Monthly Archives: October 2011

Corporate Spelling Experiments and Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet


For our once-a-month-ish gab fest, Carol and I just couldn’t pass this one up.

Sometime, corporations knock it out of the park with their inventions, or re-inventions, of words. Who can argue with Coca-Cola? And it’s not like they’re alone. Shakespeare did it (0r at least he popularized recently invented words).  Kanye West does it. Soldiers do it. Prison inmates do it. Schoolkids do it.

But what about that sub-group of word reinvention, the spelling change? This happens most commonly when a word migrates from one language to another (Spanish for soccer/footbal: fútbol; Chinese for sandwich: 三明治  or sānmíngzhì).  It can be an act of rebellion against the colonial master (American English spellings).  It can be a way of transcribing an accent that may later be co-opted by the speakers of that accent (Lil thang, wassup, etc).

The corporate version of a respelled word is usually überclunky, probably because there is no reason for it to exist other than to satisfy the corporation’s desire to sell a product. The language, and the speakers who sustain the language, have not demanded it. Instead, it has been dreamed up in some boardroom or office. The result: terms like riDQulous and City Sentral .

Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet

L’arrivo di Wang (The Arrival of Wang) is an Italian thriller recently shown at the Venice Film Festival.  In this scene, a police officer questions a blindfolded Chinese interpreter, who is suspected of colluding with a Chinese-speaking alien. The presumption that the alien has chosen to communicate in Chinese because it — or its masters — have concluded that Chinese is the planet’s most prominent language. The film’s characters can’t decide whether the alien is benign. Has it come to forge some kind of partnership or to colonize the Italians with its language, culture and values?

The arrival of The Arrival of Wang comes at a time when Americans and Europeans are debating whether Westerners will really learn Chinese and even if they do,  whether it’s worth it.

Also discussed in this week’s pod:

The expanding reach of English means more varied accents.  Here is the source of the accent test that I sprang on Carol. Here are the 100 words that linguist David Crystal has chosen to tell the story of English. And here is an update on previous pod discussion about Arizona’s harsh line on English language teachers who have foreign accents.  (Under Federal pressure, Arizona has agreed to stop yanking such teachers out of the classroom and to retraining classes).

For Singapore’s Chinese, a challenge:  The country’s former non-nonense leader Lee Kuan Yew says the city-state became an economic power-house because the government made eveyone speak English. While Lee says this should continue, he is also urging Singapore’s Chinese (who make up about 70% of the population) to speak  Mandarin at home.

In Japan, English-speaking chatbots guarantee embarrassment-free conversations. Yup, if you don’t care for the constant humiliation of learning a language by trial and (mostly) error, a conversation with a chatbot is for you. And because a chatbot is not human, it will correct your errors without making you feel foolish– but also perhaps without your remembering them quite so well.

Listen via iTunes or here.


Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Are Chinese Kids Losing a Part of Their Language?

In China, authorities are worried that the technical ease of typing Chinese characters means that people are forgetting how to write them. As a result, they are urging schools to re-introduce mandatory calligraphy classes.

I’m learning Chinese, and so I have become accustomed to keyboard technology that does much of work for me. If I want to type out a sentence in Chinese, I switch my language preference in my word processing program from English to Chinese. Then I write the sentence in pinyin, the Latin alphabet version of Chinese. For each syllable, I am offered a variety of character options that correspond to a syllable or sound. For example if I type wo, I can choose between 我 , 沃, 握 and several other characters.

I must, of course, be able to recognize the character: I need to know what it looks like in order to choose the right one. But I don’t need to learn or remember how to write it. The computer does that for me.

The trouble is, it’s not just Chinese learners like me who are using this character-inputting shortcut. Native Chinese speakers do it too. If they have access to a computer, they don’t need to write characters. Naturally, many people are forgetting how to write. Others don’t adequately learn characters in the first place. So calligraphy, the traditional practice of writing characters with the strokes of a brush, is back as a mandatory part of the curriculum for many Chinese school kids. Without this, educators fear that many Chinese will never be able to write in their own language.

Abroad, it’s a different story. Across the globe, there’s an explosion of Chinese-learning. The government in Beijing is playing its part. In the past seven years, China has opened almost 300 Confucius Institutes around the world. Still, you might not expect to find an institute in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. But there it is, offering Chinese language classes to (mainly) young Rwandans.

Rwanda does not have great stability in its language policies. Most Rwandans are native Kinyarwanda speakers. But many also speak English and French. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda switched its language of instruction from French to English (there are suspicions among some Rwandans that the French were complicit in the assassination of the Rwandan President, that led to the genocide). Now some Rwandans are learning Chinese. More on this in Mary Kay Magistad’s blog post.

Another example of the expansion of Chinese soft power: the government-run China Radio International is seeking out new audiences in the United States.

The latest place you can hear it: WILD, an AM station in Boston. For much of the last four decades, WILD broadcast soul music and talk shows hosted by people like Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner.

But In June 2011, the station began leasing its airtime to an English language service of China Radio International.

CRI’s programs offer a mix that Voice of America listeners might recognize: news, programs on Chinese culture and society, cheesy, retro pop music programing, and the occasional Chinese language lesson. Nothing especially controversial, and absolutely nothing cutting edge. The very softest of soft power.

Listen via iTunes or here.


2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Fry’s Planet Word, Belizean Creole and Steve Jobs’ global speech

Writer and actor Stephen Fry has made a documentary series for BBC TV. It’s a five-part history of language that draws on academic research but is intended for a general audience.  Not unlike The World in Words.  The pod features an interview with Stephen Fry, in which he waxes lyrical about how language has driven human development. One example: our ability to convey the past and the present.  (Fry speaks of this in terms of verb tenses, though it’s broader than that: languages like Chinese don’t use tenses, but they can still more than adequately convey any number of points in time. )

Here’s how Fry puts it:

“Without this extraordinary thing…we couldn’t have got anywhere, because tense allows you to say what you’re going to do tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or it allows one person to say to another person ‘Do you remember that thing we saw yesterday? Three sunsets ago, that place there. Let’s meet there in four sunsets time.’  That’s immediately a plan, instead of having to improvise like a wolf pack by instinct…You set out a plan and then implement it. It underwrites everything that is our civilization.”

O, Lan a di free bai di Kyaribeeyan See

Thirty years after Belize won independence from the British, Belizean Creole (or Kriol)  is winning respect alongside English. The latest sign of that is a version of the Belizean national anthem rendered in Kriol.

Leela Vernon wrote the Kriol version (the full lyric is here). Vernon is world famous in Belize. She popularized Brukdown, a rural dance music– so much so that’s she’s now known as the Queen of Brukdown.

In the pod, I talk with longtime Big Show contributor Amy Bracken about Belizean Creole’s make-up and status. It’s primarily a mix of English and several West African languages. But it’s outgrown its roots: most Belizeans use it as a link language. For example, if your native tongue is one of Belize’s several Mayan languages, you’re going to need a second language as soon as leave your home town. While English and Spanish are available, they’re not as widely understood as Kriol.

Finally in the pod this week, our own tribute to Steve Jobs: Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government talks about how he introduced desktop publishing to Kenya in the 1980s using an early iteration of a Mac.  The fast and cheap publication of speeches and essays helped a new generation of Kenyans rise to public prominence. Some were later elected to parliament or became judges.

Macs– and later iPods and iPhones– helped globalize local speech and localize global ideas in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Listen via iTunes or here.


4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized