Monthly Archives: November 2011

Word of the Year: The Middle Squeezes its Way to the Top

The Oxford English Dictionary has revealed its word of the year: squeezed middle (hey, that’s two words!).  Don’t ask me to define it. British Labor leader Ed Miliband ran into trouble doing that. Suffice to say, it refers to a class of people, who would appear to make up more than 90% of the population– and therefore the electorate. The implication is that despite their huge numbers, they are being economically squeezed– in a vise conspiratorially operated by the very rich and the very poor.

In previous years, OED editors have named a US word and a UK word. American English and British English are, after all, an ocean apart. This year, squeezed middle is the global winner, which is odd. As political rhetoric–  which is all this phrase really is– it’s been far more popular in the UK than in the US.

Also-rans this year include Arab Spring, occupy, clicktivism, bunga bunga and tiger mother.

I’m not sure what the Pakistan government’s position might be on any of those words. (I’m guessing they’d have a problem with bunga bunga.) But in the pod, we take a look at the government’s  move– now shelved– two ban nearly two thousand words from text messaging.  Most of the words are sexually frank, the usual nasty stuff. But many others are mild or just bizarre: flatulence, period, athlete’s foot, monkey crotch.  Urdu expressions meaning nonsense (buckwaas) and foolish (bewakoof) would also have been banned.

We round off the pod with a list of mainly invented words. These appear on the title track to Kate Bush’s new album, 50 Words For Snow. Bush knows there are not 50 words for snow, in English or any other language. (Eskimo languages are often credited with having up to 23 words for snow; they don’t.)  Bush plays on this myth by having collaborator Stephen Fry enunciate 50 words. Some are poetic English: drifting, swans-a melting, vanilla swarm. Some are just poetic: terrablizza, sleetspoot’n. psychohail, spangladasha. All these words, says Bush in the pod, had to her “a sense os meaning something that was evocative of snow.”

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Australia Through its Languages

When Barack Obama goes abroad, he has a knack of disarming the locals by quoting from the local language. Even if the locals speak English. In Australia, he won laughs for his (slightly off) rendering of expressions like spot on, chinwag and ear bashing.

So, what better time to consider Australia’s languages, and its use of English? Australia is, of course, home to a great diversity (though not so great these days) of Aboriginal languages. For decades,  white Australians either ignored these languages or actively tried to eliminate them. Only recently have Australians begun to embrace these languages as a central part of the country’s culture.

On the pod, three Australians talk about this and other language-related issues: novelist and historian Thomas Keneally, opera singer and composer Deborah Cheetham and historical novelist Kate Grenville. As well as the discussion of the history and  fate of Aboriginal languages,  bush ranger Ned Kelly is remembered for a choice turn of phrase ( “a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat-headed big-bellied, magpied-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords”).

This discussion was first broadcast on the BBC’s Start the Week. There’s a podcast version here. It’s always a must-listen.

For some more Aussie English, curated of the great Australian poet Les Murray, check out this previous pod/post.

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Oh My Lady Gaga, and Other Linguistic Exchanges

Why are young Chinese so enamored of the phrase Oh My Lady Gaga? It’s been in been in use for a couple of years now, as an embellishment of OMG! According to this China Daily column, it didn’t originate in China, despite  Chinese claims.  It apparently came from where all good things come from: American TV. In an episode of Ugly Betty, camp character Marc says “Oh my Lady Gaga! Mandy, you’re brilliant.”

There are, though, some English-ish expressions that do originate in China: outman, hengeilivable, and antizen among others. More here.

Which bring us to OMG! Meiyu.

OMG! Meiyu is a daily three minute video produced by Voice of America. It’s aimed at helping Chinese speakers learn American English.  Meiyu (美语) means American English. According to host Jessica Beinecke– who we hear from in the pod– the title is a nod to the phrase Oh My Lady Gaga. In both cases,  there’s English, there’s Chinese (sort of) but most of all, there’s a playfulness around the language.

Beinecke’s videos have become wildly popular in China, not least because of her slangy approach to English teaching. Why teach an English learner bottom or rear end when there’s a more memorable word to pass on like badonkadonk. Here are the payoff  sentences from her lesson on physical fitness:

“She stopped working out and she got a little jiggly. I hear she has a muffin top, and a big badonkadonk!”

Another lessson:

There are three other items in this week’s pod:

Did San Francisco’s Chinese language newspapers help elect a Chinese-American mayor?

Did a religious linguist who created an alphabet for one of Zambia’s 73 languages do those people a favor? (I’ve done more, and more in-depth, on the subject of  Christians bringing writing systems to oral languages for the purpose of translating the Bible. For that,  go here and here.)

And how much is our everyday language colored by unconscious emotions?

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Translators past, present and future, a new Iliad, and Greek humor

Would a human or a machine be better at translating the above line from a song (should you wish do instant translation at a karaoke bar)? Are machine translators making human translators redundant?

No, according to the American Translators Association. It’s true there’s a wow factor in a point-and-shoot translator app like Word Lens or the statistical analysis approach of  Google Translate. Many of use these and other machine-based translators. But human translators are doing just fine too. At least that’s the word from ATA spokesman Kevin Hendzel. He told me the industry grew 15% in 2009 and 13% in 2010.  Not so surprising when you think about it: American troops are still in Afghanistan. The US government’s 17 intelligence agencies are still listening in to people all over the world. American businesses are still expanding into new global markets.

And some people even translate books. David Bellos does that. He has translated, among other novels, Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi   “Life: A User’s Manual”), a book once considered untranslatable.  Bellos is also the author of the recently published Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

Bellos’ book has been a hit with reviewers (see here, here and here). No wonder. With all those reasons (global marketing, espionage, immigration) why translators are needed now more than ever, it follows that we should question more closely what translation is, what it does, and what it misses. I don’t know if translations of novels and poems have improved over time, each translator shaving his or her own microsecond off some previous world record, but in one small way it’s a shame: it may discourage us from reading books in their original languages. But that’s a minor worry, certainly not an argument against good translations.

Related post/pod:  check out this earlier podcast on translating poetry.  For many poets, words are less prominent than sound and rhythm.  The translator must echo that.

Also in the pod, a discussion of just what exactly Madeline Miller’s new novel, The Song of Achilles owes to Homer’s The IliadThe Song of Achilles could be considered a translation only in the loosest sense of the word (more here on other Iliads, including the new translation by Stephen Mitchell). Miller’s novel draws from Homer’s plot. It also draws from other classical texts, and from Miller’s own imagination. Traditionalists may think she’s nicking the good bits from Homer, then sexing them up (which she does with gusto) for a modern audience. Others may view it as an illuminating re-imagination of an ancienct epic.

Finally this week, a mode of speech that’s always tough to translate: humor. Not only that. Under the spotlight here is Greek humor. And we’re not talking Aristophanes. This is modern-day Greek humor, based on Greece’s increasingly precarious economic situation. Greeks aren’t tickling too many foreigners’ funny bones at the moment. But judging by the jokes, the message to outsiders seems to be “If you think Greek politicians are double-crossing and corrupt, just try living in the same country with them.”

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