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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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A grammar for cities, a dying Inuit dialect, and Frank Zappa’s lyrics

In South Korea, the grammar of urban organization is lacking a few key signifiers. I can attest to this. In 2002, I spent three weeks reporting there. Every day I got lost. Or rather, I would fail to reach my destination, because I couldn’t decode the addresses.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the numbers on most South Korean buildings have nothing to do with their location, and so have no correlation to the numbers of buildings around them. Instead, they constitute a record of  when the buildings were constructed. It’s  a chronological thing. So helpful…

It’s not just me who found this utterly impenetrable. South Koreans do too. So the government is overhauling its address system.

For more on the language of architecture, the seminal work is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Much in urban planning has changed since it was published more than three decades ago, but many in the field still swear by it.

Inuit Redux

A year ago I featured an interview with Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard. He was about to depart for Northwest Greenland, where he would live for year with an Inuktun-speaking community. He got there just in time to document and archive this rapidly vanishing language.  Now he’s back in the UK with some sobering thoughts on why the languages and culture of the Polar Inuit are faring so badly.

English Language Learning

Under US Justice Department pressure, the state of Massachusetts is revamping its training for teachers who have English Language Learners among their students.

So it’s a good time for a visit to a Massachusetts elementary school that’s become a model for teaching English to non-native speakers. More here.

Zappa’s Typist

In 1967, a young typist working for a London temp agency got the call to head over to the hotel room of a rock star. She was to type up some lyrics.

Pauline Butcher was the typist– prim and, as she says, naive.  Frank Zappa was the rock star– eccentric, bombastic, satirical, profane.

Butcher typed the lyrics accurately, when she understood them. Sometimes, when she couldn’t follow what Zappa was saying, she just made stuff up. Not surprising when you consider some of the fabulously nonsensical verses from the 1967 album Absolutely Free:

Call any vegetable, call it by name.

Call one today when you get off the train.

Call any vegetable and the chances are good

The vegetable will respond to you.

And:

And I know, I think, the love I have for you

Will never end (well maybe).

And so my love, I offer you

A love that is strong, a prune that is true.

Pauline Butcher completed the typing job. It went well.  She followed Zappa back to Southern California and worked for him for several years. She’s just written a memoir of that time.

Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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Slipping in out of foreign tongues with Yang Ying and Sherard Cowper-Coles

Yang Ying (Photo: Yang Ying/MySpace)

In the pod this week, Yang Ying’s polyglottish music. And Sherard Cowper-Coles’ polyglottish diplomacy.

Music as Language

Yang Ying grew up in the 1960s and 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people deemed enemies of communism were forced to work as manual laborers.

That happened to Yang’s father, who ended up working in a coal mine.

He thought his daughter might escape that fate if he taught her to play an instrument-well enough to enter an elite music academy.

And so she learned to play the traditional two-string erhu. She studied under her father’s tutelage for several hours a day. Because the family’s apartment was so small, and the walls so thin, she would practice the erhu in the park.

The hard work paid off. Yang won a national competition playing a famous piece of music called River of Tears.

Her success led to a place at a music conservatory in Beijing. From there she became a soloist with the Chinese National Song and Dance Ensemble. She performed for countless foreign dignitaries on their visits to China, including American presidents.

“I played for Ford, Carter and for Nixon,” Yang says. “I remember three. I probably performed for more.”

More important to Yang though, were her tours of China, where she learned about the country’s regional differences, the music and the dialects. The many dialects of Chinese “really had an effect on the music.”

But while Yang was being exposed to new sounds, she still had to perform the same old stuff.

As an erhu soloist with a renowned national ensemble, “you probably only play two, three, four repertoires your whole life.” Yang says it tired her out. “And I really wanted to do something new.”

It was the late 1980s. China was opening up. Yang started going to rock concerts put on by the US Embassy. Clubs were opening, bands were forming. She taught herself the bass guitar. She said it was like learning a new language.

Yang founded Cobra, China’s first-ever all female rock band. She knew that she was breaking several taboos at once, and that many people would disapprove.

Yang says her father was “not very happy.” And other classical musicians, “thought I was crazy.”

Yang tried to infuse some of Cobra’s songs with traditional elements. She even re-imagined a traditional folk song as a rock anthem.

That spirit of anything-goes fusion ultimately moved Yang in another direction. She emigrated to the United States, and began studying jazz. She recognized common elements between jazz and Chinese folk music. Both rely on improvisation, and make the instrument sound “as if it’s singing, like the human voice.”

She started playing the erhu with an American jazz group.

Today, that has brought her back to China, where she and her group are performing at the Beijing Nine Gates Jazz Festival.

Should diplomats learn the languages of the countries they’re assigned to?

Diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says yes. But, he adds, be careful not to  overreach.

Cowper-Coles tells two stories of foreign language overreaching.

The Hebrew Overreach

When he was the British Ambassador to Israel, Cowper-Coles liked to try out the Hebrew that he had learned.  So once,  in a restaurant, he ordered (he thought) chicken breast. He did this, logically enough, by combining the  Hebrew words for chicken and breast.  But to the native Hebrew ears of the restaurant’s staff, the dish he had actually requested was not one they had ever before served: a woman’s breast on a chicken.

The French Overreach

Cowper-Coles also tells a story about Tony Blair. Blair “had learned his French in a bar outside Paris” between high school and college. So it wasn’t perfect.

Fast forward several decades. Blair, as Prime Minister, was hosting his French opposite number Lionel Jospin. After a “drinky” lunch,  Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.”  (Roughly:  “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

At least that’s the way Cowper-Coles tells it.

Also in the pod this week:  teaching in two languages in Massachusetts, where bilingual education is banned. And Pakistan’s Sindh province is introducing mandatory Chinese for schoolkids aged ten and older.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother

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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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