Is China in the midst of a second golden age of poetry?

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit.  (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit. (Photo: Heather Inwood)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together.

Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work.

Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.”

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the "Poem For You" recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the “Poem For You” recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do.

“Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty. That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, new poetry is dead in China,’” poet Ming Di says. She loves the ancient poets, but feels the strict classical forms they pioneered tended to dead end after, you know, a few hundred years.

“Poets in the Tang Dynasty already did their best. And we in 21st Century have to do something new — either we bring something new to the old form or go our own way.”

And they are. Modern Chinese poets are exploring radical new terrain when it comes to form, sentence structure, and perhaps most importantly, subject matter. At the far end of this spectrum, according to professor Heather Inwood, is the “School of Rubbish.” (Although, she says, “you can also translate it as the ‘Trash School,’ or something like that.”)

vvvInwood teaches Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester in England and is the author of “Verse Going Viral,” a book about China’s new media scenes. “The ‘School of Rubbish’ became famous for writing poems about, basically, bodily excretions,” she explains. “Their goal was to go one meter lower than the ‘lower body’ — that was the name of an earlier poetry group around the turn of the millennium that wrote about sex. So they were thinking, ‘If we can’t write about sex because that’s already been done, what can we write about that will open people’s eyes to new ways of thinking about poetry?’”

And the answer was: Poems with a toilet theme. Of course, not everyone is convinced this is a hallmark of literary progress.

“People have argued … modern or contemporary Chinese poetry has not completely found its own legitimacy,” says Yibing Huang. “Some people say, ‘Is this a poem?’ You know, ‘This morning, I woke up. I drank a cup of coffee… Life sucks.’ People say that’s not a poem because it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t fit a certain expectation.”

Yet, social media may be turning the tide. This past January, WeChat, a messaging and social networking app, produced an unlikely media darling whose poems don’t rhyme and don’t avoid the fact that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. Yu Xiuhua had two books come out in one week and sell out overnight — 15,000 copies.

In addition to being a poet, Yu is also a farmer from a rural village who was born with cerebral palsy. As Ming Di points out, “Some people even consider her [to be the] Emily Dickinson in China.’”

Ming has translated some of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry, including her most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.”

    To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?

    Two bodies collide — the force, the flower opened by the force,

    and the virtual Spring brought by the flower — nothing more than this,

    and this we mistake as life restarting.

    In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes

    erupt, rivers run dry,

    political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,

    elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.

    I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.

    I press many nights into one morning to sleep with you.

    I run across many of me and many of me run into one to sleep with you.

    Of course I can be misguided by butterflies

    and mistake praise as Spring,

    and a village similar to Hengdian as home.

    But all these are absolute

    reasons that I spend a night with you.

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that.

Recently a popular Beijing anchor read “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” one of Yibing Huang’s poems on WeChat. Yibing is thrilled about the exposure the Internet brings him. But what is this all this doing to Chinese poetry?

“In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.”

Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

The Internet isn’t going to kill poetry, people deciding it’s not worth that effort will. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China anytime soon.


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Utah’s language gamble

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A second-grader leads her class in a Chinese exercise at Santa Clara Elementary School. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Better yet, listen to the podcast above.

Several years ago, Utah decided to start teaching foreign languages in public schools — beginning in the first grade.

Utah probably isn’t the first place you’d think would be at the forefront of language education in the United States. When it comes to per-student spending in public schools, Utah comes in dead last among all 50 states. What’s more, Utah passed an “English Only” law 15 years ago, declaring English to be the state’s sole official language.

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

A Chinese classroom at Santa Clara Elementary school in Santa Clara, Utah. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

So what accounts for this language push? One man: Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson.

Stephenson has served in the Utah legislature for more than 22 years. He calls himself a “government watchdog” and idolizes Ronald Reagan. He’s even got a page dedicated to the past president on his website. Safe to say, the senator is wary of the government messing in his business.

But during a 2008 trip to China, where the government messes in everyone’s business, Stephenson had what he describes as an “epiphany.” He met many Chinese students who spoke with him in fluent English. They were bright, eager and articulate.

“On the plane ride home, I was worried about America’s future,” Stephenson says. “I was excited for the Chinese and their rising nation, but I wondered what could I do as a policymaker to assist in helping the United States connect to these rising nations?”

Stephenson promptly introduced a bill to fund the teaching of critical languages, like Mandarin, in Utah’s public schools.

His fellow policy makers weren’t exactly on board at first.

