The confusion of letters | Montpellier, France

Friends who are studying Bulgarian often complain about how confusing the alphabet can be. At first glance, unlike fundametally different scripts (such as Arabic, Japanese or Chinese), the Cyrillic alphabet is easy:

а б в г д е ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ь ю я

A lot of its letters look like their Latin counterparts; some of them even correspond across the two alphabets: ‘A’ is ‘A’, ‘K’ is ‘K’, ‘M’ is ‘M’, ‘O’ is ‘O’ and ‘T’ is ‘T’.

The confusion, though, sets in when the Bulgarian ‘B’ turns out to be the English ‘V’, the Cyrillic ‘H’ actually corresponds to the Latin ‘N’, the ‘P’ is an ‘R’, and the ‘C’ is in fact an ‘S’. [A common joke is that all eateries in Bulgaria carry the unappealingly sounding name PECTOPAHT (a phonetic transcription of the word ‘restaurant’ in Bulgarian).]

What renders matters even more confusing is that letters from the Cyrillic alphabet sometimes look like slightly modified versions of Latin letters but sound nothing like them: the best example is the mirror image of ‘R’- the Bulgarian “Я”, which contains not a trace of a throaty roar but is rather the sound made of combining ‘i’+’a’ (as in the endings of Sofia or Maria). Another case is the flipped ‘N’ – the Bulgarian ‘И’, pronounced like the ‘i’ in ‘hipster’. Or – as in the picture above, the English ‘V’, which – when turned upside down becomes (in certain fonts) the Bulgarian ‘Л’. [Although, in the interest of full disclosure, the signs pictured were in fact not letters but arrows indicating the direction of traffic on two parallel bike lanes.]

Against all odds, it might turn out that the easiest Cyrillic letters to learn are those that have no Latin counterparts or slightly modified twins. Some of them, in spite of their strange appearance, have direct phonetic equivalents in English: the angular Г (as in the ‘g’ in ‘golf’), the symmetricаlly attractive Ж (which sounds like the ‘g’ in ‘genre’) and Ф ( the ‘f’ in ‘February’). Others – to the delight of those learning Bulgarian as a foreign language, are single letters that unify more than one sound, on the same principle as the Latin ‘X’ (a combination of k+s): the rounded Ю (pronounced exactly like ‘you’); the siblinged Ш and Щ (pronounced ‘sh’ and ‘sht’, respectively); the choppy Ч (which would be the first letter if you transcribe the word ‘choppy’ in Bulgarian); and Ц (the first sound in the word ‘Zeitgeist’ if you pronounce it as Germans do).

But perhaps the strangest and most troubling of all is the letter Ъ (pronounced ‘uh’, or like the second sound in ‘Bulgarian’), which is tricky to use for both native and foreign speakers, stands at the beginning of just one single word in the Bulgarian language and yet, it is indispensable.

***This post is part of the alphabet series, which contains photos and stories about letters from various alphabets. For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.***

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Leftist tendencies | Paris, France

The above image captures part of the a warning sign painted at many pedestrian crossings in Paris that in its entirety reads “Danger a gauche” (Danger to the left).

The word ‘gauche’ is another fascinating case of seemingly mundane words’ having multiple and unrelated meanings and undergoing a curious transformation as they are adopted in another language. (Similarly to the word pedestrian.)

In French, the most common usage of the word gauche is to mean left, as in the opposite of right. As an extension to that, the word can also be employed to mean bent, twisted, slanted, or skewed. Interestingly, it also holds several other meanings that have nothing to do with relative directions or egocentric coordinates. It is also a synonym for embarrassed, clumsy, awkward, incompetent, timid and constrained, and it is also used in old expressions, to indicate a certain “irregularity”, as in “mariage de la main gauche” (marriage of the left hand), used in references to royals who marry commoners or to a couple who lives together without being married.

In English, the straight-forward meaning of the word as an indicator of relative direction has been completely lost, and ‘gauche’ means lacking social grace, sensitivity, acuteness, or tact. It is synonymous with awkward, clumsy, ungainly, gawky, unhandy and… maladroit (another word borrowed from French, in whose roots stand the words mal (‘ill’) and droit (“right”), the relative direction opposite of left.

