Monthly Archives: June 2013

To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)


It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.



5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Cold War Linguists: The NSA’s Spies of Teufelsberg

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

The old US listening station at Teufelsberg, Berlin (Photo: Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Clark Boyd

Berlin makes for an interesting backdrop for President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss recent revelations about NSA surveillance. It was there, during the Cold War, that the United States and the Soviet Union focused much of their espionage activity.

After World War Berlin lay in ruins, its buildings reduced to rubble. The Russians used tons of that rubble, including parts of Hitler’s chancellery, to build a giant war memorial in what would become Soviet East Berlin.

The Americans created a hill out of their rubble. The artificial hill, built on top of a never-completed Nazi military-technical college, was dubbed Teufelsberg, German for “Devil’s Mountain.” At 260 feet, it was hardly a mountain. But it was tall enough for the NSA to point antennas hundreds of miles into East Germany.

Edward Richardson, now a lawyer, served in the 1960s with the 78th Army Security Agency Special Operations Unit (ASA) at Teufelsberg. Richardson, who was already a member of the National Guard, enlisted in Army and opted for Russian language training.

He was assigned to West Berlin in 1965—to the listening station at Teufelsberg.

There, hidden under giant, slightly menacing-looking domes, the antennas picked up all kinds of radio traffic from the East. And 24/7, the Americans used dozens of vacuum tube radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders to monitor it all.

“This was kind of the Pleistocene Era of communications,” says Richardson. “The operators would sit there all night, and just wait for one of lines on the green screen to squiggle, and they’d start the tape recorder. Then they’d hand the tapes over to a transcriber, and then it went on to NSA or ASA headquarters.”

Richardson was tasked with focusing on Soviet troop movements in East Germany.

“We didn’t care what they were saying,” he says. “What we cared about was who was saying it, and where they were saying it from. Nobody was interested in listening to people’s conversations.”

That sounds like an early version of the “We’re only looking at your meta-data” line of jokes, directed these days at President Obama’s NSA.

Richardson remembers some funny moments, like near daybreak, when weird frequency bounces meant you’d sometimes hear Moscow cabbies chatting. Or when you’d decode a message saying that a Soviet artillery unit was targeting Teufelsberg—only to realize that it was a hoax.

While Richardson worked on the Soviets, Don Cooper listened in on telephone calls between East German government officials.

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

Teufelsberg veteran and author Donald Cooper

“Some days it was fun. Other days it was excruciatingly boring,” says Cooper. “They’d be discussing agriculture reports, things like that. They were having a bad crop of potatoes. And if you were on the graveyard shift, or really just after 8 o’clock at night, we just switched over to Radio Luxembourg and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.”

But Cooper says he does remember hearing one interesting conversation. Walter Ulbricht—“Uncle Walter” as he was called—was the East German leader at the time. Cooper once overheard Uncle Walter’s then second-in-command, Erich Honecker, arranging a hunting trip.

“Walter wanted to go deer hunting up in the northern part of the country,” says Cooper. “They were making sure he’d get a deer. They drugged the poor thing, and when it staggered out, Walter would take a shot at the thing, and they had a sharpshooter with a silencer on his rifle to make sure the deer went down. So, Walter got his deer.”

And the Americans got a bit of insight into how East Germany worked at the time.

Cooper details this in his book “C-Trick“—named after the shift he worked. He says that officially, the Army Security Agency was never in Berlin. The guys in the outfit couldn’t even wear their unit patch on their uniforms. If a German asked, Cooper says you had to tell them: “I’m a clerk in the Berlin brigade.”

He remembers trying that out one night at a place called The White House Whitehorse Bar.

“I was sitting in there enjoying myself, and a couple of Germans, sitting with a couple of Berliners, and they asked: ‘Are you American?’ With the military haircut I had at the time, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m a clerk with the Berlin brigade.’ They laughed and said, ‘Oh, you’re ASA.’”

So much for top secret.

There was, of course, plenty of spy-versus-spy goings on in those post-war decades.

The Soviets had built their own listening station on a hill in East Berlin. Christopher McLarren served with the ASA at Teufelsberg in the 1970s.

