Sanskrit isn’t just an ancient, scholarly language, it’s also a living tongue caught up in Indian politics

The cast of the Sanskrit play, "The Cleverness of the Thief." Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white.  (Photo: Corey Pein)

The cast of the Sanskrit play, “The Cleverness of the Thief.” Patricia Sauthoff is in the center, wearing white. (Photo: Corey Pein)

Here’s a post from Patricia Sauthoff. The podcast above is even better.

Sanskrit has been lingering at the edges of Western culture for a while now. It’s an obscure language that not many people know, but a lot of people know about.

I started studying Sanskrit as a written language a few years ago. Back then, when I told people about it, they assumed I was a big “White Album”-era Beatles fan or into Transcendental Meditation. Now they just assume I spend a lot of time doing yoga.

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

Sanskrit textbooks, songbooks and a comic book. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

I’m actually a Ph.D. candidate at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I study Sanskrit so I can do research and read ancient texts, not order lunch or hail a cab. But last year my studies took a turn for the practical when I decided to take a conversational Sanskrit course over the summer.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, but it’s actually pretty easy to hear it out in the world — if you know where to look. India’s 2001 census counted 14,000 Indians who claimed it as their mother tongue. There are Sanskrit language newscasts; I’ve seen Shakespeare and other plays performed in Sanskrit here in London; and there is a community of language learners and teachers from around the world who gather on Twitter to share their knowledge, ask for help, and meet others interested in communicating in Sanskrit. Some are in India, some are part of the Indian diaspora, and some — like me — are Westerners interested in learning something more about the language and culture of South Asia.

And it does look like interest in Sanskrit is growing. The study of Sanskrit is certainly surging in popularity, both in India and in the West. Students at Princeton University recently launched a petition to get Sanskrit back into the curriculum. And at my own school, the second-year Sanskrit course grew to 20 this year, up from just two the year before.

It turns out spending a month speaking Sanskrit day-in and day-out is pretty surreal. Instead of reading philosophy books, I learned how to say things like telephone — dūrabhāṣā — and bicycle — dvicakrikā. It reminds me that Sanskrit isn’t just a language of dusty books. And as anyone who has ever namaste-d knows, it’s a language that’s really fun to say out loud — or even to sing.

There were 20 of us in the class, learning, speaking and singing six days a week for four weeks. Several of my classmates were Indians living in Europe. Some were graduate students like myself, and others were professionals taking a break from work. There was even a Buddhist monk who out-chanted us all.

Much like any other intensive language course, we were expected to communicate only in Sanskrit. But where other immersion classes are for beginners, most of my classmates had years of experience reading the language. Of course, slowly translating a written work and rapid-fire conversation are completely different. Those who spoke Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati found the spoken Sanskrit a little more familiar than those of us who just read.

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

A connect-the-dots with Sanskrit numbers spelled out. (Photo: Patricia Sauthoff)

We learned to speak through traditional methods like singing and chanting, but also by discussing everyday things. We learned lines of ancient poetry and had a Skype chat in Sanskrit with a professor in Australia.

The students in my class were aware that the revival of Sanskrit is contentious. It’s sometimes tied with the rise of Hindu nationalism. Events like the newly introduced Sanskrit Week are seen as privileging one language and culture over others. India’s second largest religion, Islam, does not have historical ties to Sanskrit. Even among Hindus, the country’s largest religious group, Sanskrit learning has historically been something for only the privileged castes. In the southern part of the country, languages such as Tamil developed simultaneously but separately from Sanskrit.

But in the classroom, we didn’t discuss the current debates or the history of the language. Instead, we practiced for an upcoming performance of songs and a play for friends, family and the Indian ambassador to Germany.

Most of us study Sanskrit in order to read it, and learning to speak it was a challenge. My vocabulary includes a lot of technical philosophical terms that aren’t easy to translate into English, but it now also includes some useful everyday ones, too. I’m used to being able to slowly read complex books, but when it comes to quickly answering a basic question like kuśalam asti vā — “How are you?” — I freeze.

