Monthly Archives: September 2011

A grammar for cities, a dying Inuit dialect, and Frank Zappa’s lyrics

In South Korea, the grammar of urban organization is lacking a few key signifiers. I can attest to this. In 2002, I spent three weeks reporting there. Every day I got lost. Or rather, I would fail to reach my destination, because I couldn’t decode the addresses.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the numbers on most South Korean buildings have nothing to do with their location, and so have no correlation to the numbers of buildings around them. Instead, they constitute a record of  when the buildings were constructed. It’s  a chronological thing. So helpful…

It’s not just me who found this utterly impenetrable. South Koreans do too. So the government is overhauling its address system.

For more on the language of architecture, the seminal work is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Much in urban planning has changed since it was published more than three decades ago, but many in the field still swear by it.

Inuit Redux

A year ago I featured an interview with Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard. He was about to depart for Northwest Greenland, where he would live for year with an Inuktun-speaking community. He got there just in time to document and archive this rapidly vanishing language.  Now he’s back in the UK with some sobering thoughts on why the languages and culture of the Polar Inuit are faring so badly.

English Language Learning

Under US Justice Department pressure, the state of Massachusetts is revamping its training for teachers who have English Language Learners among their students.

So it’s a good time for a visit to a Massachusetts elementary school that’s become a model for teaching English to non-native speakers. More here.

Zappa’s Typist

In 1967, a young typist working for a London temp agency got the call to head over to the hotel room of a rock star. She was to type up some lyrics.

Pauline Butcher was the typist– prim and, as she says, naive.  Frank Zappa was the rock star– eccentric, bombastic, satirical, profane.

Butcher typed the lyrics accurately, when she understood them. Sometimes, when she couldn’t follow what Zappa was saying, she just made stuff up. Not surprising when you consider some of the fabulously nonsensical verses from the 1967 album Absolutely Free:

Call any vegetable, call it by name.

Call one today when you get off the train.

Call any vegetable and the chances are good

The vegetable will respond to you.

And:

And I know, I think, the love I have for you

Will never end (well maybe).

And so my love, I offer you

A love that is strong, a prune that is true.

Pauline Butcher completed the typing job. It went well.  She followed Zappa back to Southern California and worked for him for several years. She’s just written a memoir of that time.

Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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Slipping in out of foreign tongues with Yang Ying and Sherard Cowper-Coles

Yang Ying (Photo: Yang Ying/MySpace)

In the pod this week, Yang Ying’s polyglottish music. And Sherard Cowper-Coles’ polyglottish diplomacy.

Music as Language

Yang Ying grew up in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people deemed enemies of communism were forced to work as manual laborers.

That happened to Yang’s father, who ended up working in a coal mine.

He thought his daughter might escape that fate if he taught her to play an instrument-well enough to enter an elite music academy.

And so she learned to play the traditional two-string erhu. She studied under her father’s tutelage for several hours a day. Because the family’s apartment was so small, and the walls so thin, she would practice the erhu in the park.

The hard work paid off. Yang won a national competition playing a famous piece of music called River of Tears.

Her success led to a place at a music conservatory in Beijing. From there she became a soloist with the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble. She performed for countless foreign dignitaries on their visits to China, including American presidents.

“I played for Ford, Carter and for Nixon,” Yang says. “I remember three. I probably performed for more.”

More important to Yang though, were her tours of China, where she learned about the country’s regional differences, the music and the dialects. The many dialects of Chinese “really had an effect on the music.”

But while Yang was being exposed to new sounds, she still had to perform the same old stuff.

As an erhu soloist with a renowned national ensemble, “you probably only play two, three, four repertoires your whole life.” Yang says it tired her out. “And I really wanted to do something new.”

It was the late 1980s. China was opening up. Yang started going to rock concerts put on by the US Embassy. Clubs were opening, bands were forming. She taught herself the bass guitar. She said it was like learning a new language.

Yang founded Cobra, China’s first-ever all female rock band. She knew that she was breaking several taboos at once, and that many people would disapprove.

Yang says her father was “not very happy.” And other classical musicians, “thought I was crazy.”

Yang tried to infuse some of Cobra’s songs with traditional elements. She even re-imagined a traditional folk song as a rock anthem.

That spirit of anything-goes fusion ultimately moved Yang in another direction. She emigrated to the United States, and began studying jazz. She recognized common elements between jazz and Chinese folk music. Both rely on improvisation, and make the instrument sound “as if it’s singing, like the human voice.”

She started playing the erhu with an American jazz group.

Today, that has brought her back to China, where she and her group are performing at the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival.

Should diplomats learn the languages of the countries they’re assigned to?

Diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says yes. But, he adds, be careful not to  overreach.

Cowper-Coles tells two stories of foreign language overreaching.

The Hebrew Overreach

When he was the British Ambassador to Israel, Cowper-Coles liked to try out the Hebrew that he had learned.  So once,  in a restaurant, he ordered (he thought) chicken breast. He did this, logically enough, by combining the  Hebrew words for chicken and breast.  But to the native Hebrew ears of the restaurant’s staff, the dish he had actually requested was not one they had ever before served: a woman’s breast on a chicken.

The French Overreach

Cowper-Coles also tells a story about Tony Blair. Blair “had learned his French in a bar outside Paris” between high school and college. So it wasn’t perfect.

Fast forward several decades. Blair, as Prime Minister, was hosting his French opposite number Lionel Jospin. After a “drinky” lunch,  Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.”  (Roughly:  “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

At least that’s the way Cowper-Coles tells it.

Also in the pod this week:  teaching in two languages in Massachusetts, where bilingual education is banned. And Pakistan’s Sindh province is introducing mandatory Chinese for schoolkids aged ten and older.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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