Tag Archives: German language

Turkish, Stalin, and just say non!

The avidly pro-Western Georgian government has just torn down a statue of Joseph Stalin in his hometown of Gori. Many people think of Stalin as Russian, but he was Georgian, much to the embarrassment of many Georgians today. There’s an exception: Georgians who live in Gori adore the former Soviet leader; for them it’s a case of local boy made good bad and all of that. As it happens, I visited Gori in 2005, and filed a story from there on Stalinphilia and the language of denial.

The newest star of Germany’s national soccer team is an ethnic Turk. And the  popularity of Mesut Özil is one of the reasons why Turkish has become just a little more accepted in Germany today. There are other reasons: the emergence of a small middle class, as well as  the rise of writers, filmakers and politicians (our report from Cyrus Farivar includes comments from Cem Özdemir, Germany’s first member of parliament of Turkish descent). Turkish in Germany remains nowhere near as prominent as Spanish is in the United States. It’s the exception rather than the rule to find a German corporation marketing a product to ethnic Turks in Turkish. Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Germany to offer Turkish as a language of instruction in high schools.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by promising more bilingual education. Related articles: a blanket ban on foreign languages at one German school, and the influence of Turkish and Arabic on urban, spoken German.

World Cup notes:  this World Cup is breaking TV viewing records from China to Chile. A story here on U.S. TV ratings, which are especially impressive on the Spanish-language Univision channel. The Argentina-Mexico game was the most-watched  Spanish-language telecast in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million viewers. Combined with English-language coverage, that game attracted nearly 14 million viewers — impressive for a contest that did not feature the United States. In contast, a combined 19  million watched the U.S.-Ghana game.

And there’s a nice video montage from BBC Mundo here of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

Finally,  British politician Chris Bryant has called French a “useless” language to learn. He suggested that children should instead learn Chinese or Arabic. After he made those comments, the BBC hauled him into a studio to defend himself, and to debate the issue with a German diplomat. (Late replacement for a French diplomat? Peut-être.)


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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.

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A Chinese Valentine’s pod

Hundreds of language programs at public schools have become victims of shrinking budgets. Not Chinese. We visit Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, NY,  where 400 students are learning the language.

Many of the students at the school are immigrants, but only a handful are ethnic Chinese. This is one of the many counterintuitive aspects to this story. Another is that 90% of students come from poor families — poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. So, forget any preconceived notions about only white and Chinese-heritage students learning Chinese: Chinese-learning appears to be going viral. But will it last? There’s a nice debate on that question here. The Asia Society is trying to make the current interest in Chinese more than just a passing fad.  Together with a partner in China, it has begun handing out grants to American public schools, including Medgar Evers. As well beefing up the curricula, the idea is to get the American schools networked with each other, and with schools in China.

Then, there’s our nod to Valentine’s Day.  Don’t be fooled: the language of love is not universal, not unless you keep you mouth shut. The moment you open it, you get into trouble, especially if your lover speaks a different tongue.  American writer Jen Percy knows this. She’s been dating a German-speaking Bosnian for three years.Percy endlessly misunderstands the amorous words of her lover and writes amusingly and touchingly about it.  I did two takes on my conversation with Percy: one, a straight one-on-one interview; the other a full production number with foreign love songs that I hope is not too much of a This American Life copycat.

Finally we bodice-rip our way out of the recession with romance novels that are more popular than ever. We hear from writer Suzanne Brockmann who’s having a a vintage year all over the world.

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New York’s polyglot cops, Arabic online, and the planet’s most difficult language

For the latest podcast, five language news stories from the past few weeks, as chosen by The Big Show’s crack language team  (Carol and me).

5. Nice and nasty words.

Our pick of the many lists  — herehere and yes, here —  for best and worst words of the year and the decade.  We like Abwrackprämie — it’s Germany’s word for Cash for Clunkers, and it means “wrecking premium”.  We don’t like 24-7, hopium and mancession.  And we’re neutral about jeggings and minarettverbot, the Swiss-German expression that describes Switzerland’s voter-approved ban on minarets (pictured is one of Switzerland’s four minarets. Yes, four: they weren’t exactly  dominating the skyline before the ban was approved). Thanks again for the great service performed by the people at Lake Superior State University who put together an annual list of banished words. The 2009 words are again all profoundly offensive. My favorite — or least favorite, whichever it is —  is teachable moment.  Can’t you just see that nasty little idea given the overcoming-adversity Hollywood Kleenex treatment? Ew! Yuck! Double yuck!

