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.


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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Corporate Spelling Experiments and Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet

  1. Maggie Rioux

    Just thought you’d like to know – our local McDonald’s here in Falmouth, Mass. has an apostrophe on the sign – it’s McDonald’s, not McDonalds – so much better then Tim Hortons!

  2. Ken Chin

    Referring to City Sentral, the catchy tagline is no stranger to most Malaysians. In fact, it is increasingly becoming a default nomenclature of most central city transportation centre, most notably Kuala Lumpur Sentral or more popularly KL Sentral railway station. Although at first glance, it may seem like a transliteration of the term “central” in the local Malay language, the national tongue actually has a term of its own, “pusat”.

    Like City Sentral, it was chosen for the marketability value of the name by giving it a local linguistic twist. The use of the term “Sentral” is ubiquitous and is found in in most cities in the country.

  3. Tatiana Chernyakova

    I am a student of Northern Virginia Community College and I am not a native English speaker. I began to learn English when I was in the fifth grade in Russia. It was kind of challenge to learn English with Russian teachers that had strong Russian accent and couldn’t pronounce English words correct. Even though, when I moved to US 5 years ago and started learning articulation and intonation all over again, I still notice sometimes I pronounce words incorrect.
    I think it is a good idea to create this kind of English learning method. Indeed, among many advantages of chatbots, for instance, its affordability, simplicity, and accessibility, I found some disadvantages. Without a doubt, chatbots cannot substitute a real tutor that not only corrects mistakes, but also name the certain type of mistake and explain why it is wrong. Chatbot is a good starting point for beginners and for those that want to increase their vocabulary.

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