After a month of class, I realized Sanskrit isn’t about self-expression for me. It’s about reading the ideas of the past. I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it as a living language, but I’m more comfortable treating it as a dead one.

Check out the podcast (above or on iTunes) to hear about Sanskrit’s near-perfect alphabet from translator Terence Coe.

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Spanglish is older than you think

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch  (Wikimedia Commons)

Hugo Reid at Rancho Santa Anita, as imagined in a 1885 sketch (Wikimedia Commons)

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

To truly explore the early roots of Spanglish, we have to go back to the dawn of the Dons.

Picture California in the early-19th century, when Los Angeles was known simply as the little “pueblo” and “Alta California” as the region was then called, was still a part of Mexico.

And living in the a rancho just north of the pueblo was a young Scottish adventurer named Hugh Reid. In the 1830s he left the old world for the new — Mexico. And in his adopted home he was rechristened with an additional Spanish name, Perfecto Hugo Reid. Reid would eventually settle down on a ranch in southern California near the San Gabriel mission in what’s now Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he married a local woman, Doña Victoria.

Robert Train has been obsessed with Hugo Reid’s backstory for the last few years. Train is a professor of Spanish at Sonoma State University. We met recently at the Huntington Library archives in Pasadena, to read Reid’s extremely yellowed letters.

Reid wrote to a man named Abel Stearns, another gringo — yes, that was a term, Train says, that was used around that time — living in Alta California. Stearns had emigrated from Massachusetts and, like Reid, he had also become a Mexican citizen. Reid’s letters to Stearns detail daily life in early California.

In one letter, Reid tells Stearns about his recent trip around other parts of Mexico. It’s a fairly ordinary letter at first, except woven into the mostly English letter are phrases in Spanish. Often sentences will start in one language and shift to fluidly to the other language. Neither Spanish nor English, this is pure Spanglish.

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Letter from Hugh Reid to Abel Stearns (Nina Porzucki)

Hugo Reid wrote letter after letter to Abel Stearns in Spanglish. That’s not to say he couldn’t write in strictly Spanish or strictly English. He could. And he did — Train has plenty of examples of those — but often the Scotsman chose to use both at once doing what Train calls code-switching.

“It’s not about not knowing one language or the other. That’s a sort of myth that some people seem to think — that code-switching is all about not knowing one language, not being able to find the word. But that’s not typically the case. He knew how to say “take a little rest,” says Train.

Reid could’ve easily communicated to his English-speaking-mate in English. But instead he chose Spanglish.

Both Reid and Stearns married native Spanish speakers. Historians don’t know for sure but assume they spoke Spanish inside their homes. And Reid’s correspondence reflects a sort of back and forth between worlds. The Spanish words often key into domestic affairs, like requests from Reid to buy cloth from Abel Stearns store. Stearns was a merchant. He is credited with helping to start the port in San Pedro.

In another letter, Hugo Reid writes, “… the old woman requires for the house a piece of percale and best in manta blanca. Si no hay percala send her pura manta blanca. I remain yours truly, Perfecto Hugo Reid.”

“Percala” is a type of cloth called percale in English and “manta blanca” is coarse cotton, but the most curious part of the exchange is not Hugo Reid ordering fabric for his wife in Spanish but what he calls his wife in English: “the old woman.” It’s a direct translation, says Train, of how men in Alta California might’ve referred to their wives in Spanish.

“La Vieja, which I guess is the standard use of this time for ‘the old lady,’” Train says.

So what’s the big deal? A few native English speakers spoke Spanglish to each other way back when. What’s this have to do with anything today? Simple, says Train. Hugo Reid’s letters are reminders that California was, is and has always been a multilingual place.

In fact, when California became a state in 1850, the new constitution was written in both English and Spanish. For many years, California laws were written in both languages. But somewhere along the way, English usurped Spanish. And Spanish became, well, a foreign language.

When I learned Spanish in southern California public schools, I learned it as my foreign language prerequisite.

Reading the signs as you drive down Third Street in East LA, Spanish is far from a foreign language. But the real lingua franca is Spanglish. The sign for the East LA institution, King Taco is a great example. “King Taco. The Best Food in Town. Burritos y Tacos Al Pastor. Y Carne Asada. Park here.”

