Tag Archives: Japanese

Dictators with dialects, finger spelling, and universal Inuit

Dialects are beautiful, ugly, inevitable, unhelpful, and of course, languages without armies.

Dialects are widespread– they exist in most languages. Millions, perhaps billions of people speak them. Some, like many Chinese, speak a regional dialect at home, and a standard form of the language in public settings.  And then there all those dictators who grew up speaking dialects. As a boy, Napoleon spoke Italian and Corsu — the home language/Italian dialect of the island of Corsica. The future Emperor of the French didn’t learn French until later. Hitler spoke an Austrian-inflected German. For his part, Gaddafi speaks a version of Arabic that isn’t widely understood, even within Libya. He comes from a Bedouin minority, which is reflected in his language.  This may amplify his otherworldlyness. More on all of that here.

Many languages began life as a series of dialects, which over time– and with the encouragement of a nation state– morphed in something with standardized vocabulary and grammar (Robert Lane Greene writes about this in his new book, You Are What You Speak).

In Arctic Canada, there’s an effort underway to standardize Inuit languages (or dialects if you prefer). It’s being organized by the Inuit language authority in Nunavut, the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit. Unlike the United States, Canada is chock-full of the institutions that make up a national language policy:  a bilingual federal government, provincial and territorial language commissioners and any number of panels that try to push the country’s languages in certain set directions.

In this case, the hope is to unite the Inuit people, spread out over thousands of miles, through a standardized language.  Inuits have had writing systems imposed on their languages, mainly by missionaries. According to this article, which cites Statistics Canada, the more popular writing system today is a syllabic one. A lesser-used alternative is the roman system. Many hours, days and years of debate will now ensue, as to which writing system to favor.

Carol and I discuss these questions of dialect and language in the podcast. We also take a stab at the following questions (with much help from the linked sources): Does Japanese have a word for looting? Is finger spelling a language, or perhaps a dialect of sorts of British sign language? Is the language of cartoons necessarily harsh? The cartoon discussion was brought on by an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. It’s about depictions of marriage over the years, to coincide with Britain’s royal wedding. There’s a nice slideshow here.

Listen here or below via iTunes.


5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Voting, vowing and singing in a foreign language

You may know this type of person: the guy — and it usually is a guy — who needs to know everything that everyone around him is saying. This is  a problem if everyone around him is speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. I have trained myself not to be that guy, but I know plenty of other reporters who are him. In a potentially insecure situation, you want to know what people are saying, especially if those people — say, your translator and your driver — appear to be in vociferous disagreement.

So even though I try not to be Mr Need-to-Know, the pod this week pays tribute to him. We have a couple of stories in which it really would have been useful to know what was being said.  First, we hear about Korean-Americans in Flushing, New York.  A community group, MinKwon Center for Community Action, tried to persuade some of these Korean-speakers to vote in November’s midterms. They found that many of these potential voters didn’t speak much English. And they didn’t speak much American election-ese either. All of which made it difficult for them to choose candidates, or see any point in doing so. Check out Alex G’s photo-set here.

Then, one of those throwaway-funny stories that’s also quite sad.  You may have seen the recent video of a wedding vow renewal ceremony in the Maldives. The couple in question were Swiss. The language of the ceremony was Dhivehi, not a word of which the couple understood. During the ceremony, things were said that shouldn’t have been said — curses, insults. The couple was oblivious until it was too late. They’re probably mortified. So is the tourism-dependent Maldivian government.

Also in this week’s pod,  a  master offers classes in Islamic calligraphy his Arlington, Virginia home. Mohamed Zakariya has been teaching calligraphy for more than 20 years, and practising it for more than 50 years. Zakariya grew up in California and was first turned on to Koranic calligraphy during a trip to Morocco. As well as teach, he has designed a stamp for the US Postal Service. He wrote an inscription that Barack Obama gave to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, performing in a language that you don’t understand. I remember performing in a play at an art school in Denmark. At the time, my Danish was virtually non-existent. So my Danish friends were astonished to hear me utter complicated phrases perfectly. (Don’t knock memorization and repetition…) It so impressed them that they didn’t notice that I couldn’t act to save my life. Broadway star Amra-Faye Wright (pictured) went several steps further: first, she can act. She performed her role as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in Japanese, in Tokyo. Doing that got her interested in the language; she’s still taking classes in Japanese.

