Monthly Archives: July 2009

Diplomatic insults, click languages, Harry Potter in France, and cucumber season

chavezThis week, the nuanced — and sometimes not so nuanced — world of diplomatic insults: we hurl a few your way, coutesy of Hugo Chavez, Hillary Clinton and Winston Churchill. There’s also an overheated exhange in the British parliament between then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and leader of the opposition Neil Kinnock, which goes something like this:  insult (Thatcher), outraged indignation (Kinnock), quasi-retraction (Thatcher).

We follow this with news of so-called click languages. My colleague David Cohn has been finding out about these and he’s posted some thoughts and links in the science section of The World’s website. Here’s the headline: linguists have figured out how to decipher and classify clicks— and some languages have a huge number of of them. Just as well that the linguists are discovering this now. Some of these languages are about to kick the bucket. You can listen to the sounds of one of them here.

cucumberNext up, that underestimated vegetable the  cucumber.  Norwegian is one of several languages (Dutch, Polish and German are others) that appropriate the word cucumber to describe what we English speakers call silly season. That’s the time of the year — now, as it happens — when we in the news media resort to covering shark attacks,  dogs reunited with their owners, and astronauts’ underwear. (Actually, we do these stories year-round, but during the silly season, they wind up on the front page). Norwegians and others supposedly put  cucumber harvest season on their front pages. No wonder newspapers are in trouble.

Finally, many French fans of Harry Potter novels read the books in English. Or at least they did before the books were translated into French.

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Banning Hungarian, swearing for pain relief, and dog barks translated

clarklostFor this month’s language news podcast, I roped in The World’s Online Editor Clark Boyd. In a former life, Clark taught English in Hungary — yes that’s a barely younger version of him posing beneath the signpost. He, of course, has some choice stories about that time. (I wish I could offer up a hyperlink here…) He and I chose the following stories:

5. Slovakia passes a law banning Hungarian in official communications in some of its Hungarian-speaking regions. The is just the latest in a long-running series of bureaucratic battles between this small country’s Slovak-speaking majority and its Hungarian minority. Hungarians are getting used to this. Because they found themselves on the losing side in World War One, their country contracted. That left millions of Hungarian speakers living in surrounding nations, primarily Slovakia, Romania and Serbia. And aside from –in some cases — sharing the same script, the Hungarian language bears no similiarities to the languages spoken in these countries. Cue suspicion, fear and loathing.

bilingual4. New research out of Italy seeks to show why babies and young children are so adept at learning two languages simultaneously. It’s more evidence of the possible advantages — social and neurological — that bilingual speakers have over monolinguals. Above is a picture I took inside a Phoenix-area elementary school that has had to change its curriculum because it was deemed to be teaching “too bilingually.”bowlingual
3. Stereotyped Japanese toy story alert: toy maker Takara Tomy has come up with a device that claims to translate dog noises into human language. . That language, for the time being, is Japanese, so it might not work for you. This may or may not be entirely a gimmick. But even if there is something to the translation “algorithm,” do you ready want to know what pooch is saying? $220 will buy you a Bowlingual.

2. Six years ago, the Malaysian government ordered its public schools to start teaching math and science in English. After several protests, mainly from ethnic Malays, the government has lifted the requirement, so that schools can choose which language to use. The main languages of instruction there are Bahasa Malay, Chinese and Tamil. This will please rural schools where finding a English-speaking math or science teacher was vitually impossible. But the fear now is that Malaysia may fall further behind the the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong in producing a tech-smart, English-speaking younger generation.

swear1. Good news for people who occasionally swear: results from a new study show that the trangressive nature of cursing helps when it comes to tolerating pain. You can keep your hand submerged in a jar of ice for longer if you put filthy words to your feelings. Try it at home! However, this methodology won’t work if you are a over-sweary person, you swear constantly even in your most painless moments: the curses will have lost their meaning.

A bonus this week: our favorite hated words. This is inspired by the Ledbury Poetry Festival in England which asked poets to come up with their least favorite words. The winner: pulchritude — not a bad word till you know what it means: beauty. Clearly, it needs a meaning reset. How about the lingering smell of garbage? Other words Clark and I discuss: benign, dadrock, homeland and alien.

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David Crystal’s life in language, Moominmania and Nowheristan

coverpageIn this week’s podcast, the granddaddy of British linguists David Crystal reflects on a life in language. Crystal is an inclusionist: he welcomes slang and textspeak, for example, into the English language. He believes that as it expands geographically, its vocabulary will also expand to include more expressions from outlying areas. Maybe I should do a story on how English will develop? If as Crystal believes, it will mutate into a series of localized Englishes, will a new standard global English emerge?  Something similiar already seems to be happening to Arabic, with this rise of Al Jazeera and other pan-Arabic TV channels.

Crystal  recalls that as a young academic he was contacted by a shoe company who placed an order with him for several nouns and adjectives. This is one of many wonderful stories that pour from Crystal’s pen in his autobiography. little-my-1Also this week, the Moomins:  mouthless Hippo-lookalikes that are the creation of the late Tove Jansson.  In their native Finland,  the Moomins as popular as Disney is in the United States. Finnish companies use them to sell everything from cookies to baby wipes. The Finnish news media sometimes refer to the country’s president as Moominmamma.  There’s a Moomin museum, a summer theme park, and Moomins on Finland’s nation airline, Finnair. They’re popular overseas too. The Moomins have been translated into nearly 40 languages, and there is, almost inevitably, a Japanese anime.

