Cajuns are fiercely proud of their culture, but they’re divided over the word ‘coonass’

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Here’s a post from Veronica Zaragovia.

The town of Eunice, Louisiana is one of those places that lets you know exactly where in America you are.

“I’m the owner of KBON 101.1 FM down in Cajun Country,” says Paul Marx, whose station began broadcasting music in 1997.

Much of life in so-called Cajun Country involves the French language, and Marx is fluent in what he calls Cajun French.

“We do speak different French here, a little different from Canada or France but it’s still our language — French,” he explains.

Cajun culture and the French language weren’t always so valued, though. In fact, French as a spoken language nearly disappeared, but the language and culture have made a comeback.

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

“We do a variety of music with a Louisiana flavor,” Marx says about his radio station. “About 75 percent of our overall music is Louisiana record artists.”

Artists like Jamie Bergeron & the Kickin’ Cajuns. People from around here either love or hate one of Bergeron’s songs, called “Registered Coonass.”

You can hear the song on Marx’s radio station because he likes it. Not all Cajuns do.

“I kind of got a threat by an attorney that if I continued playing the song, there’d be a lawsuit,” Marx says. “Well, that made me put the song on the playlist.”

The attorney was Warren Perrin, who threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission if KBON kept playing the song. Since then, the station now only plays it if a listener requests it, and DJs announce it not as “Registered Coonass” but “RCA.”

Warren Perrin’s law office is 40 miles away from Eunice in Lafayette, on a street called Rue de La France. Perrin regularly sends letters to people asking them to stop using the word “coonass.”

“We ask that the person voluntarily do so and that is usually the end of it,” Perrin says. “We have not had to institute any type of formal suit or claim with the Human Rights Commission or anything like that.”

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

For 16 years, Perrin served as president of an organization called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

“That state agency is the only one in America existing, supported by the state of Louisiana, to promote the French language,” he says. “We have 30 French immersion schools — eminently successful. So we turned it around and we developed along the way pride in ourselves.”

Pride in your roots and the word “coonass” don’t go together, says Perrin, who’s part of a movement that has tried to stamp out the use of the word. The movement won a big victory back in 1981 when it got the Louisiana State Legislature to condemn the word as offensive. Legislators not only condemned it, they outlined the word’s etymology.

“In that concurrent resolution, the politicians in Baton Rouge wrote: The word coonass comes from the standard French word connasse, which means dirty whore or stupid person,” says local Cajun historian Shane Bernard, paraphrasing what’s in the 1981 resolution. “Cajun GIs were called this when they were in France during World War II. Anglo GIs were standing nearby, didn’t know what that meant, but said, ‘Sounds like coonass, so that’s what we’re gonna call you from now on.’”

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

That’s the official take on the origin of the word – a vulgar ethnic slur. But it’s not correct, Bernard says. He found a photo from the National Archives taken in April 1943 of a plane called the “Cajun Coonass.” The photo was taken before the allied invasion of France.

“Because there were no Cajuns in France or any Americans in France until June 6, 1944, which is D-Day, that means that if the connasse theory were true, it had to have been created sometime after D-Day because you had to have Cajuns in France to be called connasses,” Bernard says. “Presumably you had to have some extended period of time for the word to morph into coonass.”

Bernard says he’s found other references to the word predating D-Day, as well. As far as he’s concerned, no one can be sure where the expression came from.

Whatever its origins, coonass isn’t a slur these days to people like Angie Sonnier. I found Sonnier on a rainy afternoon taking shelter beneath a roof of a Shop Rite store in Duson, Louisiana. The store sells bumper stickers and T-shirts with a “Registered Coonass” logo on them. Sonnier doesn’t care about tracing the history of the term “coonass.”

“If it was meant being ugly when it first came out, it’s not ugly now,” Sonnier says. “Not unless you look at it that way, and some people may. I just don’t.”

Instead, “coonass” is shorthand for her rural Cajun identity.

“I was raised, you know, running crawfish traps with my dad, and working on a farm with my dad, and doing different other things — going fishing with my family and, you know, generally doing all this type of stuff that is around here,” Sonnier says. “It’s in your blood.”

At his radio station, Marx echoes that sentiment. He remembers when speaking French at school was really frowned upon.

“‘You tried to shame us but now you know what? There are a lot of people who want to be coonasses,’” Marx says. “It’s kind of our way of slapping them in the face and saying, ‘You didn’t accomplish anything. We’re still here. You’re just an American. We’re Cajun, baby! We’re coonasses!”

It seems that, for better or for worse, the expression will be sticking around for a while.


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A brief history of simultaneous interpretation, from the Nuremberg trials to now

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that, too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army.

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them.