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

King Taco is an East LA institution. (Nina Porzucki)

Robert Train and I did park and eat and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the women sitting at the table next to us. Two young mothers, Desiree Gardenas and Brenda Padilla, and their toddlers are speaking Spanish and English and, yes, Spanglish.

Do you ever mix the languages together, I asked them. Yes, of course they said. It’s normal.

Post lunch, around the corner from King Taco, Train and I made one final stop at the Calvary Cemetery.

It’s a beautiful, old cemetery on a hill. Thousands of stone monuments commemorate the early residents of the pueblo of Los Angeles. And the modern city, with her tall skyscrapers and her smoggy skies, can be seen in the distance. This is where Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns — these early Spanglish speakers — are buried mere miles from where Spanglish continues to thrive.

“I read this part of a whole immigrant story, part of an unexpected one really,” Train says.

Hugo Reid died at the age of 42, just two years after Mexican Alta California became the 31st United State. Incidentally, in his final days he became obsessed with saving another language, the language of the Gabrieleño Indians, the ancestral language of his wife Doña Victoria. Sadly, that language has not survived.

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Are we witnessing the death of ‘uh’? Um, maybe — and not just in English

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor "uh" (or "eh" in Dutch) over "um." Younger people and women are more likely to say "um." (PRI's The World)

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor “uh” (or “eh” in Dutch) over “um.” Younger people and women are more likely to say “um.” (PRI’s The World)

Read this post from Ari Daniel. Or listen to the podcast above.

According to experts, “uh” and “um” are somewhat different beasts. “It does seem to be the case that ‘um’ generally signals a longer or more important pause than ‘uh,'” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania. At least that’s what he thought.

Liberman has been studying these so-called “filled pauses” for almost a decade, and he has made a rather curious discovery.

“As Americans get older, they use ‘uh’ more,” he says. “And at every age, men use ‘uh’ more than women.”

If you look at “um,” exactly the opposite is true. Younger people say “um” more often than older people. And no matter the age, women say “um” more than men. Nobody, not even the linguists, were expecting this result; until they studied these hesitations, they thought it was more about the amount of time a speaker hesitates than who that speaker is.

Then, late last summer, Liberman attended a conference in Groningen in the Netherlands. During a coffee break, Liberman was chatting with a small group of researchers. He brought up his finding about the age and gender differences related to “um” and “uh,” which prompted the group to look for that pattern outside of American English. They scanned British and Scottish English, German, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian.

The result, says University of Groningen linguist Martijn Wieling, is that, “in all cases, we find the same thing.” Just like the Americans that Mark Liberman analyzed, women and younger people and younger people said “um” more than “uh.”

Wieling’s conclusion is that we are witnessing a language change in progress, “and that women and younger people are leading the change.”

The future of “um”

This pattern of women and young people leading us forward is typical of most language changes. But why is “um” our future, across at least two continents and five Germanic languages? It’s still a puzzle.

Josef Fruehwald's research suggests that the use of "um" is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald’s research suggests that the use of “um” is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that “um” and “uh” may be used slightly differently. But as far as he is concerned, they are pretty much equivalent.

“When you have two options, you can start using one more frequently and maybe replace the other one so that it’s no longer an option,” he says. “So why ‘um?’ It’s just one of these things. There’s always a little bit of randomness to the whole situation.”

By random, he means that we do not know why changes in usage like this happen, or when the next one will be. Fruehwald admits linguists are terrible at predicting the future — worse than meteorologists! Language, he says, is even more chaotic than the weather.

As for how such a linguistic trend might have jumped from one language to another, Fruehwald says “there are some documented cases of that kind of thing happening, usually where people can speak both languages and borrow features of one into the other.”

English is the most likely to be influencing the other languages, but we still don’t know whether that’s actually what’s happening with “um.” More research and more linguists are needed.

And as for the future, “um” and “uh” may yo-yo back and forth in terms of their popularity. Or we may well be watching the extinction of “uh” from our lexicon.