“As long as they listened to the West, and we listened to the East, things went fine. Because after 1980, the real big danger was surprise, panic and military over-reaction,” says McLarren. “Since we were all listening, [there was ] no surprise, no panic, no over-reaction. So it worked very well.”

McLarren ended up marrying a Berliner, and staying on in the city after he left the Army. He watched as the fall of the wall and reunification brought an end to the NSA’s listening station on Teufelsberg.

“Reunification was 1990. From what I understand, the Americans listened in—just to make sure, for another year, just to make sure everything was straight. And then they dismantled the place, so I think operations finished in 1991 or 1992.”

And Teufelsberg itself—the buildings with the strangely shaped domes? It’s fallen into almost complete disrepair.

Artists and musicians love to visit the eery place for inspiration.

Many development ideas have been floated for the site—a hotel, luxury apartments, a spa—but none of them has worked out. The locals aren’t too keen on any of these plans.

Christopher McLarren is part of a group called BerlinSightOut that gives organized tours of the now derelict and dangerous buildings. At a minimum, he says, he’d like to see a small museum built to highlight the history of the place. He says that while Berliners are typically keen to forget the past and move on, they do pause to consider Teufelsberg’s history. Eighty percent of his tour-goers are Berliners.

“It’s very much ‘in’ at this point,” he says. “I always think, when you go through the place—since I knew what it was like before—is in terrible condition, an absolute ruin. But for the people who were never there before, this is all fascinating stuff.”

And no, McLarren says, there hasn’t been an uptick in tour requests since the recent revelations about the N-S-A’s massive data snooping program.

Instead, he says, it’s just a steady stream of people, coming every weekend despite the notoriously bad Berlin weather, to look out over a now-unified city, and country.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gezi Park’s Linguistic Legacy: Words, Chants and Song Lyrics

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul  (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based Big Show contributor Dalia Mortada

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called protesters çapulcular (pronounced cha-pul-ju-lar), he wasn’t paying them a compliment. The term translates roughly to “looters”, “marauders” or “bums”.

“For him çapulcular was an insult,” community organizer, Ezgi Bakcay, explains. “However, for the protesters, similar to the way some threw back the gas canisters at police, we threw this word back at him.” Although people all over Turkey have been protesting for different reasons in the past two weeks, they came together under this term.

To make sure people around the world knew how to use it one protester made a tutorial video. He starts by teaching viewers the simple present tense, “I chapul everyday…he chapuls everyday.” He moves onto the present continuous tense, “I have been chapulling for six days.” To protect him from teargas while “chapulling”, the instructor dons a surgical mask and some swimming goggles.

Tent labelled ‘Çapulistan’, Gezi Park, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Turks now have been using the English -ing form, “chapulling”. It means “a resistance to force, or to demand ones rights.” Some protesters wear t-shirts with “chapuller”, or the Turkish form “çapulcu” , scribbled across them. Others labeled their tents at Gezi Park things like, “No. 1 chapul street”. With this word it seems like a wave of creativity and humor was unleashed amongst the protesters.

A choir from the Bosphorous University took a traditional Turkish song and outfitted it with some new lyrics. They sing of gas masks and protests. They sing that the teargas is sweeter than honey.

Community activist Ezgi says protesters used ironic humour every chance they got. Graffiti scribbled across walls and sidewalks as well as signs played with Turkish words and Erdogan’s name.

Instead of writing “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, protesters played with the prime minister’s name. “Cop” means baton, “tazyik” means pressurized water, and “gaz” refers to teargas (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

One night, a group of football fans even commandeered an earth digger and charged it at one of the police’s “public intervention vehicles”, or TOMA for short. They called it the POMA, for “police intervention vehicle.” To add insult to injury, protesters later painted it pink to soften its look. “The earth digger was lying here like a killed beast,” Ezgi says, “as if a captured enemy.”

The humor was also present in the chants and songs protesters created. Ezgi gave the example of a group of women came up with a slogan that said “Dear Tayyip [Erdogan], thanks to you we will look great this summer, because pressurized water is good for our cellulite!”

