Wednesday, March 11, 2009

1066, PT-73

Officially, I've been on furlough this past week. It's a way my home university has come up with for meeting a small part of the budget cuts handed on to us from our state legislature. So, during this week, Spring Break on campus back in Logan, the entire university is on a mandatory and unpaid furlough. I know from the electronic chatter that not all of my colleagues were even aware of the meaning of furlough before they had the dubious benefit of taking one. Not me. A furlough was what the crew of PT-73 was always trying to get, preferably in New Caledonia. Or, looked at from the other way around, it was what Leadbottom was always trying to take away from them. If you never watched McHale's Navy on television, then you have no choice but to fall back on your Phil Silver's Show experience. Either way, furlough ought to be in the working vocabulary of every right thinking American.

But there's no denying, this particular use of the word is a little confusing. Furlough always seemed a positive thing for Torpedoman's Mate Gruber and Engineman, "Tinker" Bell. But I can't get too excited about a week without pay. I decided some investigation of the origin of the word might be in order. I don’t know much about etymology, but I noticed as soon as I began learning German, that there seem to be at least two words for everything in English, one that is common like "house" and a second that has a certain snobby quality like "mansion." Coincidentally, my hero, Harry Rowolt, has a column in this week’s Zeit in which he investigates exactly this aspect of the English language and uses it to argue that certain novels are better in their German translation than in the original.

He points out that since the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English follows this rule of thumb: vocabulary for things we associate with work comes from German. "Cow," for example. The words for things we associate with pleasure, such as "beef," come from the French. The speech of the commoner can usually be taken at face value. It comes from the “heart,” or auf Deutsch: ist herzlich. The speech of the Norman nobles is tricky. It can be "cordial," without really coming from the heart. Rowolt describes his difficulty in translating Flann O'Brien's novel, At Swim Two Birds, as he came up against words like "recalcitrant." He argues that his translation of recalcitrant as aufsässig is ultimately an improvement for the book. It's a simpler word. Warmer, and presumably, comes more from the heart. I looked up aufsässig and it does in fact mean recalcitrant. It also means, defiant, defiantly, fractious, noncompliant, obstreperous, rebellious... a lot of meaning to pack into one word.

I was at a dinner party not long ago with a group of native German speakers and an American other than myself and my wife. This American explained to anyone who would listen (and most of us didn't have much choice,) that English is a far better language than German, which really doesn't have enough vocabulary to express things properly. Is that what Herr Rowolt is getting at? Does he want to dumb down the English speaking world's literature for Germany? NEIN! I would argue that German is capable of expressing the same kind of subtlety as any other language, but it isn't necessarily always done through vocabulary. And Rowohlt sees a simpler vocabulary as a distinct advantage. That, and what he calls, der Krimi-Effekt. But I think that will have to be taken up in another post, another day.

So what about "furlough?" Is it a word that has to do with work or pleasure? My investigation shows that it comes from a Dutch word for "permission." Dutch is a Germanic language. So it's not about Vergnügen. Paradoxically, it's a word that means something like, "pause from work," but based on its Germanic root, must have some subtle negative connotations. Maybe that's why Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935, German satirist, publicist, and prescient critic of National Socialism) had this to say about English: "It's a simple but difficult language. It's composed entirely of foreign words that are incorrectly pronounced." Basta!


Charlie H said...

You really should be a columnist.

Em said...

I second that.

And the French/German roots is something I've never heard but makes sense immediately.

Except for of course, with the pleasurable exception of some of my favorite German dogs. The rottweiler,doberman,boxer,shepherd, the weimaraner, dachshund, or schnauzer. Well. I just like to say the last one. But, ironically enough, most seem to fall into the "Working Breed".

Maybe next the sabbatical should be in France.