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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

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Supermarket French, Chanson French, and Arabic in repose

The French of Anna Sam and that of Juliette Gréco could hardly be more different.

The French of Gréco (pictured) is moody and melodramatic, as befits this veteran chanteuse. Her pitch swoops to low octave depths and her Rs rrrrroll,  as she sings of love, betrayal and Paris. The songs sound like personal confessions, but most are not:  she became famous by singing the poems and lyrics of Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and others. Now in her 80s, Gréco is bringing her über-Frenchness to a London stage.

Anna Sam records the mendacious and the mundane that she overhears at the supermarket checkout.

Sam recently retired after eight years working as a hôtesse de caisse (cash till hostess) — that was her official title. Less officially, she was a beepeuse (a woman who beeps).  She was doing it to bankroll her university degree in French literature — not that the customers knew, or would have cared.

Anna Sam overhead humanity at its meanest and most idiotic. Couples surreptitiously kissing in the frozen food section, or having sex next to the detergents. People so umbilically attached to their mobile phones that that they didn’t stop to say “please” or “thank you.” Mothers telling their children: “If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll end up a like that lady behind the counter.” And when she clocked off and went home, Sam couldn’t stop hearing the beep…beep…beep of the scanner. She recorded her observations in a blog, which became a book, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (translated into several languages including English).  Her fame may yet spread, with talk of a movie.

Also in the pod, the UN Security Council resolution that got lost in translation. Resolution 242. is one of the Security Council’s most famous documents, the so-called land-for-peace concept in the Middle East. The French and English versions don’t quite say the same thing. The result? Confusion and conflict, with no end in sight. Not a good advertisement for translation or multilingualism.

And to round things off, we hear from the founders of Meena, an Arabic-English bilingual poetry journal, out of the U.S. port of New Orleans and the Egyptian port of Alexandria. (Meena means port of entry). Arabic never did sound so sweet.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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The English-only movement in America

A conversation about making English the only official language in the United States. Tim Schultz, lobbyist with Washington-based US English makes the case for this, ahead of an English-only vote in Oklahoma.

This is not the usual fare on The World in Words: we don’t often offer the microphone to people who discourage the use of other languages. But Schultz argues that English is what keeps America — a land of immigrants and therefore of many languages — intact. He believes that Spanish in particular is fast becoming an unofficial official language here (if that makes sense). He says government agencies use Spanish and other languages without thinking about the message they are sending. What they should be doing, he says, is using English so that non-English speakers are encouraged to learn the language, and succeed in their adopted homeland. Finally, he acknowledges that bigots and racists may be among the supporters of English Only. But as far as he’s concerned, they do not form the mainstream, nor does he share their views.

Also, an election ad in Chinese, aimed at Americans who don’t speak Chinese. This comes courtesy of conservative think tank/advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, which clearly doesn’t think this glossy ad in a foreign language is a waste of money.

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Aussie English and proper English

Not that Australian English isn’t proper…

English is so widely and variously spoken that it barely can be called a single language. That hasn’t stopped grammar stickler Simon Heffer from trying to re-establish order.  The man is seriously old school, and he doesn’t like what any of Britain’s new schools are teaching –or failing to teach — about English usage. We take a trip with Heffer to a school in Suffolk, where he makes the case for his version of correct English: the difference, for example, between I will and I shall. Heffer doesn’t like it when English speakers get in a muddle over foreign terms. The Italian term panini, meaning sandwiches, has essentially become an English word. Most of us either don’t know or don’t worry that panini is plural.  Heffer, though, does. If he’s buying just one sandwich, he will insist on asking for a panino.

No-one’s going to arrest him for that.

Heffer, of course, is far from alone in trying to control our use of  the language, before it descends into hellish and unseemly chaos, no doubt taking us with it.  In the eighteenth century,  English bishop Robert Lowth tried something far more proactive: he laid out a set of  grammar rules for English that were, essentially, borrowed from Latin. To that end, he criticized the likes of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton for their “false syntax”.   Podcast contributor Elise Hahl says Lowth partially won his fight for the Latinization of English grammar. She says that to this day, English is the poorer for it. That said, we  hold up Shakespeare today as the numero uno Literary God of the English language, not least because of his inventive rule-breaking. So maybe Shakespeare and loose English got their revenge.

Also in the pod, poet Les Murray describes some of the more colorful expressions of Australian English: papped, for example, means snapped by paperazzi (or, I suppose, paperazzo if there’s only one photographer, yes Simon?); a window licker means a voyeur.  The keeper of the Australian English flame, by the way, is the Macquarie Dictionary, well worth checking out.

Finally, we check in on a language school in India where the teachers have a strong sense of what constitutes proper English. Mr Heffer might approve.

Listen in iTunes or here.

For more on the endless variations of English, check out our discussion of Rotten English in this podcast from 2008.


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Genders, geniuses, and Tamil onomatopoeia

Another top five language stories. In no particular order:

5. A new line of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English keeps the magnificent onomatopoeia of the original. The brilliant people behind this are Chennai-based  Blaft Publications. They have plans for more pulp fiction to be translated from other Indian languages. Blaft sums up its first Tamil anthology this way:  Guns, cleavage, and mallipoo! And the untranslated Tamil onomatopoeia? Listen out in the pod for words like visshkda-nang, pulich and labak. One of those, by the way — guess which — mimics the sound of spit landing on a wall.

4. New research shows that no matter you much some Germans have tried, they can’t make their language gender-neutral. A doctor or a teacher in German — as in many languages — is nearly always specified as male or female. Over the decades, feminist publications in particular have tried to tinker with some of the assignations, or at least neutralize the gender specificity. But according to Swedish researcher Magnus Pettersson, they have failed.  This comes off the back of Guy Deutscher’s take on whether noun genders in the likes of German and Spanish affect how we think of the objects in questions. (eg bridge is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish; Deutscher, as a native Hebrew speaker, always thinks of a bed as feminine). I wonder if linguists, or neurologists or sociologists, have considered not how we think of those objects, but how the gender designations of those objects may influence how we think of men and women (He bridges problems; she is as soft as a bed etc).

3. A new-ish Belgian video pokes fun at the country’s linguistic battles. We poke fun at The Big Show’s beer-loving Clark Boyd, who just happens to be our correspondent in beer-loving  Brussels.

2. We hear more about two linguists who have won 2010 MacArthur genius awards: Wampanoag revivalist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who acted on a dream, studied linguistics, co-edited a dictionary and is raising her daughter to speak the extinct Wampanoag language;  and sign language researcher extraordinaire Carol Paddon.

1. Carol Hill’s adventures in Sweden. She was at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair. She struggled with Swedish. She interviewed dozens of African writers,  who also didn’t understand Swedish but appeared to speak just about every other language on Earth.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

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