Tag Archives: texting

Penmanship and Personality: An Ode to the Handwritten Note

Remember all that talk earlier this year about US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s signature? It’s hard to call it a signature at all, it looks more like an unfurled slinky. People called the signature “manufactured”—“silly” even.

Who cares, right? In a way, we all do because Lew’s signature will soon appear on US currency (although the Treasury Department is coy as to exactly when that’ll happen).

But when it does, will the value of the dollar be affected by the value we may place on the handwriting of the Treasury Secretary?

Does handwriting have value? Not Wendy Cope’s, at least if you ask her. Cope is a British poet. She crafts profound things out of words—exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find pleasure in putting pen to paper.

“I don’t actually like having to hand-write anything that’s for public consumption,” she says. “I’m not very proud of my handwriting.”

This is how bad it gets: when Cope wants to write a postcard, she’ll buy two because she knows she’ll mess up the first one. Charities sometimes ask her to hand-write a poem to put in an auction. “It raises a surprising amount of money so I don’t like to say no,” she says. “But I hate doing it, because I have to do it so slowly, and then I go wrong and I have to start again.”

Cope is not alone. There are many people who feel ashamed of their penmanship. Philip Hensher has talked to some of them, and has written a book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. He says most of us think of handwriting as highly personal. “It feels like a revelation of self, so people do feel if there was some way to avoid it then that might be a good thing.”

And so a lot of people just don’t write anything by hand. One recent survey cited by Hensher found that as many as 40% of those asked hadn’t written a single thing by hand in the previous six months. Of course, you don’t have to write by hand anymore, except perhaps to sign a document, or a dollar bill or something.

But if you’re one of those handwriting-phobic people, don’t move to France. Handwriting skills and handwriting experts—graphologists—are well-respected there. And according to the graphology industry, more than 50% of French companies make some use of hand-writing analysis. Veteran graphologist Catherine Bottiau says that studying “the trace of someone’s writing is to study the energy which guides the hands, and the message which consciously and unconsciously wishes to transmit.”

Bottiau says corporate clients tend to bring her in when they’re deciding between job candidates.

Not all French people believe that handwriting should be taken so seriously. University of Grenoble psychologist Laurent Begue says corporate recruiters should stop consulting with graphologists. “This practice is totally rubbish,” he says. “You cannot use it for professional purposes.”

That’s true, up to a point says Phillip Hensher, the author of the book about handwriting. Hensher concedes there’s an abundance of overly simplistic analysis, especially of notorious historical figures.

“Hitler is a great favorite of graphologists over the decades, some of whom make startlingly stupid observations about him,” says Hensher. “My favorite was the one who said there was great significance in the fact that his writing slanted to the right.”

But Hensher sticks to the belief that handwriting is personal, which means two things. First, the script reveals things about the writer. Second—and because of that—handwriting is the best medium for intimate communication.

Hensher recently picked up an old magazine that he’d had for decades. Out of it fell a hand-written note that his sister had written for him when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been hospitalized. “It was a completely unremarkable note saying, ‘I saw that you fell asleep, hope you feel better and I’ll be back later today. Love, Kate.’

“That was from 32 years ago. It was absolutely full of her personality. I saw it, and I knew immediately who left it for me. If she’d sent me a text message, would I still have it after 32 years? Would I still have that connection to my past, to our past? To our relationship?”

For some different traditions of handwriting, see this slideshow and podcast on the calligraphy of Haji Noor Deen who fuses Chinese and Arabic script.

Also, check out Yahoo’s Jack Lew signature generator.



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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.


Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:



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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.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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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.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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