Monthly Archives: May 2013

Indians, Indian-Americans and Spelling

Here’s a guest post from Kavita Pillay. Listen above to a spell-off I moderated between Kavita and Big Show host Marco Werman.

Snigdha Nandipati gets presented with the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee trophy. (Photo: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Snigdha Nandipati gets presented with the 2012 Scripps Spelling Bee trophy. (Photo: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Imagine the scene: a small, Rust Belt town on the shores of Lake Erie, the kind of place where diversity meant Irish and Italian.

It was the glorious era of stirrup pants and gravity-defying bangs, and our mild, midwestern suburb had become the backdrop for a showdown of wild west proportions. At least that’s how it felt when I stepped onto the windswept playground and met the steely gaze of my newfound arch nemesis. Granted that she and I had been friends from first grade through just days before, but those longstanding loyalties now meant nothing. What’s true in the hive was proving true of the fifth grade spelling bee finals: there could be only one queen bee, and neither she nor I were going down without a fight.

It doesn’t matter who won (for the record, it was not her). Our rivalry was superseded by the fact that she and I were the only Indian American girls in our class. There was one other child of Indian immigrants, but sadly for him, he was ousted during a preliminary round by the likes of ‘cauliflower’ or ‘chinchilla.’ He coulda been a contender. In fact, he started out as the one to contend with, because he had won the spelling bee when we were in fourth grade.

Our experience was a far cry from what will transpire tonight during primetime on ESPN, but I like to think that the three of us were were low-level forerunners in a trend that has been well explored and delightfully documented. Much has been made of the fact that 10 of the past 14 National Spelling Bee champions have been children of Indian immigrants, and longtime observers joke that Indian American kids are to spelling what East Africans are to long distance running. At best, the comparison speaks to the intensity of the National Spelling Bee, the endurance it requires, and the years of practice needed to excel. At worst, it perpetuates the myth of the model minority.

All this lead me to wonder about a seemingly unrelated (though potentially parallel) phenomenon that I began noting while I was living in India in 2005-06. Namely, the ever growing number of horrible Indian spellers.

Indian radio station advertisement

Indian radio station advertisement

I expected no shortage of ways to feel overwhelmed by my year in India, but I did not expect to feel overwhelmed by d nmbr of indians who write lyk dis. In case you didn’t quite get that last part, it translates to, “the number of Indians who write like this.” Over the past seven years, I’ve alternated between fury and fascination as I’ve observed friends and young relatives in India whose emails, texts and Facebook posts could easily pass for the most tragic excerpts of Flowers for Algernon.

Consider this email from one highly paid young Indian woman who was trained as a systems engineer and who now works as an IT risk management professional in the US:

    how are you?
    its been along time. i just wanted to let you know its my birthday this friday n i was hoping u could make it.
    i have decided the time and place…
    but it be awesome if u could come.

Abbreviations, poor spelling, faulty sentence structure, lack of capitalization, a dearth of punctuation — the author of this email hits all the main requirements on the text speak checklist (also known as txtspk, chat speak, SMS talk, etc.). Had she thrown in a 🙂 or a ‘lol,’ she’d graduate to grandmaster.

While text speak is growing worldwide, its rapid spread throughout the Indian subcontinent reveals a unique paradox: India attained an edge in software and IT in no small part because it is home to the world’s second largest population of English language speakers, yet the rapid spread of technology in India is also accelerating the transformation of standard English into something many of us may no longer recognize. Robin Danzak is an Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University of South Florida (and a friend of mine since childhood). She put it this way: “When you’re exposed to more languages — as Indians in India are in ways that we in America are not — you’re more willing to take risks between languages.” Whereas I initially attributed text speak in India to laziness or a deficiency of literacy skills, she views it as the natural outcome of, “An active mastery of multiple languages.”

Still unconvinced of the merits of text talk in India and beyond? American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron has one word of advice: “Relax.”

