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???

Listen in iTunes or here.

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