Tag Archives: Social Sciences

Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

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Photos: Wikicommons


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Britain Today: Hoodied Looters, Language Tests, and a Cuss Box

London’s burning, again. There was the Great Fire of 1666. There was the Great Tedium, as documented by Joe Strummer and The Clash (“London’s burning with boredom now, London’s burning, Dial 99999”). And now there is the Great Looting Spree, in which the city is vandalized by people often described as “hooded youths”.

No-one in Britain seems satisfied with the state of the nation. There’s finger-pointing galore: at the looters, the police, the Murdoch press, the politicians, the footballer-celebrities. And, of course, at the immigrants.

As of late 2010 the UK requires applicants for some immigrant visas to take a proficiency test in the English language. If you want to settle in Britain, the logic goes, you should learn the language. Cities should not be multilingual mosaics. Everyone should speak the common language.

Try telling that to the 58-year-old Indian husband of Rashida Chapti. Chapti, a naturalized British citizen, was born in India. Her husband still llives there. Before the language requirement came into effect, securing a resident and work visa for her husband would have been virtually automatic, as it is in the many nations that have family reunification immigration policies. But in Britain, Chapti’s husband must now prove that he has a basic command of English.

Chapti’s husband lives in a remote village, more than 100 miles from the nearest city, where he could take English lessons. In any case, she says, he wouldn’t be able to afford the lessons. Chapti is suing the British government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Also, in Britain, the town of Barnsley has starting fining people for swearing in public. Heck, yeah. Not sure how widely that’s being enforced amid the riots and looting (which, I hasten to add, have not spread to Barnsley).

In Alaska, meanwhile, no-one’s too worried about swearing. (I briefly lived in Alaska, where I learned a great deal about American English expletive usage.) Some Alaskan children are learning a language. But not English, which they already speak.

These kids are the American-born children of  Sudanese refugees. They  are learning their parents’ native Nuer language. Some may end up speaking it at home. Some may use it if they visit their parents’ homeland. Some may never use it outside their Anchorage classroom.

Finally in the pod this week, a conversation with Greg Barker, director of  Koran by Heart.This is the story of three children who take part in a competition to memorize and publicly recite the entire Koran.

Hearing the interview reminded me of an encounter I had a few years ago in Bangladesh. I visited a  madrassa, a religious school.  The school building was essentially a countryside shack.  Inside were a few tiny classrooms, each with a dozen or more students crammed inside.

I talked with several students, including one who told me of his primary educational goal: to memorize the Koran. He recited a lengthy segment of it for me– in Arabic, not his native tongue, Bengali. He’s the student on the far left in the picture below.

I talked to the head of the madrassa. He said that although this was a religious school, most parents who sent their kids here weren’t especially devout. The choice, like in so many parts of the world, was between underfunded, sub-par government schools and religious school like this one.


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Ai Weiwei’s translator, Belgium during linguistic wartime, and Rastamouse

Arrested Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote a blog that was, if anything, even more provocative than his art. We hear from Beijing-based translator and art critic Lee Ambrozy who has translated Ai’s blog posts into English.

Next in the pod, fellow Big Show podcaster Clark Boyd on the trials, tribulations and silliness of living in Belgium, where most people define themselves not by nationality but by  mother tongue. Clark lives in Brussels, which is officially bilingual. Most of the rest of Belgium is determinedly monolingual — Dutch in the north, French in the south.

I put it to Clark that Belgium is a bit like the former Yugoslavia, but without the guns. I was feeling pretty good about that thought until he told me I was by no means the first person to articulate it.  He also said Belgians have it way too good to take up arms over their linguistic differences — despite the fact that they cannot form a government, and they may even one day opt to slice the country in two.

That got me thinking: when we talk about conflicts sparked by language, are we missing the point?  There’s no question that language can be an emotional issue. But how often is is the root cause of a disagreement?  Mostly, it seems, language either awkwardly stands in as a symbol for the real cause, or it is used by the protagonists as a weapon to divide people in conflicts whose roots are material — land, water, minerals etc.

In Belgium, there’s not much of a material divide. The Dutch-speaking Flemish are richer than the French-speaking Walloons, but not that much richer. Nor do they control the preponderance of land and resources. Which may be why Belgians aren’t trying to kill each other.

Also, as Clark points out, even though there isn’t much shared culture in Belgium there is some, and it’s important:  Belgians, he says,  have a universal admiration for surrealism (Magritte is a native son). That must come in handy, given the topsy-turvy nature of Belgian public life.