“Languages naturally keep changing,” says Baron. For instance, she notes that, “English sentences are less than half the length that they were several hundred years ago.” Spoken language has become increasingly informal since the 1950s, Baron adds. In turn, “Writing, which used to be formal in many instances — is increasingly adopting the style of informal speech.”

So how are young, text-talking Indians connected to their super spelling Indian American counterparts? I posed the question to a friend named Ravi Satkalmi. In addition to being Indian American, Satkalmi previously worked as a South Asia analyst for the Department of Defense. Prior to that, he was a Fulbright scholar to India, where he looked at Indians who had immigrated to the US and who had chosen to return to India.

“Both the spelling bee and this texting lexicon are related to identity,” Satkalmi says. Indian Americans make up 1% of the US population, so a string of triumphs in the spelling bee serves as an annual announcement to the other 99% of the country that Indian Americans have arrived. Similarly in India, flouting the rules of English spelling via electronically-mediated communication is a way for one-sixth of humanity to assert a newly confident national identity. As Satkalmi sees it, “It’s almost poetic that Indians are using technology to adapt English in a way that’s totally their own.”

The world’s largest democracy remains deeply undemocratic in so many ways. India’s chasm between extreme wealth and desperate poverty may take generations to level out. Yet with text talk, tens of millions of Indians from all walks of life are taking part in a leaderless movement to transform the language of their former colonizer into something less opaque, more accessible and ultimately, more democratic. n dats a gd thng, no matter how you spell it.


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UK English Blown to US Shores, ‘Like Some Exotic Seed’

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)

Hypothetical flag quartering the British and American flags (Lunar Dragon via Wikimedia Commons)

For decades, Brits have complained about American contamination of British English. More recently, the reverse has been taking place: British expressions are elbowing their way into American speech. So far, Americans don’t seem to mind.

Listen above for a conversation with two people who closely follow these lexical exchanges: Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex and author of the Separated by a Common Language blog; and Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware and author of the Not One-Off Britishisms blog.

Other posts:

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A Call for English Only at the European Union

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

Here’s a guest post from Brussels-based reporter Don Duncan…

The Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the founding event of what is now the European Union, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of nationalism in Europe. But over a half-century later, walking through any of the EU buildings in Brussels, it feels like nationalism never went away.

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union – at a current cost of $1.4bn per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union.

You might wonder then, when most if not all EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master – English?

“It’s tempting of course, with English you get through everywhere in the whole world,” says Andrea Dahman, head of communications for the Translation Unit of the European Commission. “On the other hand, I’m always saying, if you want to do business you’ve got to speak the language of the client.”

Interpretors of various languages work interpreting a presentation at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

In the EU, in order to speak the “language of the client” – that is the languages of the 27 member states – a long, costly and time-consuming chain of tasks needs to happen.

Once a delegate or bureaucrat delivers a speech in his or her native language, it is then taken up by dozens of interpreters, who simultaneously translate into their respective languages, or tune into the English interpretation and work from that.

Meanwhile, an official release of the speech is produced and this is sent to the translation unit and – again – either directly, or via English, a separate group of text-based translators gets to work.

Within the EU institutions, ideology trumps pragmatism, and the founding ideology of the Union is “Unity in Diversity.” Back in 1957, when there were only six member states and four languages, it was an easy credo to follow. But fast-forward to today and things are not so easy: 27 member states and 23 official languages. It’s costing the EU a lot of money, it’s having a negative impact on its global competitiveness and it will only get more complex as the union continues to enlarge. In July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU, and Croatian the 24th official language.

As the EU gets larger, critics of the multilingual system are becoming more vocal. For Shada Islam director of policy at Brussels think thank Friends of Europe, the process is costly, unproductive, and most of all, unnecessary.

“We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue,” she says. “The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.

While more and more respected public policy organizations are calling for establishing English as the language of the EU, the idea remains politically toxic. English is the language of the most eurosceptic country – the UK. What’s more, France and Germany are very touchy when it comes to having their languages eclipsed by English. Regardless of sentiment, EU officials argue that using any single language wouldn’t be democratic, or in the shared spirit of the union.