“Some legislators were saying you can’t expect children to learn such a complicated language as Chinese,” he remembers. “And I reminded them that there are hundreds are millions of children in China who are learning it quite well. They do well, why can’t our children? Are our children’s brains wired differently than a Chinese person’s brain? I don’t think so.”

Stephenson also argued that a multilingual Utah would be good for the state’s economic future: A state full of fluent Chinese speakers is a state open for business.

His bill passed.

It was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and later served as the American ambassador to China. Now, seven years after Stephenson’s airborne epiphany, there are intensive language programs at 118 schools in Utah, and not just in Mandarin. The program also teaches Spanish, Portuguese, French and German, and the state intends to keep growing the list.

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Second grader, Tiari Puriri is in the English portion of her day at school. The Utah immersion model is a 50/50 model in which students learn half the day in the target language and half of the day in English. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Tiari Puriri is one of the young Utahans learning Mandarin. Now a second-grader, she started learning the language in first grade at her school in Santa Clara. It’s a small town in southern Utah more than two hours away from Las Vegas, the closest big city. Think arid, desert landscape, red rock formations and not too many Chinese speakers.

“This is what she brought home yesterday,” says her mom, Kristina, who shows off her daughter’s math homework. There’s not a word of English on the page, just Chinese characters and some numerals. “If she hadn’t put that there, and there weren’t pluses and equals, I don’t think that I would know that this is math.”

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Kristina Puriri enrolled her daughter Tiari in the Chinese immersion program at Santa Clara Elementary starting in the first grade. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Learning math in Chinese is a part of Utah’s 50/50 dual language immersion model. Yes, it’s a horrible, jargon-y sounding phrase, but it basically means that half the school day and half the subjects, like math, are taught in the target foreign language and the other half in English.

When Kristina and I went to pick up Tiari from school, she was a bit shy about speaking Chinese on tape. But she readily sang a “clean-up” song in Chinese.

She and her class learned it from Xiao Fung, Tiari’s second-grade Chinese teacher. She came to this tiny Utah town from Chongqing, a city of 29 million people, thanks to a teaching exchange program funded by the Chinese government. That’s part of the way Utah can afford this program.

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she'll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Mandarin teacher Xiao Fung had never been to the states before coming to teach in Utah. Though she can speak English, she is careful to only speak Mandarin in school in front of the kids. If the students ask her a question in English, she’ll reply in Mandarin. This is a strict part of the Utah teaching model. (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

But not all of the parents at Santa Clara Elementary were thrilled when they heard a teacher from China was coming to the school — or that Chinese was going to be taught at all.

“My initial thoughts were like ‘Oh my gosh, there’s already so much our kids have to do,'” says Summer Lang, who has two kids at the school. “I push hard on my kids. I expect a lot, but I just think there’s a fine line. There’s a fine line of pushing. Too much, too hard, too young.”

Lang and several other parents started a petition against the program. She wasn’t alone in questioning the importance of learning another language in a world in which so many people speak English.

“A lot of countries are fluent in English too, but that’s because everybody comes here,” Lang argues. “How are we to pick one place where we’re going to become fluent as a second language? English is kind of the universal. Everybody speaks it.”

She’s also one of Kristina Puriri’s very best friends, but things got a little tense between them. “It kind of got ugly there for a while,” Lang admits.

Ultimately, things cooled down. The principal reassured parents that Chinese immersion was optional, and Lang chose not to enroll her children. Still, it’s a source of sensitivity.

“I went to Santa Clara Elementary, and we’ve chosen to stay here and raise our family here because of the tradition,” Lang says. “Change is hard whether it’s positive [or] negative.”

Change is hard, but Utah just might be in a unique position to pilot this kind of program. Language learning isn’t such a wild notion in this very Mormon state: For generations, Mormon missionaries have fanned out across the world, and stop in Utah first to learn the language of the place where they’ll serve.

Kristina’s husband, Michael, actually jokes about the “Mormon question.” “You told her why we’re doing this, for the church?” Michael Puriri asks his wife.

The Puriris are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In fact, Kristina learned Portuguese on her own mission in Portugal.

“There [are] 88,000 missionaries out in the world today, but if we open up China with all those people, we’re going to need, like, another million missionaries,” Michael chides his wife. “So we figure with all these kids here learning Chinese…”

“But that’s not why we’re doing it,” Kristina says. Most Mormons don’t think this way, Kristina tells me over and over. And she says she’s most excited about the little ways in which learning Chinese will allow her daughter to connect with others right here in the US.

