Sunday, September 14, 2014

Your English Abroad

Sometimes, I let big nouns and five dollar adjectives blindside me and I forget about the beauty and variance that comes with language. It's something  so necessary, but at the same time so mindbogglingly flexible. There is no thought or idea that a language cannot capture so as we come across new things, our language changes.
Over the last few years, I've been fortunate enough to live and travel and understand how stretchy English can be to accommodate anything it's speaker might meet.

English stretching abroad
The Little Things

Every traveler is familiar with not only absorbing a few phrases from a local language, but the strange moments when those words start to be more comfortable.

It always starts the same - small words and food will change first.

After some time in Moscow, I felt certain short words creeping progressively into my speech. Da and nyet started getting just as much traction as yes and no. Questions could be asked with shto and pochemu just as much as they could start with what and why.
With any time spent in Thailand, people start using plenty of kah and kahp at the end of sentences regardless of the company.

Along with the short words After encountering a whole cuisine that's impossible to translate, strange syllables for food start to invade your lexicon.

Pictured a dozen Korean foods with no English equivalent and some rice

When I bought baked wheat, it was always khleb, not bread. Even food with a translation is swallowed up by the local tongue. No Anglophone in Thailand would seriously consider champu a rose apple.

Think of it like the word sushi or spaghetti. It's to cumbersome to make a new word for food, so it's better to just take one.

Then the local lingo starts to infiltrate a bit more and more, with tiny words and grammars here and there.
If in Russia, your articles (the, a, an) will often emigrate back to the states, while in France they might start appearing in new place.
Thai expat communities are notorious for chopping sentences down, and culling them of all standard grammar until 'have no rice' and 'there is no rice' become interchangeable.
My friends in Germany and Austria often talk using some rather bizarre word order and exclaim things like "Today can't I to the shop go. Tomorrow can though."
Certain words will make it even faster.
After a month in Bangkok, the city's slanted and winding streets were all renamed sois while all foreigners quickly started to identify as farangs and every Buddhist temple has become a wat.

Then you meet the Expats

Native speaker or not, English tends to dominate travelers scenes (both long and short term). And with a language that resists any kind of standardization, comes an endless slew of varieties.
Ex-pat communities will normally develop their own sort of dialect, mashing up all speeches, the local tongue, bits of jargon, and a healthy dollop of gibberish.

In Thailand, the scene of long-timers is very much dominated by the English and Austrailian. Air-con will quickly nestle into your lexicon, while mentioning the oversyllabled air-conditioning will label you as a green-horn North American. Flat and apartment will get used just the same, but for some reason gherkin has out-muscled cucumber. Trousers have bested pants and every stared blank-faced at the mention of slacks.

Pictured: English trousers and pants

Korea tends to lean much more American. Color is spelled u-lessly and zebra is pronounced with a long ee (yes, it comes up).

I love traveling and all the experiences that have come with it, but I've learned that as I change with location, so does my English.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Chinese Will Never be the Global Language

Having studied languages and linguistics formally and by myself, there are two things that really grind my gears.

1. Asking how many languages I speak.

2. Telling me the massive importance of learning Chinese.

This is something me and my academic brethren have been suffering for decades now. You can easily find news reports claiming Chinese as the next global lingua franca since the 90s. Outlets have been the touting the idea that Chinese is the next 'it language' and it's time to dispel that idea.

Firstly, Chinese is not a language in the way most people think of it. Chinese is a chaotic system of dialects so far apart they can't understand each other (think German and English) that share a writing system. When people say Chinese, they usually mean to say Mandarin, the dialect centered around Beijing.

Let's revise, so you think Mandarin is going to be the next global language.

It's not.

Mandarin is indeed an important language, as is any that has about one-billion speakers. There is value in learning it, both financial and aesthetic. But when you look at it with your skeptic lenses, you see how wildly impractical the idea is.

Any lingua franca requires a few things to function. The first is being able to pronounce it.
Mandarin is a tonal language.You can say a syllable five different ways to produce five different tones.

Nope. NO right there.

There is no way that people, who aren't raised with tones are going to be able to use it in their speech. Some can. Some torture themselves regularly to attain the knowledge, but for the layperson, just nope.

To function a trade language also needs to be effective. While you could write an entire book on why English doesn't quite fit that bill, I'll argue that Chinese does much less.

That crazy writing system.


"I'm not Chinese."

That's a fairly simple sentence, but notice that require six different symbols to write down. To be a functioning member of society, estimates say you should know 2,000-2,500 symbols.

