Monthly Archives: June 2010

Language adoption and the future of spelling

This week’s pod has two contrasting stories on language adoption. In the first instance, the intention is to encourage bilingualism; in the second, it’s  to promote nationalism.

Belgium hasn’t had a revolution since 1830 (see pic), after which a new constitution established French as the national language. Today, Dutch and German are also recognized. But another,  slower revolution may be taking place, with language again the weapon of choice. The country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority want out, and they did well in enough in parliamentary elections to advance that agenda. The French-speaking Walloon minority are less independence-minded, perhaps because they’re not so well-off.

Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the only place where the two language groups intermingle. Now a Brussels-based organization is urging Belgians to adopt people from across the linguistic divide.  OK, so it’s just online adoption, but the idea is to rekindle Belgium’s former affection for multilingualism. More on Belgium’s language battles here and here.

In Montenegro, the government has adopted a language that may not be a language at all. But as the saying goes, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy” (the quote is often attributed, wrongly, to Max Weinreich). As of 2006, Montenegro has been its own country, with the toys to prove it, like the Gazelle helicopter pictured above — see the Montenegrin flag on the tail. This means that it can call its dialect of Serbo-Croatian a language in its own right. After all, the Serbs have Serbian, the Croats Croatian and the Bosnians Bosnian. In reality, Montenegrin is even less distinguishable from Serbian than Croatian or Bosnian are.  But this is the Balkans, and languages, just like everything else, get balkanized.

Finally, a discussion with David Wolman on what happens to spelling in the age of Spell Check and Google’s did you mean function. Do we need bother to learn how to spell, or at any rate,  spell well?

Wolman is the author of a history of English spelling, Righting the Mother Tongue. Check out my previous interview with him here.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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The language of the beautiful game

At the World Cup in South Africa, it’s not just Brazil vs Spain and Argentina vs Everybody Else. It’s Bafana Bafana vs Les Éléphants, soccer vs football, cleats vs boots and the coach vs the gaffer.

We kick off with a story on the new adidas ball and its globally correct corporate name:  Jabulani, which means celebrate in the isiZulu language. There is, famously, a new ball for every World Cup.  Each time, the new ball is presented — and heavily marketed — as a engineering masterpiece and an advance on the last one. Maybe: the new  certainly moves through the air faster than its predecessors (which include the horrifyingly management-speak name, the Teamgeist from 2006 ). On the Jabulani, there are eleven lines and eleven colors, representing South Africa’s eleven official langages. Those linguistically-inspired lines create slight ridges on the ball, which are  controversial. Many World Cup goalkeepers think the ridges will cause the ball to swerve in the air, making it more difficult for the goalies to position themselves for saves. Of course, if that’s the case, most people — apart from goalies — will be happy: more goals, more TV viewers, more money. Fancy that: linguistic diversity acting as a fig leaf for commercialism. And just think if South Africa had 111 official languages…

There are thousands of websites and blogs to choose between for  following the World Cup and the cultural hoopla surrounding it. For stuff you won’t see anywhere else I recommend Davy Lane’s one-man South African show.  It’s full of smart, funny, non-touristy, interviews with locals. Davy also sports a not-so-mild obsession with Uruguay and its colors. Also, check out my colleague Jeb Sharp’s latest podcast on soccer and French colonialism.

Next in the podcast, a story on the race to rename streets in South African cities. The old names — usually in Afrikaans or English — are often associated with the apartheid era. As noted in previous podcast/blog posts here and here, naming and renaming places is a way of  shaping history, of controlling how it is told.

Next, we focus on a few words rooted in South Africa’s eleven official languages that may go global after this tournament. One already has: vuvuzela, even if most non-South Africans aren’t crazy about the sound this plastic horn makes.  One other word from the African continent that’s gone global, at least in the francophone world: Drogbacité. This means a spirit of reconciliation and humility, named after Ivory Coast superstar –and Africa’s finest player Didier Drogba. Three years ago, Drogba used his celebratory status to help jump-start peace talks between warring factions in Ivory Coast. Quite how central a role Drogba played is up for discussion, but suffice to say, the expression Drogbacité stuck.

Finally, a meditation on a US-English confrontation off the soccer field (or football pitch: take your pick). It is the linguistic battle over soccer/football terminology. It speaks to the nature of the often awkward, not-so-special relationship between England and the United States. England is represented here by New York-based writer Luke Dempsey; the US by broadcaster and former national team goalkeeper Shep Messing.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

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Bilingual tots and the language of smell

Not many parents in Israel make the choice, but a few send their kids to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschools. The World’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell is one of them. His son is about to enroll in a preschool where Hebrew and Arabic are spoken on alternate days. To relax, this 3-year-old will speak English at home. (Matthew, he’ll thank you for it one day…)  Matthew says parents have different reasons for sending their kids to a bilingual preschool. For Hebrew speakers, it often comes from a desire to learn more about the culture of their Arab neighbors. For Arabic speakers, it’s more likely to be out of a wish to get a leg up the socio-economic ladder. For outsiders like Matthew, it’s a golden opportunity to have the kid learn a couple of foreign languages at a stage in life when those languages might stick.

Next in the pod is an interview with Seattle-area rabbi Mark Glickman (pictured, looking at the camera).  He recently visited the Cairo Genizah, which once boasted one of Judaism’s largest repositories of documents. Many of these documents dated back hundreds of years, but at the Cairo Genizah, they were, in Rabbi Glickman’s words, “a messy, jumbled dump.” They are now stored, in somewhat better shape, in archives around the world — in the UK, the US and Israel.  Glickman explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic.

Next, a report from Syria on book-publishing and reading in Arabic-speaking world. Books in Arabic have a long history (pictured is an Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights from the 14th Century). But not many people these days read books in Arabic: a recent UN survey reported that less than 2% of native Arabic speakers reads even one book a year. That means that fewer books are being published.  However, you can still find bookstores in cities like Damascus and Beirut; they’re trying mightily to revive the practice of reading in Arabic.

A short plug here for Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days. The book is replete with inventive wordplay (unwanted backrub given by a character named Jack = jackrub; character called Graham with whiny British accent is renamed Grime). Plus, there’s a nice un-Eating Sideways moment. It’s when the narrator suggests that there should be a French expression, along the lines of l’esprit d’escalier, for the sensation of being initially amused but later unnerved by something that’s said to you.

Finally, we visit the New York Public Library for a smell test. What does a book’s particular odor convey to an educated nose, such as that of Shelley Smith (pictured) of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

Listen in iTunes or here.

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