December 18, 2003

Vintage Effle

Margaret Marks at Transblawg points us to the Effle Page, which introduces a useful word for the pseudo-language of many phrase books (and some linguistics examples), and claims that Ionesco's Bald Soprano was written (in French) as an imitation of effle sentences in the books from which he learned English.

My favorite source of effle used to be a thin Vietnamese-English phrase booklet that I bought at a Pleiku road-side stand in 1970. It was written by someone who was not a native speaker of English, printed very cheaply, and was apparently intended for the bar girl market, since the English side ran to things like

I am grateful for you to buy another bottle of champagne.
You have mistaken me, sir, I am a girl of good born.

Indeed, with some stage directions and a bit of good will, the whole thing could easily have been passed off as a one-acter from some second-rank absurdist playwright. My copy wandered off at some point, so someone else will have to arrange the premiere.

Some similarly evocative dramatic fragments can be found in the brief (about 100 lines) English/Harari "dialogues and sentences" in appendix II (Grammatical Outline and Vocabulary of the Harari Language) of Richard Burton's First Footsteps in East Africa, which I recently re-read. I'm not sure this counts as effle, sentence by sentence, but the overall impression created by the sequence is similar. Here's an illustrative sample:

Come in and sit down.
What is thy name?
Come here (to woman).
Dost thou drink coffee?
I want milk.
Where goest thou?
I go to Harar.
Send away the people.
I love you.
What is thine age?
Don't laugh.
Raise your legs.
Don't go there.
This man is good.
He is a great rascal.
I don't want you (woman).
Leave my house.

Depending on the staging, this phrase list/dialogue might accompany several different stories, all more or less piggish. Whatever events one might imagine, they seem likely to be Burton's fantasies rather than facts, since he spent his ten days in Harar "so closely watched that it was found impossible to put pen to paper", and compiled his Harari grammatical sketch, after fleeing the city, during a few days spent in the Galla country to the east of Harar while equipping a caravan for the journey to Berbera on the coast.

"The literati who assisted in my studies were a banished citizen of Harar; Sa'id Wal, an old Badawi; and Ali Sha'ir, "the Poet", a Girhi Somal celebrated for his wit, his poetry and his eloquence.... Our hours were spent in unremitting toil: we began at sunrise, the hut was crowded with Badawi critics, and it was late at night before the manuscript was laid by. On the evening of the third day, my three literati started upon their feet, and shook my hand, declaring that I knew as much as they themselves did."

[Update: some excellent effle is now available at desbladet.

On reflection, I'm not satisfied with the cited definition (from the effle page)::

"Effle is grammatical English which could never be uttered because it has little meaning and could never be put into a sensible context."

The examples are mostly meaningful enough, it seems to me. But they have a sort of artificial feeling, like not-quite-real computer-generated movie scenes. As in the case of such scenes, it can sometimes be difficult to put your finger on exactly what's wrong -- though of course sometimes it's pretty obvious. Anyhow, it's interesting that this sense of unnaturalness can arise in a purely textual environment, since in the case of CG scenes, it's likely that the problems are mostly due to the lack of real physics and physiology in the causal chain leading to the signals.

The analogous issues in the case of synthetic speech are especially interesting. I've been learning about recent innovations in that area, and may have something to say on the subject in coming weeks.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 18, 2003 08:01 AM