Monthly Archives: January 2010

New York’s polyglot cops, Arabic online, and the planet’s most difficult language

For the latest podcast, five language news stories from the past few weeks, as chosen by The Big Show’s crack language team  (Carol and me).

5. Nice and nasty words.

Our pick of the many lists  — herehere and yes, here —  for best and worst words of the year and the decade.  We like Abwrackprämie — it’s Germany’s word for Cash for Clunkers, and it means “wrecking premium”.  We don’t like 24-7, hopium and mancession.  And we’re neutral about jeggings and minarettverbot, the Swiss-German expression that describes Switzerland’s voter-approved ban on minarets (pictured is one of Switzerland’s four minarets. Yes, four: they weren’t exactly  dominating the skyline before the ban was approved). Thanks again for the great service performed by the people at Lake Superior State University who put together an annual list of banished words. The 2009 words are again all profoundly offensive. My favorite — or least favorite, whichever it is —  is teachable moment.  Can’t you just see that nasty little idea given the overcoming-adversity Hollywood Kleenex treatment? Ew! Yuck! Double yuck!

4. Georgia launches a Russian language TV channel.

So what? you may think. The treatment of stories on this new web TV channel is pretty similar to official and semi-official Georgian media: anti-Russian. The difference, of course, is that the other stuff is in Georgian, a language spoken by very few people outside this small mountainous country (the script in the banner picture of this blog, incidently, is Georgian).  So, Georgia can now get out its version of the news, particularly as it relates to the Caucasus — and do it  in a language that’s widely understood in the region and, of course,  in Moscow.  You can view this a couple of ways.  The launching of this news service may be a more constructive way of getting your point across than taking up arms, as Georgians and Russians did in 2008. But it may also amount to “linguistic provocation” which is what one Georgian opposition leader thinks.


3. New ventures and technologies give a boost to Arabic online.

Arabic is set to become a larger force online after Yahoo’s acquistion of web portal Maktoob and interest in Arabic search engine Yamli which converts Latin letters into Arabic script.

2. Of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages, which is the most difficult to learn?

The Economist has declared this to be the Amazonian language Tuyuca. Of course, everyone has an opinion on this: here’s a good one; another one here.  Me, I know nothing about Tuyuca. But I do know that language-learning is subjective and contextual: I can pick up Spanish, for example, far more easily than my Shanghai-born Chinese teacher can. She swears to me that Spanish is the world’s most difficult language. Also, access to the language is key, so learning Tuyuca if you were living among the Tuyuca people might be a relatively straightforward proposition (no TV, not much else to do) — easier perhaps than learning Italian in the exclusive company of the (presumably non-Italian-speaking) Tuyuca. And then there’s the status of the language in question. As discussed in a previous podcast, a language like Hindi is considered lower-status than English by some of its speakers. So, confronted by an English-speaker trying to communicate in Hindi, they may feel more comfortably speaking and English. French people, on the other hand, are generally proud of their language, and are far less likely to switch to English.

1. The New York Police Department, now enforcing the law in nearly a hundred languages.

New York is America’s most cosmolitan city, and its police force may just be the world’s most linguistically diverse.  What’s this cop wondering? How to you read someone their rights in…Lithuanian???

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Weird words like whiffling, and the elusive meaning of peace

Adam Jacot de Boinod is  a seeker of obscure but colorful English expressions. It all began when he was working for a BBC program called QI with Stephen Fry. He was asked to find interesting words beginning with an A. So he picked up an Albanian-English dictionary and found 27 words for moustache and 27 words for eyebrow. That research eventually spawned two books, The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo. The two books list foreign words and phrases for which there are no direct translations, and they are favorites of this podcast, especially as source material for the Eating Sideways segment.   Of course, books that list words for which there are no English equivalents would seem to suggest that English has some deficiencies. And it does, but it also has more than its fair share of wonderfully inventive, if obscure, expressions. That’s where de Boinod’s new book, The Wonder of Whiffling, comes in. Read it, and  you’ll know whether you prefer to muppet shuffle or dwile flunk. You’ll know if you are a pozzy-wallah. Some of expressions are brand new, others long gone. Some are from Britain, but many hail from former colonial outposts where English is re-invented with the help of local languages and customs. It’s almost impossible to choose a favorite, so I’ll pick three:

Charientism (c.1589): an insult so gracefully veiled as to seem unintended.

Bend-down plaza (Jamaican English): a row of roadside peddlers, specializing in items that are hard to get in stores, because of import restrictions.

Dulosis (Greek) : the enslavement of ants by ants.

