Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Consciousness, Poetry, and Bilingual Babies

We take a trip inside the mind in this week’s pod.

How much is human consciousness shaped by language? Somewhat, says theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. He’s more interested in the other things that shape it, like what he calls the “lake of sensation” — colors, lights and sounds. I guess you could argue that those sensations themselves comprise the elements of a language of consciousness.

Humphrey views this kind of raw feeling as predating language in infants.  Maybe, but recent research on the bilingual brain suggests that we may begin our language development as early as in the womb.  I talk with the host of the Big Show’s Science podcast Rhitu Chatterjee about this. She did her own podcast on the subject. One of the takeaway results of the research is that babies reared in a bilingual setting can distinguish between the two languages, and also between those familiar languages and unfamiliar ones.

Finally, we  consider poetry. Some poems might be seen as attempts to revert to a pre-linguistic form of communication. Others try to bridge the gulf between consciousness and language. And then there’s the language of former Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat Niyazov. He liked to call himself Turkmenbashi or Leader of Turkmens (he was the self-appointed president of the Association of Turkmens of the World). His poetry was  less engaged with issues of consciousness or language, and more with his own stupendously elevated place in the world. Not so much a lake of sensation as an ocean of self-regard:

I am the Turkmen spirit
And I was reborn
To bring you a golden age and happiness
I came here as a envoy of prosperity
And the music of the melody of life.

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Photos: Joseph Pons, Wikimedia Commons


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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

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Obama’s new words, Avatar in the Amazon, and a Chinese satirical extravaganza

As Barack Obama enters the second year of his presidency, he’s dropped some expressions — among them, war on terror, associated of course mainly with George W. Bush and AfPak, a conflation of Afghanstan and Pakistan, which didn’t go down too well in Pakistan. In his State of Union speech, Obama didn’t even mention the Middle East. His administration has invented a few phrases too: remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and overseas contingency operations (wars).  Also, a count of his favorite State of the Union words done by The Guardian kicks up some surprises:  Obama really likes the word I. Other presidents liked America (George W. Bush), government (Ronald Reagan. I don’t think he was being complimentary) and new (Lyndon Johnson).

Next, it’s to Quito, Ecuador, and a special screening of Avatar.

The 3-D screening was for a couple of Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Shuar and the Achuar. Both are struggling to maintain control of their land in the face of attempts to exploit it by Ecuadorean and multinational corporations. Avatar, of course, is about much the same thing, albeit with a future setting on a far-away planet inhabited by tall blue creatures who speak a language called Na’vi.  (See my previous post on Na’vi, the new Klingon.) We have a report on the screening, and some language-related comments from Alejandro Mayaprua, an Achuar leader,  and Mayra Vega, president of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation of Ecuador. That’s them below. Also, check out this video on the screening from reporter Melaina Spitzer.

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After that, there’s a piece from Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on a new online satirical movie that’s all the rage in China. It features a Chinese double-entendre phrase aimed at avoiding government censorship (it didn’t avoid censorship; it was eventually banned).  People became aware of the expression here in the U.S. after the New York Times ran a story on it. The movie also includes a fantastic “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant, which you can hear in all its glory in the pod.  Or you can watch a version of the movie with English subtitles here.

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