Listen in iTunes or here.


Enhanced by Zemanta

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Census-taking, volcano-pronouncing, and why Thais win at Scrabble

Robert Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lccr

The U.S.Census Bureau is firing on all linguistic cylinders to ensure that non-English speakers are counted in this year’s census. It has been getting the word out via ads, PSAs and handbills translated into 28 different languages (compared to 17 in the 2000 census). Now Census workers are starting to knock on the doors of households, many of them non English-speaking,  that haven’t yet mailed in their forms.

Much of the linguistic outreach seems to be working, but not all of it: in Vietnamese, the word census was translated to something closer to investigation.  Among some Somalis, the very notion of being counted is taboo.  And then there are the southern border states, home to millions of Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants. Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant law has put them on edge: the last thing that many there would do is voluntarily offer up information about themselves to the government.

Next, a BBC news announcer gives us an Icelandic lesson. It’s a very specific lesson: how to pronounce Iceland’s most famous landmark, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may think, why bother now? The volcano is no longer  spitting ash into the air and planes are back in the sky. Well, volcanologists believe Eyjafjallajökull isn’t done belching yet.  More pronunciation tips here and here.

Another item recently in the news:  Scrabble. It turned out to be a faux story: as initially reported,  proper names were about to be permitted under new Scrabble rules. But that wasn’t the case. The proper name rule affected only a new spinoff game that won’t be sold in North America. But given how wrong the news media, including the BBC and NPR, were in their initial reporting, it’s no wonder Scrabble affionados reached for their botttles of Jack Daniels and other proper name beverages. All of which got me wondering what Scrabble obsession is all about  (I don’t play the game). After I heard a lively BBC discussion on the subject, I got it. I also came to understand why English Scrabble is so popular among so many non-English speakers, especially Thais.

Finally, five unique Japanese expressions. They are provided by kanji supremo (or perhaps suprema?), blogger and author Eve Kushner.  Here they are:

病床日誌 【びょうしょうにっし】  byōshō nisshi diary written while ill in bed:

日照権 【にっしょうけん】 nisshōken the right to sunshine

日向水 【ひなたみず】 hinata mizu water warmed in the sun

三日酔い 【みっかよい】mikkayoi hangover (that still lingers two days after drinking)

日猶同祖論 【にちゆうどうそろん】 nichiyū dōsoron hypothesis that Jews and Japanese are of common ancestry

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

podcast #44: Haruki Murakami’s fans, confessions of a kanji-holic, and kwassa kwassa

This week, we check out a claim that with the aid of a supercomputer, it’s possible to predict which words will become extinct in a few centuries.  The word “dirty” apparently doesn’t have much staying power.  Nor do “guts” and “throw”.  If the computer says so. Me, I’d prefer to see the back of “alcopop.”

southNext is a report on the extraordinarily devoted fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I was inspired to report this story a few years ago when I tried– and failed — to get into an auditorium at MIT where Murakami was appearing. After chatting with other people in the queue, I realized that Murakami commands a massive, and massively diverse fan-base. So, I waited until one of his next all-too-rare appearances, in Berkeley, CA, where he sold out a 2,000-seat hall. After recording a few interviews in the foyer, I was stripped of my recording gear and camera, and told that I could collect them at the end of the evening. (A student at the MIT event got into trouble he snapped a picture of the writer at the MIT event. ) I didn’t have a problem with any of  this – I’d got my interviews and anyway, my story was about Murakami’s followers, not the man himself. And – strange as it may sound coming from a US-based journalist — I respect his desire to control and limit his public image.

murakami1 foreign3Murakami writes in a non-literary Japanese style, as author of Japan-America Roland Kelts told me. He also throws in so many English words that some older Japanese have trouble understanding his prose.  It’s also rare that in a Murakami story you come across a situation or a person that you could characterize (or perhaps micharacterize) as quintessentially Japanese.  His stories speak to people all over the world, in more than 30 languages.

That’s followed by a conversion with blogger Eve Kushner. She’s a devoted fan of those Japanese characters known as kanji (and, as it happens, she’s also a devoted fan of Murakami).

Finally, Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig on his favorite phrase out of Africa: kwassa kwassa. It’s Africanized French.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized