Monthly Archives: March 2011

Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

Dialects are beautiful, ugly, inevitable, unhelpful, and of course, languages without armies.

Dialects are widespread– they exist in most languages. Millions, perhaps billions of people speak them. Some, like many Chinese, speak a regional dialect at home, and a standard form of the language in public settings.  And then there all those dictators who grew up speaking dialects. As a boy, Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsu — the home language/Italian dialect of the island of Corsica. The future Emperor of the French didn’t learn French until later. Hitler spoke an Austrian-inflected German. For his part, Gaddafi speaks a version of Arabic that isn’t widely understood, even within Libya. He comes from a Bedouin minority, which is reflected in his language.  This may amplify his otherworldlyness. More on all of that here.

Many languages began life as a series of dialects, which over time– and with the encouragement of a nation state– morphed in something with standardized vocabulary and grammar (Robert Lane Greene writes about this in his new book, You Are What You Speak).

In Arctic Canada, there’s an effort underway to standardize Inuit languages (or dialects if you prefer). It’s being organized by the Inuit language authority in Nunavut, the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit. Unlike the United States, Canada is chock-full of the institutions that make up a national language policy:  a bilingual federal government, provincial and territorial language commissioners and any number of panels that try to push the country’s languages in certain set directions.

In this case, the hope is to unite the Inuit people, spread out over thousands of miles, through a standardized language.  Inuits have had writing systems imposed on their languages, mainly by missionaries. According to this article, which cites Statistics Canada, the more popular writing system today is a syllabic one. A lesser-used alternative is the roman system. Many hours, days and years of debate will now ensue, as to which writing system to favor.

Carol and I discuss these questions of dialect and language in the podcast. We also take a stab at the following questions (with much help from the linked sources): Does Japanese have a word for looting? Is finger spelling a language, or perhaps a dialect of sorts of British sign language? Is the language of cartoons necessarily harsh? The cartoon discussion was brought on by an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. It’s about depictions of marriage over the years, to coincide with Britain’s royal wedding. There’s a nice slideshow here.

Listen here or below via iTunes.


Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Explaining Japan’s disaster to kids and Russian beer to Americans

Japan has a whole lexicon of earthquake and tsunami-related phrases, many of which are collected in the Japan Times by cultural commentator Kaori Shoji.  There is  bōsai zukin (防災頭巾), meaning the protective safety hood that Tokyo children carry with them to school. There are hinanjo (避難所), evacuation facilities that are housing tens of thousands of people made homeless. And most poignantly, there is buji (無事), meaning safe.  That word is made up of the kanji characters mu (無, nothing) and koto (事, incident). As Shoji puts it, “without incident” is “a state we’re all praying for.”

The severity of the quake, and now the radiation threat, are challenging just about every facet of life in the affected areas.  Here’s one challenge: how do you explain the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station to children?

Video artist Kazuko Hachiya has made an anime about this. His solution is to use the universal kid language of…bodily emissions.  So in his anime, Nuclear Reactor Boy is unwell and flatulent. But he’s not — like his colleague in Chernobyl — actually pooping. Doctors/nuclear scientists give him medicine (boron and seawater) to cool him down and keep him from pooping. But in case he does poop, we can rest assured: he’s wearing a diaper.  See the video here. Or a nice Scottish English version of it here.

This reminds me of one of my daughter’s favorite books, also out of Japan: Everyone Poops . It’s written by one of the country’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators, Taro Gomi. There’s no plot, just a broad range of pooping practises. Endlessly entertaining.

In France, the government is battling newspapers and online outlets over probes into the practices of some politicians. OK, so that happens everywhere to a certain degree. But France, unlike many other Western democracies doesn’t have much of a tradition of investigative or muckracking journalism. The news media is, in the words of one journalist, too deferential to French politicians.  But now, there are new online investigative players, led by Rue89, which has in turn enboldened some of the older news organizations. Investigative probes have uncovered corruption and embarrassed the Sarkozy government

The politicians are pushing back. The government was recently charged with using the French Secret Service against the venerable daily,  Le Monde. And Rue89 is currently the target of five separate lawsuits.