I reported on Moominmania when I was in Finland a while back.  The Finns, to my mind, have it all — Nokia, Marimekko, and the Moomins. OK, so they don’t have much sunlight in winter, and perhaps as a result they have an overbundance of thrash-metal bands. IMG_4773 I visited Tove Jansson’s old studio in Helsinki — the place where she drew the comic strip, and also painted non-Moomin figures. It was in the studio that I met and interviewed Jansson’s niece Sophia Jansson. She told me that strange things happen to the Moomins when they are translated into Japanese, Cantonese or English.

Check out more Moomin images and books here and here.

Finally, we hear from a Lebanese man who has proclaimed himself Emperor of Nowheristan. Really.

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Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and 900 others: why we invent languages

book-coverThis week, a converation with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

Okrent has a linguistics background: she has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But her interest far exceeds the merely  scientific. She  submerges herself, Orwell-style, into the geeky subcultures of invented language societies. Okrent holds a first-level certification in Klingon.That required cramming 500 words of this made-for-the-movies language during a Klingon convention that she went to. And this was no ordinary convention: attending it meant sitting next to sci-fi-monster-bedecked people who  insisted on ordering meals at restaurants in Klingon. And what words! Just try speed-memorizing terms like Qatlh, ngeD and wlgh. Those words mean difficult, easy and genius. The Klingon word for hangover is ‘uH.

Okrent tells many stories of people who dreamed up languages that would replace our own bastard tongues. In that sense Klingon is a small sub-set: its function was at least originally limited to a fictional universe; it was never intended to be used in the real world. Not so Esperanto, the most reknowned of the “real” artificial languages. Most invented languages are unmitigated failures, consigned to obscurity almost as soon as they are born. Esperanto is a rare exception —  it’s both a failure and a success.  It’s a failure because it didn’t meet the outrageously lofty objective of its author  Ludwik Zamenhof: to become a universally spoken global language. But Esperanto also succeeded because over time, it has become a living language.  It’s still around today, more than 120 years after its conception, and it has even evolved with usage.

Klingon and Esperanto are just two of dozens of languages Okrent discusses, from John Wilkins‘ 17th century Philosophical Language to Blissymbolics and Láadan, a couple of 20th century attempts to fix the supposed evils and omissions of natural languages.

The vast majority of invented languages from Lingua Ignota (c.1150) to Dritok (2007) languish in near-total obscurity. But they tell us much about how we think, how we do not think, and how we love to blame language for our own shortcomings.


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More linguist soldiers, selling beer in North Korea, and a beach in Ghana

In this week’s podcast, we begin with an update on Dan Choi, the Arabic-speaking lieutenant who faced a military discharge because he spoke out about this sexual orientation. Choi also explains why learning a language within the military (in his case at West Point) is so different from going to a language school on civvy street. We also have a report on a small Pentagon program to attract foreign language speakers.


Next up,  a new TV ad out of North Korea that invites you to drink the local brew. This ad — one of very few in the Hermit Kingdom —  clocks in at two and half minutes long. More like an informercial really. And just like an informercial, it’s full of dodgy claims: this beer relieves stress, improves health and lengthens your life. But in its  pseudo-heroic way,  it makes its point. It even made me thirsty, and curious about exactly how Kim Jong Il-approved beer tastes. Outsiders who’ve tried it generally like it. Apparently, it’s sour, bitter and cloudy. A bit like a night in Pyongyang. This Taedonggang‘s for you, or something.

After sinking a couple of cold ones,  we give thanks to activist listeners — yes, you! — in Gagauz, Tongan, Czech and many other languages. The thank yous are to everyone who posted links to the podcast, blogged about it, or wrote a review in iTunes.  Tusind tak!

Finally, as Barack Obama heads to Ghana, we head to the beach in Ghana. Not just any beach but a place whose name is hotly debated. Another iteration of how place names play a key part in forging history and memory.

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Pentagon still kicking out linguists, Ukraine’s Soviet names, and a banquet of foreign idioms

The Obama Administration is moving to boost foreign language speakers at several agencies, notably the State Department and the CIA. But at the Pentagon there’s a problem: the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Yes, this policy is about gays in the military, but it has unintended consequences. One of the most embarrassing to the Defense Department is that more than 300 linguists, including 60 speakers of Arabic have been discharged for declaring their sexual orientation. Dan Choi is the poster child for this unintended consequence. He speaks fluent Arabic and Korean (in other words, the languages of Iraq and North Korea, two of the three members of President George W. Bush‘s Axis of Evil) and he’s currently learning Persian (spoken in Iran, the third and final member).

After that, a couple of stories from Ukraine. First, the tale of what has become a popular video outtake of Ukrainain Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as she prepared to address the nation. She got mad, then said something that seemed to reflect badly on her own stewardship of Ukraine.  Then, an update on Ukraine’s efforts to change the names of cities named after Soviet heroes. Well, that’s the problem. They people are not considered heroes in many parts of Ukraine. What’s more many of these figures were ethnic Russians, and some never so much as stepped foot in Ukraine.

noodlesFinally, there’s  a conversation with Jag Bhalla, collector of foreign language idioms. His new book is called “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears.”

Some of my favorites concern nationalities: in Czech, a Hungarian can be referred to as a “pimple”; in Spanish, to play dumb is to “play the Swede”; in Italian, to say something obvious is to “rediscover America.” But my absolute favorite is an Italian way to describe rekindling an old flame: “to reheat cabbage.”

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