Monthly Archives: June 2012

Are Europeans Still Tribal?

This week sees the culmination of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. At the same time, Europe’s political leaders are holding a Euro crisis summit.

Those two events got us thinking about tribes. Are Europeans made up of many national and linguistic tribes? Or have they merged into a continental megatribe?

There are almost as many theories about tribes as there are tribes themselves. Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in Britain says that 80,000 years ago, the world was full of little hunter-gatherer societies, or bands of up to 500 people.  In time, those bands gave way to tribes, “that were just bands of bands.”

“Tribes gave way to chiefdoms, as tribes came together and co-operated,” said Pagel. Chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation states.  Finally, nation states have partially given way to supranational organizations, such as the European Union.

But even if we’ve moved beyond our tribal period, the word tribe sticks. Nations can be tribes, especially when there’s a soccer tournament on.

“We do these bizarre things like wear silly matching shirts or paint our faces in the colors of our national flag,” said Pagel. “Psychologically, we’re indistinguishable from our tribe. Our tribe really is just a part of our family.”

The fans of Ireland at Euro 2012 didn’t care that their team lost all its games. To them, singing as one was more important.

But would these fans—or any others from EU nations—sing like that for Europe? Of course not, says Irish essayist Colm Toibin.

“Even though in countries like Spain and Ireland, where Europe has…really helped people in their lives, nobody loves Europe,” said Toibin. “Europe has failed to make Europeans feel European.”

People feel a part of their family genetically, and they feel a part of their national tribe almost genetically. But to try to impose a European identity on people because it may be good policy or because it encourages peace “doesn’t actually work for people,” said Toibin.

It’s a problem for the leaders of Germany, France and others at their Euro summit this week. Mistrust among the national tribes is running high. But the differences aren’t nearly so wide as when the tribes went to war in 1939.

It’s even possible for people who may think they are different to discover that they belong to same tribe.

Take writer AS Byatt. Her home in the north of England is now also home to hundreds of thousands of south Asians. Cities like Bradford are now largely Asian. But “they speak my language,” said Byatt.  “I’m a Yorkshire woman. And I go up there, and the taxi driver looks very Asian and he begins to speak to me in Yorkshire.  And that’s my culture, I’m all right with it.”

Accents are one thing. Languages are another, a vestige of our tribal beginnings, according to biologist Mark Pagel.

“We’re the only species that can’t communicate with other members of our own species,” said Pagel. “No other animal is like that. You pick a gorilla up and plunk it down anywhere else on Earth where gorillas are found, and it will know what to do, how to speak and so on. But we don’t.”

And so at the Euro summit in Brussels, Frau Merkel will speak German, Monsieur Hollande will speak French. But they will nonetheless try to overcome their tribal differences.

If you’ve watched any of the games involving Italy, and wondered why their fans sing are so fond of the White Stripes’ song Seven Nation Army, all is revealed in this pod from the archives:


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Linguistic Rectification, Slavic Pronunciation, and the Tori Spelling Connection

Wrocław is the largest city in Western Poland. But how do you pronounce it?

In this World in Words podcast, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I discuss five language-related stories from blogs and news sites:

1. Linguistically rectifying Chinese food, one menu at a time. In its latest “linguistic rectification campaign,” Beijing is urging Chinese restaurants to take more care in translating menu items into English. That way, items like The car hit cheese bacon mushroom face may be less likely to show up on menus. More’s the pity.  However, with more Chinese immigrants and tourists coming to the US, poorly constructed Chinese may be coming to a subway station or hotel near you.

2. You say diamond; I say rhombus. Will an overhaul in math terminology in the US improve the performance of math students?

3. How do you pronounce Wrocław, Kraków, or Kiev? (I’ve included the diacritics for Wroclaw and Krakow as they appear in Polish, just to up the mystery ante.) The BBC Pronunciation Unit comes to the rescue with suggested pronunciations for many Euro 2012 soccer tournament’s host cities. We also discuss the simmering debate over Ukraine’s two languages: Ukrainian and Russian. A previous report on this issue is here.