“I’m excited for the future when we can go to a Chinese restaurant or see a Chinese tour bus at Disneyland and she can go back and forth and back and forth,” she says.

Or maybe she’ll one day lead that Chinese tour bus through the national parks of Utah. That’s what State Senator Stephenson likes to envision: connecting his landlocked state of Utah to the rest of the world.

“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” he says. “As many nations are rearing children with bi- and trilingual abilities, we need to step it up because we’re in a world competitive arena.”

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Sanskrit isn’t just an ancient, scholarly language, it’s also a living tongue caught up in Indian politics

The cast of the Sanskrit play, "The Cleverness of the Thief." Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white.  (Photo: Corey Pein)

The cast of the Sanskrit play, “The Cleverness of the Thief.” Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white. (Photo: Corey Pein)

Here’s a post from Patricia Sauthoff. The podcast above is even better.

Sanskrit has been lingering at the edges of Western culture for a while now. It’s an obscure language that not many people know, but a lot of people know about.

I started studying Sanskrit as a written language a few years ago. Back then, when I told people about it, they assumed I was a big “White Album”-era Beatles fan or into Transcendental Meditation. Now they just assume I spend a lot of time doing yoga.

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

I’m actually a Ph.D. candidate at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I study Sanskrit so I can do research and read ancient texts, not order lunch or hail a cab. But last year my studies took a turn for the practical when I decided to take a conversational Sanskrit course over the summer.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, but it’s actually pretty easy to hear it out in the world — if you know where to look. India’s 2001 census counted 14,000 Indians who claimed it as their mother tongue. There are Sanskrit language newscasts; I’ve seen Shakespeare and other plays performed in Sanskrit here in London; and there is a community of language learners and teachers from around the world who gather on Twitter to share their knowledge, ask for help, and meet others interested in communicating in Sanskrit. Some are in India, some are part of the Indian diaspora, and some — like me — are Westerners interested in learning something more about the language and culture of South Asia.

And it does look like interest in Sanskrit is growing. The study of Sanskrit is certainly surging in popularity, both in India and in the West. Students at Princeton University recently launched a petition to get Sanskrit back into the curriculum. And at my own school, the second-year Sanskrit course grew to 20 this year, up from just two the year before.

It turns out spending a month speaking Sanskrit day-in and day-out is pretty surreal. Instead of reading philosophy books, I learned how to say things like telephone — dūrabhāṣā — and bicycle — dvicakrikā. It reminds me that Sanskrit isn’t just a language of dusty books. And as anyone who has ever namaste-d knows, it’s a language that’s really fun to say out loud — or even to sing.

There were 20 of us in the class, learning, speaking and singing six days a week for four weeks. Several of my classmates were Indians living in Europe. Some were graduate students like myself, and others were professionals taking a break from work. There was even a Buddhist monk who out-chanted us all.

Much like any other intensive language course, we were expected to communicate only in Sanskrit. But where other immersion classes are for beginners, most of my classmates had years of experience reading the language. Of course, slowly translating a written work and rapid-fire conversation are completely different. Those who spoke Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati found the spoken Sanskrit a little more familiar than those of us who just read.

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

We learned to speak through traditional methods like singing and chanting, but also by discussing everyday things. We learned lines of ancient poetry and had a Skype chat in Sanskrit with a professor in Australia.

The students in my class were aware that the revival of Sanskrit is contentious. It’s sometimes tied with the rise of Hindu nationalism. Events like the newly introduced Sanskrit Week are seen as privileging one language and culture over others. India’s second largest religion, Islam, does not have historical ties to Sanskrit. Even among Hindus, the country’s largest religious group, Sanskrit learning has historically been something for only the privileged castes. In the southern part of the country, languages such as Tamil developed simultaneously but separately from Sanskrit.

But in the classroom, we didn’t discuss the current debates or the history of the language. Instead, we practiced for an upcoming performance of songs and a play for friends, family and the Indian ambassador to Germany.

Most of us study Sanskrit in order to read it, and learning to speak it was a challenge. My vocabulary includes a lot of technical philosophical terms that aren’t easy to translate into English, but it now also includes some useful everyday ones, too. I’m used to being able to slowly read complex books, but when it comes to quickly answering a basic question like kuśalam asti vā — “How are you?” — I freeze.

After a month of class, I realized Sanskrit isn’t about self-expression for me. It’s about reading the ideas of the past. I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it as a living language, but I’m more comfortable treating it as a dead one.

Check out the podcast (above or on iTunes) to hear about Sanskrit’s near-perfect alphabet from translator Terence Coe.

