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Epépé (translated only 6 years ago into English as Metropole) reads like something out of an outdated nightmare.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.

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.

Word of the Week: OK


Sure, just fine, that’ll do; it’s not great or fantastic, not awful nor terrible, neither delicious nor disgusting, thrilling or disheartening; it’s simply OK.

Not a word to get the heart racing. Sometimes it can outright sound more of a disappointment than anything:

 – Will you marry me? – OK. 

How was the wedding? – it was OK.

 – Is the baby cute?  – he’s OK.

A pretty mediocre word, I gave ‘OK’ little-to-no thought until I discovered that it perhaps originates from the Scots “och aye” (“oh yes”). But “och aye” is so much more expressive, so much fuller in the mouth and so much more affirmative – an “of course!” rather than a “sure, why not…”. Was it toned-down by Scots and Irish immigrants to North America only to be ferried back to Europe in its weakened form?

That’s one of many hypotheses. It turns out that for such a bland expression OK has been much debated about. Some other (among the more probable) propositions as to the origins of OK are as follows:

– Initials of “oll korrect” – Coined during a fad for comical misspellings and abbreviations in the 19th century

– From the Wolof “waw-kay” (waw “yes” + emphatic -kay ) – Introduced by West African slaves

– A misspelling of “O.R.” for ‘Order Received’ – A common mistake in the Western US in the 18th century due to the similar shaped of the letters R and K.

– Initials of the Greek “Όλα Καλά” meaning Everything is well – entering the English language as an abbreviation used by Greek immigrants in United States in the late 1900s, when sending telegrams to their relatives in Greece to keep the cost low.

– From the Greek “och, och” (ὤχ, ὤχ), a magical incantation against fleas  – (improbable but still probably my favourite explanation)

– Initials of “Open Key” – A global telegraph signal used in the 19th century and meaning “ready to transmit”

– Initials of Omnis Korrecta (“all correct” in Latin) – Used by early schoolmasters marking examination papers

– From the Occitan oc (“yes”) – Introduced by colonists to French Louisiana

– From the French O qu’oui (“ah, yes”) – proposed as an explanation in 1945…

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the noun is first attested to in1841; the verb in 1888. Now so omnipresent that we not only say it but click on it dozens of times each day, OK has even been deemed worthy of a whole book in its honour: Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word”. If you’re kind of interested but just not the 240-pages-kind-of-interested, you can read a summary by the same author in this BBC article.

The President’s Speech

I have finally got round to reading “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, a fascinating book of anecdotes from a neurologist’s experience of all sorts of brain anomalies. One story in particular involves the comprehension of language and is really worth sharing here in a shortened version, if only to show once again that we really don’t need words to communicate.


The President’s Speech (1985)

What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia ward, just as the President’s speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking…

There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal – and all the patients were convulsed with laughter. Well, not all: some looked bewildered, some looked outraged, one or two looked apprehensive, but most looked amused. The President was, as always, moving – but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. What could they be thinking? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps, understand him all too well?

It was often said of these patients, who though intelligent had the severest receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words as such, that they none the less understood most of what was said to them. Their friends, their relatives, the nurses who knew them well, could hardly believe, sometimes, that they were aphasic.

This was because, when addressed naturally, they grasped some or most of the meaning. And one does speak ‘naturally’, naturally.

Thus, to demonstrate their aphasia, one had to go to extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extraverbal cues – tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture): one had to remove all of this (which might involve total concealment of one’s person, and total depersonalisation of one’s voice, even to using a computerised voice synthesiser) in order to reduce speech to pure words, speech totally devoid of what Frege called ‘tone-colour’ (Klangenfarben) or ‘evocation’. With the most sensitive patients, it was only with such a grossly artificial, mechanical speech – somewhat like that of the computers in Star Trek – that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia.

Why all this? Because speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone, nor (as Hughlings Jackson thought) ‘propositions’ alone. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition. And this was the clue to aphasiacs’ understanding, even when they might be wholly uncomprehending of words as such. For though the words, the verbal constructions, per se, might convey nothing, spoken language is normally suffused with ‘tone’, embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the verbal – and it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various, so complex, so subtle, which is perfectly preserved in aphasia, though understanding of words be destroyed. Preserved – and often more: preternaturally enhanced… 

Thus the feeling I sometimes have – which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have – that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily…

We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose – to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we – so susceptible to words – cannot trust our own instincts.

And what dogs can do here, aphasiacs do too, and at a human and immeasurably superior level. ‘One can lie with the mouth,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.’ To such a grimace, to any falsity or impropriety in bodily appearance or posture, aphasiacs are preternaturally sensitive. And if they cannot see one – this is especially true of our blind aphasiacs – they have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give – or remove – verisimilitude to or from a man’s voice.

In this, then, lies their power of understanding – understanding, without words, what is authentic or inauthentic. Thus it was the grimaces, the histrionisms, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice, which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque, incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words.

This is why they laughed at the President’s speech.



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.