Suing over an umlaut

How would you feel if you knew that Häagen-Dazs was not a Scandinavian product? Sorry to shatter your illusions dear readers, but Häagen-Dazs ice-cream was made in the Bronx by a Polish immigrant who wanted a Danish-sounding name for his new recipe. The legend goes that as a tribute to Denmark’s exemplary treatment of its Jews during the Second World War and its yummy dairy products, Reuben Mattus sat at his New York kitchen table for hours, saying nonsensical words until he came up with a “Danish-sounding” combination he liked to promote his frozen cream.

As it turns out, not only is Häagen-Dazs not composed of any Danish words, “äa” and “zs” are not spellings native to any Scandinavian language. A bit of linguistic deception you might think, either that or a piece of very clever branding which has clearly worked well. In any case, Häagen-Dazs certainly seemed to think that they now owned “Scandanavian-sounding things” as well as the umlaut apparently, as that is exactly what they sued the new ice-cream company Früsen-Gladjé over in 1980. Forget that Früsen-Gladjé are actually real words meaning ‘frozen joy’ in Swedish, and that an umlaut over the ‘u’ is the way this word is spelled in a real language.

Häagen-Dazs also sued Früsen-Gladjé  over a number of other points including the use of a map of a European country on the packaging (albeit not the same country), giving instructions on how to eat the product (leave to melt slightly first) and pretending to be European (apparently this is a trademark infringement in America). You’ll be happy to know that the court refused to extend Häagen-Dazs protection to its Scandinavian marketing theme, finding that the difference in the trade dress of the two products was apparent “to all but the most obtuse consumer.” And so the umlaut lives on to be used for marketing purposes another day.

Happily for Häagen-Dazs, they found someone else to sue later on: a Chinese company claiming to sell clothes under the name ‘Haager Dasz’. And this time they won. Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream also recently got into a legal battle over trademark infringement, but it wasn’t with another ice-cream company. I won’t go into details here, suffice to say that ‘Ben & Cherry’s Boston Cream Thigh’ was being marketed to another consumer base altogether.

Borges on Analytical Language

A number among you will no doubt have heard the anecdote about a supposed Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’ in whose remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

The reference is plucked out of an essay by Jorge Louis Borges entitled  ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins‘ or ‘The analytical language of John Wilkins‘, a fact which led me to search out said essay and find out more about this Mr. Wilkins and his proposed language. As it turns out, this 17th century thinker was inspired by Decartes’ writing on ciphers and the possibility of a language in which all ideas are systematically coded into each word, and thence decided to make up a this fantabulous language himself.

The idea goes something like this: you divide the universe into a given number of overall categories (in his case 40); you then subdivide these into “differences”, and the “differences” into “species”. Each of the categories is assigned a monosyllable composed of two letters, each “difference” is represented by a consonant, and each “species” by a vowel.

So, as an example,  ‘de’ means an element; ‘deb’, the first of the elements – fire; and ‘deba’, a part of the element fire, a flame. And the simple word ‘zana’ will immediately tell you a whole lot more than the inadequate English equivalent – ‘salmon‘, (that is, if you know your forty categories and the species of these categories), namely that the subject is a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat .

Of course you quickly run into considerable conundrums when attempting to categorise the world in such a way, because, as Borges points our with his Chinese Encyclopaedia example, the universe sort of defies categorisation, and each categorisation is largely a reflection of the categoriser’s culture and society.  So, as you are probably aware, Wilkins’ idea didn’t quite catch on, and four centuries later we are still left babbling in our impenetrable and meaningless tongues.

Borges leaves us, as I leave you for today, with this rather marvelous quote which I here plagiarise in full: “He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of this own inside, noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire”.   (G.F. Watts by G.K. Chesterton)


Many of you may have heard about a proposed alternate spelling of ‘the word ‘fish’ , often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw, which reflects the utter silliness of Enligh orthography:


GH as in “rough”
O as in “women”
TI as in “nation”

GHOTI = “fish”

Take examples from a few other words however and you can end up with:

GH as in “night”
O as in “people”
T as in “bouquet”
I as in “piece”

….and GHOTI = “………….”

By this logic, both Ghoughpteighbteau and Ghoughphtheightteeau are possible alternate spellings for another foodstuff – can you work out which? (hint: think of hiccough, though, neigh, debt, neighbour and plateau among others)

Poems on the queerest language

My poor husband is currently reading David Crystal’s “Spell it out” and getting lost in the confusion of English spelling and pronunciation, which made me think of the following poems summing it all up quite nicely:


We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
When couldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot – would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?

Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.

The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.



I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there.
And dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.

And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

The origins of these poems are somewhat of a mystery. They are at times quoted as being one whole, the original versions of both seemingly elusive. The first poem has been cited as being the work of a certain Richard Krogh, while the second  is attributed to T.S. Watt and apparently appeared in The Guardian newspaper in 1954. Both are to be found with different titles and endings. Sometimes they are wrongly taken to be versions of “The Chaos”, an earlier and much longer poem by the Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946) which includes about 800 examples of irregular spelling. There are also many versions of “The Chaos” to be found online, but if you’re feeling up to it, here is where you can find two of them:,


Spending a lot of time in galleries and exhibitions, one can be forgiven for having the feeling of slowly going insane when confronted with art-world jargon used in everything from press releases to artists’ statements. Here’s a brief example of what I’m talking about from an art sale a little while ago:

art description

Believe it or not, the accompanying art work looked something like a hand-written Excel sheet. Grandiose, obscure and opaque, the language of art has long gotten my goat. A bit like some academic writing, I have always felt it to be an unnecessary code used to make the writer seem more intelligent than he or she really is, and give the reader a sense either of belonging to an elite if he/she is capable of decoding it (if there is anything to decode), or more likely of imbibing him/her with a feeling of awe and inferiority.

So it was to my delight that I stumbled across this article on the art website Triple Canopy, which seeks to linguistically examine what the writers (an artist and a sociologist) term International Art English (IAE). By machine-analysing a 13-year corpus of art writing from renowned online art sources and press releases, they first identify the defining characteristics of IAE using a tool called ‘Sketch Engine’ which can compare things like the relative occurrence of certain words or phrase types in comparison to a corpus of British English. So what is ArtSpeak composed of? Here’s a few outlines:

Vocabulary: “IAE has a distinctive lexicon:  aporia,  radically,  space,  proposition,  biopolitical, tensiontransversal,autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns:   Visual becomes  visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentialityexperience  becomes … experiencability.”

Syntax:  –  frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned
– double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert
pairing of like terms whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases
–  reliance on dependent clauses, embedding as many clauses as possible, and the action of the sentence, deep within the structure. (see what I did there?)
the use of more rather than fewer words –  the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.”
– all sorts of redundancies, such as groupings of ostensibly unrelated items : “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”
– a dependence on lists (oftentimes another redundancy)

But perhaps the more interesting question behind all of this is WHY? Or as the authors put it, “how did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?” (constantly employing suffixes like -ity, -ality, and -ization and overusing definite and indefinite articles – “the political,” “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”)

Well, part of their explanation is that IAE perhaps did in fact rise up from directly-translated writing on art by French and German theorists in the 1970s. They argue that IAE mimics the highbrow French used by post-structuralists, a language which they themselves at times parodied, but which was taken and continued to be used without irony. If you’ve ever read texts upheld as the great products of French 20th Century literature you’ll recognise the never-ending sentences that make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. But the Germans may also be to blame. The article authors posit that their legacy can be located in the liberal use of terms like productionnegationtotality and dialectics.

Yet whereas the German authors aspired to a type of analytic precision regarding the meaning of the words they employed, in IAE this elite form of language has become an approximation of itself – “What ‘dialectic’ actually denotes is negligible. What matters is the authority it establishes.” There is a pure absurdity of the whole resulting situation, in which much of the IAE out there comes from artists whose strength lies in visual, not verbal communication, and from daunted young arrivals to the art world’s many stuck-up institutions. The article sums it up nicely: “The IAE of the French press release is almost too perfect: It is written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”

So what are we to make of all of this? Should we accept that IAE, or ‘ArtSpeak’ as I like to call it, has transcended the realms of communication and become a type of poetic verse, transmitting abstract feeling rather than concrete meaning? Should we, like the entrepreneurial John Russel, actively seek to remedy the situation by sending back annotated and corrected press releases to galleries and museums? Should we weigh up the benefits, like the artist’s and curator’s ability to bypass censorship and ministerial control in many countries by clouding the real, political meaning of their work behind a haze of ArtSpeak?