Also in this week’s pod, the meaning of the word peace.  Barack Obama is the latest public figure to tweak its definition when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and made the case for “just war”. His arguments weren’t especially new. But in making them as  he collected the world’s foremost peace prize, Obama forced us to question our our settled sense of what peace is. He invited us to re-imagine it — or at least as it presents itself in the 21st century — as something that might be achieved only after vanquishing those who oppose peace. Before Obama got to talking about just wars, he acknowledged that he was no Gandhi or King . But he also pointed out that those figures were not heads of state when they espoused their theories of non-violence. Did Obama’s speech echo Psalm 85 and the painting above, the Kiss of Justice and Peace? (photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto) Or did it re-cast peace as the bastard offspring of war and justice? After we hear from Obama in the podcast, The World’s Alex Gallafent takes us through several alternative definitions of peace.

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Hebrew’s revival, Turkey’s banned letters, Malaysia’s Allah crisis, and Q

Hebrew is the most successful attempt ever at language revival (though some argue that the evolution of Modern Hebrew is closer to language invention than revival).  Drawing on an ancient language has its drawbacks. The original had perhaps only a few thousand words, some of which — cherub, concubine — aren’t hugely useful these days.  And then there are the tens of thousands of words that didn’t exist in Biblical Hebrew. Not just technical words either. No word for icecream. Or skateboard. That’s where the Academy of Hebrew Language comes in. In last week’s podcast, Daniel Estrin reported on how the Academy helped come up with Hebrew names for  Uranus and Neptune.
Picture: Daniel Estrin

This week, Daniel tells us about how the Academy works, and what Israelis think of its work. The story was prompted by the Israeli cabinet’s decision to establish a Hebrew National Day on 21st of the Hebrew month of Tevet (in 2010, it was January 7). That’s the birth date of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew. (All this originally came to us via Tablet Magazine and its podcast Vox Tablet, where you can hear a slightly different version of Daniel’s report.)

Also, Malaysians have rioted and attacked churches after a court ruled that a Catholic newspaper can continue to use the word Allah. The government had banned its use, but an a court sided with the newspaper. Now the government is appealing to Malaysia’s highest court.

Then, two reports on letters in the Latin alphabet. In Sweden, parents have won the right to name their newborn Q. Just Q.  It’s not the most charming of names, but it’s not the least either. A previous controversy was over a baby girl named Metallica. Our second letter-related story comes from Turkey, where using the Kurdish-associated letters Q, W or X could land you in jail. There’s a nice Onion skit on the subject of letter additions to the English alphabet here.

Finally, a two-nations-divided-by-one-language examination of the word grit. These days, it’s the mot du jour in Britain because supplies are low. Not that Brits suddenly lack grit of the courageous determination variety. (That figurative take on the word is just about the only way it’s used here in the United States.) No, Brit grit is what Americans call salt, meaning that salt/dirt mix that is spread over icy roads. Britain, of course, is not  prepared for the kind of extreme wintry conditions that have been wreaking havoc on the nation this past month. So, there’s not enough grit.  Like in the British summertime when it doesn’t rain for a few weeks, there suddenly isn’t enough water.

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Praying in Spanish, new Hebrew names for planets, and a Danish hangover

This is the new face of St Patrick’s Church in Lawrence, MA. Until recently, St Pat’s was a bastion of Irish-American culture. But Lawrence is a changed city — it’s now overwhelmingly Hispanic. In 2001, Father Paul O’Brien was dispatched there with orders to extend outreach to Lawrence’s  Dominicans and Puerto Ricans — its native Spanish speakers.  He increased the number of Spanish language masses, started Spanish Bible study groups and raised money for a community center that offered free meals to the city’s poor.  What happened next wasn’t pretty. Some old-time parishioners left the church; others contented themselves with leaving messages of hate on Father Paul’s voicemail. But nine years later, things have improved. Far more Spanish speakers worship at St Pat’s. And among the old-timers who remained, there’s acceptance, if sometimes grudging, that two languages, two cultures and two styles can co-exist in one church. All this — and much more — is documented in Scenes From a Parish, a film by James Rutenbeck that’s currently showing on PBS’s Independent Lens. (Check your local listings for repeats etc.) We play some excerpts, and talk to Rutenbeck and Father Paul.

Also, how do you say Neptune and Uranus in Hebrew? The answer used to be: Neptune and Uranus (yes, it’s Uranus in the picture). Now the two planets have Hebrew names, thanks to the votes of interested Israelis, The Academy of the Hebrew Language and a panel of experts.  We English speakers are still stuck with Uranus but Hebrew speakers can now call that planet Oron. Neptune will now be known as Rahab.

Finally, a New Year’s Day hangover courtesy of the good people of Denmark.

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