It is fascinating how these two words’ meanings have transformed, from the simple  names for the two most common relative directions – left and right, which presumably have the same value, to become injected with meanings that unquestionably make one better than and preferable to the other. In contrast to the gawky gauche, the word droit in French has an air of a definitive superiority, both physical and moral: it is used not only to mean straight (not bent or crooked) but is also at the root of all words related to law and justice (as opposed to criminal, illegal and unjust). The case is not so different in English, where labeling something as right means it is correct and not wrong.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that these positive (for the right) and negative (for the left) connotations stem from the long-standing assumption that right-handedness is superior to left-handedness. Just think of the words dextrous (= skillful) and sinister (= evil), whose meanings have largely shifted from their Latin origins but retain their positive and negative connotation: dexter in Latin means right-hand and skillful, while sinistra indicates ‘on the left hand or side, hence unfavorable, injurious’.

All this ties in rather well, though most likely accidentally, with the pedestrian crossing signs in Paris, which inadvertently confirm the notion of the sinister left (where danger lurks) and the benevolent, just and virtuous right. Curiously enough, while walking around Paris, I didn’t see any such signs warning pedestrians of dangers coming from the right. This is perplexing, considering the fact that in about 66% of the world, including France, traffic is on the right and thus, pedestrians would normally have the habit of looking for oncoming vehicles to the left as they cross. By contrast, the pedestrian crossing signs in London – where traffic moves on the left, thus confusing and endangering the billions of roaming tourists who come from those 66% of right-traffic countries, seem neutral. They never tire of telling people to look either left or right, having thus surely saved thousands, if not millions, of lives (including mine at least a dozen times).

These were some of the thoughts that filled my head as I walked the streets around the Latin Quarter in Paris’s Left Bank (Rive Gauche), the part of the city to the south of where the Seine flows. It could perhaps serve as a small consolation and redemption for the bad reputation of the word gauche to note that the term Rive Gauche stands not only for the geographical area just mentioned but also for three exciting and decidedly not awkward concepts:

1. “Rive Gauche” or “Left Bank” refers to the Paris of an earlier era; the city of artists, writers and philosophers, including Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and all the rest of the artistic community that lived, worked and hung out around Montparnasse around the 1920s and 1930s. The phrase implies a sense of bohemianism and creativity.

2. In cinema, the term Left Bank refers to a group of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the corresponding “right bank” group, which was made up of more famous and financially successful New Wave directors (Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard), the Left Bank directors (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Henri Colpi and Jacques Demy) had a “fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking”, as well as an identification with the political left, according to critic and curator Richard Roud.

3. Finally, Left Bank has also come to signify a particular look in fashion. This meaning was initiated by Yves Saint Laurent who in 1966 launched a ready-to-wear collection of that name, with which he reportedly sought to democratize fashion by taking clothes that had been, until then, worn exclusively by the lower classes, such as the leather jacket, and incorporating them into high fashion.

Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.

Firefighters!

Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification:

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain

As somebody who is obsessed fascinated with writing and words, on the one hand, and interesting ground surfaces, on the other, I know too well how rarely the two actually overlap. So, I was enthralled when I realized that we are staying in Madrid’s Barrio de Las Letras (Neighborhood of the Writers). The area used to house some of the great authors of Madrid’s 16th-century Golden Age of letters — Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and its pedestrian streets are now covered in brass-lettered poems, quotations and literary passages written by them and other Spanish writers.

¡Ah!, indeed.

I vaguely remembered walking in the area and being very charmed by the literature-paved streets the first time I was in the city over six years ago and, although I had no idea which part of Madrid they were in, I intended to find them again this time around. So, you can imagine my rapture when, on my first night out, while running around the city, I gazed down to find myself standing atop one such a brass-lettered passage. Adding to the glee was the charmingly obliging Spaniard who surprised me by throwing himself onto the ground and into the frame as I took a picture.

