Tag Archives: Social Sciences

Spy accents, sign language, and not my bad.

Our top five language stories this month:

5. Making Tamil even more official. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil is an official language. It’s widely spoken there. Indeed it was the very first of India’s languages to be recognized as a classical language. But proponents of the language, and of the Tamil people, don’t think that Tamil gets the respect it deserves. So they have enlisted Tamil politicians to  issue an order requiring that commercial signs prominently display the language. Most signs are in English.  Opponents worry that Tamil Nadu is needlessly cutting itself from the rest of the world, and from possible trade opportunities.

4. The expression that Manute Bol didn’t invent. After Sudanese basketball great Manute Bol died, many eulogies praised him for, among other things, coining the term my bad. Speaking on the Senate floor U.S. Senator Sam Brownback lauded Manute Bol for that (as well as for his basketball skills, and for killing a lion with a spear while working as a cow-herder). The source for the my bad coinage claim was a five-year-old post in the blog Language Log. The belief apparently was that as a non-native English speaker, he thought he was saying my fault. As posters on Language Log have recently pointed out, my bad was almost definitely around before Manute Bol first arrived in the United States in about 1980. So Manute:  sorry. Our bad.

3.  A translator recalls the Nuremberg Trials. Ingeborg Laurensen, 96, recalls her work as one of 24 interpreters at the international military tribunal after World War Two.

2.Those (alleged) Russian spies and their faux Euro/Canadian accents. One of them claimed a she was Belgian; another that she was Canadian; yet another had “the faintest hint” of “an accent”.   OK, so their covers were blown, but it wasn’t because their accents didn’t match (what’s a Belgian accent anyway? ).  Let’s face it, most of us are pretty inept when it comes to pinpointing an accent. In the pod, we get a crash course on the difference between the French spoken in France and the French of Quebec.

1. A sign language that doesn’t have signs for some Islamic words. American Sign Language doesn’t have signs for Mecca, Mohammed and other words common to Muslims. In Toronto, an ASL teacher is working with group of students from a diversity of linguistic backgrounds (Pakistani Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language)  to try to come up with signs for a few religious words.  In the pod, we also discuss new research into Nicaraguan Sign Language that shows that language may affect how we solve spatial problems.

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Globish, health care, and a Facebook misunderstanding

This week, the case for and against Globish. A group of writers and artists debate the proposition that a simplified version of English is uniquely equipped to take over the world. That argument is made by Robert McCrum in his new book, Globish. (The term globish was popularized by Jean-Paul Nerrière to mean an emerging and simplified form of English used by non-native English speakers). McCrum believes that English is the ultimate open-source language: it welcomes, absorbs and adapts foreign words like no other language. What’s more, its grammar is relatively simple, which makes it more suited to universality than, say, Russian or Arabic. Wait a moment…Russian and Arabic, as complex as they are, are spoken across dozens of borders. In any case, perhaps it’s all that global travel that has turned English into a grammatically simpler language. This point, and many others, come from John McWhorter‘s New Republic critique of Robert McCrum’s assumptions. Read other reviews of Globish here, here , here and here. (I could link on and on; the man clearly has a magnificent publicist).

Also, now that millions more Americans have health insurance, clinics and hospitals are under pressure to make their services more accessible to non-English speakers. The pod has a report from Kansas City.

Then, a quick update on World Cup TV viewing habits in the United States with Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. If you think that only Spanish speakers watched Univision, and only English speakers watched ABC and ESPN, think again.

Finally, a conversation with Gregory Levey, whose book Shut Up, I’m Talking has more Facebook fans than Bill Clinton. Gregory has concluded that these are fans not of his book, but of the expression shut up, I’m talking. He’s trying to figure out how — or even whether — to address these followers. It’s the curse of having come up with a catchy, slightly obnoxious book title. In our interview, I suggest to Gregory that for a future book, he might consider the title I Hate When One String of my Hoodie Becomes Longer Than the Other. That title would come with more than 1.5 million Facebook fans, even before publication.  Our original, 2008 interview with Gregory Levey, about his adventures writing speeches for the Israeli government is in two parts, here and here.

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Language adoption and the future of spelling

This week’s pod has two contrasting stories on language adoption. In the first instance, the intention is to encourage bilingualism; in the second, it’s  to promote nationalism.

