Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brief thoughts about language

I’ve run across several little points of interest regarding language in recent weeks, much of which was based around the World Cup as the confluence of many different cultures and peoples. As most of those who know me will be glad to irritably point out, I’m a bit of a grammar marm (“unique” is an ultimate; you can no more be “kind of unique” than you can be “kind of pregnant”) and mildly concerned about the degradation of the English language (the one I know best) and communication, in general. It’s one of the supreme ironies (genuine) of life that the world’s greatest communication tool, the InterWebs, is also the thing that is most reducing the ability of the species to communicate, whether by the reduction of text to something approximating alpha-numeric Streetspeak or the echo chamber created by only frequenting information sources that agree with your worldview. But the occasional pitfalls in communication only really become prominent when trying to bridge the actual gap of language, as we saw in this year’s tournament.

Hulk fall!
 The Croatian team had basically outplayed the hosting Brazilians in the first match of the event until the referee made an atrociously bad call in the box and awarded a penalty kick to Brazil. The Croats immediately surrounded the Japanese official, protesting the call, to which he responded with a couple mumbles and hand signals. Why? Well, because FIFA, in all its brilliance, had somehow assigned a mono-lingual official to the opening display of the biggest sporting event in the world. He knew only Japanese, which none of the Croatian players knew. However, that wasn’t what upset them. What really got to them was that he didn’t know English because almost all of them were at least roughly fluent in that (as are many other officials in FIFA’s ranks…) English, as many world travelers are aware these days, has become the lingua franca of the age. Here’s where we try to wrap our minds around the idea of English being the target of an Italian term for “Frankish language”, a pidgin communication used around the eastern Mediterranean by the dominant Italian and Ottoman merchants in the 16th century. Strangely enough, actual French (the descendants of the Franks) became the lingua franca of the 18th and 19th centuries before English began to dominate in the last 100 years because of the spread of American culture and hegemony.

Smażyć się w piekle?
That moment reminded me of the Euro championships two years before in Poland and Ukraine, where anti-Russian demonstrators would often appear outside the venues for the soccer matches with various banners like the “Anti-Putin League” written, obviously, in English since it was the surest way of communicating among Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, and the thousands of international visitors. What makes this reality odd to many of us is the concept of the Ugly American; that famously abrasive traveler who appears oblivious to local custom or communication except to believe that by speaking Tourist (loudly and slowly via Twoflower of Discworld fame), they’ll be able to communicate anything to anyone: “CAN… YOU… TELL… ME… WHERE… THE… LOOV-REH… IS?!” These days, he’d probably be right.

Of course, the spread of English has largely been conveyed not only by American economic dominance but also by American entertainment, including sports… making it even stranger that it would be the dominant vehicular language of the largest tournament of a sport that continues to have little traction in the US, relative to other major sports, and which many Americans actively reject as “un-American” (no accounting for taste or intelligence there.) But forms of American slang are also spreading.

If only this was the most obvious example.
Textspeak, adopted organically as a matter of convenience, continues to leak over into other electronic communications, such that many businesses are expressly forbidding it in any kind of official communication attempt (like, say, a job application.) But it’s interesting to note that the lingo common to much of that new style was adopted much earlier by such things as the TL;DR exercise or simple typos.

An example of the former case is online forum communications, where anything past a hundred words is automatically dismissed by much of the Ritalin-prescribed populace as simply too much information to be absorbed. Thus, Too Long; Didn’t Read prefixing a one or two sentence condensation of the post that, of course, removes any and all nuance and context. The latter case centers on frequent typos. Perhaps the best known is that of “pwned.” The term first arose on the forum for Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft game and was an expression for completely dominating one’s opponent (originally “owned”.) There’s fairly widespread dispute as to whether the first use of the term was a typo or was the mistaken approximation to the intended term by the game’s vast Korean audience. I trend toward believing the former but the latter would add a certain texture to the story that speaks even more about the language difficulties and transformations alluded to above.

In ur base, killin ur d00dz...
Most outside the gaming world have only a cursory experience with terms like “pwned”. In other words, they know that kids and geeks use it, which is similar to many other expressions and shorthands that often separate generations and which become outdated with the accession of a new cultural overlay. With the increased prevalence of technology and the tendency of people of all ages to use things like textspeak, one wonders if we’re looking at a transformation of the vehicular language from English to a pidgin form of English even among English speakers.

Incidentally, the presence of the lingua franca wasn’t the only language issue that cropped up during the World Cup. The famously welcoming hosts, who speak Portuguese unlike every other nation on their continent, were reportedly pretty testy about hearing Spanish spoken around the venues; that being the language of two of the most significant challengers to their presumed victory. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, for NPR, was castigated by listeners for not only speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent but also supposedly speaking Spanish with an Argentinian accent (she claims otherwise), since Argentina was the most threatening of those potential challengers. The strange interplay among cultures wasn’t solely the province of the fans, either, as otherwise brilliant commentator, Ian Darke, attempted to make a point about fans in the stadium during the US-Portugal match perhaps favoring the latter because of a shared culture and language… neglecting to remember that Brazil was a Portuguese colony which fought a fairly ferocious war of independence to remove that status. That said, the US did the same and you’ll find a lot of casual fans favoring the English national team and the Premier League because them people look like us and talk like us…

Now I begin to wonder how we could increase the spread of Braille with accents. If you’re reading in Boston, do you replace all of the Rs with Ahs?

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