So would Fruehwald would miss “uh?”. “I don’t have a really strong emotional connection to either of these,” he admits. “Although based on my age demographics, I’m likely a high ‘um’ user. So maybe that’s where I should throw my loyalties.”

Patrick Cox adds: Also in this podcast episode, a conversation with Michael Erard, editor of Schwa Fire and author of “Um…:Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”


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For a group of Siberians, Hawaii was far from a tropical paradise

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)

A Russian family migrating to Hawaii pose for a passport photo. (Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

Four years ago, I went on a Hawaiian vacation. But I didn’t go snorkeling; I spent nearly all my time in the bowels of a university archive, browsing 100-year-old newspapers.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

The truth is that I can only stand so much sand and sea. And when I happened to type two words into Google — “Russians” and “Hawaii” — I stumbled across a startling historical footnote.

At the turn of the last century, the Hawaiian Board of Immigration imported more than 1,500 Russians, mostly from Siberia, to work the islands’ sugar plantations. It was a last-ditch effort to make the then-US territory of Hawaii more white.

As Patricia Polansky, the Russian bibliographer at the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library explains, the planters first brought in Japanese and Chinese workers. Asian labor was the backbone of the early sugar industry, but working the sugarcane fields was a brutal way to make a living. In 1909, several thousand Japanese laborers went on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, which worried plantation owners.

“So they decided they wanted to try what we call haole labor, or white labor,” Polansky says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

A report issued by the Commissioner of Labor on Hawaii described local planters as “willing without reserve to employ all the Caucasian workers the government can bring to the islands, at a wage one-third larger” than what was paid Asian laborers.

“When the plantation owners were looking around for white groups, there happened to be in Honolulu a man named Perelstrous, who was a Russian kind of entrepreneur,” Polansky says.

“Kind of” is the key term here. Perelstrous drew up a recruitment brochure for the Russians, and once he and his crew reached Russia, they launched a “huge, huge propaganda” effort, according to Amir Khisamutdinov, a historian at Far Eastern Federal University in Khabarovsk. “‘Oh, you need to come! We doing for you big, say, possibilities to work. Good weather…’”

“There were all kinds of things in there,” Polansky adds. “They would be given a little house, how many hours they had to work, what their wages would be.”

That, and one extra thing: The brochure also suggested the Russians would be given their own land.

“That actually didn’t turn out to be true, of course,” Polansky says. “They were coming just to work on the plantations. So that was part of what caused a lot of the trouble after the Russians got here.”

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

Living quarters, Hawaii Plantation Village (Photo: Alina Simone)

After getting a taste of plantation life, the Russians went on strike. To better understand their rebellion, I drove out to Hawaii Plantation Village in Waipahu, an outdoor museum of plantation life. Even though it’s only a few miles from the beach, Waipahu is nothing like the azure coast. And when I touched an actual sugar cane plant, it felt more like a weapon than food.

The Siberians probably imagined they were traveling to an island paradise. Instead, they ended up in quarantine after measles broke out on their steamer. Their encampment on a Honolulu wharf became a tourist draw, while the newspapers made a circus out of the immigration snafu. According to Khisamutdinov, a large part of this was due to communication failure.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

“Language, it was a huge problem for Russians in Hawaii,” he says. The Russians didn’t have interpreters. In fact, there were so few Russian speakers in Hawaii that authorities recruited a local actress to help negotiate disputes, like one that broke out when the Russians tried bathing in the nude on a public beach.

And there wasn’t much cultural interpretation. Everything in Hawaii was totally alien to the Russians, from the local cuisine to the tropical weather. There was no community hub, no church, no expat ambassadors to help explain, as Khisamutdinov puts it, what their obligations were and how to enroll their children in schools.

“I think it’s the biggest mistake from authorities in Hawaii,” Khisamutdinov says. “They didn’t describe.”

The Russians fled Hawaii in droves. Many headed for California or New York, and a few returned to Russia.

But the story has another twist. Seven years after the Russians first arrived in Hawaii, the Russian Revolution took place. The new government, headed by Lenin, wanted the Russians in Hawaii to come home.

