Monthly Archives: December 2009

Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland’s parliament

December 15 is the most important day in the calendar for people who speak Esperanto. It is Zamenhof Day, named after the man who dreamed up the idea of a language that the entire planet would one day speak. L.L. Zamenhof (that’s him in center of the photo, the one staring at the camera) was born 150 years ago.  Though his dream was never realized, Esperanto is still spoken — in fact it’s undergoing something of a revival in the internet age. We consider the failure and success of Esperanto, first in a piece I reported for the Big Show on December 15, and then in an interview with Princeton English professor Esther Schor, who’s writing a book on Esperanto. In the piece, you’ll hear from Arika Okrent, author of the fabulous In the Land of Invented Languages. To listen to an extended interview with Okrent on Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and other made-up languages from July 2009, go here. Also in the piece, listen out for a clip from the 1965 Esperanto language movie Incubus, starring the incomparable William Shatner. Shatner delivers his Esperanto lines in that same jig-jaggy way as he does English on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Other BBC stories on Esperanto are here and here.

After our Esperanto extravaganza, we consider why the Irish parliament bans words such as guttersnipe and brat, but permits certain swearwords. We know this because Irish MP Paul Gogarty recently dropped the F-bomb — and not in a particularly jocular manner — in the Dáil. We get the back story of why certain words — another is yahoo — cannot be uttered in the Irish parliament from Harry McGee of the Irish Times. A document called Salient Rulings of the House lists all manner of old-fashioned expressions as no-nos in debate. The f-word is not among them.

Finally, a follow-up to a previous podcast in which Carol Hills and I talked about baby names that don’t translate well into certain foreign languages.  After that , a Norwegian pod-listener wrote in with some alarming news: if your name is Mark, expect to be teased in Norway. And under no crcumstances name your child Musa. It’s apparently a popular name in Turkey. In Norwegian it refers, coarsely, to female genitalia.

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British English as it is, was, and could have been

This week’s podcast is hopelessy devoted to Brit-English. First, the story of what might be the earliest audio archive of regional British dialects. During World War One, German linguist Wilhelm Doegen recorded the voices of more than 140 British prisoners of war. His archive includes  dialects from many parts of the  UK — tows like Aberdeen, Macclesfield, Bletchington and Wolverhampton.  In those days of course, Britain’s imperial reach was global, as was its army’s linguistic reach: Doegen recorded soldiers speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto and Bengali, among other languages. Until recently, the recordings languished in relative obscurity (for the British at least) at the Berliner Lautarchiv at Humboldt University in Berlin. Now, the British Library has acquired a digital copy of the archive.

Then, wine labels.  They don’t make much sense at the best of times. Now, British convenience store chain Spar has found a way to make them almost completely incomprehensible. Spar has ahem, translated them into  some of the same regional accents (though with less of an eye for accuracy) as those recorded by Herr Doegen.  The company says it’s all about making wine talk more regionally relevant. It may also be, excuse the pun, a dry comment on the pretentiousness of label literature. Never one to defer to the European palate, we at the pod add a little New World flavor with a label rendered in Bostonian English.

It’s well known that English is a co-optive language; there’s nothing it likes better than to beg, borrow and steal from anything in the vicinity. It did plenty of that in the wake of a momentous episode in British history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066. That was when William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard) became William the Conqueror (and later King William I).  Cue the start of French and Latin’s influence over English. Well, what if the Saxons — the English as they’re sometimes called — hadn’t beaten William and his Normans at Hastings, sent them back to France? David Cowley has written a book called How We’d Talk If The English Had Won in 1066.

Finally a couple of stories related to cockney rhyming slang. These days, rhyming slang is barely in use, except in parlor game form — and of course as something to make money out of.  The first story is on an ATM company uses cockney rhyming slang to dispense cash. And then, a little something I did in 1990 for KALX, college radio in Berkeley, CA on the obsessive love that  some Americans have not just for rhyming slang but for anything British.

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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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