Tag Archives: Barack Obama

How do you say ‘selfie’ in Danish, or French or Arabic?

(Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

(Adam63/Wikimedia Commons)

This is the time of year when dictionaries and linguists issue their words of the year. (My favorite choice is the American Dialect Society’s because.)

There’ve been several choices, but the word that’s captured the global imagination is ‘selfie.’ And it hasn’t been limited to the English-speaking world.

The big moment of course, was that snapshot at Nelson Mandela’s memorial featuring Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the leader who took it, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. After that, there was no escaping ‘selfie.’

So when the Danes were debating whether it was appropriate selfie etiquette for their Prime Minister to take a picture like that at a memorial service, what word did they use for selfie?

They used…’selfie.’

“We stole your word,” says Karl Erik Stougaard, online editor of Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “We also call it a ‘selfie.'”

‘Selfie’ began as English slang (it may have come into being in Australian English), and then saturated the entire world via social media. It all happened in a linguistic nanosecond, far too fast for speakers of other languages to come up with their own native expressions.

Of course, there’s always been lending and borrowing among languages. English is great loaner of foreign terms. But the difference now is that words like ‘selfie’ and ‘twerk’ enter popular parlance among English speakers and non-English speakers at roughly the same time, thanks largely to social media. There’s nothing like a popular hashtag to globalize a word. After that, you have little option but to use the default English term if you want to participate in the conversation.

To me, that speaks much more about our times than the word itself does. Yes, we in the early 21st century are having a narcissistic moment, but it’s not the first one. Narcissus, after all, was a figure from Ancient Greek mythology; we’ve been unhealthily obsessed with our own image for quite some time. (Don’t forgot all those painted self-portraits either.) The speed of selfie’s adoption seems more significant than any claims that it embodies the zeitgeist.

Have you heard a version of ‘selfie’ in another language? How does it translate? When did the start being used? Let us know in the comments below.

Here’s a selection of recent political cartoons from both the English-speaking and non-English-speaking worlds featuring selfies.


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Australia Through its Languages

When Barack Obama goes abroad, he has a knack of disarming the locals by quoting from the local language. Even if the locals speak English. In Australia, he won laughs for his (slightly off) rendering of expressions like spot on, chinwag and ear bashing.

So, what better time to consider Australia’s languages, and its use of English? Australia is, of course, home to a great diversity (though not so great these days) of Aboriginal languages. For decades,  white Australians either ignored these languages or actively tried to eliminate them. Only recently have Australians begun to embrace these languages as a central part of the country’s culture.

On the pod, three Australians talk about this and other language-related issues: novelist and historian Thomas Keneally, opera singer and composer Deborah Cheetham and historical novelist Kate Grenville. As well as the discussion of the history and  fate of Aboriginal languages,  bush ranger Ned Kelly is remembered for a choice turn of phrase ( “a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat-headed big-bellied, magpied-legged, narrow-hipped, splay-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords”).

This discussion was first broadcast on the BBC’s Start the Week. There’s a podcast version here. It’s always a must-listen.

For some more Aussie English, curated of the great Australian poet Les Murray, check out this previous pod/post.

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The US Government’s Metaphor Program, and Lingodroids

Once every month or so, Carol Hills and I pick our five favorite language stories. Big stories, obscure stories, we love ’em all.  Here’s the latest rundown:

5.  Slangy Scrabble.  New entrants in the Collins Scrabble Dictionary include innit, grrl and thang.  The dictionary is called  Collins Official Scrabble Words, and for now it is only available in the UK . So, maybe you don’t want to use any of these words quite yet, if you’re playing on US territory. (Also, Brits and Americans appear to disagree on the extent of a certain r-roll: it’s usually grrl in Britain and an angrier grrrl in the US. I think we should go with grrrl. The word was invented in the US. ) Other “new” words now permitted in Scrabble include heatwave, catflap and inbox.

4. Origins of Japanese. Of the major global languages, Japanese is perhaps the most shrouded in mystery. No-one can say for sure where it came from, and how it initially developed. Among the many theories, two predominate.

