Tag Archives: Natural

In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

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Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

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Rosetta Stone: the method behind the hype, a spelling bee with a twist, and Hillary’s Congo adventure

rsThis week, the rise and rise of Rosetta Stone. With big government contracts and a huge advertising campaign, Rosetta Stone is now America‘s #1 language teacher. It offers software-based language teaching programs in 31 languages (their assumption — perhaps well-founded — is that British English and American English are distinct languages, as are Castillian Spanish and Latin American Spanish). The company went public earlier this year, so with the money raised from that, expect to see and hear plenty more of its advertising.

If you learn the Rosetta Stone way, you’ll absorb a language the way an infant does. Well, that’s the theory. Can you really turn back the clock and re-create the conditions of babyhood and infancy on adults who already speak one or more languages?  Rosetta Stone says you can in certain key ways. ichineseThis infant method means that you learn through images and conversation, not grammar and translated vocab lists. Not everyone agrees, including many classroom-based language schools. The advice from Georgetown linguistics professor Alison Mackey is to use Rosetta Stone as one tool among many. And these days, there are plenty of tools out there. Me, I’m learning Chinese right now. I take classes at a small institute in Boston’s Chinatown, and I supplement that with podcasts. I’m struggling badly with Chinese characters, so I’ll probably download this iPhone app.

spellAlso in this week’s cast, non-native English speakers from around the world take part in an English spelling bee in New York. The backers of this competition, seemingly without irony, have christened it a “SpellEvent.” Not a word you’ll find in the dictionary. We hear from the winner and from other competitors.  Finally, a note on Hillary Clinton‘s not-so-lost-in-translation moment in Kinshasa, Congo.

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