As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form. How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).
Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.
Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book. He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally, thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.
For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two, GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases. So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook: “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.
After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this. Check out two of them here.
More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.
After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show, Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.” In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.
Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him. And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.
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