The first is that it is a language indigenous to Japan, developed by the first people to settle there more than 12,000 years ago. The second theory is that the language came into being on mainland Asia, arriving in Japan some 2,000-2,500 years ago during a mass migration of farmers from the Korean Peninsula. There is some DNA and archaeoligical evidence to back this up. And now there may be some linguistic evidence. A new University of Tokyo study traced the roots of  210 key pieces of voculabulary. Today, those words vary across the 59 Japanese dialects that the researchers studied. But those words shared common roots dating back nearly 2,200 years ago, possibly coinciding with the migration from the Korean Peninsula.

3. US Intelligence and metaphors. A research arm of the US government intelligence establishment wants to decode foreign languages through their metaphors. The reasearch agency is called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It is inviting organizations to propose tools to analyze metaphors in foreign languages, as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of those languages and cultures.  Laudable idea, though some might wonder what federal spies might then do with that information.  That is assuming that the information will make any sense at all after it is put through the bureaucratic wringer of flow diagrams and metrics.

2. Barack Obama’s bilingual early years. The release of a new biography of the President’s mother, Ann Dunham, has shed further light on Barack Obama’s early schooling in Indonesia. Indonesian was the language of instruction at the two schools Obama attended in Jakarta. Ann Dunham’s decision to send him to Indonesian schools was in marked contrast to most English-speaking expats who sent their kids to English schools, and generally lived in an expat bubble.

Ann Dunham herself eventually spoke fluent Indonesian. According to Janny Scott’s biography,  Dunham loved to tell stories of how she mangled Indonesian in her early days  in Jakarta, when she was an English teacher. During one class, she tried to tell one of her students that he would get a promotion if he learned English. The correct way to say get a promotion in Indonesia is naik pangkat (literally: “go up rank”).  But Dunham said naik pantat (literally “go up buttocks”).

Obama’s parents, incidentally, met at the University of Hawaii in a Russian class.

1. An experiment to get robots to speak to each other in a language of their own invention. Ruth Schulz of the University of Queensland (Australia) has developed a language for robots. She has concluded that human language is too cluttered to be useful to robots. So she’s programmed her “lingadroid” robots to create vocabulary that works for them. This is mainly navigational language, mapped across simulated and real spaces: for each specific place the wheeled robots visit, they generate a certain set of programmed syllables that then becomes the agreed name of that place.

The place names are concise and sci-fi-y. And they don’t have caps: pize, kuzo, reya.

Watch the lingadroids in action here.

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Political language before and after Tucson

After the Tucson shootings, we hear from Dutch and German journalists about political discourse and violence in their countries.

Like many Europeans, the Dutch used to think of their country as less violent than the United States, in both word and deed. That’s no longer the case, after the street assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn and film director Theo van Gogh. After Fortuyn’s murder in 2002,  the political left came under fire for the tone of their verbal attacks on Fortuyn, who was a populist right-winger — something of a foreshadowing of the Tucson shootings, albeit with the politics of the accused and accusers switched.

In Germany, political discourse is far more subdued. There is, of course, a historical reason for that:  hate-mongering speech during  1920s and 1930s that led to political assassinations, firebombings and the rise of the Nazis. Moreover, there are certain things in Germany that you cannot say;  most famouly, you cannot by law deny the Holocaust. Also, libel law is more stringent than in the United States. Josef Joffe, the German journalist we talk to,  says that as a result, German political rhetoric today is “almost boring.”

Sarah Palin’s equivalent in Germany — should such a person ever exist — almost definitely would not have used the term blood libel. With its Jewish associations it would have been beyond the pale. It was strange enough to hear it in the United States. Defending herself against charges that her own harsh language contributed to the Tucson shootings, Palin said journalists and pundits were “manufactur[ing] a blood libel.” See her video message here.

Historically, as my colleague Alex Gallafent reports, blood libel is a “false accusation that Jews murder others in order to use their blood in ceremonies.”  This form of anti-Semitism goes back centuries. After the false accusation was made, more extreme rhetoric followed, often ending in ethnic violence.  Sarah Palin’s use of the term seems misplaced, insofar as she is neither Jewish nor is she accused of orchestrating or relishing the death of anyone. Still, it did draw attention to Sarah Palin, which may have been the point.  It meant that Barack Obama’s oratory at a memorial ceremony inTucson later that day, while receiving high marks, did not get the banner headline coverage than it might otherwise have done.

