Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ł

One of the things of having a Polish professor who:  A) studied at MIT, B) speaks Polish, Russian, Slovak, and Yiddish, C) has a keen sense of history and linguistics, is that you learn a lot of interesting things about the language.  For instance, take the Polish letter Ł: it's an L with a slash through it, but pronounced like W, a sound that (I'm pretty sure, please correct me if I am wrong) no other Slavic tongue has.  The thing is, is that Ł used to be pronounced like the Russian Л (transliterated as L.  This L should be pronounced like the L in girl or Polish, not like the L in look or fabulous.)  When reading Old Polish, one should be aware of this to pronounce it correctly.  The problem arising with Ł is that it's a hard phoneme to learn, especially for children.  Gradually, Polish and Poland did away with this guttural sound and replaced it with the more fluid W sound.
Now, if you don't believe me, just ride the subway.  At Stacja Ratusz Arsenał, listen to the announcement, which pronounces it like ArsenaL.  I presume that the name is preserved for historical reasons.

How to Piss off the English
Now, an American like myself has run into quite a bit of resistance to forcing people to adopt the American way of saying things.  (I've had enough of lorry and pronouncing schedule like shed-yoo-all.)  Why not rattle their chains a little?
So, a few years back a Polish girl was pontificating about how British English was superior to American English because it sounded more royal, affluent, and historical.  It was the dialect of Shakespeare, of the Queen, of Hugh Grant.  Except…  it wasn't.  I pointed out firstly that there are many dialects and accents of British English and the best dialect outside of the US was the Irish Brogue followed by the Scottish Brogue.
More importantly, today's British English is NOT the language of Shakespeare (or so say the linguists.)  We have become accustomed to actors in movies speaking with modern British accents and actors on stages fudging with terrible British accents.  But did Shakespeare really speak with a modern British accent?  Probably not.  He probably spoke with an accent closer to the Carolinian accent (much like Stephen Colbert used to.)  The Carolinas (North and South) were colonized about 400 years ago and were buffered from many linguistic influences unlike, say New York or Boston or even Minnesota.  So, to be more historically accurate, those actors should try to emulate Lindsay Graham's way of speech Hugh Grant's.
Also, the English learned how to write from the Irish (ooooh, doesn't that just make their blood boil?!)


Steve said...

I just love posts like these, thank you.

I couldn't tell any difference between the 'l' pronunciations you suggest, but since that is quite normal for me I rushed to check the dictionary to see what I was mispronouncing. Unfortunately, none of them, including US Webster's, can tell the difference either. Please explain.

I don't know about other English people, but none of this could possibly annoy me and much of what you say about English accents seems self-evident. Indeed, all that nonsense about the English English being royal, affluent and historical is far more likely to annoy - hardly anyone speaks that way. I've never heard mention of the Irish brogue, but the Scottish one used to be limited to Edinburgh. I used to be happy to tell people this, possibly as an anti-aristocracy prejudice, until a taxi ride there. It took me twenty minutes to get attuned to the guy's way of speaking. I even asked me if he was local - I guessed he was from Glasgow. He affirmed he was, pointing out the housing estate where he and his family had lived for four generations, and offering to show me the place. I had a meeting to go to, though. After that, I didn't feel like telling people that it was the ruling class Edinburgh accent that people were talking about: royal, affluent and a thin veneer on reality.

Finally, I'd love to hear what evidence you have about the English learning to write from the Irish (really!). This is just part of my interest in the early years of the creation of England. Going back hundreds and thousands of years with highly charged emotions to prove who is currently best only seems to be an obsession for a small number of Irish (and USAns?). Why does anyone care?

PolishMeKnob said...

Ahhh, my scheme has worked almost perfectly.

The difference between L in "girl" and "let" is that the one in "girl" is more guttural. The tongue curls behind the top front teeth, whereas in "let" the tip of the tongue is right underneath the front two teeth (try it!)