“Europeans believe or at least they think they should believe very much in diversity and in inclusion and that everyone is equal,” says Shada Islam of Friends of Europe. “It’s an artificial mental set up, if you like. Everyone is not equal. There are big powers, there’s Germany, there’s France… so we’re not all equal.”

But despite the growing cost and complexity, and the growing skepticism from outside the EU institutions, the Union is holding course and shows no sign of shifting. When Croatian becomes the official language in July, the cost of the union’s commitment to multilingualism will nudge up to an estimated $1.5bn a year.

Patrick Cox adds: Here’s a link to John Crace’s excellent Digested Read podcast that I mentioned in the pod.

Other podcasts on this subject:


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Composer Kevin James Finds Music in Disappearing Languages

The Del Sol String Quartet performing “Ainu Inuma” in San Francisco. (Photo: Irwin Lewis)

The Del Sol String Quartet performing “Ainu Inuma” in San Francisco. (Photo: Irwin Lewis)

Here’s a guest post from reporter and producer Bruce Wallace…

Kevin James is a musician and composer in New York City. For the past few years, he’s been working on The Vanishing Languages Project. He starts with recordings of endangered languages—ones with very few or, in one case, no remaining native speakers. He uses these as inspiration for extended string and percussion pieces. He recently debuted his latest work in Brooklyn and San Francisco.

James first started thinking about the power of endangered languages when he was in his teens. It was the ‘70s, and he was watching a PBS documentary about these Australian Aboriginal land rights trials. In the documentary, an aboriginal man prepares to testify. The man is the last native speaker of his language, and he insists on giving testimony in his language, without translation.

“It was beautiful,” James says, remembering the documentary recently in his Upper Manhattan home. “At the end of his testimony it was clear that everyone in the courtroom was very moved. And the judges seemed to come to the conclusion that it was better to hear it given in his own language than it could have been translated. Mainly because of the obvious emotion and the sense that this was the last person who could speak this language and it was such a lovely language; such a really beautiful language. The sense that this was going to be lost along with his land. That his culture and his language would be lost as well. It came across as a gift to have heard this language spoken one more time.”

Kevin James at his home studio in New York City. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

James began working in earnest on the Vanishing Languages Project six years ago. He says he was motivated in part by how current the concern for disappearing languages felt. “I like for my music whenever possible to capture a moment—a historical moment. A time on earth, and this was timely. We expect to lose at least half the world’s languages before the end of the century,” James says.

He started poring over the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and focused in on four languages: the Quileute language from the Pacific Northwest, Dalabon and Jawoyn, two Aboriginal languages from Northern Australia; and Ainu from Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. For the first three James tracked down the handful of remaining native speakers of the language and spent time recording them talking to each other or telling stories. There are no native Ainu speakers still living, so he relied on archival recordings of those.

He then picked through the hundreds of hours of recordings looking for particularly musical passages, keeping an eye out for qualities like cadence, melody, and inflection.

“The concept behind this project was to take those qualities—to take the inflections and use those as the basis of music,” James says. “Rather than most music is based on physics-how many divisions of a second can you make, and how do you count that time. And it’s regular, that time is regular you beat out a beat, you keep that beat, you can make it a little faster, a little slower. But when we speak, the inflection is much more fluid. And the same is true of the melodic aspects of a lot of language, in terms of how much register they cover.”

James built an extensive series of ragas, or small musical phrases, based on precise transcriptions of the rhythm and melody of spoken phrases. These ragas are the building blocks of the four Vanishing Languages compositions.

“In each of the pieces the musicians are asked at certain points to mimic actual words or actual sounds of the language,” he says. “But the mirroring of the language was the springboard—it was the jumping off place. The point of the piece was to extend that musically and to take those phrases and see how far they could go with them.”

