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 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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2 responses to “A grammar for cities, a dying Inuit dialect, and Frank Zappa’s lyrics

  1. Yessy

    I really enjoyed the podcast, especially the section dealing with second English learners and navigating around a city. I am a student in an intercultural communication class, it was interesting hearing the podcast seeing how it deal with places and people from all over the world. Talking about English language learning hit close to home. English was my second language when i was younger now I think its the opposite. I think its great for teachers to take time out of their normal lesson plans and teach English to students who are foreign to the language. When I was in first grade English wasn’t taught in the classroom. Students were taken out of the classroom into another room to learn English. This way is much better because the students are not missing half the class and there learning with everyone else.
    I always wondered how addresses worked and how one gets from point A to point B. Its cool to see how other countries such as South Korea do their navigating system. I’m glad I don’t live there. I would never find anything. I get lost here in DC all the time. Streets are organized by letters and numbers it makes it more confusing. To me its confusing because I’m not a critical thinker if its not right there in front of me I just won’t see it. In South Korea its probably worst seeing how the number on the building correspond to when they were built not relating to their location. I think its crazy how in Tanzania , they doesn’t have crosswalks, cross guards, or traffic lights. People must get hit on a daily basis. In front of my neighborhood a family victim of hit and run ordered to put a stop sign in front of their house because kids were constantly running and getting hit because there was no traffic regulation.

  2. Wael Francis

    As both a student in a communications class and a curious soul, I found myself laughing at the Korean address system, not condescendingly, but rather due to the familiarity. I was born in Lebanon, where the address system is verbal and nothing else. “Turn right at the old gas station, when you see the big hole in the street, turn left. Drive for a few minutes and you’ll see an old building with bullet holes in it. etc…” This, although some might find it very primitive, has become a part of everyday life in Lebanon. Not just the address system, but the verbal tradition that I have become so familiar with.

    Although I understand the need for a strong verbal tradition, I found it sad that the Inuit heritage would possibly die with the last of men who are willing to carry it. It truly does point to the power of the written word and how it could carry history on it’s shoulders. However, the burden of the continuity of this culture rests on the willingness of the newer generation, which I understood to be nonexistent. To me, my culture has both fascinated and shocked me since I was a child. Although I am far from an expert on Lebanese culture, I find myself drawn to it due to the countless situations that I have encountered in my everyday American life and how I then compare the outcome to the possible outcome of the same situation but in Lebanese culture. This curiosity, although far from the power of a historical analyst, will allow me to carry both of my home cultures with me at all times.

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