Again Nope. People simply aren't going to commit to that. 

Did I mention that not knowing a single symbol means that you could totally mismanage and misunderstand the whole sentence.

In addition English is spoken natively or official on every continent, a position no other language can really boast. This makes it the most available language ever
To give you an idea, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese often spend some time in the Philippines with the explicit purpose of improving their English. The same goes for a number of EU countries for the UK and Ireland.

Where English is an official language

One could also consider the Internet itself where two most popular languages are English and Chinese with relatively close numbers. However, when you look at IP address the Chinese Internet is almost exclusively used by China and Chinese ex-patriots. Conversely, English websites have massive clusters in native countries, but also huge usage in the rest of the world.

Let's get serious now.

Everything I've said up to this point has been purely pragmatic, so let's talk about what really matters: MONEY.

The rest of the world spends millions of dollars in teaching their youth English as a second language. English education is its own industry worth more money than the economy of small nations.

Even Asian countries who used Chinese as their trade tongue centuries ago are more likely to use English. If a Thai and Korean business man sit down to talk turkey, you can bet their tongue of choice is going to come from Britain.
Using English among non-native countries is getting more and more common. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) use English despite only one two member countries having native speakers (the Philippines and Singapore).

I've worked for two years as an English teacher in Thailand, then South Korea. I get paid too well and get free airfare with the simple qualification of being a native speaker with a BA. This sort of privilege is offered to no other native speakers on the planet. The geo-political world would have to shift dramatically before Chinese people will get paid to go abroad just to talk.
There are entire organizations, sponsored by governments just to get English teachers in their country. Japan has JET, South Korea has EPIK.

In contrast, the expenditure on Chinese language acquisition in fairly minimal. One country that spends the most on Chinese language education is South Korea. However, SK's spending on Chinese is absurdly dwarfed by their spending on English.

I'm not saying that Chines isn't important. It is. But you can safely ignoredevery hyped story you've heard of Chinese overtaking English, linguistically anyways.

Here how countries speak English today

Good luck finding such a map for Chinese

Some More To Read

Who Speaking English and How
English Ranking by Continent
English Education in Korea
Koreans trying to de-emphasize English

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Globalization: The Past Hides Abroad

In my junior year of high school (2006), my Latin teacher/mentor and I started a tradition of going twice a month to a restaurant called Benningan's. It was a middle-range place with tacky decor and was totally interchangeable with every Irish themed  family restaurant at the time. Two years after we began the tradition, the chain filed for bankruptcy, we picked a new burger spot and I thought nothing of the chain for six years. That is until I moved to South Korea.

I did a double-take and realized that a brand I thought had long ago fallen away, had actually just moved locations. Then I started to realize how often this happens.
Swensen's ice cream is wildly popular in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, but almost doesn't exist in it's native US. Haagen-Dazs has mega-restaurant across the Pacific. And while Baskin-Robbins isn't exactly threatened in the states, its American presence is totally overshadowed by that in South Korea and Japan.
So a funny thing happens. Brands from North America and Europe often expand to an overseas market, most often in Asia. If they continue to prosper, things stay the same, but if they flounder on their native soil, they usually remain immune abroad. Moreover, they go into time-stasis, where they stay unchanged compared to their native homes.

If you've traveled a bit, it may come off as old news that things like Baskin-Robbins, Swensen's Ice Cream, Bennigan's, Haagen-Dazs, Outback Steakhouse, and Cold Stone Creamery are all vastly more popular abroad than in their native America. But the story of preservation by travel is just as old as travel.

Like so many things, I'll use language as an example.

When Britain came to settle the US, they brought with them their accents and flourished in the New World. Back across the pond, dialects within Britain started to change and over centuries became what they are today. At the same time, the New England dialect stayed the same and preserved something that was lost across the Atlantic.

In Asia, the calligraphic symbols used in Chinese (hanzi, kanji, hanja) 

Before it migrated to bad tattoos
were brought to Korea and Japan centuries ago. While the Korean and Japanese forms of writing these have stayed the same, mainland China has had significant writing reforms to increase literacy.

The same two symbols
Left: Hong Kong, Japan, Korea
Right: Mainland China

Colonial languages have a tendency as well to retain more historical words, while the language will change in the 'homeland.' For example Nigerian English often uses words from the colonial period that are no longer in use today.

This sort of borrowing then time freezing is especially common with pop-culture. Walking around a major city in South Korea or watching K-pop videos, there's a distinct hip-hop influence. What's more interesting is that it's a distinctly 80s and 90s influence. 
Hip-hop in America has changed significantly since the 90s, but the old style in kept alive and strong in the land of Kimchi and Samsung.

