Tag Archives: France

Penmanship and Personality: An Ode to the Handwritten Note

Remember all that talk earlier this year about US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s signature? It’s hard to call it a signature at all, it looks more like an unfurled slinky. People called the signature “manufactured”—“silly” even.

Who cares, right? In a way, we all do because Lew’s signature will soon appear on US currency (although the Treasury Department is coy as to exactly when that’ll happen).

But when it does, will the value of the dollar be affected by the value we may place on the handwriting of the Treasury Secretary?

Does handwriting have value? Not Wendy Cope’s, at least if you ask her. Cope is a British poet. She crafts profound things out of words—exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find pleasure in putting pen to paper.

“I don’t actually like having to hand-write anything that’s for public consumption,” she says. “I’m not very proud of my handwriting.”

This is how bad it gets: when Cope wants to write a postcard, she’ll buy two because she knows she’ll mess up the first one. Charities sometimes ask her to hand-write a poem to put in an auction. “It raises a surprising amount of money so I don’t like to say no,” she says. “But I hate doing it, because I have to do it so slowly, and then I go wrong and I have to start again.”

Cope is not alone. There are many people who feel ashamed of their penmanship. Philip Hensher has talked to some of them, and has written a book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. He says most of us think of handwriting as highly personal. “It feels like a revelation of self, so people do feel if there was some way to avoid it then that might be a good thing.”

And so a lot of people just don’t write anything by hand. One recent survey cited by Hensher found that as many as 40% of those asked hadn’t written a single thing by hand in the previous six months. Of course, you don’t have to write by hand anymore, except perhaps to sign a document, or a dollar bill or something.

But if you’re one of those handwriting-phobic people, don’t move to France. Handwriting skills and handwriting experts—graphologists—are well-respected there. And according to the graphology industry, more than 50% of French companies make some use of hand-writing analysis. Veteran graphologist Catherine Bottiau says that studying “the trace of someone’s writing is to study the energy which guides the hands, and the message which consciously and unconsciously wishes to transmit.”

Bottiau says corporate clients tend to bring her in when they’re deciding between job candidates.

Not all French people believe that handwriting should be taken so seriously. University of Grenoble psychologist Laurent Begue says corporate recruiters should stop consulting with graphologists. “This practice is totally rubbish,” he says. “You cannot use it for professional purposes.”

That’s true, up to a point says Phillip Hensher, the author of the book about handwriting. Hensher concedes there’s an abundance of overly simplistic analysis, especially of notorious historical figures.

“Hitler is a great favorite of graphologists over the decades, some of whom make startlingly stupid observations about him,” says Hensher. “My favorite was the one who said there was great significance in the fact that his writing slanted to the right.”

But Hensher sticks to the belief that handwriting is personal, which means two things. First, the script reveals things about the writer. Second—and because of that—handwriting is the best medium for intimate communication.

Hensher recently picked up an old magazine that he’d had for decades. Out of it fell a hand-written note that his sister had written for him when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been hospitalized. “It was a completely unremarkable note saying, ‘I saw that you fell asleep, hope you feel better and I’ll be back later today. Love, Kate.’

“That was from 32 years ago. It was absolutely full of her personality. I saw it, and I knew immediately who left it for me. If she’d sent me a text message, would I still have it after 32 years? Would I still have that connection to my past, to our past? To our relationship?”

For some different traditions of handwriting, see this slideshow and podcast on the calligraphy of Haji Noor Deen who fuses Chinese and Arabic script.

Also, check out Yahoo’s Jack Lew signature generator.



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Mademoiselle in Song, and Translating Jargon


The French government has turned its back on Mademoiselle, eliminating the title from official forms. Mademoiselle roughly equates to Miss. Though it means unmarried woman, it also implies that said woman is young—25 or younger. And that just doesn’t fit with the times. In fact, it hasn’t for several decades.

French singers love Mademoiselle. Aside from it being rhyme-friendly, the word rolls sweetly off the tongue. Will singers now take the government’s lead and stop using the term?

In a way, they already have. These days, Mademoiselle is often used self-consciously and ironically. Consider Zaza Fournier’s 2009 song Mademoiselle . It’s about a cross-dressing man. In the video, Fournier returns the gender favor, and wears male clothing and a painted mustache.

That’s a far cry from the breezy, if tearful, 20-year-old who struts along some of Paris’ poshest streets as described by Jacqueline François in her 1948 classic Mademoiselle de Paris.

We sample those songs in the pod, and hear from my French-born colleague Adeline Sire, whose two sisters take opposing views of Mademoiselle’s official demise. Adeline has a very funny post on that here (and another post on an overlooked moment at the Oscars here).

Also in this week’s pod:

  • Native speakers of Russian, Vietnamese and Arabic discuss how they translate English language news jargon. As one of them describes it, journalists and politicians like to “hide behind a pyramid of nonsensical words.” And for all your nonsensical word needs may I suggest that you consult the very fine Newswordy site?
  • As Britain’s Sun newspaper faces questions over alleged payments to police officers, we consider the language of tabloid news.
  • Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese clash over language and politics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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What’s Assyrian for Canuck?

After a global effort lasting nearly a century, the University of Chicago is publishing an Assyrian dictionary. We hear from one scholar at the British Museum who dedicated three years of his career to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project.  In the scheme of this endeavor, three years isn’t especially long: the project began in in 1921. It is 21 volumes long.

Why spend so much time on a “dead” language? Because this was the world’s first written language, according to most experts. The cuneiform script — used first for the Sumerian language, and then to write Assyrian and Babylonian — inspired  that better-known ancient writing system, hieroglyphics.

The raw material for this dictionary was text written on Mesopotamian clay and stone tablets. There were legal and medical documents, love letters, epic poems, the lot. There is now hope that ancient history will now be rewritten, giving pride of place to Mesopotamian culture. Egpytians, Greeks, Romans: your time is up.

Also in the pod this week, Donald Keene’s love affair with Japanese has culminated with his move from New York to Tokyo at the age of 89. Keene recently stopped teaching at Columbia. His retirement received far more coverage in Japan than in his native United States. He learned Japanese in the 1930s, then honed his skills interrogating captured Japanese troops during World War Two. In New York, he leaves behind him a Japanese cultural center named after him.

The pod features two other items:  France prohibits broadcasters from saying Facebook or Twitter on the air. And is the word Canuck offensive? Not to most Canadians, says Vancouverite (and Vancouver Canucks fan) Andrea Crossan. However, the delighfully cheesy song Andrea  dredged up to make this point may offend even if  Canuck does not.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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Explaining Japan’s disaster to kids and Russian beer to Americans

Japan has a whole lexicon of earthquake and tsunami-related phrases, many of which are collected in the Japan Times by cultural commentator Kaori Shoji.  There is  bōsai zukin (防災頭巾), meaning the protective safety hood that Tokyo children carry with them to school. There are hinanjo (避難所), evacuation facilities that are housing tens of thousands of people made homeless. And most poignantly, there is buji (無事), meaning safe.  That word is made up of the kanji characters mu (無, nothing) and koto (事, incident). As Shoji puts it, “without incident” is “a state we’re all praying for.”

The severity of the quake, and now the radiation threat, are challenging just about every facet of life in the affected areas.  Here’s one challenge: how do you explain the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station to children?

Video artist Kazuko Hachiya has made an anime about this. His solution is to use the universal kid language of…bodily emissions.  So in his anime, Nuclear Reactor Boy is unwell and flatulent. But he’s not — like his colleague in Chernobyl — actually pooping. Doctors/nuclear scientists give him medicine (boron and seawater) to cool him down and keep him from pooping. But in case he does poop, we can rest assured: he’s wearing a diaper.  See the video here. Or a nice Scottish English version of it here.

This reminds me of one of my daughter’s favorite books, also out of Japan: Everyone Poops . It’s written by one of the country’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators, Taro Gomi. There’s no plot, just a broad range of pooping practises. Endlessly entertaining.

