Interesting & varied language stories from all around the world, curated by our dedicated writer. From the topical to the absurd, the grand and the obscure, it’s all here for you to enjoy.

Chicago Red Jackets

The Chicago Tribune reported on Tuesday that 29 “airport customer service representatives” may lose their jobs as part of the City of Chicago’s effort to reduce its spending.

The problem is that these airport employees are more than just “greeters” or “customer service representatives.” They are also translators for the many visitors from other countries that go through the Chicago O’Hare Airport each year.

The employees are known as “red jackets” because of their eye-catching uniforms, and they have been part of the scenery in Chicago O’Hare Airport for the past four decades. From the article, it appears that each employee speaks at least 3 languages.

Why would the city of Chicago consider throwing away employees with these valuable skills? It all comes down to money. The city is facing a $469 million financial shortfall this year. However, upper level management in the same division as the greeters gets to stay… and they actually get raises.

If you’ve ever travelled abroad in a country where most people don’t speak your language, you know what a wonderful service it is that these greeters provide. When something goes wrong with your travel plans, it’s an incredible relief to be able to find someone who can understand you and who is willing to help.

So, who is going to provide this service now? Stephanie Burzawa, one of the employees quoted in the article, asks:

“How is Chicago going to be there to help travellers, or welcome people to the Olympics here [in 2016], if they are rolling up the welcome mat for people getting off the planes?”

Apparently, Chicago’s Olympic visitors will be warmly greeted by…a phone booth. According to the Tribune article, “the city has placed “translation phones” at five locations at the airports.”

“Translation phones” instead of real people?

Hopefully, the city will reconsider. Even the U.S. Transportation Security Administration chief in the airport is quoted saying that:

“It would be a great loss to the airport . . . to lose this valuable resource.”

Lost in Translation

Last month at the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest international literary gatherings, guess what American publishers lined up to buy?

Work by other American, or at least British, authors.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, large American publishing houses are afraid to buy publishing rights for foreign-language books because they don’t think Americans are willing to purchase literature that has been translated from a foreign language. But are they being given a chance?

Out of 15,000 new book titles released in the US this year, only 330 were from authors that write in a foreign language.

That’s only about 2%!

Sure, a poorly done translation can turn off readers, but great literature is not just limited to the English language.

A good translation of a foreign novel can capture and communicate the essence of the original book, allowing English-speaking readers to enjoy reading books from all over the world even if we speak a different language than the writer.

Why are American publishers afraid of publishing translated books?

The conventional wisdom is that they don’t sell well. However, the New York Times article quoted Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France, as saying that translated books simply don’t get the same marketing and promotion as English-language books, so of course they don’t have strong sales.

However, even highly regarded international titles are usually much cheaper to purchase than work by American authors. Plus, many European governments will reimburse publishers for the translation costs.

With so much great foreign literature going un-translated and unpublished in America, what are Americans missing? In the Times article, Anne-Solange Noble has an answer:

“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled,”

Ms. Noble said.

“It is what I call the poverty of the rich.”

Native Arapaho Speakers

On Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Northern Arapaho tribe is struggling to preserve its language.

As with many Native American tribes, Arapaho children were forced into boarding schools started in the late 1800’s in an effort to make them more “American.” Of course, that’s really pretty ironic if you think about it, considering that their ancestors colonized America thousands of years before the ancestors of the people who tried to “Americanize” them even knew this continent existed.

However, the goal of the boarding schools was to make Native Americans give up their culture and be more like the “civilized” English-speaking whites.

At the boarding schools, traditional Native American hairstyles were forbidden. So was the Arapaho language-students were punished harshly for speaking it. These practices persisted even until the 1940’s and ‘50s. As a result, there are no native Arapaho speakers under the age of 55. Knowledge of the Arapaho tongue has basically skipped a generation, although adults are learning it now as a second language. The New York Times reports that in an attempt to save the language, the Arapaho are opening a school for children where classes will be taught only in Arapaho. At first, the school will teach pre-Kindergarten to 1st grade, but will start taking in progressively older students over time if everything goes according to plan.

Hopefully, the immersion environment provided by the schools will create a new generation of Arapaho speakers. The American government’s attempt to extinguish Native American culture has done some serious damage and left many tribes with a legacy of poverty and social problems.

One interesting tidbit mentioned in this New York Times article was that fluency in native tribal languages has been tied to better academic achievement in Native American kids.

The Cherokee language

In parts of the United States today, including Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, road signs are marked with unfamiliar symbols that don’t correspond to English letters. Passing through these areas, you may wonder what the symbols mean.

In all likelihood, you are looking at signs written in the Cherokee language, a remarkable example of linguistic resilience. In spite of 100 years worth of efforts to stamp it out, there are still approximately 22,000 native Cherokee speakers alive today.

How did they manage to preserve their language?

The Cherokee language is unique among Native American languages in that it is both a written and spoken language. Written Cherokee, or Tsalagi as it’s more properly called, has a full syllabary, a collection of symbols in which each symbol corresponds to a sound. Currently, there are two stories of how the syllabary came to be invented.

