My buddy Clark Boyd is on TV tonight. If you followed that link, sorry- Clark will not be cooking under duress , or dancing, or singing (all that ended in whisky-soaked tears on the Night of a Thousand Kilts in deepest Vermont). But he will be sleuthing in Guatemala for PBS’s Frontline World.
Here’s the story: More than 200,000 people died or went missing during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war. In the countryside the targets were indigenous people, killed by soldiers. In the cities it was a different story: the victims were dissidents and activists, and the suspected perpetrators were Guatemala’s national police. Three years ago, the archives of the national police were discovered in a derelict police building in the middle of Guatemala City. Now, with the help of a Silicon Valley non-profit called Benetech, some 80 million documents are being cleaned, scanned, and analyzed. Prosecutions may follow. Here’s the original story Clark did for The World.
Citing national security, the Bush Administration now offers grants to Americans to study languages such as Arabic. We travel to Cairo where language schools are full of American students. Also, a conversation with self-described language fanatic Elizabeth Little. And we also take a journey through the linguistic politics – and just plain silliness – of the Eurovision Song Contest. Here’s an example of both the politics and the silliness: the lyricists of Belgium’s official entry in the contest decided to avoid either of the country’s two official languages. Not surprising, given that the country is sharply divided along linguistic lines. But they also decided to reject every single one of the globe’s other 6,000 – 7,000 languages, in favor of a completely made-up language.
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It couldn’t last. I come from public radio. I just couldn’t resist putting out a podcast on endangered languages. And so after three good, honest attempts at tracking non-endangered global linguistic trends, I spoil it all with this offering. Despite this moth-to-light obsession, podcast #4 probes some of the weirder aspects of language-saving. First we spend some time a Chilean teen has taught himself the dead language of Selk’nam. Then we hear from two American linguists who have made it their life goal to travel the globe, documenting as many dying languages as they can. Then we travel to the southeastern United States where a small minority of people still speak – and promote – a creole known as Gullah. Pretty much everyone featured in this podcast is dedicated to language revivial or preservation. Dedicated to the point of obsession – but it’s an attractive obsession.
My friend and colleague Jeb Sharp is on assignment in Bosnia right now, prepping for a series that I’ll be editing this fall. I’m keeping up with her whereabouts by reading her blog. So, all you ex-Yugos: what’s the name (in English) of that silvery-blossomed tree on the road from Sarajavo to Goradze?
In this edition of The World in Words, the stories of a couple of people who aimed just a little too high. Linguist Derek Bickerton talks about his lifelong love of creoles and his attempt to create a new language by importing a half-dozen families onto an uninhabited desert island. Bickerton’s memoir, Bastard Tongues, is a page-turner, and not just for story of the island experiment he conjured up. Also in this cast former speechwriter Gregory Levey on how he almost got an Israeli prime minister to quote from a Seinfeld episode. Listen in iTunes or here.
In this week’s podcast, the focus is on the Russian language. There are those names of leaders: Putin, Stalin, Medvedev. They all mean – or at least connote – concrete things to Russians. (A lot of non-Russians, btw, have great trouble pronouncing Medvedev. ) Then we enter the linguistic world of outgoing president Vladimir Putin. The man likes to juice up his rhetoric with a mix of 19th century Russian poetry and hardcore street talk. We end with the confessions of a hopelessly unqualified Israeli government speechwriter whose exaggerated claim of fluency in French is tested at the highest diplomatic levels. Listen to the cast in iTunes or here.