Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Borderline cases

Driving up to Belgium earlier this month, She Who Must Be Obeyed decided that we should visit Montserrat, not too far from Barcelona. Unfortunately, the weather was too bad to enjoy the visit, so we then decided to make an even bigger detour through the Pyrenees, rather than going back to the coast road, and stop off at Llívia.

We had heard about Llívia a couple of years ago and it sounded fascinating: a small town situated in France, completely surrounded by France, but belonging to Spain — an enclave, in other words. Indeed, Llívia is officially part of Cerdanya, in the province of Girona, which is part of Catalonia, a community of Spain, yet it is situated within the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales.

Driving into Llívia is pretty straightforward nowadays, along a Spanish-maintained road, which cuts through French territory for about one-and-a-half kilometres. Things weren't always so simple and disputes over rights of way where the Spanish road crossed French roads were not infrequent; neither were the accidents at such junctions! Now, however, roundabouts and bridges make things safer.

Coming back out of Llívia is rather more problematic, as there seem to be no signs to direct one to the French roads. It takes a bit of working out (or a very good map), to realise that one must take the left fork, just before the bridge, in order to be able to continue one's journey in the French fashion.

It would be pointless to reiterate the history and description of Llívia, as there are several sites that already provide plenty of information. Here are just a few:

I have put a few photos of our visit to Llívia in this Picasa album.

Now, if you think Llívia is a peculiar case, consider that of Baarle Hertog-Baarle Nassau. This isn't just an enclave, but a whole mosaic of 22 Belgian enclaves in the Netherlands, with 7 Dutch enclaves (called sub-enclaves) located within the Belgian enclaves, and one Dutch enclave within Belgium.


Well, it took almost 160 years to sort the the mess out, so you're not alone! The first border commission was set up in 1843, but it was not until 1995 that the borders were finally correctly indicated and agreed upon.

The most important thing in the life of a Baarle-Hertog-Nassau-type person seems to be the front door, as its position determines the nationality of the house (though not necessarily of the inhabitants) and services and taxes are based on that. Businesses, of course, often have more than one entrance (their version of a front door), so register more than one address, obtaining the best of both worlds.

The "front door rule" was instigated because many buildings in Baarle Hertog-Baarle Nassau are situated in more than one country (some shops actually paint the borderline on the ground, so that customers know just where they are at any given moment) and some way was needed to regulate the situation. Houses not only carry numbers, but also little flags, to show their designated nationality.

We visited Baarle Hertog-Baarle Nassau some 30 years ago, when we bought a book, published in 1979. The book indicates "just" 21 Belgian enclaves, but that number seems to have increased at a later date: perhaps this had something to do with the 1995 finalisation of the borders.

You can find plenty of information about Baarle Hertog-Baarle Nassau at the following sites:

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Curiouser and curiouser

Now we're on the subject of strange language, what about the word "ghoti"?


To be honest, it's not a real word, but it is made up of letters and letter-combinations that, when pronounced with their English-usage sounds, or at least one of them in each case, form the sound "fish"!

The word is split up as follows:

GH - O - TI

And this is how we get the sound of "fish":

GH: is often pronounced as an f in English. For example, rough or enough (though not, of course, through or even ghost!);

O: when the o in the word women is pronounced, it sounds like the i in thin and, I think, the i in think, though not at all like the i in mind (we shall ignore the i in wind (to turn a key or a handle, for example), unless one means wind (a strong breeze);

TI: motion, recognition, action, and many other words contain the ti combination that sounds just like sh. Neither of the tis in repetitive are pronounced this way: the repetition would be exhausting.

So that's how a ghoti is really a fish.

And talking about long words, what's the longest word in the English language? Well, some might say it is antidisestablishmantarianism, whereas others would argue for floccinaucinihilipilification, but, as schoolboys we all knew that the very longest word was, of course, smiles.

There is, after all, a mile between the first and last letters.

Friday, 10 September 2010

More Strange Language

More strange language, but not necessarily stranger language, even though "more strange" equates to the comparitive form of the adjective "strange."

