Thursday, November 02, 2006

New weekly column--first edition


The language of Šekspīrs

Nov 2nd 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda

Europe is full of distinctive characters

IT was a simple but difficult request. “Please find a thumbnail-sized symbol for eastern Europe.” But what encapsulates the former captive nations? A broken hammer and sickle? That is not only passé, but inaccurate too: the region includes ex-Yugoslavia and Albania, which were only briefly in the Soviet camp. Candles and flags are the symbols of the collapse of communism. But they seem dated as well. Churches with onion domes? Not eastern enough, and what about countries with lots of protestants, like Hungary or Estonia? A map would be hopelessly cramped in the format. Perhaps shooting stars, to illustrate economic growth. Or frayed, tatty stars, to show messy politics. Or both.

Another e-mail stymied that: “By the way: no stars please”. The European Union’s flag, it seemed, was needed by the Charlemagne column.

Thoughts ranged in wilder and more fanciful directions. The potato, perhaps: the symbol of the hearty peasant cuisine that stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea. That is hard on the Hungarians, the unrivalled gourmets of the region. And it would be a bit hypocritical coming from a paper published in a country where people eat fried-potato sandwiches.

Then a colleague hit on the perfect idea to mark this column’s arrival on, from its birthplace at our sister paper, European Voice. What really unites all the post-communist countries is their distinctive character sets. Every alphabet is different. Every one has letters that look intimidating and unfamiliar to the western eye. Estonia has the õ, Latvian the ķ, Lithuanian the ų, Polish the infernally similar ż and ź, not to mention the ł; the Czechs have the ů, the Slovaks the ŕ and the Hungarians the ő. There are dozens of other examples, but you get the point.

And you say pöťâŧỡ

There is a political dimension to this. Westerners who pride themselves on the pedantically correct use of the German umlaut, or the French cedilla, and who always put the accent on Chávez and Guantánamo, blithely ignore the crucial diacritical marks in the languages of the new Europe. They are too complicated; too difficult, too unfamiliar.

But they do matter. Estonia’s national anthem, for example, starts: “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm” (My fatherland, my happiness and joy). Leave out the vital diacritical marks and the last words become, comically, “onn ja room” (roughly: small hut and crawl).

Imagine if the Anglophone world was told that the letter “w” would henceforth be substituted by the easy-to-understand “v”, and that “th” would in future be a simpler “t”. Ve vould not tink tat vas vorkable.

Admittedly, it cuts both ways. There is still a tendency in the post-communist world to “localise” spellings. Lithuanians refer to the president of the United States as Džordžas Volkeris Bušas. There is a partial excuse for that—Lithuanian needs an ending with “s” in order to decline male names correctly.

But such funny spellings are mostly a legacy of past provincialism, which finds foreign names too difficult unless transcribed phonetically into the local language. This is hard to justify. The really tricky names are hard to get right, such as the notorious English surnames Cholmondeley (pronounced “chumley”) or Featherstonehaugh (“fanshaw”). And the well known ones are obvious anyway. How many students of “Makbet” in Poland will be in any doubt that the author’s surname is not, in fact, Szekspir? (in Latvia the camouflage is even more intense: the bard changes his Christian name too, and the author of “Makbets” is Viljams Šekspīrs).

Such oddities are increasingly confined to the schoolroom and journalese. The easterners have learnt, mostly, to spell western names properly. But not vice versa. East Europeans feel with some justice that they will have regained their real place in the world only when their names are spelled properly, not mutilated by an inadequate foreign character set.

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