Tag Archives: World in Words

Do we still need professional translators to subtitle foreign language movies?

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Photo: froussecarton/Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

In the beginning there was light, a little music and subtitles, technically called intertitles. I’m talking the beginning of the 20th century, during the silent era of moviemaking, when an image really spoke a thousand words and intertitles were used sparingly to explain action, and dialogue, and exposition.

And then the talkies came. But while Al Jolson’s voice in ‘The Jazz Singer‘ did away with the need for the intertitle to do all that explaining, The Jazz Singer became the first film to need translating. In fact, it was the first film to officially use foreign language subtitles when it opened in Paris in 1929.

In the 80-plus-years since, subtitling has gone from a necessity to an art.

“People aren’t supposed to notice subtitles, if we’re doing our job properly. The ideal situation is when they aren’t even aware they’re reading subtitles,” says John Miller. Miller makes a living as a subtitler in Paris, where he went to school to learn the art of subtitling. And he’s been at it for 20 years translating French films into English.

“The French call ‘subtitlers’ ‘adapters.’ You do have to adapt it, you can’t just take a literal translation of the screenplay and throw it up on the screen. You would spend the whole time reading it and you wouldn’t be able to watch the film,” Miller says.

People can read an average of 12 characters a second, Miller says. A subtitler has about two seconds to relay everything being said to the audience and within those 24 characters, the subtitler not only has to translate what’s said, but all the complexities of everyday speech: puns, jokes, word play.

Sometimes you get lucky and expressions will easily translate from one language to another. But sometimes, says Miller, an expression gets lost in translation or, worse yet, doesn’t translate into American English at all. This happens all the time. In a recent film that Miller had to work on he had to translate the French expression “tu la boucle”

“Tu la boucle, which means shut-up, also means put your seatbelt on. So I [translated] the British English [expression], what I thought was American English too. ‘Belt up!’ which fits perfectly for both meanings, but it apparently [doesn’t mean the same thing] in American English. So I had to lose the double reference and just end up with “Buckle up!”

While subititling may be an art and a profession, increasingly this art is undergoing another evolution. Just like when sound came and turned moviemaking upsidedown, the digitization of film and TV has upended the subtitling industry. Digital media has allowed people around the world to access more content, more quickly. And more content means more subtitles, right?

Enter VIKI, just one of several online crowd-sourced subtitling platforms. The name VIKI is a mash-up of “video” and “wiki,” as in Wikipedia. And the service acts much like Wikipedia: Subtitlers submit translations for peer review, the crowd evaluates the translations, voting things up and down.

VIKI CEO Razmig Hovaghimian began to appreciate subtitles as a kid. He grew up in Egypt but spent his summers in Lebanon — watching Bollywood movies with his dad.

“Neither one of us speaks Hindi, but we just loved it. I remember the Amitab Bachchan movies,” he recalls.

VIKI licenses TV shows and movies from around the world — from Korean dramas, to Latin American soaps to Japanese Anime — and then puts them online so fans from around the world can subtitle them.

“[Some] 200 languages with over 700 million words translated by fans — for free,” Hovaghimian says.

Just who are these fan subbers doing the work for free? They’re teachers, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers, people like you and me, says Hovaghimian. Including retiree Patricia Pon from San Francisco.

Pon is a Cantonese speaker and the translator of more than 200,000 subtitles. What motivates Pon to do this in their spare time for no money? Simple, she says. She got fed up with bad translations. Bad, as in what she considers racy language. Like, for example, she says she was offended by a subtitle from a recent episode of the Korean Drama, Empress Ki. In the soap, the emperor’s concubine gets pregnant and the subtitle was written in a rather colloquial fashion.

“The tramp got knocked up”

“I don’t think so,” Pon says. She would’ve translated the line as “The consort was pregnant.”

Consort, tramp, concubine — subtitling risks a certain subjectivity. Would a retiree translate a Hong Kong gangster flick the same as a teenager? Does it matter? No, according to Razmig, that’s the beauty of the crowd. Subtitles are vetted and edited by many. And then the content can quickly be consumed by many more. And these rapid translations have led to the globalization of film and TV at hyper-speed in rather unexpected places.

“We had Egyptian movies that were doing great in Dutch. We have Korean movies that are doing phenomenal in Saudi Arabia. It’s actually our number one country for it. And it’s in Arabic subtitles,” Hovaghimian says.

VIKI is just one service in an ever-expanding world of crowd-sourced subtitles. While professional subtitler John Miller isn’t worried about being “crowded out” of his profession, he and fellow English-language subtitlers in Paris have felt the squeeze.

“It is a professional job. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have crowd-sourced surgeons or crowd-sourced mechanics. So, while what we do isn’t life or death, it is to the detriment of the films if they’re being done by people who, well, they’re certainly not professionals,” Miller says.

Certainly, Pon and her subbing pals aren’t claiming to be professionals. And the subtitles you’ll be reading at your local art house theatre aren’t the crowdsourced kind — at least not yet.


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The spread of mondegreens should have ended with the Internet — but it hasn’t

Kissing 'the sky' or 'this guy'?

Was Jimi Hendrix kissing ‘the sky’ or ‘this guy’?

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

You may not know what “mondegreen” means, but you definitely have a great mondegreen story — like maybe mishearing the chorus for the Cuban song “Guantanamera” as “One ton tomato. I ate a one ton tomato.”

The word mondegreen was coined in an essay by writer Sylvia Wright in which she described misinterpreting a line from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray.” The actual line was, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the green.”

What did she hear? “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.”

It turns out there are scientific reasons for why it’s so easy to misinterpret songs and poems. The first thing you have to understand is that “when we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination,” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania,

Extracting meaning from sound actually depends on a combination of hearing and hoping.

“There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear,” Liberman explains, but “there’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the expectations in our brain.”

When that piece of sound contains weird metaphors or jarring imagery — or is just plain hard to hear — people tend to translate it into something that makes more sense to them. “And, of course, songs tend to have lyrics that are a little bit unexpected or unusual,” Liberman adds. “It’s what makes songs interesting.”

It’s also what makes mondegreens interesting — often more interesting, or at least way funnier, than the original lyrics themselves. For example: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”

If you need a good mondegreen, you can check out Kiss This Guy, a website dedicated to them. You could also buy the book of mondegreens that hit the bestseller list in Germany.

In some countries, like Russia, mondegreens have even become a genre unto themselves. I talked to Anya Krushelnitskaya, who grew up in Soviet Russia, and I came to feel that a closed society provides the perfect laboratory for studying the spread and mutation of the mondegreen.

“We did have tiny, tiny holes in the Iron Curtain through which the lyrics would come in,” Krushelnitskaya tells me. That process involved somebody well-connected — like the son of a diplomat — selling liner notes they were able to smuggle into the country on the black market.

These lyrics were then disseminated by people who copied them by hand, like an epic game of “Telephone” played in an unfamiliar language. And since western pop circulated on homemade cassette tapes that were dubbed and redubbed — or primitive vinyl records carved out of x-rays — degraded sound quality was another big impediment to figuring out the words. It’s easy to see how mondegreens became the norm, not the exception.

But what may have begun as an honest effort to figure out the lyrics to popular Western songs soon morphed into a vibrant subgenre of soundalikes. For instance, Anya explains, The Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine” became, “Y’ela Margarin” — “She was eating margarine.”

These intentional mondegreens were funny, but they also served as Trojan horses for political commentary. Take another Beatles song, “Yesterday,” which Anya says was sung as the Russian-English mashup:

“Esti Dai (give me some food)

All my roubles seem so far away.”

There are those who believe that Lady Mondegreen has finally been slain by insidious lyrics websites and their cold, efficient databases. The New York Times Magazine bemoaned this scourge, as has The Guardian.

But lyrics sites aren’t slaying mondegreens — they’re spreading them.

