Monthly Archives: February 2011

Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

Was Mubarak Egypt’s last pharaoh? Maybe only if Putin is Russia’s last tsar. Names for strong men may say as much about public expectations as they do about a leader’s style.

There is a comfort to thinking of the year of your country as the father or mother of the nation. And it’s not just countries with dictators that name their leaders in this way. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady (soon to be a biopic of the same name starring Meryl Streep). Finland’s President Tarja Halonen is often referred to as Moominmamma– partly ironically, but also out of pride. (The Moomins are a cartoon strip and set of children’s fantasy stories that are as big as Disney in Finland).

In Mubarak’s case, the pharaoh moniker is an insult.  It’s shorthand for absolutism, state violence and destruction.

“If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” says Joshua Stacher of Kent State University. “It’s not a good term.”

It wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, the pharaohs were remembered proudly as demi-gods who “ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt,” says Tarek Osman,  author of Egypt on the Brink. That is “an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche.” Maybe that sense of the pharaohs will return, now that Mubarak is gone.

Check out this post on Language Log for Chinese signs held by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Were these people protesting Mubarak, or sending a message to China’s Communist rulers?

Also in the podcast, fears for the future of Cantonese, once the lingua franca of many Chinatowns around the world.

Beijing is stepping up its efforts to establish Mandarin as the official tongue of China. As a result, Cantonese is spoken by fewer people — and in fewer situations outside the home — even in Cantonese-speaking parts of China. There have been protests in the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong about proposals to expand the use of Mandarin on TV and in other public settings.

In the rest of the world, students of the Chinese language and their teachers see the writing on the wall: they are choosing to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

These days in New York’s Chinatown,  a mix of dialects is spoken. That means people often fall back on the common dialect Mandarin.  But not Kim Mui. She teaches a Cantonese class. It’s going to take many people like her to ensure that Cantonese survives in the long term.


Finally, British cultural revolutionaries Gang of Four talk about their name, which derives from a group of notorious Chinese cultural revolutionaries. The bandmembers also talk about their new CD, and about phrases that include the word farm.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad –  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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At the BBC, fewer languages and less influence

Like millions of others, I grew up with the BBC. Today I work for a BBC co-production. I’m not a BBC employee, but I’m close to this story. And, um, that’s not me in the picture. I use a smaller microphone.

The cuts:   five BBC language services will close (Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean). Seven more language services, including Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, will be cut back from radio to internet only. A further six services will stop transmitting on short wave.

It means an estimated 30 million fewer BBC listeners worldwide. Will people migrate to the web and to English language news, or will the BBC – and its news values – become less influential?

There was a huge amount of coverage of this story. Most people were critical of the cuts with the British government — rather than the BBC –  receiving the blame (here and here for example). But in Britain there is a BBC-despising minority which offered its own spin.

For the pod, I picked some of the best pieces of the BBC’s own coverage: interviews with the director of BBC global news Peter Horrocks,  former World Service director John Tusa, and British foreign minister William Hague. Hague heads the Foreign Office, which has presided over the BBC World Service.

I also interviewed Debbie Ransome, head of the axed Caribbean Service. The Caribbean Service could be seen as some broadcast throwback to the days when the World Service was known as the BBC Empire Service. But Ransome says the service is unique in that it is regional, and so rises above  the interests of any single country. She says the other broadcast media in the region either take political sides, or play a lot of music and not much else.

So which global radio services will move in to replace the BBC?  The pod’s last interview is with journalism professor George Brock. He says that services run by the Chinese and Russian governments are likely to benefit, especially in Africa and Asia. And they don’t have the same news values as the BBC. Where the Beeb is remarkably successful at maintaining its editorial independence, Brock says the Russian and Chinese operations  are mainly mouthpieces of their respective governments.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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