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Spanglish is older than you think

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch  (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch (Wikimedia Commons)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

To truly explore the early roots of Spanglish, we have to go back to the dawn of the Dons.

Picture California in the early-19th century, when Los Angeles was known simply as the little “pueblo” and “Alta California” as the region was then called, was still a part of Mexico.

And living in the a rancho just north of the pueblo was a young Scottish adventurer named Hugh Reid. In the 1830s he left the old world for the new — Mexico. And in his adopted home he was rechristened with an additional Spanish name, Perfecto Hugo Reid. Reid would eventually settle down on a ranch in southern California near the San Gabriel mission in what’s now Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he married a local woman, Doña Victoria.

Robert Train has been obsessed with Hugo Reid’s backstory for the last few years. Train is a professor of Spanish at Sonoma State University. We met recently at the Huntington Library archives in Pasadena, to read Reid’s extremely yellowed letters.

Reid wrote to a man named Abel Stearns, another gringo — yes, that was a term, Train says, that was used around that time — living in Alta California. Stearns had emigrated from Massachusetts and, like Reid, he had also become a Mexican citizen. Reid’s letters to Stearns detail daily life in early California.

In one letter, Reid tells Stearns about his recent trip around other parts of Mexico. It’s a fairly ordinary letter at first, except woven into the mostly English letter are phrases in Spanish. Often sentences will start in one language and shift to fluidly to the other language. Neither Spanish nor English, this is pure Spanglish.

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Hugo Reid wrote letter after letter to Abel Stearns in Spanglish. That’s not to say he couldn’t write in strictly Spanish or strictly English. He could. And he did — Train has plenty of examples of those — but often the Scotsman chose to use both at once doing what Train calls code-switching.

“It’s not about not knowing one language or the other. That’s a sort of myth that some people seem to think — that code-switching is all about not knowing one language, not being able to find the word. But that’s not typically the case. He knew how to say “take a little rest,” says Train.

Reid could’ve easily communicated to his English-speaking-mate in English. But instead he chose Spanglish.

Both Reid and Stearns married native Spanish speakers. Historians don’t know for sure but assume they spoke Spanish inside their homes. And Reid’s correspondence reflects a sort of back and forth between worlds. The Spanish words often key into domestic affairs, like requests from Reid to buy cloth from Abel Stearns store. Stearns was a merchant. He is credited with helping to start the port in San Pedro.

In another letter, Hugo Reid writes, “… the old woman requires for the house a piece of percale and best in manta blanca. Si no hay percala send her pura manta blanca. I remain yours truly, Perfecto Hugo Reid.”

“Percala” is a type of cloth called percale in English and “manta blanca” is coarse cotton, but the most curious part of the exchange is not Hugo Reid ordering fabric for his wife in Spanish but what he calls his wife in English: “the old woman.” It’s a direct translation, says Train, of how men in Alta California might’ve referred to their wives in Spanish.

“La Vieja, which I guess is the standard use of this time for ‘the old lady,’” Train says.

So what’s the big deal? A few native English speakers spoke Spanglish to each other way back when. What’s this have to do with anything today? Simple, says Train. Hugo Reid’s letters are reminders that California was, is and has always been a multilingual place.

In fact, when California became a state in 1850, the new constitution was written in both English and Spanish. For many years, California laws were written in both languages. But somewhere along the way, English usurped Spanish. And Spanish became, well, a foreign language.

When I learned Spanish in southern California public schools, I learned it as my foreign language prerequisite.

Reading the signs as you drive down Third Street in East LA, Spanish is far from a foreign language. But the real lingua franca is Spanglish. The sign for the East LA institution, King Taco is a great example. “King Taco. The Best Food in Town. Burritos y Tacos Al Pastor. Y Carne Asada. Park here.”

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

Robert Train and I did park and eat and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the women sitting at the table next to us. Two young mothers, Desiree Gardenas and Brenda Padilla, and their toddlers are speaking Spanish and English and, yes, Spanglish.

Do you ever mix the languages together, I asked them. Yes, of course they said. It’s normal.

Post lunch, around the corner from King Taco, Train and I made one final stop at the Calvary Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful, old cemetery on a hill. Thousands of stone monuments commemorate the early residents of the pueblo of Los Angeles. And the modern city, with her tall skyscrapers and her smoggy skies, can be seen in the distance. This is where Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns — these early Spanglish speakers — are buried mere miles from where Spanglish continues to thrive.

“I read this part of a whole immigrant story, part of an unexpected one really,” Train says.

