Tag Archives: Ukraine

A Canadian journalist escapes detention in Ukraine by speaking French

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Photo: Ashok666/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague, Nina Porzucki.

It may not be quite an epidemic, but pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine are increasingly turning to an ominous new tactic: kidnapping.

Many people have been held hostage in the eastern town of Slovyansk — including journalists, pro-Ukraine activists and military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

One person not caught up in the sweep is the Toronto Star’s reporter in Slovyansk, Mitch Potter.

And that’s not for lack of trying on the part of pro-Russia activists.

Last week, Potter and his interpreter were pulled over by a group of angry insurgents. It was a tense situation and the one thing that Potter knew he shouldn’t do was speak English.

“It was known, well-known for days, that it was trouble to speak English on the streets,” said Potter. “There are pamphlets circulating in that city warning that anyone who speaks English is a spy and turn them in.”

So what did the English-speaking Canadian do?

“My lips started moving and the French language came out,” said Potter.

“I’m French Canadian,” Potter told the angry insurgents. “I have nothing to do with the English language.”

That’s not true. Potter is not French Canadian. Yet, somehow his improvised French worked and the Pro-Russian activists let him and his interpreter leave Slovyansk.

“This was after a week on the ground. And it was clear that we’re all Americans now, when we go to that place. They make no distinction between Americans and Canadians,” said Potter.

So why did speaking French pacify the insurgents in eastern Ukraine? Potter doubts that it has anything to do with an affinity for the French-Canadian separatist movement.

“People there tend not to travel. It’s a very insular place. They don’t even travel to western Ukraine, let alone pay attention to language politics in Canada,” said Potter.


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Do you answer ‘How are you?’ the American or the Russian way?

Alina Simone's Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive.  (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone’s Russian grandmother. When congratulated on becoming 90, she declared that she was disappointed that she was still alive. (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer and Big Show contributor Alina Simone.

My Russian grandmother had a stock response to “How are you?” “Terrible.” And if you didn’t like it, the same applied to you.

Last month, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the difference between how Americans and Russians respond to the question, “How are you?” (The answer can almost be summarized: Fine/Not fine.)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

Alina Simone and her American husband Josh Knobe (Courtesy Alina Simone)

My inbox exploded. People from all over the world wrote to tell me how they were. I learned that Russians are not the only ones who take “How are you?” literally. The same holds true for Chinese, Israelis, and very grumpy Americans — or Americans simply unable to gloss over the truth, even for the sake of a benign social ritual. One American with Stage 4 breast cancer wrote to tell me that she had given up on “fine” and now just told people the honest truth: “I couldn’t be worse.” Alternatively, a man named Tom put forth the theory that saying “fine” was a telltale sign of emotional repression — or worse. “Fine actually stands for Feelings I’m Not Expressing,” Tom wrote. “Or, (Unprintable Word), Insecure, Neurotic, and Empty.”

I found it interesting that while the Americans I spoke to didn’t much care whether Russians responded to “How are you?” with some news about their psoriasis, Russians really agonized over these interactions with Americans. My Russian father went so far as to discover fresh source of “How Are You?” humiliation: the tendency Americans had of not sticking around long enough to hear the answer.

“The shortest answer I can think of to the question ‘How are you?’ is, ‘Good,’” my father said. “But I still have not figured out what to do when someone blurts ‘Hi! How Are You!’ and runs by. Should I run after him and say ‘Good?'”

America: a nation of people shouting “Good!” at one another’s disappearing backs. For some reason, I kind of like that.


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Russian Pronunciation tips for the Sochi Olympics, and the language of undiplomacy


Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague David Leveille…

We’ll be hearing a lot from Russia over the next two weeks with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

We’ll also be hearing a lot of Russian words and names, some of which are not easy to pronounce. That includes the name of the Olympic host city itself.

We asked Martha Figueroa-Clark for some help. She thinks about this stuff all the time, as part of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

So, how exactly do you say Sochi?

“Sochi, the venue for the Winter Olympics, is usually anglicised as SOTCH-i (-o as in not, -tch as in catch, -i as the ‘y’ in happy) by English and Russian speakers alike — and this is the pronunciation we recommend to broadcasters. However, the Russian pronunciation of -o in Sochi is somewhere in between the English “law” vowel and the English ‘lot’ vowel (so somewhere between SAW-chi and SOTCH-i),” she said.

“When forming recommendations, our approach is to reflect the native pronunciation as closely as possible while bearing in mind practical considerations. Our pronunciation advice is anglicised for ease of pronunciation by English-speaking broadcasters and to ensure that names can be discerned by BBC audiences,” she added.