In France, the government is battling newspapers and online outlets over probes into the practices of some politicians. OK, so that happens everywhere to a certain degree. But France, unlike many other Western democracies doesn’t have much of a tradition of investigative or muckracking journalism. The news media is, in the words of one journalist, too deferential to French politicians.  But now, there are new online investigative players, led by Rue89, which has in turn enboldened some of the older news organizations. Investigative probes have uncovered corruption and embarrassed the Sarkozy government

The politicians are pushing back. The government was recently charged with using the French Secret Service against the venerable daily,  Le Monde. And Rue89 is currently the target of five separate lawsuits.

Last thing in the pod: American brewers are reviving a centuries-old type of beer, Russian Imperial Stout. Despite the name, this was originally an 18th century British-brewed beer, which was then exported to Russia. American brewers are  borrowing some of the the notorious figures from Russian history to name their new brews:  The Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH once a year offers Kate the Great. The North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif. has been brewing  Old Rasputin stout for 15 years. See a video and a slide show here.

Or, listen to the podcast here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Portsmouth Brewery.

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Language-learning in France and Ireland, and free speech in Tunisia

In France, the  government is proposing that children start learning English at age three. It’s high time, they argue, that French educators face up to the fact that learning English gives you — and your country — an edge.

Good idea,  say French intellectuals. But why English? According to French linguist, Claude Hagège, the proposal is “totally pointless, if not ridiculous.”

Now, before you write off Hagège as a good-for-nothing naysayer, consider this: he’s one of France best-known promoters of language-learning. He strongly supports the idea of people learning several languages if they can. But for Hagège, language is power– and speaking English is “not quite innocent.”  From his perspective (and, I suspect, he is far from alone) it’s more important to resist the rise of English than it is to expose French youth to it, at least as a first foreign language. In his words, speaking English is “a guilty act because it is the language of very wealthy, industrialized countries. And I think any person who has a minimum of sense of justice cannot accept that because this means domination by the countries whose mother tongue this language is.”

It may be because of attitudes like this that French schools will continue to lag behind school systems elsewhere in Europe, when it comes to teaching English.

In Ireland, mandatory Irish learning in schools became an issue in the recent parliamentary elections.  OK, so it didn’t sway voters as much as the economy did. But the party that won, Fine Gael, has promised to consider dropping Irish as a must-learn subject at school.  In the old days — or at least when my dad went to school — learning Irish was considered act of patriotism in a new country eager to establish its national identity.  It didn’t work. Despite massive government support, the vast majority of Irish people forgot most of the Irish they had been forced to learn. Fine Gael’s proposal, while upsetting the old guard and some native Irish speakers, struck a chord with some voters and commentators.  Why not learn languages that are more widely  spoken, like Spanish, French or Chinese — languages that  might help young people get a leg up?

In Tunisia, journalists are getting used to their new freedoms; some are clinging to the old ways.  The pod has a report from Tunis on how some news organizations are adapting quickly to their new freedoms, while others can’t figure out quite how to express themselves without a censor to frame reality for them.

Also,  we have  an interview with Anglo-Middle Eastern singer Natacha Atlas. Atlas isn’t known for her political or social stances. But recently she began singing about free speech in Egypt, and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons

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Birds, urls and Glaswegians

For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

5. Some birds develop  distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina  chirp the avian version of  “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment.  The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.

There is a BBC story from a few years ago suggesting  that cows pick up on regional human accents. But, alas, the story may have been largely bogus.

glasgow ad

4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow.  Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.

3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools.  Surpringly,  France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of  earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms  haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar.  Some European language-learning groups however,  are skeptical that the reforms will help much.

2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles,  schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there.  However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.

1.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global.  This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of  a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans.  Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)

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A language of French Caribbean, Spanish unity and disunity, and more (not) teaching English in France

This week, two takes on language teaching in France.

First, a couple of Paris high schools have started teaching Antillean creole, a language in the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Guadeloupe

Those two islands were in the news earlier this year after a series of strikes and protests. Then, part two of my conversation with American Laurel Zuckerman who wanted to teach high school English. Zuckerman fought the French education establishment- and guess who won? We then consider an Arabic word beloved by Saudi Arabia’s morality police. Finally, Spain unites over a soccer victory, but remains divided over which songs best represent the spirit of the nation.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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