Monthly Archives: July 2011

Punjabi immersion, Nigerian pidgin radio, and Annoying “Americanisms”

In the pod this week, Carol Hills and I pick our top five language stories of the past month.

5.The first Punjabi language public school in the US.  The Sacramento Valley Charter School is about to open. It will teach kindergarten through 6th grade in English and Punjabi. The school is aimed at the local Sikh population, which is largely overlooked in the United States (there are an estimated 200,000, compared to 278,000 in Canada and 389,000 in the UK. See here for more country populations).  In Canada, by the way, NHL games are broadcast with Punjabi commentary.

4. Bad translations with bad results. Hardly a week goes by without a business article or blog post extolling the virtues of global niche marketing. And that often means marketing in local languages to local tastes. Of course you have to make sure you don’t mess up the translations.  Many companies do — sometimes amusingly, sometimes tragically. This list, compiled by translation company Lingo 24, has examples of both.

3. Nigerian Pidgin radio is a hit.  Lagos-based radio station Wazobia FM broadcasts exclusively in low-status Nigerian Pidgin. After four years on the air, it is exapanding to other Nigerian cities. Nigerian Pidgin isn’t an official language of multilingual Nigeria, but it’s one of the more popular street vernaculars. On the pod, we hear some of it as broadcast by Wazobia FM, and as taught in an online language lesson.

2. The rise and decline of French as an international language. A new book, When the World Spoke French, traces the growth of the French language. Author Marc Fumaroli is a member of that protector of  the language, the Académie française. His book is a sort of intellectual love letter to French.

The spread of French was unintentional, according to Fumaroli. The language rose to prominence in the 17th century (along with France itself). After Louis XIV revoked a ban on persecuting Protestants, French Huguenots fled the country. These free-thinking refugees flooded the capitals of Europe with their ideas, and their mother tongue. And so French became one of the leading languages of the Enlightenment.

Fumaroli spends less time on the decline of French. And he is optimistic that what made French popular 400 years ago — that it was a precise and poetic conveyer of Big Ideas — will serve it well in the future, albeit among fewer people. Reviews of the book are here and here.

1. Annoying “Americanisms”

British journalist Matthew Engel has railed against the invasion of what he calls Americanisms into British English. His BBC article was hugely popular, and largely inaccurate according to Language Log. That didn’t stop hordes of BBC users posting their own irritating “Americanisms”.  It also, thankfully, didn’t stop fellow podcaster Grant Barrett from penning a riposte on the BBC site.

On public radio show The Takeaway, host John Hockenberry called up Matthew Engel (who was at a cricket match, of all things). The two of them jabbed and parried, mainly entertainingly.  And Language Log continued posting (here and here). Still,  as a Brit who has lived in the United States most of my adult life,  I am now confused and a little disheartened. Let’s call the whole thing off.

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No Metaphors Allowed: China Miéville’s Imagined Language

"The Garden of Eden" by Lucas Cranach der Ältere

For the Ariekei, who live on a distant  planet in China Miéville’s latest novel Embassytown,  speech is thought: “Without language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them.”

In Miéville’s Ariekei language, there is no room for metaphor, no space between the thing – or the idea – and the word. As a result, the Ariekei have no concept of lying. Language is truth, rather than merely standing in for it. Quite the opposite of any human language.

The Ariekei’s form of communication is meant to echo the pre-language of  the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Miéville plays on the idea that language itself– human language —  represents the Fall. As Miéville says, maybe the adoption of language is “rather a good fall.” It’s a nice irony that the Ariekei have two mouths (as well as hooves and wings).

China Miéville

Miéville is – and I’m just learning this —  one of the leading lights of the so-called New Weird generation of fantasy writers. Some say it’s only a matter of time until he busts out of his genre and wins some general fiction prizes.

Also in the pod this week: A short discussion of the word blagging, popularized by the News International scandal;  why governments and aid agencies avoid using the word famine (more here). And, if you sing in French, don’t expect airtime in the Brussels metro (more here).

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos:  Stuart Caie/Flickr, Wikipedia


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Fictional Chinese Names, and the Value of Fiction

Fiction is good for you.  Good thing really, given the untold hours I’ve spent reading Voltaire, Dostoyevsky and um, Jackie Collins. I’ve always believed, in a vague, unsubstantiated way, that reading made-up stuff makes me a better person. There is now proof, of a sort, that it may have been worth all that time.

Keith Oatley is a cognitive psychologist, formerly of the University of Toronto, and a fiction writer (here’s his latest novel). Oatley and his research team measured the amount of fiction a group of people read, and then considered their levels of empathy. They discovered that the more fiction their subjects read, the more empathy they had for others. This is documented in Oatley’s book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley says that demographic known as the Introverted Bookworm is a bit of myth: reading fiction, in most cases, opens you out to the world. When reading a novel, you’re living with other people — often inside their heads.

Back to Jackie Collins: Does “trashy” fiction help on the empathy front as much as Tolstoy or Jane Austin? Oatley is silent on this, at least in his BBC interview.

I remember reading a potboiler called Acapulco by Burt Hirshfeld. It was the usual fare:  film stars, psychedelic drugs, violence, sex. I read it while cramming for final exams at college. At night, I would be pretty wired from all the studying (not something I was especially used to). A chapter of  Acapulco was the perfect sleep aid.  Amusingly stilted dialogue, glamorous cocktails,  deals by the pool, late-night beach liaisons: it sure beat thinking about Ibsen and Flaubert. Much as I loved getting inside the head of Madame Bovary, entering the mind of Acapulco‘s obnoxious movie producer Harry Bristol was, in its own way,  more fun. And, who knows, perhaps it helped me empathize.

Also in the pod: rumors have been spreading that former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has died. In response, authorities have blocked searches of certain words including a word for river (jiang) and heart attack.

Then, another extravanza from Nina Porzucki…

California’s legislature is moving to regulate how political candidates’ names are translated. The state is home to the largest Asian American population in the nation. Nearly a third of Asian American voters in California are not proficient in English.

Election materials have been translated into several Asian languages for years, but the law doesn’t specify how candidates’ names should be translated.

Consider the case of Mike Eng. Five years ago he was a candidate for the California State Assembly. “When I saw how my name was spelled [on the ballot] I almost fell out of my seat,” Eng says.

Eng was running for a seat in the California assembly. About 40 percent of his district is Asian American, with sizeable communities of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean speakers. Under federal law, election materials in Eng’s district must be translated into those four languages. So when Eng was asked if he wanted his name translated onto the ballot, he thought, “Well of course.”

Officials translated Eng’s name literally, into what in Chinese sounded like Mike Eng: 麦 可 恩 (or Mai Ke En) Literally, the characters mean something like “wheat can be kindness.”

When Chinese characters are strung together to create phonetic transliterations of Western names, they can sometimes turn into pretty nonsensical sayings like well, “wheat can be kindness.”

Mike Eng wasn’t so happy with a name that “doesn’t mean anything.”

As turns out Eng, who is Chinese American, also has a Chinese name that was given to him at birth by his grandparents. His Chinese name has nothing to do with wheat or kindness, but means “pride of our national day.” This was the name used by the Chinese media, the name that many voters knew him by. So Eng ended up spending the rest of his campaign telling voters “that this person that sounded like wheat in Chinese was actually me.”

Despite the confusion Eng won the election. But the situation still bothers him.

Unlike English, written Chinese is based on meaning as well as sound. You might think Eng is hung up on the fact that his ballot name meant “wheat”. But meaning is a big deal in written Chinese, says lexicographer David Prager Branner.

Characters that are used in Chinese names are also part of everyday language. “The meaning is right in your face with the Chinese writing system,” says Branner. “You can’t escape it.”

Take Branner’s name. In English, no one really thinks about what “David” means. But when he uses his Chinese name 德威 (De Wei) Branner says the meaning of the two characters (“virtuous inner strength” and “the power to awe”) is right there.

Under the Voting Rights Act, certain jurisdictions are required to provide minority language assistance. This means translated materials, ballots, signs, bilingual poll workers. But federal law is silent about name translation.

Some states regulate how names appear on the ballot in character-based languages like Chinese, but not California. In California the rules change from one jurisdiction to the next. Assembly member Mike Eng’s situation was unfortunate but by no means the most extreme example of a name change.

Some candidates may even have used this grey area of the law to gain favor with Asian American voters. In 2010, someone named李 正 平(Li Zheng Ping) ran for San Francisco Superior Court Judge. Someone named Michael Nava also ran. It turned out that they were one and the same person. Michael Nava quite legally assumed the name Li Zheng Ping in some of his outreach to Chinese-American voters. Li Zheng Ping is a Chinese-sounding name, and a good one for a judicial candidate. In Chinese, it means “correct and fair.”

Assembly member Mike Eng likens the situation in California to the wild west. “If you want to say that my name means ‘giver of million of dollars in profits to local governments’ then one could list your name on the ballot that way” he says.

California State Senator Leland Yee has introduced a bill regulating how candidates’ names are translated into character-based languages.

“All of us want good sounding names that engender warmth with the Chinese vote” says Yee. “But when I think that when you do that solely for the purpose of gathering that vote and nothing else than I think it’s a little unfair.”

In 2009, an earlier version of the bill was vetoed by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared that individual jurisdictions should decide this matter on their own. But Yee re-introduced it this year.

“If Chinese Americans think that the voting process is a sham and that politicians are trying to trick them, then they are less inclined to participate in the electoral process” says Yee.

Dean Logan, the Registrar of Voters in Los Angeles County, says under the proposed law, he would have to decide on which translations to use in LA County. He’s uncomfortable with that.

“You could ultimately have someone challenge that in court which further delays the process,” says Logan.

It’s somewhat surprising that California, with its large Asian American population, lags behind other states like New York where policy about candidate’s names has been in place for well over a decade. But that may change in soon. Assembly member Mike Eng certainly hopes so.

“Your name is your identity. Your name is your heritage,” says Eng. He looks forward to the day “when we can have a ballot that does truly reflect the true identity of those that are running because that’s better democracy.”

Finally in the pod, a little thing on the people of South Sudan learning their new national anthem.

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