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Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

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Obama’s new words, Avatar in the Amazon, and a Chinese satirical extravaganza

As Barack Obama enters the second year of his presidency, he’s dropped some expressions — among them, war on terror, associated of course mainly with George W. Bush and AfPak, a conflation of Afghanstan and Pakistan, which didn’t go down too well in Pakistan. In his State of Union speech, Obama didn’t even mention the Middle East. His administration has invented a few phrases too: remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and overseas contingency operations (wars).  Also, a count of his favorite State of the Union words done by The Guardian kicks up some surprises:  Obama really likes the word I. Other presidents liked America (George W. Bush), government (Ronald Reagan. I don’t think he was being complimentary) and new (Lyndon Johnson).

Next, it’s to Quito, Ecuador, and a special screening of Avatar.

The 3-D screening was for a couple of Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Shuar and the Achuar. Both are struggling to maintain control of their land in the face of attempts to exploit it by Ecuadorean and multinational corporations. Avatar, of course, is about much the same thing, albeit with a future setting on a far-away planet inhabited by tall blue creatures who speak a language called Na’vi.  (See my previous post on Na’vi, the new Klingon.) We have a report on the screening, and some language-related comments from Alejandro Mayaprua, an Achuar leader,  and Mayra Vega, president of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation of Ecuador. That’s them below. Also, check out this video on the screening from reporter Melaina Spitzer.

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After that, there’s a piece from Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on a new online satirical movie that’s all the rage in China. It features a Chinese double-entendre phrase aimed at avoiding government censorship (it didn’t avoid censorship; it was eventually banned).  People became aware of the expression here in the U.S. after the New York Times ran a story on it. The movie also includes a fantastic “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant, which you can hear in all its glory in the pod.  Or you can watch a version of the movie with English subtitles here.

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Weird words like whiffling, and the elusive meaning of peace

Adam Jacot de Boinod is  a seeker of obscure but colorful English expressions. It all began when he was working for a BBC program called QI with Stephen Fry. He was asked to find interesting words beginning with an A. So he picked up an Albanian-English dictionary and found 27 words for moustache and 27 words for eyebrow. That research eventually spawned two books, The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo. The two books list foreign words and phrases for which there are no direct translations, and they are favorites of this podcast, especially as source material for the Eating Sideways segment.   Of course, books that list words for which there are no English equivalents would seem to suggest that English has some deficiencies. And it does, but it also has more than its fair share of wonderfully inventive, if obscure, expressions. That’s where de Boinod’s new book, The Wonder of Whiffling, comes in. Read it, and  you’ll know whether you prefer to muppet shuffle or dwile flunk. You’ll know if you are a pozzy-wallah. Some of expressions are brand new, others long gone. Some are from Britain, but many hail from former colonial outposts where English is re-invented with the help of local languages and customs. It’s almost impossible to choose a favorite, so I’ll pick three:

Charientism (c.1589): an insult so gracefully veiled as to seem unintended.

Bend-down plaza (Jamaican English): a row of roadside peddlers, specializing in items that are hard to get in stores, because of import restrictions.

Dulosis (Greek) : the enslavement of ants by ants.

Also in this week’s pod, the meaning of the word peace.  Barack Obama is the latest public figure to tweak its definition when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and made the case for “just war”. His arguments weren’t especially new. But in making them as  he collected the world’s foremost peace prize, Obama forced us to question our our settled sense of what peace is. He invited us to re-imagine it — or at least as it presents itself in the 21st century — as something that might be achieved only after vanquishing those who oppose peace. Before Obama got to talking about just wars, he acknowledged that he was no Gandhi or King . But he also pointed out that those figures were not heads of state when they espoused their theories of non-violence. Did Obama’s speech echo Psalm 85 and the painting above, the Kiss of Justice and Peace? (photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto) Or did it re-cast peace as the bastard offspring of war and justice? After we hear from Obama in the podcast, The World’s Alex Gallafent takes us through several alternative definitions of peace.

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