I get to see this on TV anytime I use the stationary bike
This has also happened with things as grand as religions. Buddhism is hugely popular in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia), but not so much in its native India.

There's a certain lack along the subcontinent

So if you really want to preserve something, perhaps the best thing to do is send it abroad.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Geek Culture Preserving the English Lexicon

Imperium, shire, talisman, steward, wraith, tunic, codex, automaton, chalice.

You might not know these words at first glance, but some probably come off familiar to the average native English speaker. They're unusual words, no doubt but they all share a common thread alongside their rarity.


Languages pick up and toss out words much faster than most people would believe. Think of the last time you heard cooper, aghast, or burgeon in anything modern. Most often it's jargon and the outdated that meets the lexical chopping block first.
So as our society becomes less superstitious words like wraith, lych, and necromancy start to go the same way as cooper, flecher, yeoman, scrivener and dozens of other jobs long-gone. How often do the resurrected dead or an arrow-maker come into conversation? As it would seem, magic trumps the mundane, because our more fantastical words have been holding steadfast, while others get evicted from the OED and Webster's. As things like cloven, bulwark, vassal, and wroth depart from conversation the next centuries, our more nerdy words seem more likely to stick around.

Fantasy and SF have always had a devout, and until recently esoteric following, but the last two decades have shown massive spill over into mainstream media. Zombie is an every day word now. Shire and wraith were popularize in the USA by Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and recycled in modern fantasy since.
I encourage anyone interested to use Google's word tracker. Here's zombie.

As TV and movies continue the trend of becoming more and more fantastical, authors and screenwriters are more likely to grab more lexical nuggets from the brink. And something else to consider is their growing currency in more popular media. With TV shows like Hemlock Grove, Supernatural, Game of Thrones, Grimm, and two dozen other vampire/werewolf things, strange words like lychathropy and golem avoid oblivion.

In a few centuries years our grandchildren may not know what a 'sallow and craven dilettante' is, but I'll hazard a guess that they could probably recognize a wraith, vampire, werewolf, and zombie.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

When the Southerner Became Flat: Southern Stereotypes in Media

As I mentioned previously, I recently finished a massive list of 250 classic movies. They mostly came from the US and spanned the 1910s until today. Last night I started to re-watch the Shining and noticed something really unimportant. Shelley Duvall's character has a southern accent, albeit not a very good one.
Well so what?
It struck me because she was a women with a southern accent who is dynamic, detailed, and interesting - a rarity in modern Hollywood. She goes totally against the grain of current portrayal of the southern accent and I started to wonder how long I've been accepting a southern accent as short hand for flat, unintelligent, one-dimensional, and/or racist characters.
I'm sure this didn't help

Growing up in Florida, the Southern accent has not been present every day. As most 'true' Southerners will tell you The South ends a little below Georgia. Nonetheless, the accent has been a hugely present. In my life, I've known teachers, police-officers, assholes, clerks, fools, and businessman who all talk the talk. Like any speech variant, it's speakers come as all kinds. Regardless of my respect for people below the Mason-Dixon, I find myself guilty of accepting the medias one-dimensional and lazy character of drops their g's and lengthen their vowels.

So I looked back and tried to determine when the Southerner became flat, trope-filled place-holder.
Naturally, we're all tempted to look at the Civil War, but it starts earlier than that. Like any country, if there are regions, there are jokes about those regions.
While the history of the North and South's depictions of one another is really interesting, a want to skip ahead to when American media was less regional and popular fiction began to take hold.

Southerners really took the spotlight in literature with the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. Authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Margaret Williams wildly popular novel 'Gone with the Wind' brought former plantations and agrarian ancestry onto the popular American conscience. These are all novels that take place in the South written by Southerners, so the characters fall along the whole spectrum of complicated and morally ambiguous to the flat.

A Book with a stronger economy than Grenada
It's not until the silver screen becomes popular that people write character from the former Confederacy without having been from it themselves. But again, when?

In the 1940's, 50's and early 60's major motion pictures that took place in the south were mostly adaptations of stories written by Southerners (Gone With the Wind 1939, The Glass Menagerie 1950, A Streetcar Named Desire 1951, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958) and held fairly close to their source material.
While Disney's Song of the South did come out in 1946, it portrays its characters as broad character archetypes of the time who happen do live in Georgia.