James doesn’t provide translations of the languages he uses in his compositions. “I really do prefer that the audience experience be as pure as possible,” he says. “For me my first experience was not understanding, and nobody understanding what was spoken, and that being a very pure and revealing experience. I find people when they don’t have a visual to back up audio, that they go searching, and that they assign their own meanings. And I think that’s a more meaningful experience than them listening and picturing somebody cooking. I think it’s more meaningful for them to find their own…their own… place for that, their own visual for that, their own set of contexts in terms of their own experience.”

James is currently working on getting recordings of the project out into the world. And, sometime soon, he’s hoping to bring Vanishing Languages Project back to Australia and Japan—the ancestral homes of Dalabon, Jawoyn, and Ainu.

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Getting Kids to Speak Africa’s Languages, One Doll at a Time

Once every couple of months, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I pick five language stories to chat about. They’re all news stories of some sort, but none has made much of a splash. These are stories we chose this time:

The Future of Yoruba

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is worried that young Nigerians aren’t speaking Yoruba. The language is the native tongue of between 20-30 million people—mainly Nigerians, but also some Beninese and Togolese.

Girl with Rooti dolls. (Photo: Rooti Dolls)

(Photo: Rooti Dolls)

Many of Nigeria’s best-known cultural exports—Soyinka, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade—were brought up as Yoruba speakers. Now there are calls to switch the language of instruction in schools and colleges from English to Yoruba. The idea is to head off a catastrophic crash before it’s too late.

A small part of the effort to keep Yoruba alive among young people is Rooti Dolls. It’s the brainchild of London-based Nigerian entrepreneur Chris Chidi Ngoforo. Big Show host Marco and I talked about Rooti Dolls and Yoruba in the broadcast:

Rooti Dolls are like regular speaking dolls, except that they each speak four or five languages. There are twelve in the series, covering close to 50 languages. They all also speak English, which they use to teach a few words in their African languages. The idea is to expose these languages to children who may be living far from their ancestral homelands. Ngoforo himself is raising three young daughters in exactly that situation (the family’s ancestral language isn’t Yoruba, but another Nigerian language, Igbo).

Also discussed in the podcast:

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How American Linguist Alice Kober Helped Unlock the Secrets of Linear B

A sample of Linear B script. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers.  (Photo: Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons)

A sample of Linear B script. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. (Photo: Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Alex Gallafent…

Alice Kober, 1946 (Photo: Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library)

In 1900, a wealthy British archeologist named Arthur Evans went digging on the Mediterranean island of Crete.

He excavated the ruins of Knossos–and found a palace he took to be the home of King Minos, the man who built the Labyrinth of legend.

Evans also found a series of clay tablets. The tablets recorded Europe’s earliest known writing, dating back three and a half thousand years ago to Europe’s Bronze Age. Arthur Evans called the written script ‘Linear B’.

The mysterious script was unlocked in 1952 by another Englishman, Michael Ventris. But his work rested in part on a Herculean analysis of Linear B undertaken by an American linguist, Alice Kober.

The Foundation of the Decipherment

Linear B features an array of mysterious symbols constructed out of simple lines. Margalit Fox is the author of a new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth. She says the riddle of Linear B was as hard as they come.

“You have no idea what this script is or what the tablets say. In addition you have no idea what language the script is used to record.

“So you have the ultimate intellectual locked room mystery. An unknown script writing an unknown language.”

How do you ever find your way into a seemingly closed system like that? A solution took more than half a century to arrive.

In 1952, a young British architect named Michael Ventris did excavate the meaning of Linear B. Ventris fit the model of a solitary, tortured genius: so much so that the decipherment of Linear B has often been portrayed as principally his accomplishment alone.

But, says author Margalit Fox, Ventris built his success on a foundation laid by an American classicist, Alice Kober.

“As is so often the case in women’s history,” says Fox, “behind this great achievement lay these hours and hours of unseen labor by this unheralded woman.”

The Challenge of Linear B

Consider the scale of the problem that Linear B presented. The script was unknown. The language it recorded was unknown. And there was no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone, the bilingual slab that paved the way for the decipherment of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. (None has been found to this day.)