As I walked around the neighborhood the next day, I realized the poems and passages were everywhere, they were too numerous to read carefully, even if a better grasp of Spanish on my part could make that possible.

Some of the writing and writers were easily recognizable nonetheless.

But mostly, I enjoyed spotting interesting words (whose meaning I had to look up later). I especially loved ¡the inverted exclamation marks!

Here, la belleza = the beauty, made more beautiful when squeezed between ¡ and !.

Others, even without much punctuation, just looked beautiful, even though I had no idea what they meant:

(Turns out this is the first stanza from the poem “The dark swallows will return” by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.)

For a while, I could not get enough! But eventually, I stopped snapping photos every few meters, put my camera away and just enjoyed walking on top of literature, literary.

It’s all Greek to me | Nea Plagia, Greece

At the end of a long weekend – both literally and figuratively, I am now finding myself in Greece for a few days.

The reason for the long weekend in Bulgaria (the literal one at least; the figurative one is the subject of another post altogether) is that today is a national holiday. On May 24 – the Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavic Literature, Bulgarians celebrate literacy, the Cyrillic alphabet and the two brothers credited with its creation, the Saints Cyril and Methodius. Incidentally, they were born not far from where I stand today – in Thessaloniki, present-day Greece, but at the time (9th century) – a part of Byzantium.

Although the Cyrillic alphabet is supposedly based on the Greek one and Greek words are at the roots of many words in other languages, I find Greek pretty much impossible to decipher. Even if I manage to make several letters out, I am still utterly lost, as the words – even those that are usually the same across most Western languages, are completely different. I mean, come on! When hotel is hotel pretty much across the board (ok, Hungarian excepted), why does it need to be ξενοδοχείο (pronounced xenodocheío) in Greek!?!? I mean, I get the xeno- root (same one as in xenophobia), but give me a break! I guess I just take for granted being able to read and understand at least a bit. (Thinking about it now, I remember feeling a similar kind of frustration in Budapest.)

So, the English saying “It’s all Greek to me” is making total sense right now.

As in, if someone were to tell me that the Pythagorean theorem states that, in any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs, I – being the total math idiot that I am, would say, “It’s all Greek to me.” (All right, granted that this example is further muddied by the fact that Pythagoras himself was an ancient Greek, but you get my point.)

Anyways, a quick look at the expressions used to describe something incomprehensible in different languages shows that, in addition to Greek, Chinese also has the reputation for being unintelligible (at least to Dutch, French, Hungarian, Lithuanian and… ahem, Greek speakers, among others).

The Serbs, Croatians, Slovenes, Macedonians, Czechs and Slovaks, on the other hand, find Spanish villages utterly confusing. More particular geographical, historical and social factors seem to play a role in the understand of the Italians, for whom Arabic is incomprehensible; the Egyptians, who find Hindi mind-boggling; and Punjab speakers, who have an issue with Farsi.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have dropped potentially offensive comparisons in favor of more poetic idioms, describing things that are indecipherable as ghost or heavenly script.

Oh so pedestrian | Sofia, Bulgaria

As I walked along Sofia’s main drag – Vitosha Street, which has been closed off to cars for the last few years and now, after trams have been stopped too, it is only accessible by foot, I was reminded of the strange double meaning of the word ‘pedestrian’.

Most commonly, the word is used in reference to a person who goes by foot or to something related to, or designed for, walking, as in a pedestrian street (such as Vitosha), a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian crossing.

I’m no etymology expert, but this makes sense, because of the Latin root of the word – ped- (foot): same one that gave birth to pedal, pedicure, bipeds, centipedes and even impede and expedition (but not to be confused with words rooted in the Greek ped-, meaning ‘child’ or ‘boy’, and serving as the root of pedagogy, pediatrician and, uhm, pedophilia.)

What I find endlessly curious though, is the second meaning of the word pedestrian, namely – as a synonym for dull, uninspired, banal, ordinary and prosaic. The first time I heard it used in this sense, it struck me as the strangest of parallels, this equating of the act walking to the idea for dullness.

