Linguist Mark Turin rides the New York subway’s 7 Train to explore a few of the city’s 800 languages. Some of these languages thrive, at least briefly. Some survive, in spite of the odds. Some live on through the words they loan to English and other immigrant tongues. But nearly all of them eventually die.
This is the final part of a BBC series called Our Language in Your Hands. In the first part, Turin returns to a village in Nepal where two decades ago he learned and documented the Thangmi language. In the second part, he’s in South Africa to assess how its languages are faring nearly 20 years after the end of Apartheid.
Here’s a related BBC post on part three. And here’s a 2012 story that we did on a Garifuna language music project that was sponsored by the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance.
In this podcast, we have a story from California-based freelancer Corey Takahashi on a new exhibit in Silicon Valley that traces the history of computers and their languages. When Corey and I talked about how to approach this story, we decided that language was the key. Computer programming languages are world-famous among computer programmers, but almost completely unknown to the rest of us. I mean, have you heard of Fortran? Have these languages developed the same way as other languages, acquiring grammatical rules, then breaking them? Is there such a thing as beautiful code, worthy of our gaze in a museum?
Also, new research suggests that hard-to-read typographical fonts may help us remember the ideas they spell out. Jonah Lehrer spoke to the BBC about this. He writes a blog for Wired on neuroscience. Last September he wrote a post about using his kindle. He found the kindle-reading to be incredibly comfortable and easy — maybe too easy. More recently he noted that new research appears to confim that hunch. It suggests that we are less likely retain information if it is written in a clear, easy-to-read typeface like Clearview:
Maybe we should all switch to a font like Lucinda Blackletter. OK, maybe not on the roads, but in classrooms:
Part 3 of the pod concerns the architectural grammar of the United Nations Security Council. The design layout of the Council’s chamber and adjourning rooms is considered so important that replicas have been constructed during refurbishment.
Our man in New York Alex Gallafent does a fantastic job of turning a tour of the temporary chambers into an audio history of how architecture and design have shaped the history of UN Security Council.
Listen in iTunes or here.
Translators are proving their worth twice in this week’s podcast: in New York, where they’re helping elderly Russian speakers fill out forms from the US Census Bureau; and in Louisiana and Mississippi where they’re interpreting for Vietnamese-American fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the big oil spill. The mind-sets of these non-English speakers are remarkably similar: they come from former communist countries where the government was a thing to be feared. Now they are confronted by a US government that is less invasive but, in its own way, just as confusing. Its announcements and forms are sometimes difficult even for native speakers to decipher. Bring on the translators, of whom — especially in the Gulf states — there are not enough. (See earlier blog post and podcast on Census Bureau efforts, mainly successful, to offer more outreach to non-English speakers.)
Which tastes better: Kentucky tuna, silverfin or Asian carp? Well, they are one and the same fish. Attempts are underway to re-brand Asian carp, which has a nasty reputation as a bottom-feeding invader of America’s waterways. In fact, Asian carp– or the variety that made it to the United States– isn’t a bottom-feeder. It feeds on plankton; its meat, supposedly, is super-delicious. Worthy of a name like silverfin. The mouth waters. The price per pound rises. We’re all happy, right? Language is a beautiful thing.
And finally, a conversation about counting. Some languages are more numerate than others. If you’re a native English speaker, you may be in trouble. Words like eleven, fifteen, Thurday and August are not useful terms when it comes to mathematics. We might be better off with the less poetic-sounding ten-one, ten-five, weekday four and month eight. Mathematician-journalist Alex Bellos discusses this and other language differences in his book Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math (UK edition: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland). Bellos also recites the numbers one to twenty in one of the UK’s medieval dialects.
Listen in iTunes or here.
The Alhambra in Grenada, the crowning glory of Moorish Spain, has more than 10,000 prayers and poems in Arabic inscribed on its pillars and walls. We hear about an effort to decipher and catalog the inscriptions. It’s not the first time this has been tried. But previous attempts foundered, when researchers became distracted by their findings. This time, Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research is taking a more rigorous approach. Even so, it must be hard not set aside your tools and get meditative after you’ve discovered an inscription like “Be sparing with words and you will go in peace.”
The rest of the pod is devoted to the second part of the BBC’s documentary on Yiddish. Reporter Dennis Marks picks up the story in the 1960s, when Yiddish was staring extinction in the face, after many decades in which it language thrived among Jewish Eastern European immigrants, as in this World War Two-era poster). But more recently in New York City, the language has began to undergo a modest revival. A big contributor to that was Aaron Lansky who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescused thousands of Yiddish volumes from depositories and dumpsters: as he puts it to take books “out of the dustbin of history and put them back into use.”
We also hear from YY Jacobson, a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of New York and editor of the Hasidic Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner. His contribution to the survival of Yiddish is the most overtly religious. Others have cultural or ancestral reasons for investigating the language: people like klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, novelist Dara Horn, and a family who speak with each other in both English and Yiddish. The teens in the family text message each other in transliterated Yiddish, complete with texting shorthand: ZG is zei gezunt (be well) and BSH is biz shpeter (until next time/goodbye).
Listen in iTunes or here.
Some of the images out of Haiti these past weeks have been heartstopping. They’ve clearly had an effect on decision-makers at the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC is well-known for its radio and TV services in languages other than English. The latest addition is a radio program in Haitian Creole that ran for just a few weeks in the aftermath of the earthquake. The program, Koneksyon Ayiti/Connection Haiti, was broadcast out of Miami and heard in Haiti via FM relays and on short wave. At the time, many Haitian radio stations were off air, their infracture damaged, many of their staffs injured or dead. This was at a time when relaying information to the public was crucial: where to go for food, shelter, medical treatment, etc. Koneksyon Ayiti also put Haitians in touch with loved-ones. There’s a nice explanation here on how the program came into being.
Then the main course in this week’s podcast: the past, present and future of Yiddish, the language that refuses to die. This also comes courtesy of the BBC with a nice slide show here. Once spoken by millions in Europe, Yiddish was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust and through assimilation. That’s why until recently news stories about Yiddish tended to be about its inevitable decline, with the language spoken only by the elderly (pictured: Asya Yanovskaya, one of the last surviving Yiddish speakers of a small town in Belarus). Today Yiddish survives, and not only as the language that gave English klutz, kosher, kvetch and other evocative expressions. It is undergoing a revival in many parts of Eastern Europe and the United States. The BBC’s Dennis Marks’ documentary (part one of two) focuses on how Yiddish took hold in New York in the mid-twentieth century, and how Yiddish songs and plays influenced American culture. Some Yiddish expressions are so assimilated into English that non-Yiddish speakers wouldn’t even question the origin of the words. I mean, I know where putz and chutzpah come from, but nosh? tush? In next week’s pod, Marks will tell us how some young American Jews are are trying to keep Yiddish alive for their generation and beyond.
Listen in iTunes or here.