Belgium hasn’t had a revolution since 1830 (see pic), after which a new constitution established French as the national language. Today, Dutch and German are also recognized. But another,  slower revolution may be taking place, with language again the weapon of choice. The country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority want out, and they did well in enough in parliamentary elections to advance that agenda. The French-speaking Walloon minority are less independence-minded, perhaps because they’re not so well-off.

Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the only place where the two language groups intermingle. Now a Brussels-based organization is urging Belgians to adopt people from across the linguistic divide.  OK, so it’s just online adoption, but the idea is to rekindle Belgium’s former affection for multilingualism. More on Belgium’s language battles here and here.

In Montenegro, the government has adopted a language that may not be a language at all. But as the saying goes, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy” (the quote is often attributed, wrongly, to Max Weinreich). As of 2006, Montenegro has been its own country, with the toys to prove it, like the Gazelle helicopter pictured above — see the Montenegrin flag on the tail. This means that it can call its dialect of Serbo-Croatian a language in its own right. After all, the Serbs have Serbian, the Croats Croatian and the Bosnians Bosnian. In reality, Montenegrin is even less distinguishable from Serbian than Croatian or Bosnian are.  But this is the Balkans, and languages, just like everything else, get balkanized.

Finally, a discussion with David Wolman on what happens to spelling in the age of Spell Check and Google’s did you mean function. Do we need bother to learn how to spell, or at any rate,  spell well?

Wolman is the author of a history of English spelling, Righting the Mother Tongue. Check out my previous interview with him here.

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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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Bilingual tots and the language of smell

Not many parents in Israel make the choice, but a few send their kids to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschools. The World’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell is one of them. His son is about to enroll in a preschool where Hebrew and Arabic are spoken on alternate days. To relax, this 3-year-old will speak English at home. (Matthew, he’ll thank you for it one day…)  Matthew says parents have different reasons for sending their kids to a bilingual preschool. For Hebrew speakers, it often comes from a desire to learn more about the culture of their Arab neighbors. For Arabic speakers, it’s more likely to be out of a wish to get a leg up the socio-economic ladder. For outsiders like Matthew, it’s a golden opportunity to have the kid learn a couple of foreign languages at a stage in life when those languages might stick.

Next in the pod is an interview with Seattle-area rabbi Mark Glickman (pictured, looking at the camera).  He recently visited the Cairo Genizah, which once boasted one of Judaism’s largest repositories of documents. Many of these documents dated back hundreds of years, but at the Cairo Genizah, they were, in Rabbi Glickman’s words, “a messy, jumbled dump.” They are now stored, in somewhat better shape, in archives around the world — in the UK, the US and Israel.  Glickman explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic.

Next, a report from Syria on book-publishing and reading in Arabic-speaking world. Books in Arabic have a long history (pictured is an Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights from the 14th Century). But not many people these days read books in Arabic: a recent UN survey reported that less than 2% of native Arabic speakers reads even one book a year. That means that fewer books are being published.  However, you can still find bookstores in cities like Damascus and Beirut; they’re trying mightily to revive the practice of reading in Arabic.

A short plug here for Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days. The book is replete with inventive wordplay (unwanted backrub given by a character named Jack = jackrub; character called Graham with whiny British accent is renamed Grime). Plus, there’s a nice un-Eating Sideways moment. It’s when the narrator suggests that there should be a French expression, along the lines of l’esprit d’escalier, for the sensation of being initially amused but later unnerved by something that’s said to you.

Finally, we visit the New York Public Library for a smell test. What does a book’s particular odor convey to an educated nose, such as that of Shelley Smith (pictured) of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

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A language speed-dater gets serious, and a cross-dressing, cross-linguistic singer

A language-learning marathon is over, as the author of a blog called 37 Languages decides which language to learn for real. The first time I talked to Keith Brooks he’d speed-dated 13 languages: he read up on each one,  learned a few phrases, and posted a summary and a points-based evaluation on his blog. Of the original 37, six got a call back: Swedish, Albanian, Turkish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Croatian. On these second dates, Keith tried to immerse himself in the language for at least a week, again documenting his observations online.   Now, he’s chosen the language we wants to live with. I won’t spoil the surprise. It’s in the podcast, and by the time you read this, it may be on the 37 Languages site.

Next up is the story of a new film that documents a year in the life of an elementary school in Turkey. The kids speak only Kurdish, their teacher only Turkish. After a year, the teacher can speak three words of Kurdish. This is set against a backdrop of official supression of the Kurdish language, that the Turkish government is only now addressing. It has recently relaxed regulations so that it’s now possible to broadcast and publish in Kurdish. There’s huge opposition in Turkey to even these changes.

Finally, we profile one of Ukraine’s most beloved performers: the cross-dressing Verka Serduchka. Serduchka is the alter ego of Andriy Danylko. Serduchka is a bossy, Soviet-era train conductor turned trashy singer.  She represented Ukraine at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, and ended up in second place.  Danylko uses Serduchka to satirize Ukrainian life– and especially Ukranian-Russian relations. As part of that Serduchka uses a dialect called Surzhyk that had been viewed as a uneducated hybrid of Russian and Ukraine. But Serduchka has re-popularized Surzhyk, so that young Ukrainians now use it in a knowing, ironic way.  To get a sense of Serduchka talking, singing and dancing with her creator Andriy Danylko, check out this video.



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New York’s polyglot cops, Arabic online, and the planet’s most difficult language

For the latest podcast, five language news stories from the past few weeks, as chosen by The Big Show’s crack language team  (Carol and me).

5. Nice and nasty words.

Our pick of the many lists  — herehere and yes, here —  for best and worst words of the year and the decade.  We like Abwrackprämie — it’s Germany’s word for Cash for Clunkers, and it means “wrecking premium”.  We don’t like 24-7, hopium and mancession.  And we’re neutral about jeggings and minarettverbot, the Swiss-German expression that describes Switzerland’s voter-approved ban on minarets (pictured is one of Switzerland’s four minarets. Yes, four: they weren’t exactly  dominating the skyline before the ban was approved). Thanks again for the great service performed by the people at Lake Superior State University who put together an annual list of banished words. The 2009 words are again all profoundly offensive. My favorite — or least favorite, whichever it is —  is teachable moment.  Can’t you just see that nasty little idea given the overcoming-adversity Hollywood Kleenex treatment? Ew! Yuck! Double yuck!

4. Georgia launches a Russian language TV channel.

So what? you may think. The treatment of stories on this new web TV channel is pretty similar to official and semi-official Georgian media: anti-Russian. The difference, of course, is that the other stuff is in Georgian, a language spoken by very few people outside this small mountainous country (the script in the banner picture of this blog, incidently, is Georgian).  So, Georgia can now get out its version of the news, particularly as it relates to the Caucasus — and do it  in a language that’s widely understood in the region and, of course,  in Moscow.  You can view this a couple of ways.  The launching of this news service may be a more constructive way of getting your point across than taking up arms, as Georgians and Russians did in 2008. But it may also amount to “linguistic provocation” which is what one Georgian opposition leader thinks.


3. New ventures and technologies give a boost to Arabic online.

Arabic is set to become a larger force online after Yahoo’s acquistion of web portal Maktoob and interest in Arabic search engine Yamli which converts Latin letters into Arabic script.

2. Of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages, which is the most difficult to learn?

The Economist has declared this to be the Amazonian language Tuyuca. Of course, everyone has an opinion on this: here’s a good one; another one here.  Me, I know nothing about Tuyuca. But I do know that language-learning is subjective and contextual: I can pick up Spanish, for example, far more easily than my Shanghai-born Chinese teacher can. She swears to me that Spanish is the world’s most difficult language. Also, access to the language is key, so learning Tuyuca if you were living among the Tuyuca people might be a relatively straightforward proposition (no TV, not much else to do) — easier perhaps than learning Italian in the exclusive company of the (presumably non-Italian-speaking) Tuyuca. And then there’s the status of the language in question. As discussed in a previous podcast, a language like Hindi is considered lower-status than English by some of its speakers. So, confronted by an English-speaker trying to communicate in Hindi, they may feel more comfortably speaking and English. French people, on the other hand, are generally proud of their language, and are far less likely to switch to English.

1. The New York Police Department, now enforcing the law in nearly a hundred languages.

New York is America’s most cosmolitan city, and its police force may just be the world’s most linguistically diverse.  What’s this cop wondering? How to you read someone their rights in…Lithuanian???

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