Women in an Istanbul apartment, making noise in support of the protests (Dalia Mortada)

In Taksim Square guys chanted, “Let’s see you use that pepper spray. Take off your helmets, drop your batons and let’s see who’s the real man” Meanwhile, feminists warned Erdogan to “run away, because the women are coming.”

Not everyone could make it out to the street to have their say, so they did so from home. Every night at 9pm for the past two weeks, neighborhoods throughout Istanbul have erupted with the clanking of wooden spoons against pots and pans, silverware against plates.

It’s not the first time pots and pans have been used to express discontent in Turkey or abroad. But this time, the sound has inspired musicians.

Kardes Turkuler, or Songs of Fraternity, are a well known ensemble. This song they just released has become a sort of anthem for the protests. “Enough with the headstrong decrees and commands,” they sing, “We’re really fed up!”

Music has played a major role in the Gezi Park protests. Throughout the park, many played instruments, from beating their drums to blowing into bagpipes. Others danced to the music and chanted. Some created new songs based on the protests, and while others sang traditional ones that passersby joined in on.

Many of the protesters say they want to hang onto this spirit of humor and creativity especially now that their argument with the government seems to be entering a more complicated phase.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Elite Italian University Meets Resistance As It Tries To Go All-English

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from Italy-based contributor to the Big Show Megan Williams…

Across continental Europe, more college and university classes are being taught in English. In making the switch to English, institutions in non-English-speaking countries believe they are better preparing students for a globalized workforce. They’re also seeking to attract more foreign students.

But sometimes, there’s fierce opposition to these moves. That was the case when lawmakers in France recently proposed increasing the number of university courses taught in English.

In Italy, a court has barred the Politecnico di Milano, the MIT of Italy, from switching to English as its sole language of instruction. The university is appealing the decision.

Already some Politecnico classes are taught in English. Drop in on computer science professor Giuseppe Serazzi’s weekly lecture and you can witness the change. Serazzi starts with a brief introduction in Italian. Then, he switches to English. The plan was for all professors teaching Master-level courses to do that.

Politecnico rector Giovanni Azzone boldly announced last year that by 2015, all post-graduate courses and some undergrad programs would be offered only in English.

Azzone said the switch to English is needed to keep attracting top Italian students who want the option of eventually working outside Italy.

“You need an international environment,” said Azzone. “You must attract international students. English is fundamental. Italian at present is an entry barrier.”

But it’s a move that met with vociferous opposition from many of the Politecnico’s 1,400 faculty members. They launched a petition calling the switch to English unconstitutional, saying it limited the freedom to teach and study in Italian, and put Italy’s cultural heritage at risk. And now they have found an ally in an Italian regional court.

Professor Hans de Wit, an expert on the internationalization of higher education at the Cattolica University in Milan, said that argument has been used many times— in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

De Wit called the Italian court’s decision “a shock.” He thinks what’s really happening is that some older professors understandably fear that a switch to English will sideline them professionally. But according to de Wit, research it’s what students want.

Politecnico Di Milano may have made a tactical mistake. De Wit said its announced change may have been too dramatic. The universities that have made the switch to English successfully have done so slowly and discreetly, thereby avoiding uncertainty and resistance.

As part of the plan to switch to English, all professors and support staff not already fluent in English have been taking weekly ESL classes. But some are there against their will, and others say a lesson a week just isn’t enough to be able to work in English.

Students agree. Computer Science student Javier Hualpa, who’s from Argentina, says it’s ironic he had to pass a stringent English exam to get in, when many of his professors would flunk it. “You have two kinds of teachers here,” says Hualpa. “The ones who have done a PhD outside Italy—they speak clear English; and the Italian ones who learned English locally with an Italian cadence. Even for the International students we say, ‘You don’t speak well.’”

Despite the problems in switching to English, students like Hualpa and the Politecnico’s rector agree that not switching to English would only limit their future choices.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Silicon Valley’s Immigrant Janitors Learning English at Work

A Google employee tutors one of the company's janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

A Google employee tutors one of the company’s janitors in a weekly class. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

Here’s a guest post from Big Show reporter Jason Margolis

If the new US Senate immigration reform bill becomes law, millions of people will need to learn English to become permanent US residents. It’s hard enough for any of us to learn a new language, but it can be especially difficult for immigrants. Many work multiple jobs and have little spare time. And there are diminishing resources available for them to learn.

