Tag Archives: Persian

Talking Texas in Persian, Turkish and Norwegian

In the podcast this week, a Persian expression that includes “Texas.” Also, the meaning of haka, beyond New Zealand’s rugby fields.


00:00 What is not Texas here?

01:00 Helt Texas “(Completely Texas” in Norwegian) explained.

02:02 Ashley Cleek asks her Iranian husband Reza about the Persian expression Inja Texas nist (“It’s not Texas here”).

03:15 “Texas is like the uber United States.”

03:30 Texas acts as a stand-in for an out-of-control place, says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

04:00 Reza’s Lucky Luke theory.

Reza Jamayran poses in front of an image of a childhood hero, Lucky Luke. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Reza Jamayran poses in front of an image of a childhood hero, Lucky Luke. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

05:00 Ashley and Reza finally go to Texas. Reza calls his mom.

06:00 Another great Texas story in a similar vein: Julia Barton on Dallas.

06:40 Rugby and the haka.

8:05 The sound of the haka.

09:50 In Maori culture, “the more ugly you are, the more beautiful you are,” says New Zealander Corey Baker

11:40 A haka that challenges young, struggling Maoris to turn their lives around.

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To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.


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The Language of Disability Around the World

The BBC has issued linguistic guidelines for its journalists covering the Paralympic Games. But the guidelines only include English words—which is a problem for the many programs the BBC puts out in other languages.

According to the new rules, ‘disabled person’ is preferable to ‘person with disabilities.’ ‘Invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are unacceptable. To describe those without a disability, the BBC likes ‘non-disabled’ more than ‘able-bodied.’

The BBC program The Fifth Floor gathered three non-English language journalists to talk about this. Do these reporters translate the approved English terms? Do they use alternative expressions that might be locally acceptable but frowned upon in English? Or do they dream up new terms that make more sense in their languages?

BBC Uzbek reporter Shodiyor Sayf has particular insight. He’s disabled—he had polio as a child. But even he and his translator have trouble coming up with the appropriate words to describe how his disability affects the way he walks.

“Not as an able-bodied person,” his translator says, then asks: “Is that right word I’m using now? Non-disabled person?…I’m really sorry!”

Sayf says until recently he simply hadn’t thought about the language of disability. “But now I’ve arrived [in London to cover the Paralympic Games]. And there are words I’ve never actually translated into Uzbek before. Now I know that those are the words I need to be using.”

Words like ‘non-disabled’ which Sayf has translated into Uzbek as ‘a person without limited abilities.’

But there’s a problem with some of the words that the BBC says should be avoided. In certain countries, words like ‘invalid’ and ‘handicapped’ are still widely and benignly used, by government officials as well as the general public.

“In our language, it’s still correct to use…invalid,” says Ukrainian journalist Andriy Kravets.

Ukraine’s lexicon is evolving though.

“There is a saying—if I translate it into English—‘people with limited abilities,’” says Kravets.

But what of places with disproportionately large numbers of disabled people, like Afghanistan? An estimated two million Afghans are disabled, most because of the decades of conflict there.

Tahir Qadiry with BBC Persian TV, which broadcasts in Afghanistan says disdain for the disabled is reflected in the language. One widely-used expression translates as ‘person with a defect.’

The news media use more respectful language, but Qadiry says it’s not always that easy to come up with the right translation.

“I know it makes sense in English,” he says. “But for us, especially in Persian when you translate it, it doesn’t make sense,”

So sometimes, local journalists reject imported, translated solutions in favour of local ones. Consider this Persian expression for ‘blind’: ‘Bright in the stomach.’ In English it sounds strange. But in cultures where the stomach is considered a focal point of the body—almost like a second brain—it works well.

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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

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