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album  (Photo: Alina Simone)

A page from the Russian Passport Application Album (Photo: Alina Simone)

“So Moscow sent a man here whose name was Trautshold,” Polansky says. “He had money. He was to pay their passage back to Russia. And he was to fill out their passport applications and everything. And that’s what this album is that we have, we have the passport application album.”

The scrapbook Troutshold compiled is filled with portraits and biographical sketches of the Russians who remained. It’s an extraordinary document, probably the only place you’ll find photos of Russian men with handlebar mustaches wearing Hawaiian work clothes.

Few people took Troutshold up on his offer of free passage to war-torn communist Russia, but some who did never forgot Hawaii. And when the Soviet Union collapsed several decades later, they reemerged.

“One day, I had a phone call from Catholic Charities,” Polansky says.

“There’s a Russian woman here,” they told her.

“I met her, and she was carrying an urn with her that had her mother’s ashes in it,” Polansky says. “It happened to be that her mother was born here in Hawaii. She was a child of one of these people that came here to work on the plantations, but her family had decided to repatriate to Soviet Union.”

Years later, when her mother was on her deathbed, she told her daughter, “I want to be buried in Hawaii.” With the Iron Curtain in place, that didn’t seem likely. So she waited.

“The minute the Soviet Union collapsed, she put herself on an airplane and showed up in Hawaii with her mother’s ashes,” Polanksy says.

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Russian Collection, Hamilton Library/University of Hawaii at Manoa

Polansky and Khisamutdinov put the passport application album online and began to connect with even more families of the long-lost Russians of Hawaii. While their encounters with descendants haven’t all been quite as dramatic as the first one, they have been contacted by about 30 descendants of people listed in the album so far.

It’s funny to think what might Hawaii might look like had the Russian immigration scheme succeeded. Would the islands be dotted with borscht stands today? Would balalaika jam bands be performing at the annual Island Arts Festival?

These are questions you can spend an entire tropical vacation contemplating. But this is a place where you can find sushi made from spam — I doubt there’s any influence Hawaii can’t absorb.


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Africa’s new generation of indigenous language translators

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English-- but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Many Kenyans, like this man, do not speak English– but they may speak several African languages. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

We’re getting better at breaking down language barriers. Thanks to the likes of Google Translate, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Skype, we can understand — and even communicate — across languages.

Machine translation is improving all the time. But it’s not always enough.

In most African countries, there are too many sick people, and not enough people or money to care for them. Western countries and aid agencies have done much to improve health care systems: They train doctors, help build hospitals and donate medication.

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude's Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Caroline Mirethi is a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

It’s only now that they’re realizing that they need to do something else: Train translators and interpreters to help patients understand what doctors are telling them, to translate public health leaflets and, above all, to translate instructions that come with medications.

“The instructions are written in English,” says Caroline Mirethi, a doctor at Gertrude’s Pediatric Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. The hospital serves some of Nairobi’s poorest communities.

“Many of these drugs are imported into the country,” Mirethi says. “We explain to the patients in a language they can understand … on how to take the medication.”

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Koseto Opio in his home in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Opio takes his medication and other ailments with the help of an outreach worker who translates for him. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

The language in this case is usually Swahili. The hospital sends health workers to patients’ homes where they will translate the instructions and make sure the patients follow them.

It’s a far cry from the ideal: Pointing a smartphone camera at the medication instructions then reading those instructions in your own language via a translation app. That might be possible one day, but not right now. The instructions are often complicated, as are the patients’ needs. For the many who have Type 2 diabetes or HIV, there are a multitude of drugs to take.

The translator/outreach workers at Gertrude’s are an exception.

In Africa, “the translation industry has not been appreciated much,” says Paul Mirambu, director of the Nairobi office of Translators Without Borders.

“Hospitals know that language is a barrier, but they do not employ translators or interpreters,” Mirambu says. “Probably there’s no budget for it, or nobody cares about it.”

Translators Without Borders is a global organization that seeks to help deliver humanitarian services to people in their native tongues — or at least languages that they understand better than English, French or Spanish.