Last thing in the pod: American brewers are reviving a centuries-old type of beer, Russian Imperial Stout. Despite the name, this was originally an 18th century British-brewed beer, which was then exported to Russia. American brewers are  borrowing some of the the notorious figures from Russian history to name their new brews:  The Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH once a year offers Kate the Great. The North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif. has been brewing  Old Rasputin stout for 15 years. See a video and a slide show here.

Or, listen to the podcast here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Portsmouth Brewery.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


(Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Listen via iTunes or here.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Consciousness, Poetry, and Bilingual Babies

We take a trip inside the mind in this week’s pod.

How much is human consciousness shaped by language? Somewhat, says theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. He’s more interested in the other things that shape it, like what he calls the “lake of sensation” — colors, lights and sounds. I guess you could argue that those sensations themselves comprise the elements of a language of consciousness.

Humphrey views this kind of raw feeling as predating language in infants.  Maybe, but recent research on the bilingual brain suggests that we may begin our language development as early as in the womb.  I talk with the host of the Big Show’s Science podcast Rhitu Chatterjee about this. She did her own podcast on the subject. One of the takeaway results of the research is that babies reared in a bilingual setting can distinguish between the two languages, and also between those familiar languages and unfamiliar ones.

Finally, we  consider poetry. Some poems might be seen as attempts to revert to a pre-linguistic form of communication. Others try to bridge the gulf between consciousness and language. And then there’s the language of former Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat Niyazov. He liked to call himself Turkmenbashi or Leader of Turkmens (he was the self-appointed president of the Association of Turkmens of the World). His poetry was  less engaged with issues of consciousness or language, and more with his own stupendously elevated place in the world. Not so much a lake of sensation as an ocean of self-regard:

I am the Turkmen spirit
And I was reborn
To bring you a golden age and happiness
I came here as a envoy of prosperity
And the music of the melody of life.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Joseph Pons, Wikimedia Commons


3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Language-learning in France and Ireland, and free speech in Tunisia

In France, the  government is proposing that children start learning English at age three. It’s high time, they argue, that French educators face up to the fact that learning English gives you — and your country — an edge.

Good idea,  say French intellectuals. But why English? According to French linguist, Claude Hagège, the proposal is “totally pointless, if not ridiculous.”

Now, before you write off Hagège as a good-for-nothing naysayer, consider this: he’s one of France best-known promoters of language-learning. He strongly supports the idea of people learning several languages if they can. But for Hagège, language is power– and speaking English is “not quite innocent.”  From his perspective (and, I suspect, he is far from alone) it’s more important to resist the rise of English than it is to expose French youth to it, at least as a first foreign language. In his words, speaking English is “a guilty act because it is the language of very wealthy, industrialized countries. And I think any person who has a minimum of sense of justice cannot accept that because this means domination by the countries whose mother tongue this language is.”

It may be because of attitudes like this that French schools will continue to lag behind school systems elsewhere in Europe, when it comes to teaching English.

In Ireland, mandatory Irish learning in schools became an issue in the recent parliamentary elections.  OK, so it didn’t sway voters as much as the economy did. But the party that won, Fine Gael, has promised to consider dropping Irish as a must-learn subject at school.  In the old days — or at least when my dad went to school — learning Irish was considered act of patriotism in a new country eager to establish its national identity.  It didn’t work. Despite massive government support, the vast majority of Irish people forgot most of the Irish they had been forced to learn. Fine Gael’s proposal, while upsetting the old guard and some native Irish speakers, struck a chord with some voters and commentators.  Why not learn languages that are more widely  spoken, like Spanish, French or Chinese — languages that  might help young people get a leg up?

In Tunisia, journalists are getting used to their new freedoms; some are clinging to the old ways.  The pod has a report from Tunis on how some news organizations are adapting quickly to their new freedoms, while others can’t figure out quite how to express themselves without a censor to frame reality for them.

Also,  we have  an interview with Anglo-Middle Eastern singer Natacha Atlas. Atlas isn’t known for her political or social stances. But recently she began singing about free speech in Egypt, and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized