Tag Archives: David Wolman

Language adoption and the future of spelling

This week’s pod has two contrasting stories on language adoption. In the first instance, the intention is to encourage bilingualism; in the second, it’s  to promote nationalism.

Belgium hasn’t had a revolution since 1830 (see pic), after which a new constitution established French as the national language. Today, Dutch and German are also recognized. But another,  slower revolution may be taking place, with language again the weapon of choice. The country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority want out, and they did well in enough in parliamentary elections to advance that agenda. The French-speaking Walloon minority are less independence-minded, perhaps because they’re not so well-off.

Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the only place where the two language groups intermingle. Now a Brussels-based organization is urging Belgians to adopt people from across the linguistic divide.  OK, so it’s just online adoption, but the idea is to rekindle Belgium’s former affection for multilingualism. More on Belgium’s language battles here and here.

In Montenegro, the government has adopted a language that may not be a language at all. But as the saying goes, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy” (the quote is often attributed, wrongly, to Max Weinreich). As of 2006, Montenegro has been its own country, with the toys to prove it, like the Gazelle helicopter pictured above — see the Montenegrin flag on the tail. This means that it can call its dialect of Serbo-Croatian a language in its own right. After all, the Serbs have Serbian, the Croats Croatian and the Bosnians Bosnian. In reality, Montenegrin is even less distinguishable from Serbian than Croatian or Bosnian are.  But this is the Balkans, and languages, just like everything else, get balkanized.

Finally, a discussion with David Wolman on what happens to spelling in the age of Spell Check and Google’s did you mean function. Do we need bother to learn how to spell, or at any rate,  spell well?

Wolman is the author of a history of English spelling, Righting the Mother Tongue. Check out my previous interview with him here.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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