In honor of all things Belgian, the pod’s Eating Sideways segment offers up one French expression, and one Dutch.  Listen to the podcast to decide which describes Belgianness most accurately…

Finally, Alex Gallafent has a report on  the latest children’s TV hit in the UK. It features Jamaican-British musical mice, with dialects that are offending English purists. This summer, incidentally, Rastamouse will be “playing” Glastonbury Festival, Britain’s premier music festival.

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The butcher, the baker, and the cabbage gelder

As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form.  How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative  (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).

Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.

Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book.  He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally,  thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.

For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two,  GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases.  So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook:  “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.

After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this.   Check out two of them here.

More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.

After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show,  Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”  In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.

Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him.  And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.

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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

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Genders, geniuses, and Tamil onomatopoeia

Another top five language stories. In no particular order:

5. A new line of Tamil pulp fiction translated into English keeps the magnificent onomatopoeia of the original. The brilliant people behind this are Chennai-based  Blaft Publications. They have plans for more pulp fiction to be translated from other Indian languages. Blaft sums up its first Tamil anthology this way:  Guns, cleavage, and mallipoo! And the untranslated Tamil onomatopoeia? Listen out in the pod for words like visshkda-nang, pulich and labak. One of those, by the way — guess which — mimics the sound of spit landing on a wall.

4. New research shows that no matter you much some Germans have tried, they can’t make their language gender-neutral. A doctor or a teacher in German — as in many languages — is nearly always specified as male or female. Over the decades, feminist publications in particular have tried to tinker with some of the assignations, or at least neutralize the gender specificity. But according to Swedish researcher Magnus Pettersson, they have failed.  This comes off the back of Guy Deutscher’s take on whether noun genders in the likes of German and Spanish affect how we think of the objects in questions. (eg bridge is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish; Deutscher, as a native Hebrew speaker, always thinks of a bed as feminine). I wonder if linguists, or neurologists or sociologists, have considered not how we think of those objects, but how the gender designations of those objects may influence how we think of men and women (He bridges problems; she is as soft as a bed etc).

3. A new-ish Belgian video pokes fun at the country’s linguistic battles. We poke fun at The Big Show’s beer-loving Clark Boyd, who just happens to be our correspondent in beer-loving  Brussels.

2. We hear more about two linguists who have won 2010 MacArthur genius awards: Wampanoag revivalist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who acted on a dream, studied linguistics, co-edited a dictionary and is raising her daughter to speak the extinct Wampanoag language;  and sign language researcher extraordinaire Carol Paddon.

1. Carol Hill’s adventures in Sweden. She was at the 2010 Göteborg Book Fair. She struggled with Swedish. She interviewed dozens of African writers,  who also didn’t understand Swedish but appeared to speak just about every other language on Earth.

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Grammar tips in Brazil, and magic in a second language

Forget their laidback image, Brazilians care deeply about grammar. One city has a long-established grammar hotline staffed by Portuguese language experts. Now the state of Rio de Janeiro is following suit. This may, or may not, be  in response to the many times Brazil’s head of state, President Luiz Inácio da Silva has loused up his lingo. Lula, as he’s better known, has embarrassed and amused Brazilians for years now with all manner of grammatical gaffes. It seems unlikley, though, that will consult the grammar hotline, either as president, or when he retires on January 1, 2011.

Then, an interview with the newly-crowned world record holder in speed-texting. Melissa Thompson speaks with Marco Werman about why she is so fast at thumbing messages — and why her boyfriend is so very slow. The two sentences that she thumbed in record time (25.94 seconds) were : “the razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human”. Test your how your text-writing skills shape up to Melissa Thompson’s here.

After a diversion by way of a Norwegian word (lakenskrekk; literally, bed sheet dread, or fear of insomnia), we consider the art of performing magic. Specifically, performing in a language that’s not your native tongue. For magicians, this can be a huge challenge: so much about magic — the stories, the sell, the suspension of disbelief — is accomplished through language. So if a native English-speaking magician, for example, finds him or herself required to perform his routine in French, it requires far more than just consulting the dictionary for the equivalent of abracadabra or hocus pocus.  We speak with two magicians, native Hebrew speaker Asi Wind and native English speaker Prakash Puru (pictured), both of whom have made the transtition to performing in a second language.

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