Monthly Archives: November 2009

Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Listen in iTunes or here.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Spelling Obama in Chinese, oratory, and chop suey love

How do you spell Obama in Chinese? Depends who you are. The Chinese news media spell it 奥巴马 (àobāmǎ). But the US Embassy in Beijing recently launched a campaign to change it to 欧巴马 (ōubāmǎ). Why no agreement? The embassy says its spelling is closer to the American pronunciation of Obama. But the Chinese don’t appear to like how it sounds, or reads. For one thing, the Taiwanese already transliterate Obama the American way. Beijing likes to keep its scriptural distance from Taipei. More here and here.

Next on the podcast, the contrasting oratorical styles of presidents Hu and Obama. The two leaders draw on starkly different rhetorical traditions, and they may also have somewhat different audiences when they step up to a podium. There are personal differences too, mainly concerning charisma: Obama oozes it;  Hu doesn’t go in for oozing much of anything.  Some young Chinese have noticed.  Like their Japanese counterparts, they’re learning English by reciting famous Obama speeches.

Then, something on a type of Chinese idiom known as chengyu, as explained by the late James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China. Lilley says Chinese diplomats loved to hide behind these sayings. He recalls how he once turned the tables on them by coming up with an enigmatic saying of his own.

After that we travel to the UK, where Confucian philosophy has infused Chinese language classes in five public schools. It’s almost inevitable that when you learn a language, you learn about the culture of the people who speak that language. (Believe it or not, it helps.) But this new approach in Britain goes a step further: the schools draw on Confucian teaching methods. The idea is that students will learn more through thinking and enjoying a subject than they might through memorization.

And then, a grand finale:  poet and writer Marilyn Chin on why she loves the expression chop suey. It’s all in the onomatopoeia. More about the origin of the dish here and the song here (it’s a high point in the musical Flower Drum Song.) Much more, by the way, from Marilyn Chin next week, including a discussion of the role language plays in her new novel.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Baby talk, Ukrainian talk, and translated punk talk

baby_crying_closeupIs this baby crying in German or French?  A new study says we may be able to tell. The study was originally discussed on my sister pod, The World’s science podcast. It   concludes that we begin language acquisition in the womb. At that stage, we are, well, a captive audience to mama’s words; researchers say we pick up a bit of her accent and intonation. Then after birth, we cry in ways that imitate that accent and intonation.

А а Б б В в Г г Ґ ґ Д д Е е Є є Ж ж З з И и
І і Ї ї Й й К к Л л М м Н н О о П п Р р С с
Т т У у Ф ф Х х Ц ц Ч ч Ш ш Щ щ Ь ь Ю ю Я я

 

Then it’s off to Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language (see alphabet above) is enjoying a government-sponsored revival. This comes at the expense of Russian – with the notable and ever-delightful exception of swear words: people still curse almost exclusively in Russian. Why? you tell me, please…In any case, the government’s support of Ukrainians, especially in schools and colleges has turned this into an election issue. The two front runners in next January’s presidential vote are the pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who generally favors the promotion of Ukrainian, and the more Kremlin-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, who believes Russian should be protected.  Which leaves our Kiev-based reporter, Brigid McCarthy, somewhat conflicted as to which language to study.

nouvelle_longFinally, a conversation with the two French guys behind cover band Nouvelle Vague. Their new album re-imagines punk and new wave classics by The Sex Pistols, Plastic Bertrand and others. The singers tend to be non-native English speakers, female and young — young enough in some cases not to have heard the originals, or know about the ethos and vibe of punk. I like a lot of their reinterpretions because they’re so wildly different from the originals, yet add something that was seemingly overlooked by the original artists. It’s as if the musical code — the language — is flipped to reveal something previously hidden.  So, the vicious anger of the Sex Pistols’ version of God Save the Queen becomes a sweet, hymnal folk song. The Police’s poppy So Lonely becomes a desperate, haunting dirge. There’s a great linguistic flip too:  for the one song with lyrics in French, Plastic Betrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi, the singer is an English woman who enunciates the French words with a marked English accent.

At the end of our interview, I offered the Nouvelle Vague guys my two cents on the punk classics they might next tackle:  anything from Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True album, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation,  Iggy Pop’s Dog Food, and top of the list:  a very early single from Adam and the Ant called Young Parisians. They should sing that one in French.

Listen in iTunes or here.

sex pistols

OK, I just need to include an image of the Pistols.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Birds, urls and Glaswegians

For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

5. Some birds develop  distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina  chirp the avian version of  “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment.  The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.

There is a BBC story from a few years ago suggesting  that cows pick up on regional human accents. But, alas, the story may have been largely bogus.

glasgow ad

4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow.  Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.

3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools.  Surpringly,  France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of  earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms  haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar.  Some European language-learning groups however,  are skeptical that the reforms will help much.

2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles,  schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there.  However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.

1.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global.  This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of  a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans.  Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)

Listen in iTunes or here.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized