Tag Archives: linguistic

In search of the perfect email sign-off

Here’s a guest post from New York-based and friend of the Big Show, Alina Simone.

Remember being a sad weirdo in high school and feeling so insecure, you just kind of cop other people’s style and hope no one will notice?

Sculpting your hair into a black Aquanet spire to fit in with the Goths? Shredding the skin off your knees doing an Olly to impress the skaters?

Okay that’s just me. But I thought I’d at least kissed that grim, grasping feeling goodbye.

Actually, it confronts me every day, almost every hour, in the form of the email sign-off. Am I the only one? The only one who feels like nothing fits?

That all those “Warmlys” and “Regards” and “All bests” are the worst?

And all those international options — “Ciao” and “Suerte” and “Bises” and, God forbid, “Tatty bye”? — don’t help. They hurt. A lot.

There are days I would willingly shave off my eyebrows just to be excused from ever thinking about email sign-offs again. Mostly I just wait for that merciful plateau to arrive in an e-relationship, when you can finally drop the sign-off.

Until then, here is the détente that I’ve reached: “Poka poka,” for my Russian friends. (It means “Bye-bye” and feels okay.)

“Warmly,” with people I don’t know. (Meh.) “Hugs” for everyone at The World. (No one’s complained.) And for my family: nothing. Because it’s they’re stuck with me — even if I start using “Tatty bye.”

Then I decided to rally: to embark on a Goldilocks-type quest for the ideal sign-off, one unique to me. Just like the Colonial War re-enactor I recently interviewed who signs off, “Yours in Liberty.” Perfect, right?

So I took to Facebook, where some truly horrifying options instantly emerged. Like “Toodles.” And “Ta for now.” Then came the inscrutable hipster acronyms that make old people sad. TTYL? GG? Sorry, no.

My favorite of the bunch was “Stay classy.” But I feared “Stay classy” was like some gold lame dress I’d buy on impulse only to have my friends look at it and go, “Um, how about you stay classy?”

I invite my friend Stephen over to be my sign-off spirit guide. His sign-offs are the best. Again, they probably wouldn’t work for me, but suit him to a tee. Like the Spanglish, “Hasta then” (so much better than “Later”). Or the casually guillotined, “As evs.”

According to Stephen, the ideal sign-off requires both humor and speed. Keep it light and don’t overthink it. But even Stephen makes mistakes.

“Well I don’t sign off, ‘All best’ anymore,” Stephen confessed. “I once sent one that I thought said ‘All best’ to somebody at Ralph Lauren, and my finger moved and I wrote, ‘Ass best,’ and they blocked my emails.”

My Facebook friends also shared mortifying sign-offs they’d received from non-English speakers, like “Thanks Sir Mister!” and the sinister-sounding “I look forward to your cooperation.”

Even if it’s the safest option, though, Stephen still won’t be switching to “sincerely” anytime soon. Unless he secretly hates you.

“When you think about it, sincerely is the nicest because you’re telling someone you’re sincere,” Stephen told me. “You’re giving them all of your true feeling. But it sounds cold.”

This whole time, I’m nodding along, smiling, but when he digs into “Cheers,” my heart takes a plunge.

“I don’t like ‘Cheers,’ if it’s coming from an American. I think it has no place here. What are we going to do, say ‘lorry’ next? ‘Lift’? You know, really!”

Guilty, guilty, guilty. Not only do I long to say lorry and lift, but I yearn to use gobsmacked and knackered and especially cheers, which sounds so sophisticated when my British editor at The World, Patrick Cox, tosses it off, but apparently makes me sound like… a tosser.

This may sound like a tangent, but a while back I fell in love with the Danish TV series, “Borgen.” ‘Borgen’ makes me want to move to an ill-lit apartment in Copenhagen and spend my days mooning around cafés with brooding young men.

In Danish, ‘Borgen’ means castle but serves as a nickname for the parliament. To me, it felt like a sign-off. So I started using it with my “Borgen”-watching friends and then they started using it too.

True, people who don’t watch “Borgen” won’t get it, but do they even matter? When nothing makes sense, why not embrace the nonsensical?

What’s the most memorable email sign-off you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments.


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Lost in a Sea of People and Languages

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges, 2010. (Coupdoeil / Philipp Eyer / Wikimedia Commons)

Getting lost in a crowd can be scary at the best of times. But imagine if that crowd runs into the millions, and there’s no shared language. In fact, people in the crowd may speak hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages.

That’s the linguistic reality at the Kumbh Mela Hindi festival in northern India. Millions of devotees travel from all over India for a ritual dip in the Ganges. Most travel in groups, and can easily get separated. Some have mobile phones. Many don’t– and even those do can’t keep them charged. Many aren’t used to travel; for some, it’s the first time they have left their home state. Lots of people get lost.