Without such a key, it would take persistent analysis to unpick the door to this locked room.

A writing system is, in essence, a graphic map, with symbols representing sounds in a language. In English, say, a hollow round circle maps the sound ‘O’: that’s it. Every writing system, explains Margalit Fox, uses one of three systems, or a combination:

“There is the logographic system; the best known example is Chinese where a whole character stands for a whole word. Next comes the syllabic system used to write, for instance, Japanese where a character stands for a symbol such as ‘ma’ or ‘ba’. And then finally, familiar to us as English speakers, is the alphabet where characters usually stand for a single sound.”

It’s rarely clear-cut like that, but that’s the general idea. Linear B was very likely a syllabic script: there were about 80 different symbols, right in the range linguists would expect to see in a syllabary.

And there were a few pictographs dotted about: horses and pots. It seemed that the tablets recorded the domestic affairs of the palace in some fashion.

But for thirty years, not much more was known than that. Until Alice Kober came along.

‘A Cigarette Burning at Her Elbow’

In the 1930s and 40s, Kober was an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in New York where she taught a full load of classes in Latin and Greek. Kober lived with her widowed mother, and there is no record in her papers of a social or romantic life of any kind.

Instead, for almost two decades Alice Kober pursued the decipherment of this mysterious Bronze Age script.

“She turned herself into the world’s leading expert on Linear B,” says Margalit Fox, who examined Kober’s papers. “It was she who was working hundreds of hours with a slide rule sitting at her dining table in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn at night after her papers were graded, a cigarette burning at her elbow, poring over the few published inscriptions, looking and looking for patterns of repeated symbols in the script.”

Margalit Fox says Kober adopted a philosophy of ‘form without meaning’: she wouldn’t make guesses, and she wouldn’t ascribe speculative sound values to symbols.

Instead, she set out to record the frequency of every symbol in the tablets, both in general and then in a variety of positions within words: initial, final position, medial, second, and next to last. She also recorded the frequency of every character in juxtaposition to that of every other character.

It was a mammoth task, performed without the aid of computers. In addition, during the years surrounding the Second World War, writing materials were hard to come by. Kober recorded her detailed analysis on index cards she made from the backs of old greetings cards, and the insides of covers of examination books.

“She stole a lot of checkout slips from the Brooklyn College library,” adds Margalit Fox. “And all of these she painstakingly cut with scissors, one at a time, until she had something like a 180 thousand cards that she had hand cut.”

The Key to Linear B

Kober’s monumental effort paid off.

She spotted groups of symbols that appeared throughout the inscriptions, groups that would start the same but end in consistently different ways.

That was the breakthrough: Kober now knew that Linear B was an inflected language, with word endings that shifted according to use.

In English, for instance, you get words like sing, singer, and singing. Remember: Linear B is syllabic: each symbol contains a consonant and a vowel, like ‘ti’ or ‘mi’ or ‘ni’.

Some symbols would start or end the same way in that they’d share a consonant, or a vowel. Today know that ‘ti’, ‘mi’ and ‘ni’ are sounds in Linear B. But Kober was able plot the relationships between symbols on a grid before any of the sounds were known.

Alice Kober was on the verge of deciphering Linear B.

But before she could add sounds to her grid of symbols, she fell ill and died. It was 1950; she was 43. Still, she left behind a sturdy bridge for others to cross. And in 1952, Michael Ventris did.

Filling in the Blanks

Talking to BBC Radio in the wake of his successful decipherment of Linear B, Ventris said, “It’s rather like doing a crossword puzzle on which the positions of the black squares haven’t been printed for you.”

Ventris built out Kober’s grids as much as possible, and then added his own brilliance to the mix.

He wondered about the repeated groups of symbols identified by Kober as evidence of inflection. What if they stood for the names of towns in Crete? What if they worked the same way as, say, the words Brooklyn and Brooklynite?