If you think that the English language is confusing, try the (in)famous English pastime of cricket. My (Welsh) sports master, Mr Evans, used to refer to it as "that ancient English rain-making ceremony," and he was not far wrong, as rain often stops play. Anyone not exposed to the activity, laughingly termed a sport or a game, becomes more confused than poor Alice as she observed the crazy game of croquet (no relation) in Wonderland. Here, then, is a perfectly good explanation of the game of cricket, for the uninitiated:

A foreigner will possess the essential knowledge of cricket when he fully understands the following:
You have two sides: one out in the field and one in in the pavilion.
Each man that's in the side that's in goes out and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out.
When they are all out the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in out.
Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When both sides have been in and out, including the not outs, that's the end of the game.



English verbs are relatively easy, though even they can cause confusion. The pluperfect tense of the verb "to have" is elegantly simple, yet strangely offputting:

I had had
you had had

Nothing more than the pronoun, followed by "had had."

This simplicity can lead to some strange structures, including what is probably the longest repetition of the same word in a perfectly good English sentence. Here it is without punctuation:

Tom, while John had had had had had had had had had had had the master's approval.

That's eleven hads in a row!

Adding punctuation offers some relief:

Tom, while John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had the master's approval.

(Two pupils had asked to write something by their teacher; one pupil used the "had" form, whereas the other used "had had." The teacher preferred "had had.")

Again, it's not only English that produces strange combinations. I expect that all languages have their peculiarities, tongue-twisters, strange exceptions to rules, and so on. In German and Dutch, it is quite easy to form longer words by combining individual words. As a result, an exhibition of aboriginal camping equipment might in Dutch be referred to as a hottentottententententoonstelling. Mind you, Welsh doesn't do badly in this respect, either, and in the 19th century the small village of Llanfairpwll changed its name in an attempt to attract that new breed of traveller, the train tourist. The name of the village was changed to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and the rest, as they say, is history. (If you'd like to know more about LlanfairPG -- not least what the name means -- simply visit the village's very own site.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Strange language

Funny things, languages. They are useful things for expressing opinions, getting ideas across and communicating in general, but they can be awkward, too.

Elise was in the hospital yesterday. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in both hands. Apparently something fairly typical for women of a more than a certain age. Anyway, she has now had both hands done. The first hand was operated on a few weeks ago and, when I was emailing someone about it, I mentioned that the one hand had been operated on earlier that day and that the right hand would be operated on in a few weeks time. It looked as if the wrong hand had been operated on, which was not the case, of course. The operation had been on the left hand, which was not wrong, but right, even though it was left. And it was quite right that the right hand would be operated on in a few weeks, as the left one had now been done, so even though it looked as if the surgeon had operated on the wrong hand, that was wrong, as the hand was the left one, which was right at the time, though not in space. Right?

Well, Elise's second operation went well and she is now home, somewhat hampered by a large dressing on her right hand, wrist and forearm. Still, she has yours truly to look after her, so she is in good hands.

Language difficulties are not limited to English, even though its strange spellings and pronunciations might make it seem so to foreigners trying to make head or tail of the language. All languages have their peculiarities, and sometimes these pop up between languages, especially those that are closely related. Take the Dutch and German words for sea and lake, for example. In Dutch, these are zee and meer; in German they are See and Meer (all German nouns are capitalised). Well, that's not quite correct, for although Dutch and German are really very closely related, and although zee sounds like See and meer sounds like Meer, (now comes the tricky bit) See is actually meer and Meer is zee! (In other words, the Geman word for lake is See, and the word for sea is Meer.)

Such obvious pitfalls for translators can lead to amusing errors. The Dutch equivalent of current is aktueel, which sounds a lot like the English word actual. However, the Dutch equivalent of actual is feitelijk, so aktueel can be a false friend for the translator. This is exactly what has occurred with the naming of a clothes shop just outside Ghent, in Belgium. The owners obviously wanted to call the shop by a name equivalent to the Dutch combination, Aktuele Mode, which means Current Fashion. Obvious, they must have thought: aktueel is clearly the same word as actual, and mode is fashion, so let's call the shop Actual Fashion. And that is exactly the name that appears in large letters. So to native English speakers, it looks like something out of the East End that sells yer actual fashion, know what I mean?