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Reference materials at the offices of Translators Without Borders in Nairobi. (Photo: Phillip Martin)

Mirambu’s colleague in his Nairobi office, Mathias Kauke, tells the story of a mother who was having trouble producing milk for her baby.

“She goes to the hospital and is given drugs that are supposed to stimulate milk production — but the prescription is in French,” Kauke says. “She doesn’t know how to read or write. So she goes home and she doesn’t take the medicine. She gives it to the child.”

After the child is given the drug intended for his mother, he dies.

“That’s how tragic miscommunication can be,” Kauke says. “That’s where translation comes in.”

Translators Without Borders is focusing on the Swahili language because it is widely spoken in several African countries. But it doesn’t cover everyone. The Masai people, for example, generally do not speak either Swahili or English.

“They suffer from completely curable, preventable illnesses as a result of that,” says Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders.

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)

Lori Thicke, founder and president of Translators Without Borders. (Courtesy Lori Thicke)


More than 1,000 languages are spoken in Africa. Thicke says that has made many Africans “incredible linguists” who can be recruited to translate medical materials.

“They will generally speak three to five language, regardless of education level,” she says. “But the issue is if English is their third or fourth language, you want to make sure that any critical information does get to them in their main language — or as close to their main language as possible.”

Thicke says it’s even more complicated in other African countries. Not only do people not have access to health care in their own language — they may be self-diagnosing as well.

“In Ethiopia, they have one doctor for 80,000 people,” Thicke says. “Most people in Africa will never see a doctor in their lives. Empowering mothers with information about how to take care of their babies is really important.”

Thicke believes that translation into native tongues “would have rewritten history” in the countries struck by the recent Ebola epidemic.

“They lost an opportunity when they gave the message about Ebola in English in countries where [only 15 to 20 percent of the people] spoke English,” Thicke says. “It really gave rise to a lot of rumors that it was a government plot. If you speak to someone in their own language you’re more likely to touch them, and convince them.”

The Nairobi interviews were done by Phillip Martin of Boston public radio station WGBH. His trip to Kenya was funded by the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation.


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The secret language of Turkey’s LGBT community

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

Read this post from Dalia Mortada. Or listen to the podcast above.

Sevval Kilic is a couple of inches shy of six feet. Her hair, various shades of light brown, rests at the middle of her back, and her eyes, outlined by long lashes, look like perfectly drawn almonds.

She has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it’s infectious. She looks much younger than her 40 years, and she likes to reminisce about the good old days when she made good money.

“In my day,” she reminisces, “I was shopping. I was shopping as hell…my shoes, just my shoes…” she trails off, giggling. That was in the 1990s, when Sevval lived in a neighborhood notorious for its unregistered brothels. She was 19 when she moved in.

Today, the quiet lane in central Istanbul looks much like it did in the 90s. But the sounds that fill the street are completely different.

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

A lady washing her windows on the third floor takes a break to chat with a neighbor hollering hello from the street. It’s not, as it once was, packed with guys taking their pick of sexual adventures for the night. No catcalls descend from the windows like they did a couple of decades ago, like the kind of catcall Sevval used to attract clients: “Psh psh, psh psh — this is the way,” Sevval explains, “or sfoot sfoot.” Just a small, subtle sound to catch a guy’s attention.

In Turkey, prostitution is legal with a license, and state-run brothels have an intense registration process. But Sevval and her colleagues were not eligible: The state did not, and still does not, accept transitioning women or gay men. Sevval had not completed her transition to becoming a woman when she signed up for her brothel.

In fact, she arrived with just her boy clothes. One of the more experienced women took her under her wing. “She took care of me like real mom. She washed me, she fed me, she dressed me, she taught me everything about working, about secrecy,” she says. Secrecy included using a secret slang, or as linguists call it, an argot, called Lubunca.

Lubunca is how Sevval and her colleagues talked to each other about their work in front of clients or the cops. It uses Turkish sentences and grammar, but certain words are replaced. The words Sevval used were related to her work. There are terms for hair and make-up, sex positions and different types of clients. “Let’s say there’s a rich customer and the girl in the front apartment yells, ‘It’s a hundred dollar customer!’ That’s bir but baari, Sevval explains.

