Tag Archives: Society and Culture

Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

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Diplomatic insults, click languages, Harry Potter in France, and cucumber season

chavezThis week, the nuanced — and sometimes not so nuanced — world of diplomatic insults: we hurl a few your way, coutesy of Hugo Chavez, Hillary Clinton and Winston Churchill. There’s also an overheated exhange in the British parliament between then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and leader of the opposition Neil Kinnock, which goes something like this:  insult (Thatcher), outraged indignation (Kinnock), quasi-retraction (Thatcher).

We follow this with news of so-called click languages. My colleague David Cohn has been finding out about these and he’s posted some thoughts and links in the science section of The World’s website. Here’s the headline: linguists have figured out how to decipher and classify clicks— and some languages have a huge number of of them. Just as well that the linguists are discovering this now. Some of these languages are about to kick the bucket. You can listen to the sounds of one of them here.

cucumberNext up, that underestimated vegetable the  cucumber.  Norwegian is one of several languages (Dutch, Polish and German are others) that appropriate the word cucumber to describe what we English speakers call silly season. That’s the time of the year — now, as it happens — when we in the news media resort to covering shark attacks,  dogs reunited with their owners, and astronauts’ underwear. (Actually, we do these stories year-round, but during the silly season, they wind up on the front page). Norwegians and others supposedly put  cucumber harvest season on their front pages. No wonder newspapers are in trouble.

Finally, many French fans of Harry Potter novels read the books in English. Or at least they did before the books were translated into French.

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