Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mistaking Welsh For Hebrew in Libya



Outside of Wales, Welsh is a profoundly obscure language, to the point that some may think it extinct or invented. In Libya, Welsh is no more real than Elvish.

That linguistic obscurity led to two British journalists being detained in post-Gaddafi Libya on suspicion of spying.

Below are two versions of what took place. The first is as reported by the journalists themselves. The second is how I imagine their captors saw it (I can only imagine this; the militiamen have no spoken publicly).

The journalists say they were out late one night in Tripoli when they were detained by a militia group called the Misrata Brigade. In the absence of much central authority, and in the presence of large numbers of guns, militia groups tend to act as Libya’s main law enforcers.

The journalists, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson and Nicholas Davies-Jones, were taken to a military compound where they told their captors they worked for Iranian broadcaster Press TV. But the Libyans appeared not to believe them. It didn’t help that they had no visas or official approval for being in the country.

The men’s hotel room was searched, their video footage viewed. Another unhelpful detail: there was video of one of the two firing an automatic weapon.

Then there were the bandages. Montgomery-Johnson’s father is a nurse who lives in Wales. He gave his son some bandages to take to Libya, just in case. The wrapping on the bandages had writing on it, some of it in Welsh. But Montgomery-Johnson said their captors mistook the Welsh for Hebrew. And so the two journalists became suspected Israeli spies. No matter that Welsh, which uses the Latin alphabet, and Hebrew look as different as Arabic and Chinese do.

It took three weeks before the men were released and the Libyan government apologized.

So now, from the militiamen’s perspective…

They pick up two British guys who are out late at night. The two don’t have permission to be in the country, but they say they work for a TV channel out of, of all places, Iran. That just doesn’t ring true. Don’t the Brits and the Iranians hate each other?

Evidence from their video files suggests they’re doing military drills. What’s more, they’re expecting trouble: they have bandages. And what’s that language written on the packaging? If it were Hebrew—well, everything would fall into place. It must be Hebrew.

But it wasn’t. And so the men were released.

The only thing Welsh and Hebrew have in common is that they are both held up as success stories in language revival. But that is another story.

Also in the podcast this week:

  • Gullah, Haitian Creole and other creoles spoken in the U.S. This is the second part of my conversation with Elizabeth Little, author of Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country Travels in Search of America’s Languages. The first part deals mainly with native American languages. Previous podcasts on various creoles are here, here, here, here and here.
  • Musician Wilko Johnson. The former Dr Feelgood guitarist speaks about his life growing up in Canvey Island, Essex. He still speaks with a thick Estuary English accent. What is less known about Johnson is that he studied Icelandic sagas at college and still speaks some Old Norse.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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A trip around America’s languages with Elizabeth Little

At some point during Elizabeth Little’s gargantuan road trip, she realized that her book, A Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, was morphing from something whimsical to something serious.

Perhaps it was in Florida, where she found a life raft of Haitian Creole struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of  Spanish and English.

Perhaps it was Montana, where she attended competing re-enactments of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Or perhaps in Forks, WA, where she came across an obscure native American language and an anything-but-obscure vampire book and movie series.

Little was in Washington State to check in on other indigenous languages. She only went to Forks because it was barely out of her way. She describes it as a formerly “sleepy lumber town.” Now it’s turned itself into a sort of vampire theme park. The reason? Rain.

In 2003, writer Stephenie Meyer decided to set what would become the Twilight series in Forks because, according to a Google search, it was the rainiest place in the U.S. She made one of her characters, Jacob Black, native American. The Quileute tribe is local to Forks, so Black became Quileute.

In the second movie of the series, The Twilight Sage: New Moon, Jacob Black says something in the Quileute language. The circumstances suggest it’s a declaration of love—he whispers the words to the object of his affection, Bella Swan.

Quileute speakers have confirmed that the words are genuine Quileute. But they’re not saying what it they mean “out of respect for Jacob and his feelings for Bella.” Yes, out of respect for two fictional characters.

As Little experienced, Forks has become a magnet for Twilight fans, with bustours and motels playing off the vampire theme.

In itself, this episode might have gone into either version of Little’s book—the  whimsical one or the serious one (the book ends up managing to be both). But it points to just how arcane and exotic native American languages have become in this country—and how that can be intensely attractive to mainstream Americans.

As Little’s book progresses, you can sense her indignation rising. Time and again, she is confronted with old stories of attempts to eliminate Native American languages. In our podcast conversation, she talks about how she perceives the same impulse today in the English Only movement that’s sweeping across states with laws that restrict the official use of any other languages. Many Americans, she says, still believe that schools and other institutions of the state should insist on English, for the good those who don’t speak it.

This conversation is part one (of two). I’ll feature more with Elizabeth Little in a future podcast.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Mademoiselle in Song, and Translating Jargon


The French government has turned its back on Mademoiselle, eliminating the title from official forms. Mademoiselle roughly equates to Miss. Though it means unmarried woman, it also implies that said woman is young—25 or younger. And that just doesn’t fit with the times. In fact, it hasn’t for several decades.

French singers love Mademoiselle. Aside from it being rhyme-friendly, the word rolls sweetly off the tongue. Will singers now take the government’s lead and stop using the term?

In a way, they already have. These days, Mademoiselle is often used self-consciously and ironically. Consider Zaza Fournier’s 2009 song Mademoiselle . It’s about a cross-dressing man. In the video, Fournier returns the gender favor, and wears male clothing and a painted mustache.

That’s a far cry from the breezy, if tearful, 20-year-old who struts along some of Paris’ poshest streets as described by Jacqueline François in her 1948 classic Mademoiselle de Paris.

We sample those songs in the pod, and hear from my French-born colleague Adeline Sire, whose two sisters take opposing views of Mademoiselle’s official demise. Adeline has a very funny post on that here (and another post on an overlooked moment at the Oscars here).

Also in this week’s pod:

  • Native speakers of Russian, Vietnamese and Arabic discuss how they translate English language news jargon. As one of them describes it, journalists and politicians like to “hide behind a pyramid of nonsensical words.” And for all your nonsensical word needs may I suggest that you consult the very fine Newswordy site?
  • As Britain’s Sun newspaper faces questions over alleged payments to police officers, we consider the language of tabloid news.
  • Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese clash over language and politics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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