As for the Irish monks, well they are commonly assigned with saving ancient history (how true that is, is subject to debate.) Anyway, during the Dark Ages (which might have not been so dark), the barbarian attacks decimated traditional places of learning such as Rome, which lost a lot of literature. A lot of this writing was preserved in monasteries (the nobles and clergy where often the only literate people in those times.) Ireland had a fairly large monastic movement and these monks would spend a large part of their days copying books. The new places of learning became the monasteries, which often received a lot of students (particularly Royalty.) Places like England were habitually invaded by: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, other Germanic people, etc. (This is one of the reasons why English is quite a mishmash.) But it wasn't just the Germanic tribes invading England, the Irish did it as well. These days, they're called Scots (these Scots would later re-invade Ireland and today they cause trouble as Protestant Northern Irish.) Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic are relatively close to each other, and quite different from Welsh Gaelic.
Now, Ireland itself (and the monasteries especially) was invaded as well. The vikings frequently invaded and colonized Ireland, and the monasteries were frequent targets because: A) monasteries were wealthy (they were frequent targets of greedy kings. Shutting down a monastery or two brought in quite a lot of cash.) B) Because it was so darn easy. You walked up to these places with weapons and they would throw up their hands and go, "Help!" The vikings didn't really understand it very well.
Even in the face of these dangers, the Irish monks spread their missions throughout the Islands. They really worked hard to promote Christianity and monasticism throughout Ireland, Scotland, and England. In their effort, they founded many monasteries, bringing with them texts and literacy. The monastic traditions helped preserve all the old texts, which were then (traditionally thought) to help preserve not only the old writings, but to also teach the new "English" monks (as well as affluent "English" students and royalty) how to read and write (English is something that came later. England at that time was a total clusterfuck of different people.)
Anyway, much of this is debated, and the debate is often debated upon.

Steve said...

I still can't get the 'l', but that is no surprise to me. I am a bit over conscious about my inability to differentiate sounds.

Particular thanks about the full answer on the Irish connection, although you may appreciate that I don't think you have justified your original assertion.

If you are really interested in this period, can I please offer you what I consider the most fascinating non-fictional account of one of the most influential early Scot/Scottish Christians written by the other most influential. It is the life of Columbia written by Adamnan and is available at: Columba. Having read this, you will be free to knowledgeably dismiss the entire English literary concept of wizards, from Merlin to Gandalf and beyond, as mere pale imitations of the real thing. Adamnan himself was the motivator for the first inter-nation agreement on treatment of civilians during war time, some 1,500 years before the Geneva convention. Sorry - I am well into my third beer, but the trouble with trying to take the piss out of the English is that there is always some annoying sod out there who tells you that your emotions are completely right, but you ain't.

PolishMeKnob said...

Um, OK. I was totally ripping into the wizards too.

This whole thing is about rankling the English, and it apparently worked quite well. Everything in the post, from the stuff about the Irish teaching the English to the Carolinian accents, is under intense debate from both linguists and historians. I'm merely putting forth ideas, albeit in the humorous and silly context that one can stir up nationalistic feelings with it.
I ought to have stated that these theories are not proven, and were merely theories. Even if I agree with them (which is undoubtedly because of my heritage and background), it doesn't mean that they should be taken for Gospel or that I couldn't be convinced otherwise with proper support.

Dr. Detroit said...

Hehe, this is great. As a kid, I always thought that the "funny way that some people pronounced ł" was because they were from Lwów or somewhere from the eastern parts of Poland. To me the pronounciation was somewhere between L and Ł.

Steve said...

My apology was for my sloppy language, although it seemed at the time to be appropriate in the context, rather than any irritation at your comments. My reason for interest in your original point was because of a background that recognises the implications of such things as the post at polish2english/thorn. Why would the Irish/Scots teach the English runic writing? Why would the Irish church have any impact on the Church of the Angles, created directly from Rome and originally with continental archbishops who wrote and disseminated the use of Latin? Although it is clear that the Scots had significant dealings with the Saxons in Northumbria - see Adamnan, is there anything to suggest they had any influence on the West Saxons who eventually took leadership of England and the Church of England? If so, why did the Saxons continue to write in their own language? So on, and so forth. In the face of all this, the interesting issue seems to be whether the Anglo-Saxons brought their literacy with them. However, any real answers to the above questions would have been fascinating.

Patrick said...

I am literally boiling in indignation and in my typical English way shall do nothing about that!

Let's be clear that your theory about "the accent of Shakespeare" is just that, a theory. In addition since the way people interpet language is entirely subjective, let's leave it at that. Have you ever tried to order shaving cream in the very far North of Scotland, as I have? I assure you it is a dialect quite incomprehensible.

Yours in affectionate indignation,

Col. (Ret.) P Skarpetka

Anonymous said...

Well, about that "ł" and the metro announcer: in my opinion You're reading too much into it and think the man just comes from the area where "ł" used to be pronounced like "l", grew up speaking like that and wasn't able to drop it ever since. Most probably he comes from "Kresy", pre-war eastern territory of Poland, as I don't know any other place where they'd pronounce it like that. As for groups of people, ethnic minorities of then would have problems with getting that right too; there too was a "hrabiowskie " back then, the manner in which upper classes pronounced it, but it's all gone after the war. Nobody born and raised in contemporary Poland pronounces it like that, neither has problems with "ł" as a child - children usually get "ż" and "ź" wrong and pronounce it simply as "z" but, except for few, master that with age naturally by the time they're teens.