Sunday, June 12, 2011


This might mark a return to regularly updating this thing, or it might just be an aberration.

I've been writing a sort of potted history of the Austro-Hungarian empire recently, and it's got me thinking about names and translations. These days we tend to think of names as fixed, unchanging things—they're written on all your identity documents and require a lot of paperwork to change—but that hasn't always been the case. One particularly interesting example of this fluidity is the fact that people who travelled around Europe often used to transliterate their names depending on where they were. John would become Jean, Johann, Jan, János, or Giovanni depending on where you are. This is particularly interesting when you bear in mind that many parish birth registers, at least in continental Europe, used to record names in the Latin version (so John would be written Iohannes)—despite the fact that no-one would have ever used this form, or likely even be able to pronounce it.
This has led to some interesting confusions over what to call certain historic figures. Austro-Hungarian Emperors, for example, had separate royal titles in each of their kingdoms, with each styling their name differently. Deciding which spelling to use can be a bit tricky (do you go for the neutral latinate version they used on official documents, the German version they answered to personally, or one of the other variants?) and has bothered me a lot while editing this book.
The prime example of this confusion. however, is Mozart. He is known to history by the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but there is no record of him ever having used this particular handle. His entry in the parish baptismal record lists his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart—a strange mess of latin, pseudo-latin, and Greek that no-one is likely to have ever used. The first part Johannes Chrysostomus is a saint's name, included as a nod to Catholic custom—at the time of his birth this was a largely ceremonial detail, never actually used other than in religious contexts. For all intents and purposes, therefore, his given name was Wolfgang— Germanic name that, luckily for historians and editors, doesn't translate into other languages. His middle name, Theophilus, which literally means "loved by God," can also be written in Latin as Amadeus, in Italian as Amadè, and in German as Gottlieb (this was the version his father used when writing about him).
Mozart himself generally used the name Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, but this was dismissed as an affectation by his friends and associates, who usually called him Wolfgang Gottlieb. The only known example of Mozart signing his name Amadeus is in a silly letter he wrote to a young cousin entirely in pompous-sounding pseudo-latin.
Of course, this level of fluidity wasn't restricted to those who could switch between languages at will. Until fairly recently there was a distinct separation between languages as they were written and as they were spoken. A vernacular name that you used every day, for example, might be seen as too vulgar to actually write down—hence Mikołaj Kopernik becomes Nicolaus Copernicus. This still exists today in many cultures, particularly in the Arab world, where the gulf between Modern Standard Arabic (the formal language taught in schools) and local dialects like Moroccan Darija has widened to the point where the two languages are only just mutually intelligible. It also exists in English, to an extent. Few people write exactly as they speak, whether phonetically or stylistically. While I do actually talk with scrupulously correct BBC pronunciation that my writing suggests, my actual spoken language is peppered with far more idiomatic phrases and industrial-strength swearwords than my writing. When I try to include these in my writing, it often feels forced or out of place. My name stays the same though.