Bir is the Turkish word for “one” and but means thigh or rump, like a large cut of meat. Bari is like saying “at least.” These are all Turkish words, but the way they’re strung together means you wouldn’t understand unless you knew Lubunca.

Other words in the slang come from different languages. “Some of the core elements of Lubunca come from other minority languages that haven’t been spoken very much for quite some time,” Nicholas Kontovas explains. Kontovas is a socio-historical linguist who has studied the origins of Lubunca. He explains that most of the words come from Romani — the language of ethnic Roma, or gypsies, who live in Turkey. There are words from Greek, Kurdish and Bulgarian, too. Kontovas explains that people from these communities have, to a greater or lesser extent, been outcasts in Turkish society, so they tend to live in the same city neighborhoods. That’s how Lubunca picked up its foreign feel.

Kontovas says the words from Lubunca are intimately tied to these neighborhoods and to meeting spots within those neighborhoods. The Turkish word for an Ottoman style bathhouse, for example, is hamam. In Lubunca, it’s tato which comes from the Romani word for warm. “The fact that there’s a word for hamam is pretty telling, the queer slang varieties that were used beforehand, at least what is recorded, were predominantly used in hamams,” which is where male sex work took place during the Ottoman empire, Kontovas says.

Of course, Lubunca has evolved. The terms for sex organs and positions get pretty creative — and are not appropriate for publishing. Terms for flirting are pretty crafty, too. “Badem alikmak, which is also to eye up. Badem, meaning almond, obviously in reference to shape of the eye,” Kontovas describes. “There’s another thing that’s great which is badem sekeri, which is ‘almond candy,’ which is eye candy,” he adds.

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

It is quite similar to Polari — the British gay argot that made it into the mainstream in the 1960s, back when being gay was still criminal in the UK. An example of Polari would be: “Bona to vada your dolly old eek.” That means “Nice to see your pretty face.”

Eventually, after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the argot dropped out of fashion. Kontovas says, “The use of Polari started to decline so much so people had to go and record it and go into archives and look into recordings and ask older members of the community.”

As more people use Lubunca, it’s possible that it too could fade away like Polari, but that seems unlikely. Like Polari, Lubunca exists because it needs to: Not only is gay and trans sex work likely to stay illegal, but Lubunca’s use has grown in recent years. More members of the LGBT community — especially gay men — have adopted the argot. Sometimes they use it to show off — to declare they are part of the gay community while still keeping it a secret in public. And being trans or a sex worker can even be looked down upon within the LGBT community.

Turgay Bayindir, for example, came out as gay in college, but he knew nothing about the community. He heard his new friends using Lubunca for fun, but he did not get it. “At first I was uncomfortable, especially because it was associated with trans-women who are sex workers,” Turgay recalls, saying he considered it demeaning. But he got over his bias after he actually learned more about Lubunca and why certain people need to use it.

The word “lubunya” is how gay men and trans women often describe themselves — and it has crept into Turgay’s vocabulary. He says it might not be such a bad thing if the secret language becomes a little less secret. “I think in general exposure would be good and also it would make the lubunya community less scary to the public when they start learning about it,” he says.

Still, because certain words have become so mainstream, they are no longer used in the sex work community. Sevval, who left sex work to become an activist after her gender reassignment surgery, says she doesn’t recognize a lot of the words anymore. “Girls invented some new words — even I don’t understand them. In 2015, girls speak something else,” she says. “It evolves.”

Perhaps society will evolve too, so that Lubunca can be used for fun and not just because it is necessary.


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A bilingual seal of approval for high school graduates

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Peter Kuskie and Maria Regalado are students at Hillsboro High in Oregon and are on track to receive a new bilingual seal on their diplomas. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Read this post from Monica Campbell. Or listen to the podcast above.

Let’s take a trip back to September 1995, when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was talking about education on the campaign trail. “If we want to ensure that all of our children had the same opportunities — yours, mine, everyone’s — in America, alternative language education should stop,” he said.