4. The idiosyncratic glory of “unnecessary” quotation marks. Take your pick: Happy “Father” Day. The First Baptist Church: We “Love” All People! Real Estate “Lady.” Many more “here.” And thank you,  Bethany Keeley.

5. Do biodiversity and linguistic diversity go hand in hand? A recent study suggests they may do. There are some seemingly obvious reasons why this may be the case, but the study is cautious not to jump to conclusions.

We also talk about Tori Spelling. With a name like that it was only a matter of time. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out more. Suffice to say for now that I was particularly taken by this article.


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Nairobi’s Smart Graffiti and Sheng Hip Hop

For the past few months, a group of Kenyan artists have been decorating Nairobi’s street-facing walls. Their series of graffiti-splashed murals makes the case that street art can also be essential political speech.

It’s pretty easy to overlook graffiti as a serious form of speech. It’s often little more than illegal, scatalogical  public nuisance.  But there’s far more than that going on in Nairobi. The images and slogans are overtly political– they’re full of criticism of “arrogant” and “corrupt” elected politicians who mock the “idiot” voters who re-elect them.

There are lists of scandals: “Pyramid schemes…post-election violence…tax evasion.”  And lists of attributes that a political leader should have: “courage…doesn’t buy votes/bribe…ready to declare their wealth and source of wealth.”

The timing is significant. Kenya holds a presidential election next year. And these street artists are clearly worried about corruption and petty tribalism among the candidates, and apathy among the electorate. There’s so much sharp political commentary in the murals that they seem more like satirical magazines than street art. Perhaps that underscores a lack of confidence in Kenya’s mainstream news media. Whether or not that’s the case, these mainly anonymous artists have turned a few corners of Nairobi into colorful hotspots of free speech.

The BBC has a slideshow with more images of the murals.

Also in the podcast this week, Kenyan pop star Juliani, whose tactics somewhat resemble the street artists. Juliani raps about climate change– not a usual subject for hip hop stars . And he does it in a slangy English-Swahili mash-up known as  Sheng. As with the street artists, the message is political,  it’s is aimed at young people, and it sidesteps more conventional forms of delivery.

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Speaking Freely in the New Burma

This summer, Aung San Suu Kyi will be stepping out onto an international stage. She will finally be picking up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and speaking her mind  in various European capitals.  It will be a far cry from the 15 years she spent under house arrest, unable to participate in elections and speak to her Burmese compatriots.

Suu Kyi, now a member of the Burmese parliament, recently completed her first trip out of Myanmar in 24 years. In a speech in Thailand, she praised President Thein Sein’s efforts to bring democracy to the country. But she didn’t shy away from criticizing more entrenched forces that are less open to change, in particular the military which she called a “force to be reckoned with.”

Next, Suu Kyi heads to Paris, Oslo, London and elsewhere for a series of high profile appearances. Her words will be closely analyzed back home– by those who love her and those who fear her.

It’s clear that the government of Myanmar is giving Suu Kyi freedoms that it previously denied her: to travel, to vote, to speak. More than that, the government’s actions appear to have given her belief that these new freedoms are permanent. That belief is almost as significant as the freedoms themselves.

Still, it’s early days, and not everyone can afford to be confident as Suu Kyi. “Most of the people still think that politics is dangerous,” said Kaung Myint Htut, chairman of the Myanmar National Congress Party. He’s has trouble getting his people to support him publicly.

Press censorship has been relaxed. But it has not disappeared. About 75 percent of stories are published uncensored, said Saya Mg Wuntha, founding editor of a journal, People’s Age. “But it’s very difficult to write about corruption…and about the military,” he said.

Some are more fearful. Aung Zaw is a political dissident who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, where he is the editor in chief of The Irrawaddy newspaper. He won’t return to Burma until he is guaranteed the “freedom to criticize and write without fear.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • Young Burmese are flocking to language schools to learn English. More on that story here.
  • Burmese punk ban Side Effect and their free speech challenges. More on that story here. And while we’re on the subject of punk, here’s a conversion between Marco Werman and me on the Sex Pistols and British royalty.

Finally, if you’ve been wondering why this is the first podcast in more than a month, here’s what I’ve been up to. Thanks for your patience.

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