Hugo Reid died at the age of 42, just two years after Mexican Alta California became the 31st United State. Incidentally, in his final days he became obsessed with saving another language, the language of the Gabrieleño Indians, the ancestral language of his wife Doña Victoria. Sadly, that language has not survived.

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Are we witnessing the death of ‘uh’? Um, maybe — and not just in English

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor "uh" (or "eh" in Dutch) over "um." Younger people and women are more likely to say "um." (PRI's The World)

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor “uh” (or “eh” in Dutch) over “um.” Younger people and women are more likely to say “um.” (PRI’s The World)

Read this post from Ari Daniel. Or listen to the podcast above.

According to experts, “uh” and “um” are somewhat different beasts. “It does seem to be the case that ‘um’ generally signals a longer or more important pause than ‘uh,'” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania. At least that’s what he thought.

Liberman has been studying these so-called “filled pauses” for almost a decade, and he has made a rather curious discovery.

“As Americans get older, they use ‘uh’ more,” he says. “And at every age, men use ‘uh’ more than women.”

If you look at “um,” exactly the opposite is true. Younger people say “um” more often than older people. And no matter the age, women say “um” more than men. Nobody, not even the linguists, were expecting this result; until they studied these hesitations, they thought it was more about the amount of time a speaker hesitates than who that speaker is.

Then, late last summer, Liberman attended a conference in Groningen in the Netherlands. During a coffee break, Liberman was chatting with a small group of researchers. He brought up his finding about the age and gender differences related to “um” and “uh,” which prompted the group to look for that pattern outside of American English. They scanned British and Scottish English, German, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian.

The result, says University of Groningen linguist Martijn Wieling, is that, “in all cases, we find the same thing.” Just like the Americans that Mark Liberman analyzed, women and younger people and younger people said “um” more than “uh.”

Wieling’s conclusion is that we are witnessing a language change in progress, “and that women and younger people are leading the change.”

The future of “um”

This pattern of women and young people leading us forward is typical of most language changes. But why is “um” our future, across at least two continents and five Germanic languages? It’s still a puzzle.

Josef Fruehwald's research suggests that the use of "um" is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald’s research suggests that the use of “um” is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that “um” and “uh” may be used slightly differently. But as far as he is concerned, they are pretty much equivalent.

“When you have two options, you can start using one more frequently and maybe replace the other one so that it’s no longer an option,” he says. “So why ‘um?’ It’s just one of these things. There’s always a little bit of randomness to the whole situation.”

By random, he means that we do not know why changes in usage like this happen, or when the next one will be. Fruehwald admits linguists are terrible at predicting the future — worse than meteorologists! Language, he says, is even more chaotic than the weather.

As for how such a linguistic trend might have jumped from one language to another, Fruehwald says “there are some documented cases of that kind of thing happening, usually where people can speak both languages and borrow features of one into the other.”

English is the most likely to be influencing the other languages, but we still don’t know whether that’s actually what’s happening with “um.” More research and more linguists are needed.

And as for the future, “um” and “uh” may yo-yo back and forth in terms of their popularity. Or we may well be watching the extinction of “uh” from our lexicon.

So would Fruehwald would miss “uh?”. “I don’t have a really strong emotional connection to either of these,” he admits. “Although based on my age demographics, I’m likely a high ‘um’ user. So maybe that’s where I should throw my loyalties.”

Patrick Cox adds: Also in this podcast episode, a conversation with Michael Erard, editor of Schwa Fire and author of “Um…:Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”


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For a group of Siberians, Hawaii was far from a tropical paradise

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

Four years ago, I went on a Hawaiian vacation. But I didn’t go snorkeling; I spent nearly all my time in the bowels of a university archive, browsing 100-year-old newspapers.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

The truth is that I can only stand so much sand and sea. And when I happened to type two words into Google — “Russians” and “Hawaii” — I stumbled across a startling historical footnote.

At the turn of the last century, the Hawaiian Board of Immigration imported more than 1,500 Russians, mostly from Siberia, to work the islands’ sugar plantations. It was a last-ditch effort to make the then-US territory of Hawaii more white.

As Patricia Polansky, the Russian bibliographer at the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library explains, the planters first brought in Japanese and Chinese workers. Asian labor was the backbone of the early sugar industry, but working the sugarcane fields was a brutal way to make a living. In 1909, several thousand Japanese laborers went on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, which worried plantation owners.