Places names are exactly the kinds of thing you’d expect to crop up all the time, especially on official palace documents. (Think of how often your own city or town name appears on any official paperwork.)

And place names often don’t change much, even after centuries. Ventris examined three Cretan names, including Knossos. In the syllabic form of Linear B it became “ko-no-so”.

The script began to talk.


With a few names, Ventris could now add sounds to the grids of symbols begun by Alice Kober. That allowed him to sound out other words in the inscriptions.

Linear B, it turned out, was a form of ancient Greek.

“No-one knew that Greek speakers even existed that far back,” says author Margalit Fox, “so it barely crossed anyone’s mind that the script could be Greek. And even if Greek speakers had existed that far back the thinking was that without the Greek alphabet, which was centuries in the future, they would have had no way to write their language down. So Greek was ruled out as a possibility very, very early.”

The cracking of Linear B transformed that understanding.
The theory now is that colonizing Greeks arrived on Crete from the mainland and appropriated an indigenous writing system to record their own language, creating Linear B.

And that older Cretan writing system? Some of that was found at Knossos too.

It’s called Linear A. 

But there’s very little of it, too little to allow a decipherment.

So far.


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How Language and Culture Play into Phishing Scams

Frame of an animation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Frame of an animation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

It happens to all of us. You get an email from a friend with a suspicious looking link. You know you shouldn’t open it but the subject is just too enticing. It’s something like…

“Wow you won’t believe what this guy is saying about you online.” And beneath the enticing line, is a link.

Chinese linguist David Moser couldn’t help himself. He clicked the link and kablooey. “I had given away the game into cyberspace.” He had been hacked.

Moser was victim of a phishing scam. Phishing is when a hacker reels you in with a clever line and then hooks you with a link to click and download malware onto your computer. Phishing is part of how Chinese hackers get inside government computers, and if you remember back a few months ago, how they hacked into the New York Times.

According to the cybersecurity company, Mandiant, hired to investigate how the New York Times was hacked, one important tool hackers are now employing is “good English.” Moser says it’s a sign of the times.

“We know there are at least 300 million people in China learning English right now. That’s the population of the US. So there’s got to be lots of people good at learning slangy English,” says Moser.

It’s true, these scams have gotten a lot more sophisticated says Andrew Howard. Howard studies the effectiveness of phishing at the Georgia Tech Research Institute by writing and sending what he calls “ethical phishing emails” and measuring how many people click on the dubious link.

“In my experience even a really poorly crafted email, we see click rates in the 20-25 percent rate.”

Yes, says Howard, those ridiculously worded emails from your long, lost friend in Nigeria who’s got some money to give you if you’ll only release your back account number, even those emails pay off. So imagine, says Howard, if you add better language skills to the mix?

“I’ve been using online translation services just to read the internet. Those services are getting better and that’s part of the reason you see better written emails,” says Howard.

It goes beyond language according to Peter Cassidy who heads the Anti-Phishing Working Group, which monitors phishing scams around the world. The scammers are tapping into deep cultural mores.

“What will affect the culture will inform the stories [scammers] are trying to tell,” says Cassidy.

For example, in Japan, scammers prey on Japanese feelings about shame and what gets people to click is blackmail.

“Japan has it’s own blackmail-ware,” says Cassidy. These are emails says Cassidy that for example threaten a Japanese internet user that unless he forks over money, his wife will find out what he’s been looking at online.

As for what gets Americans to click, it’s charity.

“Seventy-two hours before Katrina made landfall, the first Katrina charity phishing websites were established. I think generosity is the calling card of Americans.”

So what about the country we are fixated on at the moment, China? While there’s evidence that Chinese are hacking US corporations and government agencies, the run-of-the-mill Chinese cyber scammer is not wasting his or her time using Google translate on American consumers but scamming in their native tongue. It’s a lucrative venture as more and more Chinese are buying and selling online.

China’s a place that’s gotten wealthy very quickly. A generation ago many Chinese couldn’t imagine owning a computer nevermind connecting to the world on the internet.