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”


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The grammar of cuisine

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)


Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And much of what we eat — and how we eat it — is influenced by what linguist Dan Jurafsky calls the “grammar” of food.

“The grammar of cuisine is the idea that every culture has a different way of thinking about what makes up a meal,” says Jurafsky, whose new book, The Language of Food, comes out this month.

Part of what makes up a meal are the words that we use to describe it. Take the word entrée, for example. Americans think of an entrée as the main course — the meatloaf or the roast chicken. But the French word actually means “entrance.” On a menu in France, an entrée is more of an appetizer.

But if you think Americans simply messed up the original French, you’re wrong. Americans actually got it right, according to Jurafsky. The original meaning of entrée — as it was used during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance — was much closer to the American meaning. It meant a heavy meat course that was just the first of many meat courses to come.

“So American English kept that sense of a substantial meat course, and [from] France and then England came some sense of this idea of entrance,” Jurafsky says. “So the word really changed in France and England from meaning a heavy meat course to meaning a light appetizer.”

The grammar of food impacts not only the order of the meal, but the types of dishes that are acceptable to eat at different times during the meal.

“We grew up with these rules that say that the salty things happen first and the sweet things happen at the end,” says Jurafsky. “And coffee is a morning thing or maybe a dessert thing, but certainly not a main course thing.”

Of course, the rules are broken all of the time: savory is mixed with sweet, dessert becomes the main course or the meat becomes the dessert. Think bacon ice cream or cappuccino-flavored potato chips. They make an American eater do a double take because they violate the American rules of culinary grammar.

But some things just don’t translate, like one of Jurafsky’s favorite Chinese delicacies: hasma, a Cantonese sweet soup. It’s made of a mix of dates and frog fallopian tubes.

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

“Texture is very important in Cantonese foods, so there’s your crunchy things and slimy things,” Jurafsky explains. “There’s a lot of very slimy foods in lots of cultures that don’t work … in the grammar of American food.”

Then there are some food items that seem universal, like tea. Tea was introduced to the world via China. Lots of languages have a word that begins, like the English word, with a “t” sound. But many others, like Arabic or Russian, use words that start with a “ch” sound, like “chai.”

“All the languages that got tea via the south of China from trading with the Fujianese, all of those languages pronounce the word with a ‘t’ because they got it from the English or the Dutch — who got it straight from the Fujianese,” Jurafsky explains.”Everybody else who uses a word like ‘chai,’ they got the word over land from China through Central Asia, where the northern Chinese dialects start with a ‘ch.’”

In his book, Jurafsky also looks at correlations between the description of food and food quality. By analyzing restaurant reviews online, he found that food descriptions often fell into two categories: sex and drugs.

“If someone likes an expensive restaurant they use amazing sensual terms: ‘orgasmic pastry,’ ‘very naughty deep fried pork belly,’” he says. “There’s something about sex and food that’s obviously linked, but it’s interesting that we only talk about that when we’re thinking about our expensive restaurants. Expensive food is a sensory pleasure, just like sex.”

Cheap food is another story: “‘Oh, those wings, they’re addicting.’ ‘The chocolate in their cookies, they must have crack in it.’ It’s as if the food forces us to eat it. It’s not my fault that I ate those wings. The wings forced me to devour them. It lets us distance ourselves from eating these awful foods.”

The meanings of many food-related words have often been lost to history. Like why do we “toast” someone at the dinner table? What does a celebratory act have anything to do with charred bread?

Turns out toast was long ago used as a seasoning agent for wine. We used to put grilled bread in wine with spices to enhance its flavor.

“And people said ‘Oh, the belle of the ball, the lady of the evening, she spices the party like the toast spices the wine,’” Jurafsky says. “So there are these historical explanations for how the word came about. But it’s true that, as a modern eater, you just have to learn the words.”


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Adam Gidwitz puts the grim back into Grimms’ fairy tales…and adds punk

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner, uploaded to Wikimedia Commins by Andreas Praefcke )

Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… they are some of the best-known stories of our time. But how well do we really know these and other fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm? Probably not well at all, since we have generally read sanitized translations.

Take Snow White, for instance. Snow White’s stepmother — or mother in some versions — tells the huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest. In the 1823 English edition, the huntsman is directed to “lose her.”

In the original German, things are bit different: “I want you to cut out her lungs and her liver, and bring them back to me so that I might boil them in salt — and eat them,” the stepmother commands.

Disney, not surprisingly, opted to use the Anglicized plot — and the rest is history.

The deliberate mistranslations and omissions have flourished ever since, according to Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grim, In a Glass Grimly and The Grimm Conclusion.

Gidwitz’s versions of these stories, such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, draw on the oral origins of the stories, along with Gidwitz’s favorite English translator of the Grimms’ tales: Ralph Mannheim.

