Monday, July 2, 2012

You got some ‘splainin’ to do

I know_ that. Why did they change the lyric to "Harry"?
     IMissLiberty in reply to vootie99  1 week ago

one thing_ irks me. This version of this song keeps referring to "Harry Cooper", but that's not right. The actual lyric is "GARY Cooper", who was a famous American actor.
     rachelodell6879 1 week ago

Who is Harry Cooper?_ isn't it Gary Cooper?
     d0gg0d 3 days ago

In reading the commentary following the YouTube to “Puttin’on the Ritz” which I blogged about   yesterday, I noticed a number of people had picked up on the fact the Russians had taken the line “all dressed up to look like Gary Cooper” and changed his name to Harry.  They naturally wanted to know why.

There are so many questions I can’t answer – why do toilets flush one way north of the equator and the other way south of the equator, why do people listen to Rush Limbaugh, why do I love my dogs so much – I thought I’d attempt to answer IMissLiberty and  Rachel and dØggØd’s question.  Besides, I don’t get to play linguist much anymore.  Just can’t resist:

Dear IMissLiberty, Rachel and dØggØd:

If you’ve got a minute, and you really want an answer to your question, why did the Russians change Gary Cooper’s name to Harry, I may have it.

You know what a hypercorrection is, right?  In grammar, it’s where you hear your elementary school teacher’s voice in the head scolding you for saying, “Don’t say ‘Me and Johnny’ – say ‘Johnny and I’.   And here you are, years later, so afraid of being wrong that you say things like ‘between you and I,’ even though speakers of standard English will tell you what follows a preposition is the objective case, not the subjective case – me, not I.

Hypercorrections are noticed all the time in the speech of second-language speakers.  Most people know that the German letter “w” is pronounced like the English “v”.   Weimar is pronounced “vai-mar” and “Wie geht’s” (How are you?) is pronounced “vee gates”.   Most people also know that when people speak with a “foreign accent” they are simply transfering the sounds of their mother tongue over into their second language.  That’s why when you make fun of a German speaking English you imagine him saying things like “Vee haff vays to make you speak!”

What most people don’t know, but is equally true, is that people speaking a second language are often aware that there is a risk they will transfer those first language phonemes into their second language, and they overcompensate for the fact.  Sometimes a German will say “vi” for “we”.  But sometimes a German will also say “wery” for “very,” or “wiolin” for “violin”.  So strong is the concern they are overusing the “v” sound where the English “w” sound should be that they actually us the “w” sound where the “v” should be.

English speakers have another kind of overcompensation problem with French.  They learn early on that in French, the final “s” is silent.  “Je ne sais pas” is pronounced “zhe ne say pa.”  “Foie gras” is pronounced “fwa gra.”  But then the trouble starts.  Probably because everybody knows “fwa gra,” when they hear “coup de grace” they think it ought to sound similar – “coo de gra”.  They don’t see that this is a word ending not in “s”  but in “ce,” which is pronounced as “ce” is pronounced in English.  It’s “koo de grah ss”
Then there’s the French exception to the French rule.  The symbol for France, the “fleur de lis” is a word where the final “s” is pronounced.  It’s pronounced “fleur de leece,” not “fleur de lee.”

In French, initial “h” is not pronounced.  “Honneur” is pronounced ‘onneur.”  French speakers know that the “h” is usually pronounced in English and that they will “have a French accent” if they say ‘ot’ for “hot” and ‘appy’ for “happy.”  So, just as Germans may say “uniwersity” for “university,” French may pronounce the ‘h’ in “honor,” even though it’s silent in English.

The Japanese language has what is known as “devoiced vowels.”  To oversimplify a bit, this means that the “i” sound in “shita” gets lost and sounds to English speakers’ ears as is the Japanese are saying “shta.”  I went in and out of Narita Airport nearly 150 times in the past twenty-five years.  One of the things I just couldn’t ignore was the way the flight announcer – in otherwise impeccable Hollywood 1930s English – would pronounce “Newark” as if it were “Nyoo – arc” – arc, not erk – and “Chicago” as if it were “Shkago.”  Poor lady just couldn’t keep those “a” sounds from sounding like the “a” in “father” – and those “i”s voiced.

OK.  Now for the Russian example.  Lots of people commented on two curious choices of words in the Russian rendition of Puttin’ on the Ritz.   One was “super pooper” instead of “super duper.”   The other was your question.   These are two different types of linguistic errors.  Super pooper is an unfortunate mistaken choice of words – and we won’t ask where the lovely Russian lady belting out pooper got the word from; she simply got it wrong and there may be no reason why.   “Harry,” on the other hand, may be a case of linguistic overcompensation.  Let me ‘splain why.*

If you look at the Russian way of saying Hamburg, Hannover, Hitler, Hong Kong, Haiti and Hawaii – it’s Gamburg, Gannover, Gitler, Gonkong, Ga-ee-tee and Gavai-ee.  Somewhere in the linguistic past, what turned out to be h’s in Western European languages turned out to be g’s in Russian. 

I could be way off on this, of course.  In modern times, the Russians have taken to pronouncing English h-initial cities with the Russian “kh” sound (the first sound in chutzpah).  So they don’t say Gartford, Gereford or Gampshire, in other words, but Khartford, Khereford or Khampshire.

But you see how the Russian brain might be churning.  Somewhere in there is an alarm going off saying, “don’t say “g” – say “h” – or maybe “kh”.  And that may explain how Gary Cooper got lost in translation.  It wasn’t ignorance.  It was programming in the brain.

That would explain why they would say “Harry” even if they saw “Gary” written.

It could also be that they didn’t see the lyrics written at all (most unlikely) but just heard the phrase, “look like Gary Cooper” and thought the G of Gary was part of the K (they are the same sound, you know, except for the voicing) – loo klyke ar ry Cooper.

And then there’s the third possibility.  They simply got the wrong word – like pooper.

If you think about it, though, I’ll bet you’ll find the first of these three explanations makes the most sense.

Hope you’ll forgive the pedantics.

Best wishes,

Alan McCornick

*‘splain – Desi Arnaz’s way of saying “explain,” overcompensating for the fact that Spanish has no initial “s” without an “e” in front of it – hence “espeak eSpanish” for “Speak Spanish” (plain transfer) and “’splain” for “explain” (overcompensation).

Gary Cooper's photo credit

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