“We crowdsourced all our lyrics,” says Shawn Setaro, former editor-in-chief of one of the biggest lyrics sites on the web, Genius. “Anyone could add lyrics, anyone could edit lyrics. They would type and transcribe. And it got to the point where when new popular songs came out, they would be on the site six, seven, eight minutes after they’re released.”

Those first stabs eventually get refined on Genius, but not every lyrics site strives for accuracy. One thing other sites do is solicit lyrics anonymously via email, with no vetting whatsoever. Another thing they do, Setaro tells me, “is just crawl and steal from other lyrics sites. So it becomes this giant circle.”

How does Genius know other sites steal from them? They did an experiment and subtly messed with the lyrics to some of their new songs, just to see if other sites were grabbing them. Sure enough, within hours, several sites had posted Genius’ lyrics — mistakes and all.

So it’s often the initial, uncrowdsourced version — the one fans pound out quickly — that gets picked up and spread around.

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Even when lyrics sites go straight to the source, there’s room for error. This summer, Genius got the lyrics for “No Mediocre,” a song by hip-hop artist T.I., that features Iggy Azalea. They came directly from Azalea’s label, but she later tweeted that they were full of mistakes.

Sometimes fans don’t even believe the artists themselves. Danny Brown, a rapper from Detroit, has lyrics that are particularly prone to misinterpretation because of his wildly stylized vocals. Brown came in to the Genius office in Brooklyn himself to correct all of his lyrics.

But a few days later, Setaro says with a laugh, “his fans had put them back to what the original mishearings were. It was actually as a result of that that we built in a function to lock the pages, so once the artists say, ‘Hey, this is the right way,’ no one can change it.”

Some artists may scoff, some may shrug, and others might simply decide to embrace Lady Mondegreen. Many people claim that Jimi Hendrix even started singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for real once he found out people thought those were the words. You can judge for yourself in the version below, recorded at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

And according to linguists, that’s actually closer to what we’re expecting him to say, anyway. So go on, Jimi — kiss him.


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Parliamentary-style debates take off in China — even if some topics are off limits

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)


Here’s a guest post from Ruth Morris in Shanghai.

The inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open kicks off with 100 fidgety students in a small auditorium. Volunteers wear black t-shirts with English lettering that say: “Go back and read more.”

Then the first topic — or motion — appears on a screen. It reads: “This house regrets the ‘celebritization’ of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”

As soon as they find out what they’re debating, a couple of the students scramble to figure out what exactly the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is. It was popularized on Facebook, which is blocked in China, although it did spread to Chinese social media. The students rush to a judge with questions and she fills them in.

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Education experts say Chinese authorities are waking up to the notion that Chinese students need to be independent thinkers if they want to produce their own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And they say debate is one way to get there.

English-language British Parliamentary debate is gaining popularity here, especially among top students gunning for foreign universities.

“We want to use debate as a medium to give students education and enlightenment,” said Zheng Bo, the tournament’s chief adjudicator and a promoter of British Parliamentary debate in China. He says China’s education system is grounded in Confucian thinking, which poses a challenge.

“Teachers are given absolute authority and students just listen and recite, and remember,” Zheng Bo says. “So that created a lot of students that are really good at doing maths and physics … where there is a given answer. But when it comes to something without a standard answer … that’s creating a lot of trouble, because they are not familiar with this kind of practice.“

Debate is the perfect educational supplement, he says. It trains students to think critically.

British Parliamentary debate’s oppositional style might seem incongruous in China, since it divides teams into two sides — the government and the opposition — while China operates as a single-party state. Beijing also scrubs dissent from the Internet and constantly stresses harmony and social stability.

So motions tend not to veer into highly sensitive areas, like Tibetan independence, but they still range widely. Government policies are not off the table.

Participant Steve Chou says debate taught him to step back from political flashpoints and take a more reasoned approach. For example, China’s emotionally charged maritime dispute with Japan.

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

China’s primary education “taught you to love your country, to be patriotic,” Chou says. “But through debate, we see that even though you do not praise your country does not necessarily mean you are not patriotic.”

Another debater goes by the English name Sloan. She believes that British Parliamentary debates will keep growing in China.

“It kind of has this life-long influence on you,” she says. “This kind of critical thinking [is] always with you and influences the people around you.”

Participants also say they consider debating in English to be easier than in Chinese. In English-language debates, you can be simpler and more direct, they say. On the other hand, Chinese debates tend to have really abstract topics, like “Is IQ more important that EQ?”

The tournament concludes with a highly controversial motion to prosecute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for hate crimes against Palestinians. One of the winners is from Hong Kong, where many residents are currently demanding greater democracy from Beijing. That subject didn’t come up in the debates.

Before the students leave, Zheng Bo offers a final critique. He says debaters omitted concrete examples to support their arguments.

He tells them, “Go back and read more.”


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The man who claimed to be a whaler, and other online dating adventures of Anya Ulinich

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

Never has the art of finding love been more entwined with the art of writing. And the potentially life-changing issue of who you attract and how you attract them comes down to one key document: your profile.

Writing, dating and love are central themes in Anya Ulinich’s funny and raw new novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which follows a Russian-American divorcee’s descent down the rabbit-hole of online dating.

Like her protagonist, Ulinich was also born in Russia, and also discovered online dating after her marriage ended. I caught up with Anya at her apartment in Brooklyn to discuss the art of profile writing and how being foreign-born can unexpectedly complicate things. Even when it comes to answering simple questions, like “what’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

“If I say, ‘I speak with an accent,’” Ulinich explains, “then when we meet, I will get these boring, boring questions, like ‘Where are you from? How long have you lived in America? How do you like the USA?’ It’s a real non-starter. I just want to run away.”

But if she doesn’t mention she’s an immigrant?

“Then there is this shock when I meet someone,” says Ulinich. “Like they have to adjust to the way I talk. You can see them recalculating what they expected versus what they see in front of them — and that’s unpleasant too.”

In other words, if Ulinich doesn’t want to be cast in the unsexy role of all-immigrant, all the time, she has to be strategic with her reveals, navigating sure giveaways like the ubiquitous list of music preferences.

“My music preferences are just bizarre,” Ulinich tells me. “They’re just very, very strange. I listened to things that my grandmas loved from 1950s Soviet movies and I have a soft spot for really corny Soviet rock music from the 80s. I absolutely did not say the truth in that section. I just put down Radiohead and some things that I knew was OK to like in order to not just be outright rejected by men in New York.”

It’s depressing to think we must all circle the musical drain of Radiohead in order to find love. I mean, if everyone is out there lying about their adorable quirks then how will we ever get to know one another? According to Ulinich, it’s less about hiding things and more a matter of calibration. “I think you experiment in your profile with sort of the shades of truth. It’s not really lying — because I do love Radiohead — it’s just — it’s a mission. You omit the guilty pleasures, you omit things that make you seem too much of a foreigner.”

A page from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

A page from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

However being foreign-born not only colors how Ulinich is perceived, but how she judges potential suitors. Take the question: “Would you date someone who lives with their parents?”

“As an American, in my mind, what that implies is someone who’s, like, a total loser,” Anya admits. “But there are all these other scenarios. For example if you’re making a living here and then you bring in your parents from another country and you’re supporting them.”

Actually, Ulinich did go out on a date with a guy who lived with his mother — but for a different reason. As a writer, she cares a lot more about creativity than whether someone is a hottie. And this guy claimed to be … a “whaler,” as in harpoons and blubber.

“He was genuinely crazy. But I like crazy on paper. With crazy-on-paper it’s like this: sometimes you meet them and it’s 50-50. There’s a 50 percent chance that this person’s really funny and messing with the format. And 50 percent chance that they’re genuinely, like, an insane man. So you take those chances.”

Taking those chances turned actually finding a boyfriend into something of a whale-hunt itself. But Ulinich still had her deal-breakers: Anyone professing a love of fantasy novels was automatically out. I mention that I’m in the middle of Clash of Kings, and even though Ulinich wouldn’t date me, I’m not offended. Let’s face it, when you’re trying to squeeze the entirety of your human essence into one literary bullion cube: Every. Word. Counts. Even your username, which in Anya’s case was “Victory Day.”

Russians immediately recognize “Victory Day” as a reference to May 9th — the day the Nazis capitulated to the Russians during World War II. But Ulinich wasn’t trying to attract flag-waving patriots from the Motherland or anything — May 9th also happened to be the day Anya had her first kiss back in Russia, more of a personal Victory Day.

American guys had their own interpretations though. “I dated two guys who were still obsessed with their ex who was named Victoria,” Ulinich told me. “Or they would say it sounds like a porno-name.”

Then last November she received a message from a potential suitor which began, “if this were back in May, I would congratulate you with the Nazi capitulation.” And Ulinich thought, “Well that’s cool!”

It turned out the guy was an art-historian with an apartment full of books about Socialist Realism — think idealized paintings of tractors and people picking wheat — which Ulinich ranked just below fantasy novels. But by then, they’d taken their relationship offline, where there’s no limit to the length of your answers. Or the depth of your questions. They met the week Ulinich handed in the final draft of her novel — and they’re still together.


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How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


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The English language: a hodgepodge from the start

At Bede's World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

At Bede’s World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Set among the call centers and storage facilities of Jarrow in the northeast of England is a farm, of sorts.

There are pigs, sheep and goats here. Some are ancient varieties, more popular 1,400 years ago than they are today. Like a shaggy-haired pig described my guide, John Sadler, as “half a ton of very grumpy animal … only interested if you feed it, or if you fall in — in which case you are food.”

A pig at Bede's World: "Half a ton of very grumpy animal." (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A pig at Bede’s World: “Half a ton of very grumpy animal.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

The animals are part of a re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon village, with timber-framed buildings and turf-covered sheds. The farm is called Gyrwe, Old English for Jarrow. It’s part of a museum called Bedesworld.

Even with jets flying overhead and container ships unloading nearby, Bede’s World brings to life a time and place when the English language was in its infancy. The monk who Bede’s World is named after, the Venerable Bede, lived in the monastery next door in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

“He’s famous as a writer and a teacher,” says Sadler, the living history coordinator at Bede’s World. “And he has this keen interest in history and language.”

Bede wrote an ecclesiastical history of the nation at the time.

“He’s the first person to actually write down who it was that actually came to the British Isles,” says linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors:The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. “He talks about the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, and discusses the range of languages that were spoken around the country.”

These languages arrived in Britain after the Romans had left. The newcomers found themselves in a place already heaving with languages — various Celtic tongues, as well as bits and pieces of languages left behind by Roman mercenaries who came from all over the empire.

Which explains why English, from its very beginnings, has been a mongrel tongue — a Frisian word here, a Latin one there, and so on. Pure English? It never existed.

These waves of migrants also helped form the dialects that you can still hear in Britain. On average, you can hear a different dialect every 25 miles you travel.

Crystal says it all goes back to those original days when people from one part of northern Europe settled in one part of England, and people from another part of northern Europe settled nearby.

“You only have to settle on the other side of a river or a mountain range,” says Crystal. “Before you know it, within a few years you’re starting to speak in a slightly different way. After a hundred years, it’s very different.”

Bede's Chair, St Paul's Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Bede’s Chair, St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is one of the reasons Bede’s writings are so valuable: they’ve helped linguists trace the origins of today’s dialects. Of course, that early migration didn’t stop. Vikings, Normans and, much later, Indians, Irish and Jamaicans have all left their stamp on Britain’s dialects.

Inside Bede’s church, there’s a small section that dates back to the seventh century. John Sadler shows me his favourite item there is the chair the Bede supposedly sat on.

“It’s actually impossible to say whether it’s original or…a copy,” says Sadler with a shrug.

If it’s a copy, so be it. The monk who may — or may not — have sat on it was documenting a language that itself copied, and liberally borrowed and stole, from many other languages.


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Russian leaders have tinkered with their alphabet for centuries, but with the letter ё, they have a fight on their hands

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Photo: Sara/Flickr

Here’s a guest post from Alina Simone.

The most controversial letter in the Russian alphabet is the letter ё, or yo.

Fans of the letter call themselves Yoficators. They even have a theme song set to the music of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Why does a letter have a fan club? Because some people think yo has got to go.

Yo’s shaky status has to do with it being a relatively late addition to the Russian alphabet, dropped in at the end of the 1700s. As Yaroslav Gorbachov, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, tells me, “(yo) really never took off as an independent letter. It has always remained sort of the shady companion of the letter ye.”

Yo is really the Cyrillic letter ye, which looks just like the English letter e, only with a diacritic — that is, two dots — on top. Confused? Well, trust me, you’re even more confused when natives casually omit those two dots, turning a name like “Gorbachov” into “ Gorbachev.”

But Russians have only gotten lazy about dotting their yos since the 1950s. Before that, both the letter yo and the essentially non-Western nature of the alphabet, had a powerful backer: Josef Stalin.

In 1930, Stalin signed an edict that protected yo.

“It was a secret document, it was not to be published,” says Professor Gorbachov. Stalin’s intention was to get Russians to stop Latinizing the script. ”He also decreed that yo be put to use every time it’s there in the pronunciation.”

For the three percent of Russians whose names contain yo, not having Stalin around anymore to enforce a standard protocol is causing massive bureaucratic headaches. People have been denied passports and had their citizenship revoked, they’ve been unable to legally divorce and prove their children are theirs — all because of ye/yo discrepancies on official documents. But unlike Stalin, Russia’s current strongman is remaining silent on the issue.

“I don’t think Putin is behind this. He probably doesn’t care about the alphabet would be my guess.” Gorbachov instead blames the problem on “super-eager local bureaucrats who want to be holier than the pope.”

Of course, getting rid of yo would bring Russian one step closer to the English alphabet. East vs. West — the linguistic tug of war has been going on for centuries. Russia’s dual impulse to be embraced by the West while remaining distinctly Slavic is literally etched into the alphabet. Starting with legendary font-designer, Peter the Great.

“He was out to Westernize the country,” says Gorbachov. “[Peter the Great] had realized how far behind Russia had fallen in terms of education, in terms of technology, and all these things. And he literally sat down and picked out characters that looked more Roman than Cyrillic in the Cyrillic alphabet.”

The Russian alphabet was adapted from Greek, a radically different language, leaving a lot of extra wood to chop. But when Peter axed redundant letters, he was denounced as the anti-Christ by religious conservatives, who accused him of changing the very meaning of the Bible.

Another even more controversial modernization proposed by the last czar actually took decades to implement, finally rammed through by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It incensed language snoots — you know, the kind of people who view linguistic misdemeanors as crimes against humanity. They felt Russian was being reduced to the 20th century equivalent of chatspeak.

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

The monument to ‘yo’ in Ulyanovsk, Russia (Photo: City of Ulyanovsk)

In 2005, the city of Ulyanovsk — birthplace of that most famous of Bolsheviks, Lenin himself — unveiled a monument to yo in honor of the local historian who first popularized the rogue letter. But that monument triggered protests, too, which brings us to the other reason Russians love yo.

“My guess is that the letter is so popular because a very obscene word begins with this letter,” says Gorbachov. “And Russians, we like krepkaya slova, you know — a curse word. So people are amused by having this letter around. There may be other reasons, but that’s probably the principal reason.”

Given that Vladimir Putin recently passed a law banning the use of curse words in Russian films, plays and print media, one can only wonder; will yo end up a victim of modernity or propriety?

Or maybe Russia will end up keeping yo, and keeping it weird.


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