That’s where the Kumbh Mela Lost and Found camp comes in. From 1946 to 2012, camp staff say they have reunited 1,064,748 adults and 19,717 children with their traveling parties. How do they do it, if they don’t speak the same language as the lost person? They have that person speak in his or her own language over public address system.



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The Many Meanings of Chips Funga


[This is a guest post from Big Show Africa correspondent Anders Kelto]

It’s 2 am in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Wendy Kimani is doing what a lot of young people here do around this time—standing outside a night club, holding a bag of French fries. You can see the grease soaking through.

“It tastes like heaven,” says Wendy. “Greasy as hell. And we like it that way.”

French fries to go—or chips funga as they’re called here—are the late-night snack of choice in Nairobi. But recently, chips funga has taken on a whole new meaning.

“It’s basically taking a lady home who you don’t know,” says singer Anto Neosoul. “You met her for the first time, and you take her home for a one-night stand.”

Neosoul is a rising star on the Kenyan music scene. His song, ‘Chips Funga,’ has been riding high on the airwaves here for more than a year.


Neosoul says when he first heard the term chips funga he immediately got it. He says young Kenyans are constantly inventing new slang terms—in English, Swahili, and tribal languages.

The phrase chips funga started popping up on Facebook and Twitter about two years ago, says Harriet Ocharo, a 25-year-old technology writer. So she decided to blog about it. She asked readers about the “etiquette” of a chips funga. The comments started pouring in.

“No sleeping over,” was one comment. “No phone calls before 9 pm, like, there’s nothing to talk about during the day, so you only call for the hook-up in the evening.”

“No emotional discussions. All gifts are accepted; money is always good. No baby talk.”

Ocharo says, at first, it was mostly men who used the term. But now, women use it too. They’ve even come up with a spin-off: sausage funga. You can probably figure out what that one means. Ocharo says women’s use of these slang terms is a sign of the times in Nairobi, where women no longer feel bound by traditional gender roles.

“Nairobi is a very free town,” says Ocharo. “No one judges a woman if she chips fungas a guy or the other way around. I think it’s a good sign.”

There’s even an online dating site called Chips Funga.

But singer Anto Neosoul says he sometimes worries that young people in Kenya are chips funga-ing too much. And they’re putting themselves in dangerous situations.

“We might contract HIV and AIDS,” says Neosoul. “We might contract STDs and STIs, we might get pregnant.”

Anto even worries that the term makes people want to chips funga – because it sounds funny and lighthearted. So he wanted his song to send a message: that it isn’t necessarily good to be a chips funga. The third verse, which he sings in Swahili, does just that.

“If I put it in English,” says Neosoul, “it would basically be, ‘Put on some ketchup, put on some mayonnaise, put on some salad, you’ve just been served. So, you’ve had a one-night stand, and that’s what you are. You’re chips. You’re French fries. You’re vegetables. And you’ve made yourself cheap, like chips.’”

That’s the message Anto wants people to hear. But it may be the opposite message that has them singing along.

Watch a 15-minute documentary of the chips funga phenomenon here.




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What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

“We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

“Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

“I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

“We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

“We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

“The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

This video was produced by the Israeli government:

Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



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Linguistic Rectification, Slavic Pronunciation, and the Tori Spelling Connection

Wrocław is the largest city in Western Poland. But how do you pronounce it?


In this World in Words podcast, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I discuss five language-related stories from blogs and news sites:

1. Linguistically rectifying Chinese food, one menu at a time. In its latest “linguistic rectification campaign,” Beijing is urging Chinese restaurants to take more care in translating menu items into English. That way, items like The car hit cheese bacon mushroom face may be less likely to show up on menus. More’s the pity.  However, with more Chinese immigrants and tourists coming to the US, poorly constructed Chinese may be coming to a subway station or hotel near you.

2. You say diamond; I say rhombus. Will an overhaul in math terminology in the US improve the performance of math students?

3. How do you pronounce Wrocław, Kraków, or Kiev? (I’ve included the diacritics for Wroclaw and Krakow as they appear in Polish, just to up the mystery ante.) The BBC Pronunciation Unit comes to the rescue with suggested pronunciations for many Euro 2012 soccer tournament’s host cities. We also discuss the simmering debate over Ukraine’s two languages: Ukrainian and Russian. A previous report on this issue is here.

4. The idiosyncratic glory of “unnecessary” quotation marks. Take your pick: Happy “Father” Day. The First Baptist Church: We “Love” All People! Real Estate “Lady.” Many more “here.” And thank you,  Bethany Keeley.

5. Do biodiversity and linguistic diversity go hand in hand? A recent study suggests they may do. There are some seemingly obvious reasons why this may be the case, but the study is cautious not to jump to conclusions.

We also talk about Tori Spelling. With a name like that it was only a matter of time. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out more. Suffice to say for now that I was particularly taken by this article.

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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.

Listen in iTunes or here.

sex pistols

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

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