Tag Archives: Hugo Chavez

The butcher, the baker, and the cabbage gelder

As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form.  How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative  (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).

Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.

Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book.  He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally,  thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.

For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two,  GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases.  So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook:  “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.

After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this.   Check out two of them here.

More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.

After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show,  Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”  In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.

Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him.  And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.

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Diplomatic insults, click languages, Harry Potter in France, and cucumber season

chavezThis week, the nuanced — and sometimes not so nuanced — world of diplomatic insults: we hurl a few your way, coutesy of Hugo Chavez, Hillary Clinton and Winston Churchill. There’s also an overheated exhange in the British parliament between then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and leader of the opposition Neil Kinnock, which goes something like this:  insult (Thatcher), outraged indignation (Kinnock), quasi-retraction (Thatcher).

We follow this with news of so-called click languages. My colleague David Cohn has been finding out about these and he’s posted some thoughts and links in the science section of The World’s website. Here’s the headline: linguists have figured out how to decipher and classify clicks— and some languages have a huge number of of them. Just as well that the linguists are discovering this now. Some of these languages are about to kick the bucket. You can listen to the sounds of one of them here.

cucumberNext up, that underestimated vegetable the  cucumber.  Norwegian is one of several languages (Dutch, Polish and German are others) that appropriate the word cucumber to describe what we English speakers call silly season. That’s the time of the year — now, as it happens — when we in the news media resort to covering shark attacks,  dogs reunited with their owners, and astronauts’ underwear. (Actually, we do these stories year-round, but during the silly season, they wind up on the front page). Norwegians and others supposedly put  cucumber harvest season on their front pages. No wonder newspapers are in trouble.

Finally, many French fans of Harry Potter novels read the books in English. Or at least they did before the books were translated into French.

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