4. Georgia launches a Russian language TV channel.

So what? you may think. The treatment of stories on this new web TV channel is pretty similar to official and semi-official Georgian media: anti-Russian. The difference, of course, is that the other stuff is in Georgian, a language spoken by very few people outside this small mountainous country (the script in the banner picture of this blog, incidently, is Georgian).  So, Georgia can now get out its version of the news, particularly as it relates to the Caucasus — and do it  in a language that’s widely understood in the region and, of course,  in Moscow.  You can view this a couple of ways.  The launching of this news service may be a more constructive way of getting your point across than taking up arms, as Georgians and Russians did in 2008. But it may also amount to “linguistic provocation” which is what one Georgian opposition leader thinks.

3. New ventures and technologies give a boost to Arabic online.

Arabic is set to become a larger force online after Yahoo’s acquistion of web portal Maktoob and interest in Arabic search engine Yamli which converts Latin letters into Arabic script.

2. Of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages, which is the most difficult to learn?

The Economist has declared this to be the Amazonian language Tuyuca. Of course, everyone has an opinion on this: here’s a good one; another one here.  Me, I know nothing about Tuyuca. But I do know that language-learning is subjective and contextual: I can pick up Spanish, for example, far more easily than my Shanghai-born Chinese teacher can. She swears to me that Spanish is the world’s most difficult language. Also, access to the language is key, so learning Tuyuca if you were living among the Tuyuca people might be a relatively straightforward proposition (no TV, not much else to do) — easier perhaps than learning Italian in the exclusive company of the (presumably non-Italian-speaking) Tuyuca. And then there’s the status of the language in question. As discussed in a previous podcast, a language like Hindi is considered lower-status than English by some of its speakers. So, confronted by an English-speaker trying to communicate in Hindi, they may feel more comfortably speaking and English. French people, on the other hand, are generally proud of their language, and are far less likely to switch to English.

1. The New York Police Department, now enforcing the law in nearly a hundred languages.

New York is America’s most cosmolitan city, and its police force may just be the world’s most linguistically diverse.  What’s this cop wondering? How to you read someone their rights in…Lithuanian???

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Baby talk, Ukrainian talk, and translated punk talk

baby_crying_closeupIs this baby crying in German or French?  A new study says we may be able to tell. The study was originally discussed on my sister pod, The World’s science podcast. It   concludes that we begin language acquisition in the womb. At that stage, we are, well, a captive audience to mama’s words; researchers say we pick up a bit of her accent and intonation. Then after birth, we cry in ways that imitate that accent and intonation.

А а Б б В в Г г Ґ ґ Д д Е е Є є Ж ж З з И и
І і Ї ї Й й К к Л л М м Н н О о П п Р р С с
Т т У у Ф ф Х х Ц ц Ч ч Ш ш Щ щ Ь ь Ю ю Я я


Then it’s off to Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language (see alphabet above) is enjoying a government-sponsored revival. This comes at the expense of Russian – with the notable and ever-delightful exception of swear words: people still curse almost exclusively in Russian. Why? you tell me, please…In any case, the government’s support of Ukrainians, especially in schools and colleges has turned this into an election issue. The two front runners in next January’s presidential vote are the pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who generally favors the promotion of Ukrainian, and the more Kremlin-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, who believes Russian should be protected.  Which leaves our Kiev-based reporter, Brigid McCarthy, somewhat conflicted as to which language to study.

nouvelle_longFinally, a conversation with the two French guys behind cover band Nouvelle Vague. Their new album re-imagines punk and new wave classics by The Sex Pistols, Plastic Bertrand and others. The singers tend to be non-native English speakers, female and young — young enough in some cases not to have heard the originals, or know about the ethos and vibe of punk. I like a lot of their reinterpretions because they’re so wildly different from the originals, yet add something that was seemingly overlooked by the original artists. It’s as if the musical code — the language — is flipped to reveal something previously hidden.  So, the vicious anger of the Sex Pistols’ version of God Save the Queen becomes a sweet, hymnal folk song. The Police’s poppy So Lonely becomes a desperate, haunting dirge. There’s a great linguistic flip too:  for the one song with lyrics in French, Plastic Betrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi, the singer is an English woman who enunciates the French words with a marked English accent.

