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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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Fry’s Planet Word, Belizean Creole and Steve Jobs’ global speech

Writer and actor Stephen Fry has made a documentary series for BBC TV. It’s a five-part history of language that draws on academic research but is intended for a general audience.  Not unlike The World in Words.  The pod features an interview with Stephen Fry, in which he waxes lyrical about how language has driven human development. One example: our ability to convey the past and the present.  (Fry speaks of this in terms of verb tenses, though it’s broader than that: languages like Chinese don’t use tenses, but they can still more than adequately convey any number of points in time. )

Here’s how Fry puts it:

“Without this extraordinary thing…we couldn’t have got anywhere, because tense allows you to say what you’re going to do tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or it allows one person to say to another person ‘Do you remember that thing we saw yesterday? Three sunsets ago, that place there. Let’s meet there in four sunsets time.’  That’s immediately a plan, instead of having to improvise like a wolf pack by instinct…You set out a plan and then implement it. It underwrites everything that is our civilization.”

O, Lan a di free bai di Kyaribeeyan See

Thirty years after Belize won independence from the British, Belizean Creole (or Kriol)  is winning respect alongside English. The latest sign of that is a version of the Belizean national anthem rendered in Kriol.

Leela Vernon wrote the Kriol version (the full lyric is here). Vernon is world famous in Belize. She popularized Brukdown, a rural dance music– so much so that’s she’s now known as the Queen of Brukdown.

In the pod, I talk with longtime Big Show contributor Amy Bracken about Belizean Creole’s make-up and status. It’s primarily a mix of English and several West African languages. But it’s outgrown its roots: most Belizeans use it as a link language. For example, if your native tongue is one of Belize’s several Mayan languages, you’re going to need a second language as soon as leave your home town. While English and Spanish are available, they’re not as widely understood as Kriol.

Finally in the pod this week, our own tribute to Steve Jobs: Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government talks about how he introduced desktop publishing to Kenya in the 1980s using an early iteration of a Mac.  The fast and cheap publication of speeches and essays helped a new generation of Kenyans rise to public prominence. Some were later elected to parliament or became judges.

Macs– and later iPods and iPhones– helped globalize local speech and localize global ideas in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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