Monthly Archives: September 2009

Nasty speech in the Netherlands, bitter truths in South Africa, and goofy government speech in Denmark

After Joe Wilson’s “you lie!”, after Kanye West at the MTV awards, after Serena Williams’ outburst at the US Open, you may think:  enough already with nasty speech! Well, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. This week, a report on a series of Dutch cartoon that are offensive – really offensive. Deliberately so, according to the Dutch-based Arab group behind them. The group claims that Dutch law exercises a double standard when it comes to speech and religion: while it often censors anti-semitic speech – like the cartoons in question – it tolerates anti-Muslim speech.

Then, gadfly-journalist Max du Preez.

vrye weekblad

Du Preez has been upsetting his fellow South Africans for decades – first, he upset his father by becoming a communist, then he upset the apartheid regime with his muckracking journalism. He edited Vrye Weekblad the only Afrikaans-language paper that exposed the murders, beatings and corruption of the racist government.  That upset almost an entire people: du Preez’s people,  South Africa’s Afrikaners. Only after the end of apartheid, when morality ceased to be a moveable feast, did du Preez’s father speak to him again.

These days, du Preez has new enemies: the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which fired him; former president Thabo Mbeki who du Preez called a womanizer; and agricultural giant Monsanto, which du Preez says is ruining rural  South Africa by spreading genetically modified crops.

Finally, government free speech. This doesn’t come up much. Governments oversee free speech laws; they rarely get caught up in their own free speech shenanigans. Not the Danish government. Not Denmark’s  tourist bureau. For its latest edgy advertizing campaign the bureau staged a faux one night stand between a young blonde Danish woman and a foreign man with apparently no name, and no nationality. Johnny Foreigner, as it were.  Here’s the ad:

This was supposed to be a come-on to foreign visitors; instead it had Danish politicians trying to curb the speech of their own government.

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Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

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Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

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