Some other Olympic venues in Sochi have interesting and challenging names for English speakers, so here are a few more pronunciations from the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

One of the skiing venues is Krasnaya Polyana, pronounced KRASS-nuh-yuh puh-LYAA-nuh (-uh as “a” in sofa, -ly as in million). Historically, the word krasnaya (feminine form) or krasny (masculine form) meant “beautiful.” Nowadays, it means “red.” Polyana means glade or clearing.

Turning to the Bolshoi Ice Dome, the word Bolshoi (big) is often anglicised as BOL-shoy (-ol as in olive, -oy as in boy), as in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. In Russian, it’s closer to buhl-SHOY (note final syllable stress), although there is a palatalised ‘l’ in Russian that has no equivalent in English. It’s similar to what you would hear when the word “lucrative” is pronounced as LYOO-kruh-tiv (-ly as in million) — as opposed to LOO-kruh-tiv (-oo as in boot).

In ice hockey’s Shayba arena, “shayba” is pronounced SHIGH-buh (-igh as in high, -uh as “a” in sofa) and means puck.

Another venue, Rosa Khutor, is pronounced ROZ-uh KHOO-tuhr (-o as in not, -uh as “a” in sofa, -kh as in Scottish loch, -oo as in boot, -uhr as “or” in doctor). Khutor means hamlet or farmstead.

And just in case you haven’t yet figured out how to pronounce President Vladimir Putin’s name, here’s a reminder. “In other Slavic languages, the name ‘Vladimir’ can be stressed on the first or last syllable, but in Russian, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. ‘Putin’ is sometimes anglicised as PYOO-tin, perhaps by unconscious association with other English words like ‘putative’ or ‘punitive.’ The correct pronunciation, anglicised, is vluh-DEE-meer POO-tin (-ee as in street, -eer as in deer, -oo as in boot).”

If you take in all these suggestions, and manage to pronounce Sochi as well as the names of its many venues correctly and precisely, a Russian speaker might respond with “otlichno!” That’s Russian, for excellent. It’s pronounced “ah tlee chnah.”

And since we’re on the subject of Russian language and customs, I recommend trying Russian borscht. It’s also “otlichno.”

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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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    Baby talk, Ukrainian talk, and translated punk talk

    baby_crying_closeupIs this baby crying in German or French?  A new study says we may be able to tell. The study was originally discussed on my sister pod, The World’s science podcast. It   concludes that we begin language acquisition in the womb. At that stage, we are, well, a captive audience to mama’s words; researchers say we pick up a bit of her accent and intonation. Then after birth, we cry in ways that imitate that accent and intonation.

    А а Б б В в Г г Ґ ґ Д д Е е Є є Ж ж З з И и
    І і Ї ї Й й К к Л л М м Н н О о П п Р р С с
    Т т У у Ф ф Х х Ц ц Ч ч Ш ш Щ щ Ь ь Ю ю Я я

     

    Then it’s off to Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language (see alphabet above) is enjoying a government-sponsored revival. This comes at the expense of Russian – with the notable and ever-delightful exception of swear words: people still curse almost exclusively in Russian. Why? you tell me, please…In any case, the government’s support of Ukrainians, especially in schools and colleges has turned this into an election issue. The two front runners in next January’s presidential vote are the pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who generally favors the promotion of Ukrainian, and the more Kremlin-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, who believes Russian should be protected.  Which leaves our Kiev-based reporter, Brigid McCarthy, somewhat conflicted as to which language to study.

    nouvelle_longFinally, a conversation with the two French guys behind cover band Nouvelle Vague. Their new album re-imagines punk and new wave classics by The Sex Pistols, Plastic Bertrand and others. The singers tend to be non-native English speakers, female and young — young enough in some cases not to have heard the originals, or know about the ethos and vibe of punk. I like a lot of their reinterpretions because they’re so wildly different from the originals, yet add something that was seemingly overlooked by the original artists. It’s as if the musical code — the language — is flipped to reveal something previously hidden.  So, the vicious anger of the Sex Pistols’ version of God Save the Queen becomes a sweet, hymnal folk song. The Police’s poppy So Lonely becomes a desperate, haunting dirge. There’s a great linguistic flip too:  for the one song with lyrics in French, Plastic Betrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi, the singer is an English woman who enunciates the French words with a marked English accent.

    At the end of our interview, I offered the Nouvelle Vague guys my two cents on the punk classics they might next tackle:  anything from Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True album, Richard Hell’s Blank Generation,  Iggy Pop’s Dog Food, and top of the list:  a very early single from Adam and the Ant called Young Parisians. They should sing that one in French.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

    sex pistols

    OK, I just need to include an image of the Pistols.

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