I tried to think of similar usages of the word in other languages. Though my command of German, French and Spanish is pitiful when it comes to nuances and double entendres, a quick check (thank you, Google translate!) shows that the words Fußgänger, piéton and peatón are used only to mean ‘a person who goes by foot’, while the other meaning of the word is rendered through translations of its synonyms: prosaisch, prosaïque and prosaico. [Update: I stand corrected. As a reader pointed out in the comment below, the word pedestre in Spanish carries the word’s dual meaning – both someone who goes on foot and something which is plain, vulgar, uneducated and/or lowly. In French, I am now finding another interesting translation of the adjective pédestre – to mean ‘rambling’ or ‘incoherent’. Any ideas about the German, anyone?]

In Bulgarian, of which I have a semi-decent hold and in which I am sometimes able to play with double meanings, the case is the same: пешеходец – although not containing the Latin root of ‘pedestrian’, means a person going on foot and only that, and прозаичен (‘prosaic’), on the other hand, has nothing to do with feet or walking. (Now, I couldn’t stop myself and I’ve gone and looked up the etymology of ‘prosaic’ too: as suspected, it comes from prose and “having the character of prose” (in contrast to the feeling of poetry), which then got extended to the sense of ‘ordinary’.)

But, as I was trying to translate the two unrelated meanings of the word and thinking of walking, streets and pedestrian crossings, I kept having the nagging feeling that there is another word linked to these concepts that is also used to describe something completely unrelated (and this will be my last sidetrack, I promise). As lexical fate would have it, the word ‘boulevard’ in Bulgarian – in addition to its common meaning (a broad city street) across different languages, is also used as an adjective to describe something, especially literature, which is of low quality, vulgar and trivial. Not much removed, it turns out, from the second meaning of ‘pedestrian’ (one of the translations for ‘pedestrian’ in Spanish and one of the meanings of the Spanish pedestre is vulgar.)

So, back to pedestrianism and dullness. If put in that context, it seems that there is indeed an everyday quality to walking; going by foot is in fact the least exciting mode of getting from one point to another; it doesn’t compare to the dynamics of riding in a car, bus, tram, on a motorcycle or even bicycle, let alone the thrill of flying in a plane. Or, in other words, experiencing the street through your feet is quite boring and mundane when compared with the sense of adventure and excitement provided by, and maybe even inherent in, other modes of transportation.

Turns out I was off on the specifics, but not the concept in general, and only because my thinking doesn’t seem to stretch far enough back to times when there were no cars, buses, trams, motorcycles or planes around. One explanation of the second, and strange, meaning of ‘pedestrian’ that I found is that it was first used in contrast to ‘equestrian’, or going on horseback.

So, ta-da, there you have it!

And that is that. All a bit much, maybe? But don’t you feel smarter after reading it? I know I do, after writing it. Now, excuse me while I go engage in more pedestrian endeavors. But first, I’m going for a walk.

Attention: Déjà vu | Ljubljana, Slovenia

Exactly two weeks after leaving Slovenia (complete with almost teary goodbyes, as I was not making any plans to come back any time soon), I found myself at the Ljubljana airport again.

I had the strangest kind of déjà vu – both expected and surprising, homely and unsettling, exciting and serene.

I couldn’t stay away, apparently.

So, I am now reunited with my favorite Trška Gora crew and ready for new sparks, outdoor adventures, joint projects, language misunderstandings, film screenings, sleeping, waking, eating and working in close quarters. This time, I’m heading to Izola, on the Adriatic coast, for the Kino Otok film festival.

At the airport, another meaning of the word pozor – which has proven to be a source of continuous entertainment with its multiple related, yet contrasting meanings in different Slavic languages, caught up with me again. The Bulgarian ‘disgrace’, apparently, is the Slovenian ‘attention’.

Lost in Translation | Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Pozorište: ‘theater’ in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian and ‘massive disgrace’ in Bulgarian; God – ‘year’ in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian and ‘the Almighty’ in English.

Speaking of heavenly things, a no less confusing, but much more appropriate word is the one for tomato, which in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian is known as paradajz (pronounced like ‘paradise’). I always knew my favorite vegetable (fruit?) was divine.