Consider the case of Daniel Montes. When he was 18, Montes moved to the Bay Area from Mexico. Everything was an adjustment, but nothing was more difficult than the new language.

“It would be equal to losing your voice and not being able to speak from one day to the next,” said Montes.

Montes found work as a janitor. He said he remained virtually silent at work for two years until he found an ESL class in a church in San Jose.

“It was a big commitment, and it was very difficult physically to sustain. There were times when I would lose my pencil because I was so tired from working two jobs.”

That was in the late 1970’s. Today Montes runs the company Brilliant General Maintenance in San Jose. He has about 300 janitors on his staff, most of whom are immigrants like himself. Montes said he’s glad his employees have an easier path to learn English.

Thirteen years ago, the janitor’s union in California, SEIU, struck a bargaining agreement with contractors like Montes. Employers up and down the state now contribute a few extra pennies per hour worked toward training programs, everything from health education, to new parenting classes, to English instruction.

Companies must independently agree to allow classes at the work site, and many firms are allowing them in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past two years, a growing number of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies — Facebook, Cisco and Adobe among them — have agreed to transform boardrooms into classrooms.

I visited a class at Google’s Mountain View campus, where student janitors were taking classes with a trained teacher and also working one-on-one with volunteer tutors, who are Google employees. Both student and tutor arrived early in the morning, an hour before their shift started. Classes also take place at night.

“Before I worked here, I had three works (jobs), and I didn’t have time for school,” said janitor Edith de la Rosa, originally from Mexico. She started taking classes at Google last year.

The convenience of learning English at the workplace isn’t just benefiting janitors; it helps the companies as well. A Google manager I met expressed his support for the training program. But he preferred that I let the janitors do the talking.

De la Rosa said she’s certain she’s a better employee now.

“Every day I learn two or three words, it helps me in conversations with the clients. For example, ‘Excuse me, do you know who is fixing the toilets or the lights, or something?’ And I say, ‘Oh no, the water has come to the floor, oh yea, I do it. Let me take something to clean it up.’”

Even that basic conversation would’ve been impossible last year.

But again, companies like Google are under no obligation to open their buildings to the janitors. And many Bay Area companies are refusing.

“When anyone hears about it, when foundations hear about it, the government, it’s held up as a win-win partnership. It’s labor, it’s the community, it’s the biggest corporations in the world partnering for the janitors,” said Alison Ascher Webber, associate director of the non-profit Building Skills Partnership, which coordinates the English classes.

Yet, she said, “It’s surprisingly hard to sell (the English program) because it’s a subcontracted workforce. Often the corporations that employ them (the janitors) indirectly don’t even want to hear or talk about it.”

“It’s not their (the corporation’s) bottom-line, it’s not what they do. They’re just about numbers on a finance sheet. As long as the rooms are clean, it’s all about cutting costs.”

Webber mentioned Intel and Chevron as two companies that have refused the program. I sent multiple e-mails and placed phone calls to both Intel and Chevron to ask about the English-learning program. Neither responded.

Webber called this attitude “short-sighted.” There’s plenty of talk about how Silicon Valley is splitting into two classes, rich and poor. Webber stressed that Silicon Valley increasingly needs mid-level managers.

“How are we going to get people to check the water systems at the sewage treatment center? How are we going to get people to become firemen, be metal workers and machinists?”

English will allow immigrants to step into those positions. But learning English in California has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past five years, adult education budgets have been slashed by some 60 percent statewide across local districts where beginning adult ESL classes are traditionally taught. Five years ago, the San Jose Unified School District had 10,000 adults enrolled. Today, there are less than 2,500 adult learners.

Community colleges can’t pick up all that slack either.

With these severe cutbacks, that makes the option to study English at work all the more critical.



