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Corporate Spelling Experiments and Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet


For our once-a-month-ish gab fest, Carol and I just couldn’t pass this one up.

Sometime, corporations knock it out of the park with their inventions, or re-inventions, of words. Who can argue with Coca-Cola? And it’s not like they’re alone. Shakespeare did it (0r at least he popularized recently invented words).  Kanye West does it. Soldiers do it. Prison inmates do it. Schoolkids do it.

But what about that sub-group of word reinvention, the spelling change? This happens most commonly when a word migrates from one language to another (Spanish for soccer/footbal: fútbol; Chinese for sandwich: 三明治  or sānmíngzhì).  It can be an act of rebellion against the colonial master (American English spellings).  It can be a way of transcribing an accent that may later be co-opted by the speakers of that accent (Lil thang, wassup, etc).

The corporate version of a respelled word is usually überclunky, probably because there is no reason for it to exist other than to satisfy the corporation’s desire to sell a product. The language, and the speakers who sustain the language, have not demanded it. Instead, it has been dreamed up in some boardroom or office. The result: terms like riDQulous and City Sentral .

Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet

L’arrivo di Wang (The Arrival of Wang) is an Italian thriller recently shown at the Venice Film Festival.  In this scene, a police officer questions a blindfolded Chinese interpreter, who is suspected of colluding with a Chinese-speaking alien. The presumption that the alien has chosen to communicate in Chinese because it — or its masters — have concluded that Chinese is the planet’s most prominent language. The film’s characters can’t decide whether the alien is benign. Has it come to forge some kind of partnership or to colonize the Italians with its language, culture and values?

The arrival of The Arrival of Wang comes at a time when Americans and Europeans are debating whether Westerners will really learn Chinese and even if they do,  whether it’s worth it.

Also discussed in this week’s pod:

The expanding reach of English means more varied accents.  Here is the source of the accent test that I sprang on Carol. Here are the 100 words that linguist David Crystal has chosen to tell the story of English. And here is an update on previous pod discussion about Arizona’s harsh line on English language teachers who have foreign accents.  (Under Federal pressure, Arizona has agreed to stop yanking such teachers out of the classroom and to retraining classes).

For Singapore’s Chinese, a challenge:  The country’s former non-nonense leader Lee Kuan Yew says the city-state became an economic power-house because the government made eveyone speak English. While Lee says this should continue, he is also urging Singapore’s Chinese (who make up about 70% of the population) to speak  Mandarin at home.

In Japan, English-speaking chatbots guarantee embarrassment-free conversations. Yup, if you don’t care for the constant humiliation of learning a language by trial and (mostly) error, a conversation with a chatbot is for you. And because a chatbot is not human, it will correct your errors without making you feel foolish– but also perhaps without your remembering them quite so well.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens —  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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