“He keeps the lyric quality, as well as all the blood and gore,” says Gidwitz of Mannheim.

Gidwitz tests his versions of stories on kids. “The first time I ever told these stories to children, I was supposed to be a substitute librarian for a day,” he says. He pulled out a copy of the Grimms’ stories and opened it up to one called Faithful Johannes. In it, children get their heads cut off by their parents.

“I thought, ‘Can I read this to second graders?’” Gidwitz remembers. “And I thought, ‘Let’s find out!’”

As he started reading the story aloud, he saw some of the children getting nervous. He started making jokes to calm them down and warning them when a scary moment was coming up. Afterwards, a few kids came up to Gidwitz. He says they were shaking — traumatized. “But one of them pointed her finger in my face and she said, ‘That was good. You should make that into a book,’” he says.

And so he did, using the same formula as his first-ever reading: Adding jokes and preparing the listener for the violent parts — and then including all the gore.

(In the audio of this story, you’ll hear Gidwitz tell his own version of Snow White, complete with references to “punks,” J.C. Penney and Foot Locker)

Gidwitz’s versions of the Brothers Grimm stories have now been translated back to German. “I get a lot of positive feedback from the Germans,” he says. “They like it when Grimms’ tales get recognized.”


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What do the words mutton, sheep and robot have in common? Translation!

Photo: andrea via Flickr

Photo: andrea via Flickr


Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki.

Two translators on a ship are talking.

“Can you swim?” asks one

“No” says the other, “but I can shout for help in nine languages.”

Okay, not the best joke, and even though translation won’t exactly save you from drowning it is something that is all around us and that impacts our lives in many ways.

11431000Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring what translation is all about in a series we’re calling “In Other Words.”

If you go by what’s in the Bible, we’ve been in need of translators since the Tower of Babel. And this need has given rise to a whole host of interesting ideas — both real and fictitious — of how to better communicate with one another.

Remember the Babel fish? That small, leech-like fish that you stick in your ear and instantly translates any language. If only, Douglas Adam’s invention from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did exist.

“Is that a fish in your ear? Well no, it’s not, it’s a translator,” said David Bellows translator and author of Is that a Fish in your Ear? “There’s something going on that is very clever but it’s not magic.”

Oral translation or interpreting is as old as language itself. Humans have always spoken different languages and there’s always been a need for a middle man or a go-between. However scholars have actually pinpointed a starting point for written translation.

Writing arose around 5000 years ago but it wasn’t until about 2500 years ago that anything like a translation came into existence. The two first examples of translation occurred right around the same period.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, a community of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then a Greek speaking city, translated the Torah into Greek. That translated text is called the Septuagint.

“There are lots of myths and legends surrounding it but there are no surviving texts of the Old Testament that are older than the Greek translation,” Bellos said.

There are different accounts of how this translation came to be, according to Bellos. In one story Ptolemy II, adding to the great Library of Alexandria, sought to collect every known book in the world and commissioned a translation of the holy book of the Jews.

Another story is that the Jews of Alexandria had lost touch with the language of the bible and actually needed the bible translated into Greek.

“A bit like American Jews now,” said Bellos, “not very many American Jews really can read the Torah in biblical Hebrew.”

Meanwhile within a few decades of the creation of the Septuagint, across the Mediterranean in the southern part of Italy, a Greek-speaking slave, Livius Andronicus, was commissioned to translate Homer’s Odyssey from Greek to Latin, launching, according to Bellos, the classical tradition.

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

“In a way you could say that translating of Homer is the beginning of an invention of the literature of Latin,” Bellos said.

So, Hebrew was translated into Greek, Greek into Latin, but what impact has translation had on English?

“English was made by translation — translation from Latin and above all translation from French,” Bellos explained.

A huge number of words came into English in the mash-up of the French the Normans spoke and the Anglo-Saxon the people spoke.

“And so English often has two words for the same things — one of French origin and one of Saxon origin, like, for example, sheep and mutton,” Bellos said. “Sheep is what the peasants looked after and mutton is what the masters ate.”

Mutton is the French word and sheep is the Germanic, or Saxon.

“We’re constantly translating between these two as we speak English and navigate the different registers of language that are more or less French depending on how high or low the register is,” Bellos said.

An example of one word that came to English purely through the translation of literature is “robot.” “Robot” is actually a Czech word and it came into English in the 1930s through the translations of the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s science fiction novels and plays. The word “robot” actually means “worker” in Czech.

Besides being a linguist, Bellos has been a longtime translator of French literature. And while he doesn’t quite believe that translation is a calling, the relationship between a translator and an author is a special one. For one, unlike the reader, a translator can’t skip over the boring parts of a book. A translator becomes intimately familiar with every single word.