However, it was quite racist
The 1960's introduced more stories in the area that were not written by those they sought to portray. In 1967 audiences were given two future classics - Cool Hand Luke, and In the Heat of the Night. Neither of these were written (source material or screenplay) or directed by native southerners. Regardless of origin, both films feature complex, interesting, and intelligent characters.
In the Heat of the Night, however, had more impact on how America viewed the South. The story of a black cop working in a racist and xenophobic Mississippi town came out during the Civil Rights era and became an overnight success. Here we see the first germs of stereotype of racist and gun-happy that really take hold in the American zeitgeist.
The themes of xenophobia and guns with Southerners come back without apology in the pulp thriller Deliverance. Grey scale morality and characterization is totally tossed aside for villain and survival storytelling. Here the public image of the Southerner takes a severe hit despite the violence occurs between men who are all from Georgia.

The 80s follow the theme from In the Heat of the Night and top-grossing films with Southerners become about race (The Color Purple, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning). Unintentionally, this presented an idea to the larger audience that the South was a place of constant racial strife and the residue of racism was put on the South in the public mind.

In the 1990's the modern Southern stereotypes start to conceal into one cohesive archetype as Southerners get more one dimensional in film, TV, and cartoons.
By far one of the worst offenders is Adam Sandler's The Waterboy. Set in Louisiana, every character bares a strong (and often absurd accent) and is always shouting in broken English to display their fanaticism toward football, religion, or both. The main emotional conflict is that Kathy Bates hates education.

And everyone eats snakes and alligators
In 1994, Forrest Gump showed the world a young man from Alabama who was not only unintelligent and naive, but who was actually mentally handicapped. While the intention may have been to prove Forrest's innocence it still remains as a mental association of the South with stupidity.
Shortly before this The Beverly Hillbillies got their own movie which manages to flatten each character so thoroughly, each line became transferable between the characters.

Television at this time would often feature characters who were naive/unintelligent/racist using the Southern accent as shorthand. Seinfeld had a character whose entire personality was ignored because Jerry was only interested in her accent. Drew from The Drew Carey Show dates one of the most simplistic portrayals of both women and Southerners.
What's worse about this is that Southerners in television are quickly becoming one-scene characters to provide joke fodder and then disappear.

This quickly trickled into cartoons, both for children and adults. Every Simpsons character with (any) accent is most often a caricature of their homeland.

Guns, anger, and accent - no effort needed
King of the Hill features characters who are extremely deep, thoughtful, and complex but nonetheless has an entire cast that would go against character to support a stereotype joke.
The Powerpuff Girls has a villain who's entire being is summed up in overalls, stupidity, and a banjo.

And these days, the worst offender is reality TV. In the last few years we've seen a glut of Southerners working blue collar/bizarre jobs on camera and fulfilling every bad stereotype about the South.
Hillbilly Handfishin', Swamp People, Duck Dynasty, American Hoggers, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Big Shrimpin', Rocket City Rednecks, and anything with Paula Deen.

People will always speak differently and humor about that is fine and can be hilarious if handled rightly. The problem with this portrait of the American South is that it puts every Southerner into a box devoid of characterization and devoid of depth. And when people lack depth we stop seeing them as people.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Young Adult Dystopias and Other Adventures in the American Way

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! - Karl Marx

This pithy line by Marx is a good reflection of his philosophy and ideals. At first it comes off as considerate idea about human fairness and having a level playing field in society. And like any maxim it can be easily distorted through misinterpretation or alternate goals.
So why is this relevant to young adult novels?

With 'The Giver' flick coming to theaters, my girlfriend decided to pick up the book for a re-read. In discussing it she pointed out how closely the values of the society within could be compared to failed autocratic societies.
As in most of my posts, I'm not saying anything new. The comparison has been made. Though this week, after I re-read a few sections myself, I understood the implications of fashioning every young adult novel in a society based on some failed form or fascism/communism/authoritarianism/whatever.
It helps indoctrinate us to a 50's style American way. Complete with ironically promoting individualism on national scale and stiff opposition to big government.

But first let me go through a brief time-line of the genre.

The average Anglophone may assume Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to be the first true dystopian novel, but they'd be wrong. Ironically or not, the first work about going against 'The Man' and seeking freedom from society, was written in Russia.

Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote about a city made of glass, where everyone's lives were public knowledge, and life was perfect and for its protagonist, D-503, unfufilling.
And with this prediction of state-control Zamyatin sets up the first staple tropes of the dystopian genre.

