Sunday, January 27, 2008

Toujours Tingo?

"Randomness" is fashionable these days. You can't get away from it. It's very trendy to be just a little bit crazy, and to sprinkle your utterances liberally with llamas, badgers, armadillos and cheese. It's the cultural legacy of Monty Python's Flying Circus, ultimately, and so it can't be an entirely bad thing. I can't pretend to be immune to the lure of the random myself. Just look at the labels I've given my posts, and the story I started writing at the very start of my blogging days. Randomness is fun, in moderation, and as an added bonus it is very easy to achieve.

The problem with randomness, though, is that it constantly has to redefine itself so that it doesn't become mundane and therefore oxymoronic. What's random isn't set in stone; conventionalised randomness isn't random at all. Random humour is only funny once; the next time it's uttered, it is in no sense random. If one is trying to be avant-garde and popular, then, the worst thing one can do is to be random in the same way twice.

Tell that to Adam Jacot de Boinod. His first book, The Meaning of Tingo, was a bestseller. It consisted of a list of vaguely amusing-sounding random foreign words and their vaguely amusing English translations. Even with the first book he was treading a fine line; in its gentle, utterly useless information-purveying nature it was dangerously close to other works of the "random genre" such as Schott's Miscellany. Now, however, he's brought out a sequel, Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words To Change The Way We See The World.

Even the most light-hearted reader of random literature ought to be wary of this. With sequels it's easy to suspect a callous cash-in, and authors often (perhaps unfairly) have to work extra hard to make their sequel something special. Anything new in here, then? Nope - it's just another list of vaguely amusing-sounding foreign words and their vaguely amusing English translations. All the more pathetic considering that presumably A. J. de B. has been deluged with fan emails since he published the first book, all itching to tell him about the latest amusing-sounding foreign word they've come across on their travels. And A. J. de B. does nothing to assuage our suspicions that he's just churning out an easy money-spinner. On the back sleeve of the book he claims that "[h]e is now intending lezarder (French - to lie around basking in the sun like a lizard)."

In the previous paragraph I used the word "author", and indeed the book itself refers to A. J. de B. in this way. However, the term isn't really appropriate here. "Compiler", perhaps? I would venture to call him an "editor", except that a cursory read of the book shows that no editing of any kind has in fact been done. The German phrase da lichen die Hühner is used to mean "you must be joking" - except that the German is spelt wrong. It should be lachen. And German is one of the less obscure languages in this book. Would it have been so hard to get that checked?

Furthermore, the translations are often exaggerated for comic effect, and in some cases are just plain wrong. The previous example is followed by "literally, 'this makes the chickens laugh'". Um... actually, A. J., its literal translation is more like "there the chickens are laughing". Not a big difference, but if you're going to throw in the word "literally" you have to make sure that your translation is actually literal and faithful. A worse example can be found over the page, where another German word, ad-hoc-Bildungen, is translated as "making up a new word on the spot in a moment of need". This translation gives the impression that the German word is a verb denoting an action, or a noun describing the process of that action. Wrong - it's a noun (in the plural) meaning "made-up words" - literally "ad hoc formations". There's nothing in there about the action of making up, or indeed about a moment of need. Clearly A. J. de B. had a moment of need and decided to make the translation more vaguely humorous than it actually was. I could give you more examples, but I've already wasted enough time on this book.

Which brings me on to my next point. What on earth is this book actually for? From the above it emerges that it can in no way be used as a reliable guide to saying anything in any language. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that if you're knowledgeable enough about a language to be able to speak it at all you'll be able to spot the errors in the book's examples. Furthermore, it's ordered by (loose) topic, so you can't use it as any kind of reference work. Finally, it's not even funny. It really isn't. Most of my evening reading is linguistics textbooks these days, but even so it's been a long time since I read anything as soporific as this.

Of course, one could argue that the whole point of this sort of book is to be pointless. It's part of the "randomness" of it. But if you were thinking of saying that, look deep inside yourself and realise the truth. Nothing is funny by virtue of being pointless. "Random" humour is only ever funny because of the absurdity of the juxtaposition of the randomness and the situation, and most of these words just aren't random enough. The German phrase "war dein Vater ein Dieb? Weil er die Sterne vom Himmel gestohlen hat um sie dir in die Augen zu setzen" - "Was your father a thief? Because he stole the stars from the sky and put them in your eyes" is quite charming as a ridiculous chat-up line, but... couldn't we say that in English? Yes, we could, because we just did in the translation. It's simply a metaphor, and the glory of metaphor is that it allows for creativity in language. ANY language. To put a metaphor like the above in a list of foreign words is to miss the point. It won't "change the way we see the world", and neither will any word. The view that language shapes thought is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis has been comprehensively discredited, at least in its strong form, and the prevailing view is that thought shapes language to at least as great a degree.

So the only remaining purpose for this book is to provide witty anecdotes that one can recite to one's friends down at the pub or at a dinner party, if one spends enough time remembering them. Except, as mentioned above, that they're not actually that witty or profound or anything else. The book's recommended price is £10.99 in hardback. For God's sake don't buy it. You'll only be giving the filthy lizard A. J. de B. more cash to wallow in.

Apologies if this book has made me into something of a mouton enragé (French - someone usually calm who loses their temper: literally, a maddened sheep). But I would recommend this book only to a slavishly mundane, predictable follower of the cult of randomness. No true free thinker would have the determination to plough through all three hundred pages of it without losing the will to live. For my part, I'm calling it a day at page 76, and won't be getting it out again in a hurry.