’. To everyone else ‘tea’ is what you have around 4pm, and is it, well, typically tea, accompanied with some light snack – scones, biscuits, small sandwiches, that kind of thing. The working classes tend to refer to this particular snack-time as ‘afternoon tea’, distinguishing it from the evening ‘tea’.

Referring to your evening meal as ‘dinner’, and having it around 7pm designates you as lower-middle or middle-middle class. Apparently it was only in my house that this meal was often called ‘lunch’, a leftover appropriation of a term from a whole nother culture. For everybody else in the UK, ‘lunch’ is eaten at midday, only the working classes would call this meal ‘dinner’ and refer to the evening ‘dinner’ as ‘tea’.

Stil following me?

Then there’s the ‘dinner’ of the upper-middle and upper-classes, which is still an evening meal but a rather more formal affair typically taking place much later in the evening with guests and fancy silverware. The more informal, daily family meals would in this case be referred to as ‘supper’, and eaten a little later than the middle-class ‘dinner’, around 7.30pm.

But the tea/dinner/supper variation is of course not the only British class indicator. When it comes to speech, it could take a whole book to go into the details of pronunciation across class and region, but the thing I always find more interesting is vocabulary. Did you know for example (and I had no idea), that certain words are veritable taboos amongs the upper classes and immediately designate one as a pleb?

So for example, when you can’t quite hear what the other person said, if you retort with ‘pardon?’, this assuredly puts a lower-class stamp on your person, regardless of how you might be dressed or how well you may have perfected your posh accent. If you say ‘sorry?’, you are probably middle class, and ‘what?’ designated you as a member of the gentry. Then again, if you hear ‘wha’?’ with the swallowed ‘t’ you’re probably dealing with a less-than-polite member of the working class. All a bit complicated, isn’t it?

There’s also saying ‘toilet’ (lower class if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, probably lower-middle if you do) instead of ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the more ‘proper’ form. The middle-middles will have a whole variety of other terms as well – ladies, powder room, facilities, privy etc. You will also be looked down upon if you say ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ and ‘lounge’ istead of ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

And I wasn’t even aware that I was navigating such a sea of class-based terminology. Of coures this all comes from ‘Watching the English’, and I’m sure the Scots have a whole set of regional additions to these rules for which I should probably keep an ear out next time I cross the border.

Is that a fish in your ear?

david bellos Is that a fish in your ear? : Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellos

David Bellos has not only written a biography of George Perec, he has also translated the French author’s work. This in itself is an impressive feat considering the bizarre writing contraints and linguistic games which Perec likes to include in his texts, the most famous perhaps being the construction of an entire novel devoid of the letter ‘e’ (La Disparition). As such, I feel that he is more than qualified to write a book about translation, and, to apply the kind of compliments which he highly criticises, the results are both witty and stylish.

For the somewhat confused among you, the title ‘Is that a fish in your ear?’ is a reference to the Babel Fish translation device from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by which a slippery little creature would be inserted into your ear allowing you to immediately understand all the languages of the galaxy. As no such device has yet been discovered outside the realms of science fiction, we have to contend with the imperfection of human translation, and this, as well as its paramount importance to our species, is the topic Bellos addresses.

If you have ever so much as read a foreign novel in translation, then the question of how much of an authentic experience you are getting has probably crossed your mind. To what extend have the original rhythms of the text, its structure, sound patterns and cultural references been accurately rendered in the foreign version, and is this even always desirable? How about poetry? Or legal translation? How can we even be sure that what that conference interpreter is whispering in our ear is not only an approximation of what the speaker is saying, and how come only the Russians in the room are laughing?

Bellos seeks to shed some light on these questions, to discuss what is and isn’t possible, desirable and necessary in the realms of translation. He also gives interesting historical and contemporary insights into simultaneous interpreting – how it came about, who can do it and how it is done. He shows us the benefits and limits of automated and machine-assisted translation, and all of it to reaffirm the importance of the human in any form of communication, and certainly in translation, a complex technique which bridges cultural gaps and strengthens civilisations.

The World Until Yesterday

diamondI have mentioned him before, but he merits a post to himself. Although not a linguist (but covering multiple other academic fields), Jared Diamond’s latest book is worth reading for many reasons, one of which is his ‘Speaking in Many Tongues’ chapter on language variation and evolution. In ‘The World Until Yesterday’, Diamond traces past societal (and present tribal) customs, covering themes like conflict, child rearing, religion, language and health, suggesting lessons that can be learnt from them and applied to our large, industrial societies.

Concerning language, Diamond covers such fascinating questions as: why do some areas of the world harbour very few and others a great many different languages? how does climate, latitude, biological productivity, ecological diversity and tribal lifestyle affect language density and diversity? what role do political organisation, historical events and state expansion have to play?

Through his examination of various tribal groups all over the world, Diamond shows us that multilingualism has always been the norm rather than the exception, and covers some of the benefits of bilingualism I spoke of before. Finally, he goes into the issue of language death, explaining how, with the development of modern societies, many languages are disappearing, and argues for their protection and preservation.

Spell It Out

spell-it-outDavid Crystal, possibly my favourite linguist, has been at it again. He has been promoting his new book by stirring public opinion with his seemingly brash and nonchalant views on language change. Orthography to be precise. You see, unlike most laymen who are appalled at the idea of internet culture influencing ye auld English spelling, Crystal is a mere content observer of such phenomena as the disappearing ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ and ‘p’ in ‘receipt’.

He has been monitoring the internet by means of Google searches for a while now and has observed a distinct increase in the number of hits appearing which include such linguistic anomalies. When we don’t pronounce a letter in a word anymore, we tend to forget that is was there in the first place and little by little alter its spelling. This has been going on since writing began of course, but somehow when we observe the change happening within our own lifetimes it becomes sacrilege. Surely the way we were taught to spell in primary school was God’s Law and that all those red pen marks over our essays ingrained into us the importance of getting it right?

What has the world come to when leading authorities on language like Crystal or Oxford English Professor Simon Horobin begin telling us that it’s really not such a big deal whether it’s spelled ‘they’re’, ‘their’ or ‘there’? After all, it’s all pronounced the same and we get meaning from context. Such brazen views expounded at the Hay Festival this year incited relatively important reactions from the media considering that we are talking about a festival of literature and ideas, not Glastonbury. The Telegraph even did a reader poll in reaction to Professor Horobin’s statements, and an astounding 93.27% of those who replied did so to affirm that Grammar Does Matter.

A more interesting poll would perhaps have been to find out whether people even think that the ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ or in ‘where’ is even pronounced these days. There are still some quite divided on the issue as it turns out.

The Etymologicon


What’s the connection between disgruntled and gruntled? What links church organs to organised crime, California to the Caliphate, or brackets to codpieces?

If you never listened to Mark Forsyth on BBC Radio 4 or were blissfully unaware that he wrote a word-blog called Inkyfool, then this is your chance to catch up with essential word-knowledge. This book was basically written when a big kid with ADD accidentally swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary. Forsyth makes you race through word definitions and origins from one short chapter to the next until you arrive breathlessly at the end to find a fun word quiz awaiting you. There is no better way to spend your time on a trans-Atlantic flight.