  • Powerful and controlling state/government
  • State-supportive propaganda often accompanied by pithy maxims and sayings
  • Extreme societal conformity
  • Unusual organization of citizenry
  • Advanced technology
  • Setting that's 20 minutes in the future
  • Restriction of factual information
  • Protagonist facing spiritual dissatisfaction
Eleven years later (1932) Huxley would publish Brave New World and really introduce the idea to the English-speaking world.
Orwell in 1949, would borrow extensively from Zamyatin  but through his own filter, giving them a distinctly Anglican feeling. So while Russian speculative fiction never really broke out in the West, Orwell and Huxley brought fictional societies to the literary foreground and popular consciousness. 

The idea would be then be copied by other writers and keep the same trend of tropes and formulaics and putting there on spin on it. All of these consistently reinforce the notion that big government is bad and can all too quickly transform society into something soulless and without beauty.

And really this continues on with.

Player Piano, 1953

Fahrenheit 451, 1953

Atlas Shrugged, 1957

A Clockwork Orange, 1962

The Handmaid's Tale, 1985

America and England fought authoritarian powers and 'won' but these fights left behind a ghost that refuses excision. In these novels we fight similar behemoths but the comparisons change. Yesteryear's Soviet Union is today's North Korea. And with various echoes, the call for a more libertarian protagonist emerges.

This is best represented in Ayn Rand's economic dystopia in Atlas Shrugged, but the sentiment stuck around and wiggled into young adult novels with The Giver. Both bare strikingly similar messages about the importance of personal freedom before society. 
And when I mean society, I mean all parts including family, safety, and duty.

I was really struck when The Giver's main character Jonas chose to run away from society rather than assist it despite his position of power. It echoes to every major character of Atlas Shrugged, who rather than help to solve the world cloister away from it. Depending on the reading this can come off as a selfish abdication of responsibility (all these characters are in some way skilled or respected) disguised as personal freedom.

The recent stream of YA dystopia's has re-rooted itself in anti-authoritarian and anti-organization ideals (The Uglies series, Divergent, Battle Royale) have taken to making their captor states much less benign. The author has returned the state as the brutal and heartless villain, but the extreme anti-system and anti-authority sentiments remain.


The Hunger Games is an interesting exception to the normal tropes young adult and dystopian novels like to work on. We see much of the same setting.
  • Brutal and soulless government
  • Oppressed Masses
  • Unusual organization of its people
  • State surveillance and control

But all of this evil is centered around the Capitol and for the first time in a long time shows a distinctly anti-capitalist bend. The Capitol feels like Marx explaining the decadence of the bourgeoisie while the districts provide a clear class of proletariat. Suzanne Collins added an extra element to her story that I think is worth noting. Katniss' struggle is not only for her personal freedom, its also about being treated fairly. To know that her work is a benefit to her people as a opposed to an overseer's.

Or perhaps, I've read too much into it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Office: A Stealth Dark Comedy

The American version of 'The Office' came out on NBC when almost a decade ago, when I was still in high school. My only jobs during those lazy years were odd and infrequent. And when you mow lawns or house-sit, there is no boss and no bureaucracy.

As a result, whenever I watched Jim and Pam struggle to navigate in a system with the impossibly, intractably, and iconically incompetent Michael Scott, I was laughing at them. As a voyeur, I laughed at their discomfort and the bizarre microcosms that pop up in a work place.

My parents were laughing for entirely reasons. They knew from the start that this was meant as a dark comedy and Jim's life was painted pitch black.
Now I'm older, wiser, and so much more greatly empathetic to our young co-workers because only two years out of college I see myself in them every day.

Making this face EVERY DAY

Unless you're very lucky, wealthy, or skill, you'll be in some sort of work place surrounded by people you never sought out and dealing with a boss you can't begin to understand.
Since Office Space, media has really enjoyed portraying a 9-5 as some spirit-crushing, emasculating system meant to kill you.
It's not depressing, it's not soul-sucking unless you only focus on the bad parts of it.
It's simple different than your ideal situation and requires a lot of diplomacy. Not a terrible thing, just not great and as I've noticed the more drastic schism between my work-self and home-self, I ask

"Am I going to just be Jim the rest of my life?"

And really I hope I am.
Jim handled each ridiculous situation with a certain display of give, mirth, and humor. And realising that it may take some time before I might start my own business, become a famous painter, win the lottery, etc I understand that John Krasinski's attitude is the only way to.
That's why the show focuses on him and Pam taking things in stride.
If they focused on Angela, everyone would meet the end credits with bitterness and an uncompromising attitude.

And cat prices would skyrocket