This 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.
Next 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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In 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. Also 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. 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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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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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.
Finally, 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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