“In a way the translator of a new book knows that book better than anybody else and that’s a great privilege and a great pleasure,” Bellos said.


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Parliamentary-style debates take off in China — even if some topics are off limits

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)


Here’s a guest post from Ruth Morris in Shanghai.

The inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open kicks off with 100 fidgety students in a small auditorium. Volunteers wear black t-shirts with English lettering that say: “Go back and read more.”

Then the first topic — or motion — appears on a screen. It reads: “This house regrets the ‘celebritization’ of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”

As soon as they find out what they’re debating, a couple of the students scramble to figure out what exactly the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is. It was popularized on Facebook, which is blocked in China, although it did spread to Chinese social media. The students rush to a judge with questions and she fills them in.

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Education experts say Chinese authorities are waking up to the notion that Chinese students need to be independent thinkers if they want to produce their own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And they say debate is one way to get there.

English-language British Parliamentary debate is gaining popularity here, especially among top students gunning for foreign universities.

“We want to use debate as a medium to give students education and enlightenment,” said Zheng Bo, the tournament’s chief adjudicator and a promoter of British Parliamentary debate in China. He says China’s education system is grounded in Confucian thinking, which poses a challenge.

“Teachers are given absolute authority and students just listen and recite, and remember,” Zheng Bo says. “So that created a lot of students that are really good at doing maths and physics … where there is a given answer. But when it comes to something without a standard answer … that’s creating a lot of trouble, because they are not familiar with this kind of practice.“

Debate is the perfect educational supplement, he says. It trains students to think critically.

British Parliamentary debate’s oppositional style might seem incongruous in China, since it divides teams into two sides — the government and the opposition — while China operates as a single-party state. Beijing also scrubs dissent from the Internet and constantly stresses harmony and social stability.

So motions tend not to veer into highly sensitive areas, like Tibetan independence, but they still range widely. Government policies are not off the table.

Participant Steve Chou says debate taught him to step back from political flashpoints and take a more reasoned approach. For example, China’s emotionally charged maritime dispute with Japan.

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

China’s primary education “taught you to love your country, to be patriotic,” Chou says. “But through debate, we see that even though you do not praise your country does not necessarily mean you are not patriotic.”

Another debater goes by the English name Sloan. She believes that British Parliamentary debates will keep growing in China.

“It kind of has this life-long influence on you,” she says. “This kind of critical thinking [is] always with you and influences the people around you.”

Participants also say they consider debating in English to be easier than in Chinese. In English-language debates, you can be simpler and more direct, they say. On the other hand, Chinese debates tend to have really abstract topics, like “Is IQ more important that EQ?”

The tournament concludes with a highly controversial motion to prosecute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for hate crimes against Palestinians. One of the winners is from Hong Kong, where many residents are currently demanding greater democracy from Beijing. That subject didn’t come up in the debates.

Before the students leave, Zheng Bo offers a final critique. He says debaters omitted concrete examples to support their arguments.

He tells them, “Go back and read more.”


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A University of Kansas linguist is risking Russia’s ire in helping Kazakhstan change its writing system

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Kazakhstan has decided that its national language, Kazakh, needs a new writing system.

For decades, it has been using the Cyrillic script, a legacy of Soviet times. Now, though, Kazakhstan’s long-term president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been re-orienting his country away from Moscow, and toward the West.

And so it was that in late 2013, Kazakh linguists got in touch with Allard Jongman, chair of the linguistics department and a phonetics specialist at the University of Kansas.

“I was contacted by a graduate student working on this project, and he wrote to me rather than the professor because the professor doesn’t know any English,” said Jongman in an interview on Kansas City public radio station KCUR’s Central Standard program. “He said, ‘Look, we’re trying to convert our writing system. But … we don’t know exactly what the consonants and vowels of Kazakh are.’” (Click on the audio button above to hear the interview.)

Jongman told interviewer Gina Kaufmann there are two reasons why Kazakhs are confused about how their language should sound, both having to do with Soviet domination. First, the language is full of imported Russian words that have sounds in them that are not native to Kazakh.

Second, Cyrillic script is tailored to Russian sounds, and sometimes it doesn’t do justice to Kazakh sounds. Over the decades, though, Kazakh has made accommodations, and that’s changed some pronunciations.

It’s not clear that the Latin alphabet will be any more accurate, of course. Jongman is aware that the whole project could backfire.

“It could really screw things up,” says Jongman. But he doesn’t think it will.

And then there are the geo-politics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the break-up of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. He has invaded the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Kazakhs fear they could be next.

In August, Putin questioned whether Kazahkan is really even a nation. He said President Nazarbayev had “created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood.”

Russia shares a 4,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. The Kazakh army is tiny in comparison to Russia’s. Not the easiest set of circumstances in which to introduce a new writing system.


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