Monthly Archives: July 2012

Olympic Terminology: Fletchings at the Ready

Here’s a translation app we could all use for the Olympics: something to explain all those technical terms in sports that we really only pay attention to once every four years.

TV commentators love to use them (“Oh gosh, she’s windmilling”).

On the Big Show, we had a little quiz involving four such words:

Fletchings: In archery, theses are the small colorful wings on the end of arrows. They are the modern plastic version of feathers.

Eggbeater: In synchronized swimming, the eggbeater kick is a preferred method for treading water. The swimmer is in a sitting position.

Randolph: in trampolining, a forward somersault with two and a half twists.

Bonk: in triathlon and some other sports, it means hitting the wall, or running out of steam.

Other items in this marathon of a pod:

A new mobile translation app to help Olympics volunteers communicate with athletes and tourists

If you’re a retailer in London, the thing you fear most is a visit from the Olympic Brand Police.

London’s Poetry Parnassus, which brought together poets from around the world. More on that here.

Reading Dickens in installments online: the digitization of all of Charles Dickens’ novels in their original serial form. Project Boz, as it’s called, is based at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. And I didn’t include it in the pod, but here’s a Big Show story about the controversy over the closure of the Charles Dickens museum for most of 2012– not only the year of the Olympics in London but also the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth.

Boris Johnson, the exuberant mayor of London and author of Johnson’s Life of London argues that the English language wouldn’t have become nearly so inventive had it not been for London and its restless, diverse citizenry.

Also, here’s a previous pod with a couple of items on cockney rhyming slang.


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The Bimusical Brain

We all think of ourselves as multitaskers. But the ultimate American multitaskers may be the children of foreign-born parents.

Every day, these hyphenated Americans swing back and forth between cultures—in the food they eat, the languages they speak, and the music they listen to.

Take Jason Vinoles. He grew up in New York City, the son of Argentine immigrant parents. Like a lot of children of immigrants, he spoke two languages with his family.

Jason Vinoles (photo: Audrey Quinn)

“I’d be on the phone with my parents and I’ll just switch back and forth,” says Vinoles. “If I can’t think of the word right away in Spanish, I’ll say it in English, but then keep on going with the conversation.”

Vinoles’ family would also switch back and forth between other things American and Argentine: sports team loyalties, cuisines and musical styles. His mom was a big fan of the Beatles.

“Any time a Beatles song would come on the radio on the oldies stations, she’d come grab me and make me dance,” says Vinoles.

The same kitchen floor dance party would also include more traditional Latino music, like the popular Mexican song, Cielito Lindo.

They’d also dance along to Madonna, followed right after by some tango.

A new study out of the Northwestern University focuses on this ‘bimusicality.’ The author, Patrick Wong, specializes in how the brain processes sound.

Wong suspected that people who grew up listening to both the Beatles and tango might develop differently from people who grew up listening to just Western music or just Latin music.

Wong recruited people who grew up listening primarily to Western popular music. And then he selected another group of people– Indian Americans– who grew up listening to both Western music and the traditional music of India.

Wong had his subjects use a dial to indicate the amount of tension they felt in the music.

People tend to report that foreign music has more tension. But the people who grew up with both Western and Indian music felt low degrees of tension with both types of music. They were equally at home listening to either genre.

Wong called these people ‘bimusicals.’

The study participants listened to the music inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, so that Wong could track their brain activity.

“If you are bimusical, you tend to engage a larger network of the brain when you listen to the two kinds of music,” says Wong.

He concluded that people who had grown up with both Indian and Western music had a more elaborate brain system for listening than those who grew up with just Western music.

Wong’s bimusicals also engaged more areas of their brain when listening to music. He says bimusicals looped in not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also its emotional region.

That led Wong to hypothesize that bimusicals may need to engage the emotional part of the brain to differentiate the two types of music.

Wong isn’t saying that only bimusical people experience music emotionally. We all do that. It’s more that bimusicals may tap into that region of the brain in order to toggle between multiple musical styles.

So does the bimusical brain behave similarly to the bilingual brain?

Gigi Luk, who studies bilingual learning at Harvard, has observed signs of enhancements in the brains of people who grow up with two verbal languages.

“ We found a better performance [among bilinguals] in what we call executive functions,” says Luk.

Executive function tasks involve things like planning, problem solving, and multitasking. “We see this advantage across the lifespan from young children to older adults,” she says.

Bilingualism has clear differences from Wong’s bimusicalism. For one thing, speaking a language is more active and involved than listening to music.

Still, Gigi Luk isn’t surprised by Wong’s findings. She believes that all that switching, whether between languages or musical cultures, leaves a physiological impact.

“Our experiences, whether they’re musical or linguistic, actually shape our brain and give us a qualitative difference in brain networks,” says Luk.

There’s still much more to learn about just how that qualitative difference plays out in the bimusical brain. But Patrick Wong believes his research opens a door.

“This is telling us that perhaps being bicultural might change our biology in a fundamental way,” says Wong.

But does that give the bimusical, bicultural mind the same sort of cognitive edge as the bilingual mind? That’s for a future study.


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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.


Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:



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Are Norwegians Literally Born on Skis?

Britons are again chortling over the misuse of the word literally, after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “You see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinary low rates of tax.”

That’s a long way to go to avoid high tax rates.

Other great uses of literally:

  • Soccer player Michael Owen described as “literally a greyhound.”
  • Norwegians who are “literally born on skis.”
  • Popular books that “literally fly off the shelves.”
  • An extremely precise weather forecast that calls for “literally just a spot or two of rain.”

Also in this week’s podcast:

Many courts in the US are cutting costs by using unqualified court interpreters. Local courts say they often can’t afford the fees for certified interpreters. But a growing number of non-English speakers are using the court system. Interpreters argue that miscarriages of justice will become more common if courts use untrained interpreters.


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