If we expect so much writing to be produced in response to art (statements, grant applications, publications, press releases, critical articles, flyers and accompanying explanations in exhibition spaces), then should we demand clarity, insisting on descriptive rather than theoretical language, objectivity rather than subjective babble overflowing with adverbial nonsense? Or should we accept that the language of art necessarily reflects art itself, that it is a challenging and personal encounter, and seeks to pose more questions than give answers?

These questions are something every artist, curator and intern should be asking themselves before they sit down before a keyboard. If I were in charge of the art world, I would suggest to them that rather than reproduce obtuse and unfathomable ArtSpeak, they write something worth reading, or paint a picture instead.

More on Serbian – concentrate!

It’s my mother tongue and yet still causes me endless problems. Not only do you have to remember which words are masculine, which feminine and which neuter, you also have to deal with the 7-case system (Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Vocative , Instrumental and Prepositional/Locative). So far, so complicated. Now add to this verbal aspect, i.e. the idea that verbs do not only indicate the TIME WHEN THE ACTION OR PROCESS TAKES PLACE, but also show whether the action or the process is complete (perfective aspect) or incomplete (imperfective aspect). Many verbs have a separate form for the perfective and imperfective aspect. However, there are verbs that have only one form. Go figure.

The difference between a perfective and an imperfective aspect can be indicated by a prefix (e.g. ‘raditi’  to do/work > ‘uraditi’  to get done), a change within the word (e.g. ‘vikati’ to shout > ‘viknuti’  to shout out), an infix -ava, -iva or -ova (e.g. ‘kupiti’  to buy > ‘kupovati’  to be buying), or be a different form altogether (e.g. ‘govoriti’ to talk  > ‘reci’  to say). Now, not only are there two forms of verbs signifying either a complete or incomplete action, within these there are more possible subdivisions. I hope you’re still following me…

Within the perfective aspect group, you can find three categories of verbs:

– those which expresses an action or process of limited duration, usually happening in one single moment (e.x. ‘pasti, sesti, uzeti’  – to fall, to sit, to take)

– those which indicate the beginning of an action or process (e.g. ‘progovoriti, zapevati, zaigrati’  –  to begin to talk, begin to sing, begin to play/dance)

– those which indicate the completion of the action or process. (e.g. ‘otpevati, izgovoriti, izigrati’  –  to finish singing, to complete what you were saying, to finish playing)

The imperfective aspect can expresses:

– an constant action or process of unlimited duration (e.x.  ‘hodati, raditi, igrati, pevati’  – to walk, to work, to play, to sing)

– an action of unlimited duration but which occurs with interruption (e.x. ‘poigravati, pevuckati, treptati’ – to play/sing on and off, to blink repeatedly)

– a habitual activity (e.x. ‘Ja čitam knjigu pre spavanja.’  –  I read before going to sleep)

Now, this I can deal with, but where it gets absurd is that sometimes, for unknown historical reasons, the conjugations for the perfective and imperfevtice aspect of the same verb (e.g. ‘prodati > prodavati’  – to sell > to be selling) have got mixed up. So whereas, in a logical world which I would like to live in, the 3rd person plural (‘they’) form of ‘prodati’ would be ‘prodaju‘, and of ‘prodavati’ would be ‘prodavaju‘ (as happens with almost all verbs of this form), for some reason for this verb it is ‘prodaju‘ in both cases.

This kind of weird anomaly happens with a number of verbs, but for native Serbian speakers this irregularity is just what it is, they don’t give it a second thought and then laugh when you get it wrong (when by all logic my way should be right!). Damn you illogical language evolution, it drives me up the wall, in a continuous, habitual, unlimited duration kind of way.

If none of this has made you lose hope of ever learning Serbian, or indeed if it has inspired you to take on a new challenge in your life, check out for tips on grammar, simple phrases and directions to monasteries. 


Seen in the menu of a posh pub the other night:


This is now officially my favourite definition of a cocktail and it doesn’t even come from a dictionary. Next time I’m at the Library of Congress, I may even look up the source document, an early 19th century newspaper called ‘The Balance and Columbian Repository’. The text was written by the editor in reply to a reader questioning the term ‘cock-tail’ which had been used in a previous edition. The Museum of the American Cocktail (yes there indeed exists such a wondrous place) has the whole story, and frankly the text is worth the read just for the wonderfully humorous and overly-polite language – e.g. “I hope you will construe nothing that I have said as disrespectful. I read your paper with great pleasure and wish it the most extensive circulation.” Gotta love the 1800s.