“Suddenly [they] have an enormously powerful computer and the internet and everything out there and oh boy it’s fun,” says Cassidy.

Fun until their computer gets infected which, according to Cassidy, more than half of Chinese computers are infected already. That he says is part of the price of prosperity.

Patrick adds:

Also in this podcast, Glasgow’s finest comedienne Janey Godley on why so many top soccer coaches come from her home town (it may have something to do with the accent, the slang and the attitude). If you missed it,

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The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:

In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.

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Penmanship and Personality: An Ode to the Handwritten Note

Remember all that talk earlier this year about US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s signature? It’s hard to call it a signature at all, it looks more like an unfurled slinky. People called the signature “manufactured”—“silly” even.

Who cares, right? In a way, we all do because Lew’s signature will soon appear on US currency (although the Treasury Department is coy as to exactly when that’ll happen).

But when it does, will the value of the dollar be affected by the value we may place on the handwriting of the Treasury Secretary?

Does handwriting have value? Not Wendy Cope’s, at least if you ask her. Cope is a British poet. She crafts profound things out of words—exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find pleasure in putting pen to paper.

“I don’t actually like having to hand-write anything that’s for public consumption,” she says. “I’m not very proud of my handwriting.”

This is how bad it gets: when Cope wants to write a postcard, she’ll buy two because she knows she’ll mess up the first one. Charities sometimes ask her to hand-write a poem to put in an auction. “It raises a surprising amount of money so I don’t like to say no,” she says. “But I hate doing it, because I have to do it so slowly, and then I go wrong and I have to start again.”

Cope is not alone. There are many people who feel ashamed of their penmanship. Philip Hensher has talked to some of them, and has written a book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. He says most of us think of handwriting as highly personal. “It feels like a revelation of self, so people do feel if there was some way to avoid it then that might be a good thing.”

And so a lot of people just don’t write anything by hand. One recent survey cited by Hensher found that as many as 40% of those asked hadn’t written a single thing by hand in the previous six months. Of course, you don’t have to write by hand anymore, except perhaps to sign a document, or a dollar bill or something.

But if you’re one of those handwriting-phobic people, don’t move to France. Handwriting skills and handwriting experts—graphologists—are well-respected there. And according to the graphology industry, more than 50% of French companies make some use of hand-writing analysis. Veteran graphologist Catherine Bottiau says that studying “the trace of someone’s writing is to study the energy which guides the hands, and the message which consciously and unconsciously wishes to transmit.”

Bottiau says corporate clients tend to bring her in when they’re deciding between job candidates.

Not all French people believe that handwriting should be taken so seriously. University of Grenoble psychologist Laurent Begue says corporate recruiters should stop consulting with graphologists. “This practice is totally rubbish,” he says. “You cannot use it for professional purposes.”

That’s true, up to a point says Phillip Hensher, the author of the book about handwriting. Hensher concedes there’s an abundance of overly simplistic analysis, especially of notorious historical figures.

“Hitler is a great favorite of graphologists over the decades, some of whom make startlingly stupid observations about him,” says Hensher. “My favorite was the one who said there was great significance in the fact that his writing slanted to the right.”

But Hensher sticks to the belief that handwriting is personal, which means two things. First, the script reveals things about the writer. Second—and because of that—handwriting is the best medium for intimate communication.

Hensher recently picked up an old magazine that he’d had for decades. Out of it fell a hand-written note that his sister had written for him when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been hospitalized. “It was a completely unremarkable note saying, ‘I saw that you fell asleep, hope you feel better and I’ll be back later today. Love, Kate.’

“That was from 32 years ago. It was absolutely full of her personality. I saw it, and I knew immediately who left it for me. If she’d sent me a text message, would I still have it after 32 years? Would I still have that connection to my past, to our past? To our relationship?”

For some different traditions of handwriting, see this slideshow and podcast on the calligraphy of Haji Noor Deen who fuses Chinese and Arabic script.

Also, check out Yahoo’s Jack Lew signature generator.


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