Monthly Archives: December 2011

Bolt, Crook and Payne: What’s in A Name?

Usain Bolt bolts, Anna Smashnova was a tennis pro, Bob Flowerdew is a gardening expert. Coincidence?

In this episode of the pod, criminal defense lawyer Frances Crook and vicar Michael Vickers discuss their own names and vocations with John Hoyland of New Scientist. Hoyland first became interested in nominative determinism—a term he coined—after being told about a study of incontinence authored by JW Splatt and D Weedon. On the same day he came across a book on the Polar regions by Daniel Snowman.

Among the questions discussed: why do some people feel drawn to professions predicted by their names? Why do others enter professions that their names suggest might be inappropriate (Dr De’ath or airline planner Rod Muddle)?

Of course in the old days, people were often named after the family profession—Smith, Baker, Potter, Cooper. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Hoyland hasn’t come upon conclusive research on any of this. All he has is a hunch. A slight one. As he puts it, “there’s something going on here, or maybe there isn’t.”

Also in the pod:

    • Clemson Smith Muñiz has been the play-by-play voice of Los Knicks en español. He talks about how basketball terminology in Spanish has many regional variations. The word dunk for example, translates as donquear in Puerto Rico, mate in Spain, volcada in Argentina, and clavado in Mexico and central America. You’d have thought Smith Muñiz was spoiled for choice. But no, he’s come up with his own expression: martillazo, which means a hammer blow.
    • In the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il, it’s a good time to check in on freedom of expression south of the DMZ. While it’s in as short supply in the North as food and electricity, that’s not the case in South Korea. But there are limits. We have a report on a podcast that’s hugely popular there. It’s a part satirical, part serious indictment of  South Korea’s president Lee Myung Bak. It’s called (in translation) I’m a Petty-minded Creep. On December 22, 2011, one of the podcast’s hosts was sentenced to a year in prison for spreading false rumors. The host, who was once an opposition politician, is also barred from running for office for ten years.  So now we know a little more about the limits of free speech in South Korea. More Korean language coverage here and here.
    • And, the late Christopher Hitchens discusses the power of debate with his brother Peter Hitchens. The two disagreed on just about everything—except for the value of argument as a means to arrive at principled positions.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Killing Off a Metaphor With a Fresh Coat of Paint

Urban myth alert: this story may be exaggerated.

The Forth Bridge,  just outside Edinburgh, was opened in 1890. Opened but not really completed. In fact, it seemed as though it would never be completed. The paint would flake off, and just as soon as one part of the bridge was repainted, another would need a touch-up.

And so a metaphor was born: like painting the Forth Bridge, or that’s a Forth Bridge paint job.  Brits used it to describe arduous, unending tasks. Memorizing multiplication tables. Preparing your tax return. Attending a Grateful Dead concert.

But now, the endless paint job has ended. The paint is hardier these days—so much so that the bridge won’t need another coat for about 25 years. For the first time in the bridge’s history, “there will be no painters required on the bridge,” beams Colin Hardie, the construction superintendent of the paint contractor Balfour Beatty. “Job done.”

Hardie gets into murkier water with this declaration: “The old cliché is over.”

Is it? Will people stop using a metaphor just because it no longer holds up?

We don’t necessarily stop using phrases just because they’re out of date. We still put the cart before the horse even though we ride on neither. We still put in our two cents even though we rarely use pay phones anymore (and when we do it costs considerably more than two cents).

Plus, this is a strictly British expression. And Brits don’t embrace Americanisms, or at least they like to think they don’t. Otherwise, they’d happily trade the idea of a painting a bridge for playing an arcade game. The phrase like playing Whac-A-Mole would be a fine substitute for like painting the Forth Bridge. But it’s not going to happen. For one thing, Whac-A-Mole needs to be explained to most Brits, myself included.

So what might replace painting the Forth Bridge? Etymologist Mark Forsyth suggests bailing out the Euro. And there’s waiting for the Arab summer (we are currently in the fifth quarter of the Arab spring).

Also in the podcast this week:

South Africa’s newest pop sensation Zahara talks about singing in both English and her native Xhosa. Her debut album, Loliwe, is itself a metaphor for absence, well known to Xhosa speakers.

And a study by Yale economist Keith Chen claims that the language you speak may determine how much money you save. According to Chen, you’re in luck if your native tongue doesn’t have a future tense. Linguist John McWhorter told reporter Audrey Quinn that he begs to differ with this theory. And he has a theory of his own as to why so many people are attracted to the idea that thought and behaviour spring from language.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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Retweeting Bad Grammar and Good Tamil

I like Twitter.  I like the character limit. And I love opening up Twitter first thing in the morning , reading tweets that are mainly (at that time of day) from another time zone. My own dawn chorus.

Mostly, I tweet about other reporters’ or bloggers’ language stories– stories that I am not going to get to but they are worth noting and passing on. This can be dangerous. I often tweet on issues about which I know little. And I do it at speed. Sometimes I mis-convey the story. Sometimes I mis-type a word. Sometimes I misspell. Sometimes, my grammar isn’t great. (Forget tweeting, that all sounds just like regular daily journalism…)

So what happens when you come across a tweet that you would love to RT, but you…just…can’t? You can’t get past the bad spelling or grammar.

There is one solution: instead of RT-ing, you can MT, or write a modified tweet. You correct the spelling, clean up a bit of grammar. You can even amplify a thought or clarify a sloppy piece of writing. Just make sure you write MT. That worked for me, until I heard a conversation on the BBC– a conversation that, in an audio sort of way, I MT’d in this podcast episode (I recut the interview slightly and introduced it differently).

The discussion was between the BBC’s Evan Davis and comedian and serial tweeter (now taking a Twitterbreak) David Schneider. Now Schneider, like many of us, doesn’t have much time for those self-appointed sticklers who roam the internet in search of bad grammar or poor spelling: he calls them peddants (his spelling).

But maybe a grammatical error is part of the communication. A poorly written tweet may tell you that the tweet was written in a hurry. It may indicate that the writer doesn’t care about grammar or spelling. That makes me hesitate.

On the other hand, I’ve been relieved and grateful when my own misspelled tweets have been cleaned up by others…

Otherwise in this week’s pod, it’s all Tamil. This is a language that has more speakers than Italian or Turkish, but there are fears about its future. We hear from a lexicographer who is painstakingly compiling a Tamil dictionary. And we talk to two Indians about a song that has become an internet sensation. Titled Kolaveri Di, it’s sung partly in Tamil, partly in English, and partly in Tanglish,  the (now-inevitable) mash-up of the two.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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A Right Brain Religion Translated into a Left Brain Language

Is Ancient Greek a left brain language? And Ancient Hebrew a right brain one? Yes, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, it has a huge bearing on how the Bible has been understood.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. Like most early scripts, Ancient Hebrew was written like Hebrew and Arabic are today—without vowels and written from right to left. It is a right brain language, says Sacks, because to understand the meaning of any word, “you have to understand the total context in which it occurs.”

Sacks sees it this way:

Ancient Greek was the first language ever to be written from left to right, which activates the left brain. You don’t need to understand the total context here. You derive meaning word by word, in small components.

The emergence of the world’s first left brain language also coincided with the first instances of “left brain thinking”: the philosophy of Aristotle, Epicurus and other Greek scholars. This atomistic, evidence-based approach to interpreting the world eventually led to modern-day science.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. It was translated into Greek between 300 BC and 200 BC. It was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early Christians used to spread the religion.

Judaism and Christianity began as right brain religions, based on that Ancient Hebrew way of thinking. But early in its evolution, Christianity took a turn. The word of Christianity—the Old Testament—was translated into Greek (and the New Testament was written in Greek).

Sacks concludes that Christianity was a right brain religion translated into a left brain language. And the religion encompassed those two ways of thinking: the metaphysical and the analytical. For many centuries – until the Enlightenment—the prevailing view in Europe was that religion and science were part of the same thing.

I don’t know enough about all this to draw any conclusions. (Readers: please comment…) But I think it’s important to maintain some skepticism. For example, Sacks seems to be arguing that we can infer a certain mindset based on language—that, for example, the lack of vowels in written Ancient Hebrew means that its speakers were big picture rather than piecemeal thinkers. Here’s a good reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about what a language reveals about beliefs.

Aside from Jonathan Sacks, the pod has several other segments, most of them related either to Modern Hebrew or to the Bible:

Nina Porzucki profiles the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Bell takes a tour of Tel Aviv’s Occupy-like tent city, with its Hebrew (and occasional English and Arabic) signs and slogans.

Michael Erard, author of the forthcoming Babel No More, talks about 19th century Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and his policing of erroneous translations of the Bible.

British philosopher A. C. Grayling and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London Giles Fraser debate Grayling’s secular re-imagining of the Bible, The Good Book.

Finally, a conversation with ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan. She’s just written a book called Burma’s Pop Music Industry. Particularly popular in Burma are well-known Western songs that sound almost identical to the originals—except they are sung in Burmese with totally different lyrics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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