The most commonly told story and the one with the most historical evidence to back it is that it was created around 1821 by a Cherokee Indian named George Guess or Gist, known as Sogwali in Cherokee and Sequoyah to white people who didn’t bother to get the spelling of his name right. Naturally, Sequoyah is the name that stuck in the historical record. Sequoyah invented the Tsalagi alphabet after seeing how white settlers were able to communicate in writing. He taught it first to his young daughter, then to as many Cherokee as were willing to learn it-eventually educating thousands of his people. According to this generally accepted version of history, Sequoyah also acted as a diplomat for the Cherokees, signing treaties for them.

However, there is a competing version of the story. In 1971, Traveler Bird, one of Sogwali’s descendents, published a book claiming that Sequoyah was not the creator of the Tsalagi alphabet, but actually the last surviving member of a clan of scribes that had passed on the written version of the language for generations. According to Traveler Bird, Sequoyah didn’t invent the syllabary; he just passed on his society’s specialized knowledge to the general Cherokee public. Although some of the symbols used in the syllabary as it’s written today are similar to the English alphabet, Traveler Bird claims this is only because they were “reworked” by white missionaries who wanted to cover up the fact that Native Americans could come up with the concept of writing on their own. However, this account is questioned by many historians because of the lack of corroborating evidence.

Keeping the Language Alive

No matter when it happened or who invented it, the Tsalagi syllabary was a brilliant idea. Newspapers, books and bibles were printed, which helped keep the Cherokee language alive even after many of the tribe became Christian and began living lives that closely resembled those of the white settlers.

It also helped keep the language alive through the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, when Cherokee living in Tennessee and North Carolina were forced on a death march to Oklahoma after the government decided that white settlers deserved the land they were living on.

Since the army didn’t even give the people time to prepare for the trip, somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 people died en route. Then, in the name of “assimilation,” the government developed the policy of taking Native American children away from their homes and sending them to schools where they were punished if caught speaking their native language.

Given this history, it’s amazing to see signs for the Trail of Tears and other important Cherokee historical sites marked in the Cherokee language. It’s even more amazing that there are still people who can read them.

820 languages in one country

Which country has the highest number of different languages within its borders? Surprisingly, the answer is not China, India or any other large country.

Tiny Papua New Guinea is all of 462,840 square kilometres in size, about as big as the state of California. Despite its small size, it is the most linguistically diverse country on the planet. According to the Ethnologue website, there are approximately 6,912 known living languages in the world today.

The exact number is subject to change as new languages are discovered and other languages become extinct. Of those 6,912 languages, 820 of them are spoken in Papua New Guinea. Can you imagine 820 languages being spoken in one country?

Why so Many?

There are a couple of reasons that New Guinea has so many different languages. For one thing, the island has been occupied by human beings for a long time-at least 40,000 years!

This means that there has been plenty of time for the language or languages spoken by the original settlers to change and mutate. In fact, even though the same group of people populated New Guinea and Australia, after 40,000 years there are very few similarities between native Australian languages and native New Guinea languages. Over the millennia, they have grown so far apart that they are not even considered part of the same language family.

The territory of New Guinea is also extremely fragmented. New Guinea villages are cut off from their neighbours by a variety of obstacles, including steep mountains, dense forests, rivers and treacherous swamps. Because of this fragmentation, New Guinea has many small indigenous groups with vastly different lifestyles, all having lived in relative isolation from each other for thousands and thousands of years.

Small tribes of people live by fishing on the coasts, by farming at higher elevations, and by gathering sago palms for food in the lowland swamps. Over many centuries, each of these tiny groups has developed its own culture and in many cases its own language.

In New Guinea, most languages have a relatively small number of native speakers. The native New Guinea language with the highest number of speakers is Enga, spoken by approximately 165,000 members of a nomadic tribe called the Maramuni. In so many cases, countries are only held together by a common language. In New Guinea, shared land and a shared history as an Australian colony create a tenuous bond between the citizens.

Still, how do they communicate?

New Guinea has 3 official languages: Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and English.

Tok Pisin is an English-based Creole, a language that started out as a combination of two different languages and evolved into a distinct language of its own. In New Guinea, around 121,000 people grew up speaking Tok Pisin as a first language, but 4 million of the country’s residents are fluent in it.

If you need to be able to communicate in New Guinea, Tok Pisin is probably the best language to learn. Hiri Motu is a pidgin, a combination of the Motu language with English, Tok Pisin and various other regional languages. Very few people grow up speaking Hiri Motu, but approximately 120,000 New Guineans understand it as a second language. Because it is not spoken as a first language, it cannot be considered a Creole language at this time.

According to the New York Times, one of the world’s languages is lost forever every two weeks. New Guinea’s linguistic diversity has so far been protected by the inaccessibility of much of the country, as well as the fact that many people in New Guinea think of themselves as members of their tribe first and their nation second.

Hopefully, as New Guinea becomes more and more modern in the years to come, its rich linguistic heritage will remain intact.

Blog Posts
Portfolio
Pages

Available Pages

Categories
Monthly