“So they decided they wanted to try what we call haole labor, or white labor,” Polansky says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

A report issued by the Commissioner of Labor on Hawaii described local planters as “willing without reserve to employ all the Caucasian workers the government can bring to the islands, at a wage one-third larger” than what was paid Asian laborers.

“When the plantation owners were looking around for white groups, there happened to be in Honolulu a man named Perelstrous, who was a Russian kind of entrepreneur,” Polansky says.

“Kind of” is the key term here. Perelstrous drew up a recruitment brochure for the Russians, and once he and his crew reached Russia, they launched a “huge, huge propaganda” effort, according to Amir Khisamutdinov, a historian at Far Eastern Federal University in Khabarovsk. “‘Oh, you need to come! We doing for you big, say, possibilities to work. Good weather…’”

“There were all kinds of things in there,” Polansky adds. “They would be given a little house, how many hours they had to work, what their wages would be.”

That, and one extra thing: The brochure also suggested the Russians would be given their own land.

“That actually didn’t turn out to be true, of course,” Polansky says. “They were coming just to work on the plantations. So that was part of what caused a lot of the trouble after the Russians got here.”

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

After getting a taste of plantation life, the Russians went on strike. To better understand their rebellion, I drove out to Hawaii Plantation Village in Waipahu, an outdoor museum of plantation life. Even though it’s only a few miles from the beach, Waipahu is nothing like the azure coast. And when I touched an actual sugar cane plant, it felt more like a weapon than food.

The Siberians probably imagined they were traveling to an island paradise. Instead, they ended up in quarantine after measles broke out on their steamer. Their encampment on a Honolulu wharf became a tourist draw, while the newspapers made a circus out of the immigration snafu. According to Khisamutdinov, a large part of this was due to communication failure.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

“Language, it was a huge problem for Russians in Hawaii,” he says. The Russians didn’t have interpreters. In fact, there were so few Russian speakers in Hawaii that authorities recruited a local actress to help negotiate disputes, like one that broke out when the Russians tried bathing in the nude on a public beach.

And there wasn’t much cultural interpretation. Everything in Hawaii was totally alien to the Russians, from the local cuisine to the tropical weather. There was no community hub, no church, no expat ambassadors to help explain, as Khisamutdinov puts it, what their obligations were and how to enroll their children in schools.

“I think it’s the biggest mistake from authorities in Hawaii,” Khisamutdinov says. “They didn’t describe.”

The Russians fled Hawaii in droves. Many headed for California or New York, and a few returned to Russia.

But the story has another twist. Seven years after the Russians first arrived in Hawaii, the Russian Revolution took place. The new government, headed by Lenin, wanted the Russians in Hawaii to come home.

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album  (Photo: Alina Simone)

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album (Photo: Alina Simone)

“So Moscow sent a man here whose name was Trautshold,” Polansky says. “He had money. He was to pay their passage back to Russia. And he was to fill out their passport applications and everything. And that’s what this album is that we have, we have the passport application album.”

The scrapbook Troutshold compiled is filled with portraits and biographical sketches of the Russians who remained. It’s an extraordinary document, probably the only place you’ll find photos of Russian men with handlebar mustaches wearing Hawaiian work clothes.

Few people took Troutshold up on his offer of free passage to war-torn communist Russia, but some who did never forgot Hawaii. And when the Soviet Union collapsed several decades later, they reemerged.

“One day, I had a phone call from Catholic Charities,” Polansky says.

“There’s a Russian woman here,” they told her.

“I met her, and she was carrying an urn with her that had her mother’s ashes in it,” Polansky says. “It happened to be that her mother was born here in Hawaii. She was a child of one of these people that came here to work on the plantations, but her family had decided to repatriate to Soviet Union.”

Years later, when her mother was on her deathbed, she told her daughter, “I want to be buried in Hawaii.” With the Iron Curtain in place, that didn’t seem likely. So she waited.

“The minute the Soviet Union collapsed, she put herself on an airplane and showed up in Hawaii with her mother’s ashes,” Polanksy says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Polansky and Khisamutdinov put the passport application album online and began to connect with even more families of the long-lost Russians of Hawaii. While their encounters with descendants haven’t all been quite as dramatic as the first one, they have been contacted by about 30 descendants of people listed in the album so far.

It’s funny to think what might Hawaii might look like had the Russian immigration scheme succeeded. Would the islands be dotted with borscht stands today? Would balalaika jam bands be performing at the annual Island Arts Festival?

These are questions you can spend an entire tropical vacation contemplating. But this is a place where you can find sushi made from spam — I doubt there’s any influence Hawaii can’t absorb.


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Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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