Wednesday, August 25, 2010

fry's hungarian deceit

If you watch Dave enough then you will eventually end up watching every episode of QI ever recorded, several times, in a random order (same goes for Mock The Week and Top Gear, among others). While doing this the other day I happened across an episode (series 2, episode 12) where Stephen Fry was describing the odd speech patterns of his Hungarian grandfather, and in particular the bizarre way he used to pronounce "pineapple upside-down cake":
My grandfather always used to call Pythagoras "Peter Gorus," 'cause he was Hungarian, my grandfather. And he said [as his grandfather], "Ah, you go to school; you learn about Peter Gorus!" And I said, "Who is this Peter Gorus?" And I remember saying . . . and I came home, and he said, "Did you do the Peter Gorus?" I said, no, we'd not done any Peter Gorus. He said, "Go . . . go to your . . . ask your mathematics teacher. He must do the Peter Gorus!" And I said, "Are we going to do Peter Gorus?" He'd go, [dismissive] "Shut up, Fry. What do you--" Years later, I discovered he meant "Pythagoras"! He used to pronounce "pineapple upside-down cake" "piniople opshiden-dovne tsoke".
This (here's the clip) struck me as fishy, and here's why: several years back I read a fascinating biography of the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős (it's by Paul Hoffman and it's called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, if you want to check it out), and in that book it is described how Erdős learnt English from a series of books, but with no audible reference material, i.e. little guidance as to correct pronunciation, and therefore applied his native Hungarian pronunciation rules instead, resulting in some oddities. The example given in the book was of how Erdős would pronounce the phrase "pineapple upside-down cake", and it's pretty much as per the QI version; see for yourself (on page 87):

So I suggest the following as possible explanations for this:
  • coincidence. This seems unlikely, and would additionally suggest the Hungarians have some inbuilt genetic racial fetish for suet-rich 1970s desserts;
  • Stephen Fry read TMWLON (quite plausible), and decided that the story was so good (and that few enough people would have read the book that he'd be able to get away with it) that he'd nick it and append it to the (probably true, for all I know) existing Peter Gorus story for comic effect;
  • slightly more charitably, Stephen Fry read TMWLON and susequently the two stories of eccentric Hungarian pronunciation got melded together in his head and ended up both attributed to his grandfather;
  • slightly more implausibly, Paul Hoffman attended some social function with Fry, prior to 1998 when the book was published, and nicked the story in the opposite direction;
  • finally, both men nicked the story from a third, earlier, comedy Hungarian stereotype and adapted it to their own nefarious ends.
I know what I think, but make up your own mind.

Just to go off at a slight tangent, Paul Erdős, who was one of the most prolific mathematicians of this or any other century, had so many collaborators on various mathematical papers over the years that someone was obliged to invent the concept of the Erdős number to keep track of his huge network of collaborators. Basically an Erdős number of 1 means that you personally co-authored a paper with Erdős at some point, an Erdős number of 2 means you co-authored a paper with someone who co-authored a paper with Erdős, and so on. This provides an amusing (and slightly more fusty and academic) parallel to the concept of a Bacon number, which arises as a corollary of the game Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon, the equivalent concept here being appearing in a film with Kevin Bacon. This is turn gives rise to the concept of an Erdős-Bacon number, something granted (as you can imagine) only to a very small number of people, including some rather unlikely ones such as Natalie Portman.

Finally, here's that pineapple upside-down cake recipe you were wanting. I won't be trying it as I loathe pineapple upside-down cake, comically pronounced or otherwise.


electrichalibut said...

Andy points out that there should, for completeness, be a sixth bullet in that list to represent the possibility that Paul Erdős was in fact Stephen Fry's grandfather. This would be somewhat surprising for a number of reasons, though, not least because it's well-documented that Erdős had no children, nor even any interest in women or sex, and in fact almost certainly died a virgin. But hey, you never know. Maybe that was all a smokescreen and he was at it like a crazed weasel constantly.

decoboco said...

It seems unlikely to me that Erdős would've pronounced the name of that dessert in that way, except for a comedic effect. It is not a Hungarian accent of English, rather just reading out aloud the letters in Hungarian. Any old English grammar book made in Hungary would've told you how to pronounce English words, so you would have had a pretty good approximation even without any audio material. Like pájnepöl apszájd dáun kejk
Fry's pronunciation was very good by the way. I can also imagine that this was some kind of popular catchphrase among Hungarians of Erdős's generation.

dave said...

Exactly. I see no reason to impute deception, intended or otherwise, to either Fry or Erdös. I am sure that Hungarians working in English regularly got a kick, and a laugh, out of pronouncing English phrases as if they were Hungarian, and “pineapple upside-down cake” is a particularly good one: neither Fry’a grandfather nor Erdös need have been particularly fond of said dessert, or even known what exactly it was, to have enjoyed the same fun.