“Alternative education” was a code for bilingual education, and Dole was speaking at a time when states like California banned bilingual programs. The idea was that learning foreign languages was fine, but not to the detriment of being fully literate in English.

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California's bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

A 2012 graduate of the Santa Ana Unified School District wears a medal honoring her bilingualism and holds her diploma with California’s bilingual seal. (Photo courtesy of Shelly Spiegel-Coleman)

But those days are fading — and fast. Just head to Hillsboro High School, near Portland, Oregon, and step into the Algebra 2 class. The concepts — open intervals, integers, logarithm rules — are already challenging for most students. Now learn them in Spanish.

From start to finish, teacher Moises Curiel instructs in that language, and the students plug away, asking questions and working through problems in groups.

Learning in another language isn’t a problem, because the students have two things in common: They all know English, and they’ve studied in Spanish for years. Many of the students here either grew up speaking Spanish with their families, or want to speak Spanish themsevles, like Peter Kuskie. He’s a sophomore who grew up speaking only English.

Yet Kuskie’s Spanish is good — really good — because he spends most of his school days moving between classes instructed in both languages.

And while dual-language learning been around for years in the US, what’s new is what Kuskie and many of his classmates will get on their diplomas when they graduate: an embossed seal honoring their bilingualism.

The effort started in California, spearheaded by a statewide coalition called Californians Together, and is now spreading to states like Illinois, New York and Florida. Along with Spanish, there are bilingual diploma seals offered for Mandarin, Vietnamese and other languages

“What we … have been about, really, was to try and change people’s perspectives as well as their feelings about bilingualism,” says Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together.

Arturo Lomeli, Hillsboro High’s principal, hopes the seal will have more than symbolic value. “It’s so demanding, it’s so rigorous,” Lomeli says. “They’re walking in and they’re processing English, Spanish and math and inputting in Spanish what they’re hearing — processing in English, outputting in Spanish.”

Lomeli also points to how some — but not all — studies show that bilingualism slows the brain from aging. Students learning another language are also less distracted, and even earn higher salaries over time.

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students' bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Hillsboro High teacher Moises Curiel teaches Algebra 2 in Spanish. To honor the students’ bilingualism, the school will offer qualifying students a bilingual seal on their diploma. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Spiegel-Coleman says the United States faces real risks if it continues to be a monolingual culture.

“There are issues of national security,” she says. “You’ve heard from the Department of Defense over and over again that they are lacking professionals who can deal and communicate and negotiate in countries across the world in the language of that country. Going through an interpreter, you lose something.”

But while bilingualism is strengthening in some parts of the US, foreign language instruction is dropping nationwide. One reason is that the federal “No Child Left Behind” law, enacted 12 years ago, stressed traditional subjects.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in some parts of the country also doesn’t help. SEALS_language

Principal Lomeli says he can’t control the political rhetoric, but insists “we need to catch up with the rest of the world. We need to prepare students for a global society, and we haven’t been doing that.”

Some students aren’t worried about issues that are quite that big. For them, mastering another language is a personal matter. Maria Regalado, a junior whose parents are Mexican says, “I’ve had Spanish since I was born. So, I just get to keep it and not let it go, you know?”

She says now she can visit Mexico and “really talk” with her family, and she thinks her improved Spanish will also help her career. She wants to study criminal justice and become a police officer, and she knows some Latino families in the area can’t speak English and can feel distanced from law enforcement. She’s looking forward to bridging that gap.

Kuskie, her classmate, says it was his mom who convinced him to try and become bilingual. She was turned down for a job at a job at health clinic in Hillsboro, an area flush with new immigrants.

“She knows the people there and then they said, ‘Well, you need to learn to speak Spanish.’ So that’s why she couldn’t do that. So she’s been trying to learn Spanish, too,” he says.

Not everyone at the school is on the bilingual track. Kuskie says his friends who aren’t in the program ask him why he takes classes like Algebra 2 in Spanish, and he does acknowledge that it is “a little bit” harder.

But he’s up for the challenge, he say. And for students like Kuskie and Regalado, whose goal is real bilingualism, they’ll have a seal on their diploma to prove that come graduation day.


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