At the end of our interview, I offered the Nouvelle Vague guys my two cents on the punk classics they might next tackle:  anything from Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True album, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation,  Iggy Pop’s Dog Food, and top of the list:  a very early single from Adam and the Ant called Young Parisians. They should sing that one in French.

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sex pistols

OK, I just need to include an image of the Pistols.

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Bilingual metaphors, the passion of place name changes, and interpreting for the Dodgers

SWEDEN-NOBEL-LITTERATURE-MUELLERNobel literature prize winner Herta Mueller grew up in Romania. She spoke German at home, and Romanian at school. As a result her writing is infused with mixed metaphors. Not as in “he careened between lovers till his private life went completely off the rails.”  No, Mueller’s metaphors are linguistically mixed. She connects Romanian images and metaphors with German ones.  That’s what she did with the title of one of her novels: Hertztier (which literally means “heart animal”).  That’s an invented German word with roots in a piece of Romanian wordplay. The Romanian for heart is  inimă and for animal is animală — the words sound quite similar. In German, hertz and tier don’t sound at all  similar.  That suggests that in every language, thoughts and ideas cluster uniquely and somewhat randomly. Yet if, like Mueller, you’re bilingual, you’re more likely to transpose word clusters, punning and otherwise, from one language to the next . Of course, by the time an expression like  inimă-animală is translated into English (via German) it loses resonance and meaning. Which is why translator Michael Hoffman avoided it completely. He called the novel The Land of Green Plums.

tanganikaAlso, a conversation with Harry Campbell, the author of Whatever Happened to Tanganika? The Place Names that History Left Behind. This interview is long and full of infamous, and some less well-known, episodes from colonial history. Typically, colonists like to leave their mark in the form of a place or two, whether they were British imperial officers, unscrupulous Belgians or Soviet true believers. The names, of course, rarely stick. Local populations have a healthy disrespect for the monikers of their former masters. But this leaves some people nostalgic for the old names, and others wondering what those names, and their replacements, reveal. I’m struck by how important place names are to people, even in cases where people have never visited the name in question. Much of comes down to power and influence. And occasionally, money. A shorter version of the interview ran on The World’s regular broadcast; it generated a ton of posts and comments.  Post your own at this site or here.

Finally in this week’s podcast, a profile the Japanese interpreter for the Los Angeles DodgersKenji Nimura is actually trilingual — he speaks Spanish, as well as Japanese and English — which comes in handy in Major League Baseball, where those three languages are most used.

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Gaddafi’s translator, Swedish fury at UNESCO, and Nazi slogans in English

Here are the 5 stories  Carol Hills and I selected as our top five language-related stories for the past month or two:

gaddafi5. The sad tale of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s translator at the United Nations General Assembly. Gaddafi spoke for 94 minutes, 79 minutes longer than he was alloted. At 90 minutes, his translator appeared to collapse and was replaced by a UN translator.

Hunmin_jeong-eum4. The quixotic tale of the real estate mogul who is trying to export Korean Hangul script to Indonesia. Koreans are immensely proud of their 24-letter alphabet, which was established in the 15th century in a document caled the Hunmin Jeongeum — “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” (See above: the  Hangul-only column is fourth from left.)

3. India’s burgeoning number of official languages. It currently has 22 official language, with 38 more under consideration. Where will it fit all those languages on its banknotes?

Scanian2. A declaration from UNESCO that a southern Swedish dialect is in fact a language under threat. The image above is a 13th century rendering Scanian and Church Law, which includes a comment in the margin called the “Skaaningestrof”: “Hauí that skanunga ærliki mææn toco vithar oræt aldrigh æn”  — “Let it be known that Scanians are honorable men who have never tolerated injustice.” Sweden recognizes five minority languages but Scanian is not among them — and it’s not likely to be designated as one any time soon.  Most Swedish linguists call it a dialect – a thick one that many Swedes poke fun at – but a dialect nonethless.

1. A German court’s decision to permit Nazi hate speech, so long as it’s not in German. The words in questions are Hitler Youth slogans; they clearly have greater potency in the original German.

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