3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

In Pakistan, No One Admits to Being a ‘Burger’

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)


Here’s a guest post from Karachi-based reporter Fahad Desmukh, who often files stories for the Big Show

It may be hard to imagine, given the pervasiveness of McDonald’s these days, but hamburgers were virtually unknown in Pakistan before 1981.

Arshad Jawad is the manager of Mr. Burger, the first fast-food chain in Pakistan.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t know what cheese was. When we were putting a slice of cheese on the patty, they were looking at us asking like ‘Is is this plastic, is it rubber?’” Jawad said.

When Mr. Burger opened in Karachi, it initially got mixed reactions. It wasn’t a big deal for people who had visited the West. But many would-be customers didn’t know what hamburgers were, or how to eat them.

“After we made the burger people were asking, ‘How do you eat this? We need a spoon, we need a plate.’ So we had to educate them. We said ‘Look, this is a wrapper. Grab the wrapper, open it gingerly and use that,’” he said, chuckling.

Back then, going out for a hamburger was a big deal, and many people can still recall their first, clandestine, date at a Mr. Burger.

It was only a matter of time before the fad caught on, and Mr. Burger was hot.

For some.

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

For many years, the average working or middle class Pakistani was unable to afford Mr. Burger. So the word “burgers” came to describe young, westernized urban elite, who studied at expensive schools, spoke English rather than Urdu and preferred eating burgers rather than local cuisine. They were derided for being, out of touch with mainstream Pakistani society.

By some accounts, the term was first coined in a TV comedy called “Burger Family”, about a rich Westernized family in Pakistan.”

Today, there are lots of fast-food burger chains – local and international. But the word is still associated with the elite class in the local lingo.

And there’s a rap song called “The Burgers of Karachi” recently put out by local group “Young Stunners”.

They describe a typical Burger as someone who wears skinny jeans and Nikes, uses a smartphone, and holds a US Green Card.

One of the high school-age rappers, Talha Anjum, says a Burger is someone who wants to be someone they aren’t.

“If you listen to Burger-e-Karachi, we’re not making fun of people,” Anjum said. “It’s just a message that you should be real to yourself and real to the people around you. You shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t have a branded T-shirt.”

Burgers may be ridiculed for trying to be something that they are not, but they have mobilized recently.

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

The urban elite have generally shunned politics in the past. But in last month’s elections, they rallied around former cricket hero Imran Khan, using their access to wealth and the media to help his PTI party. It won the second highest number votes. Misbah Khalid, a member of the party’s campaign team, says its not such a bad thing to have “burgers” on their side.

“Because now they are taking ownership of the country. Now people in every class as you say own Karachi, own Pakistan. So I think that’s a great achievement, because you need people who have exposure to the outside world, who are maybe – what you say – the ‘intellectuals,’” she said.

The spread of the term “burger” has sparked a counter-term: the “bun kebabs.” Bun kebabs are cheap home-grown versions of hamburgers made with lentils. So a “bun kebabs” is a person who’s a bumpkin compared to a burger.

Burger e Karachi




1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Compounding Magic of German

Sign in Germany: "Wastewater treatment plant" (Wikimedia Commons)

Sign in Germany: “Wastewater treatment plant” (Wikimedia Commons)

Germany has done away with what is arguably the longest word in the German language, a barely pronounceable word relating to a former law on the origin of beef: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

But it isn’t much of a loss. Aside from being exceedingly ugly, this 63-letter word has company (even if its buddies don’t trouble the inkwell quite so much). German, like Turkish and Finnish, is all too amenable to the construction of insanely long compound words. Many are ridiculously clunky and obscure: famously, there was Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, meaning “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”. But a few of these compound terms convey singular emotions or ideas, like Götterdämmerung, usually translated as “Twilight of the Gods”.

Listen above to hear German journalist Sebastian Borger discussing German compound words, and why they keep multiplying.

Railway station sign, with a pronunciation guide for English speakers, in North Wales. (Wikimedia Commons)


Podcast bonus: hear how to pronounce the name of the village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (“St Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave”). This village name is a Victorian era construction, intended to attract tourists. Locals sensibly refer to this place as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized