Tag Archives: Zulu

No room for African or Indian languages in Disney’s multilingual version of ‘Let It Go’

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Images from the Tumblr, “This Could Have Been Frozen”

Disney has released a version of the Oscar-nominated song “Let it Go” from the animated movie Frozen that includes lyrics sung in 25 languages. It sounds global and inclusive, but most of the languages are European.

This is the Epcot World Showcase of songs: a trip around the linguistic world — or at least the one according to Disney.

The song opens with a line in English, followed by French, German and Dutch. That sets the tone.

Seventeen of the languages are European, including some that are not exactly widely spoken — Catalan, for example, and the dialect of Dutch spoken by the Flemish of Belgium. Regular Dutch is also included, as well as Serbian (but not Croatian), Bulgarian and many more.

Danish is represented too — appropriately enough, given that “Frozen” is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

From Asia, there’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai. And from the Americas, Latin American Spanish and Canadian French. (Interestingly, there is no Brazilian Portuguese, or for that matter, British English.)

From Africa there’s … nothing. Not one language. The same goes for South Asia. Between them, these two regions acccount for for more than 3,000 of the world’s languages.

I contacted Disney to ask why they ignored such a huge part of the world. But no one returned my calls and emails. (One Disney representative did say to me as she connected me to a colleague’s voicemail, “Thank you, Sir. And you have a magical day.”)

Disney, of course, has long been criticized for its preference for white-skinned heroines. Before the release of “Frozen,” a Tumblr called This Could Have Been Frozen re-imagined Elsa the Snow Queen as black, Tibetan, Mongolan, Iniut and other ethnicities.

Given that dissatisfaction, the release of this song seems like a missed opportunity. It wouldn’t have taken much to have had “Let it Go” recorded in say, Zulu or Yoruba, and included in the multilingual mash-up.

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    From Afrikaans to Zulu, South Africa’s languages have stories to tell

    Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

    Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (Wikimedia Commons)

    During apartheid, South Africa had two official languages, English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages, like the people who spoke them, were considered inferior.

    When apartheid ended, the Afrikaner minority that had ruled South Africa was willing to give up some of its power — but not its language.

    “Language for the Afrikaner nationalists had been central to their identity, their being, their struggle,” said South African constitutional judge Albie Sachs. “They could just about imagine conceding democracy, and could just about imagine a constitution in which black and white were equal. But if Afrikaans was downgraded: boom!”

    Sachs — who was imprisoned and exiled during apartheid — helped write the post-apartheid constitution, which upgraded nine indigenous languages without reducing the status of English and Afrikaans.

    “In two sentences, we had solved the basic dilemma of the language question in South Africa,” said Sachs. “No language is any more important than any other language.”

    Government recognition of 11 languages reflects Nelson Mandela’s vision of an inclusive rainbow nation. But it has also created tensions: English dominates in many spheres of business and culture, as it does elsewhere around the globe.

    Afrikaans remains tainted by its association with apartheid, even as some of its younger speakers are trying to change that. Also, some middle class blacks prefer to speak English in the home, rather than Xhosa, Tswana or other indigenous languages.

    South Africa has nearly seven million Afrikaans native speakers, placing it ahead of English, but behind Zulu and Xhosa.

    More than 11 million South Africans grew up speaking Zulu, but few speak it as a second language, and fewer still speak it in business settings. As a result, the language is not evoloving as rapidly as say, English. It can also be clunky. The words for the numerals eight and nine are horribly long, for example, so Zulu speakers often just switch to the English words. And like many indigenous languages, there aren’t many Zulu words for the Internet age.

    So language activist Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi has invented his own Zulu words, and hoping that his neologisms catch on. He has already dreamed up more than 500 words, such as buyafuthi (recycling), derived from the Zulu words for ‘bring back’ and ‘again.’

    You can hear Phiwayinkosi Mbutazi discuss his one-man Zulu language academy in the audio of this story, along with excerpts of linguist Mark Turin’s excellent BBC documentary on the recent history of South Africa’s languages. The full version of Turin’s documentary is in this previous podcast.


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    New Roles for Old Languages in South Africa

    Linguist Mark Turin reports from South Africa, whose post-Apartheid constitution designates eleven languages as official. Since that constitution came into effect in 1997, English has become more popular than ever, Afrikaans has re-invented itself, while the government’s efforts to raise the status of languages like Xhosa and Zulu have succeeded– up to a point.

    This is the second of a three-part series Turin did for the BBC. Part one, on the changing linguistic landscape in Nepal, is here.



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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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