Monday, July 31, 2006

How Did This Happen?
This morning, as I caught up on my internet reading over breakfast, I found myself reading Roger Shuy's Language Log post about how much most linguists seem to love their jobs, which left me feeling a bit wistful about my own life. Then, this afternoon, I filled in the last 15 otherwise mostly dead minutes of my time at work writing a quick and dirty explanation of grammatical case in answer to a question from a friend. This left me feeling a lot more engaged and energized than all of the preceding 5.75 hours of my day at work, a realization that in turn made me remember a comment from another friend about how ironic it was that I had managed to get through all of undergraduate school and a Master's program without an actual degree of any sort in linguistics, despite that being what I had gone into each institution intending to study. How does this always happen to me? Why do I let it happen? I'm not terribly regretful of my undergraduate degree(s) in Spanish and Latin American Studies, but my MA-TESOL has been remarkably unfulfilling for me in pretty much every conceivable way. So, in considering further courses of study, in more fulfilling subjects, I should endeavor to remember a misread sign one of my other friends once saw: "Do not leave your longings unattended."

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Linguistic Ignorance Undermines Victorian Pretention
Q: When is a diphthong not a diphthong?
A: When it is a consonant sound that happens to be represented by a digraph in English.

I've become somewhat obsessed with reading the Amelia Peabody mysteries in order, now that I'm back in a place with a fabulous and easily accessible public library. They are set in the Victorian and post-Victorian era, with an upper class family of British archeologists as the main characters. The narrator amusingly evidences her class prejudices by ocassionally badgering those around her about their pronunciation and grammar, and at various points linguistic knowledge is bandied about. However, at the end of one of the more recent books, I got to this passage:
"Did you catch de lady?"

For a moment I thought the childish treble was Evvie's [another grandchild's] - but Evvie never abused her diphthongs in that fashion. I had only known one other child who did...
And I had to backtrack and look very carefully at what the child in question had said. Nowhere in that sentence is there any evidence of a vowel sound made up of what is actually two sounds, except the [eI] in "lady," and I failed to see any evidence of abuse there.

Clearly, what she meant to refer to was the substitution of [d] for [ð], otherwise known as the voiced alveolar fricative. Which is all well and good, (if also showing a misunderstanding of common childhood acquisition patterns of the sounds of English,) but it does not make pronouncing "de" instead of "the" an abuse of diphthongs. It rather ruined the overall air of overbred Victorian pretention for me, because I had to stop and get all analytical about a misuse of linguistic terminology.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Men of Steel: Hollywood vs. Bollywood
or Comparative Cultural Anthropology for $12

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a cultural anthropology project without having to go more than a few miles from home. I was house-sitting for a family friend, and found myself located much closer than I normally am to the local Indian-owned movie theater. In checking the listings, I discovered that they were playing Krrish, (official, though less informative, site here). It was described as the story of a man with superhuman powers who becomes a hero, and since it opened the same weekend as Superman Returns, the opportunity for comparison seemed too good to pass up. How would the Hollywood and Bollywood interpretations of action herodom differ?

A great deal, as it turns out, but I think what was really shown in the end was not really anything about cultural ideas of superheroism as much as it was the differences in the story-telling traditions of the two major film production powerhouses. The fact that both movies had similar main characters and were produced contemporaneously was a nice control, but the stories ended up having entirely different impacts.

First, the similarities. Both movies star handsome young men* who inherited superhuman powers from their fathers, whom they never knew. Both were raised in rural areas and discovered how to control their powers on their own. (The two movies have some amusingly similar "growing up and developing super speed" scenes.) Both men have very defined concepts of right and wrong. Both feel a very strong need to conceal their identities. They both have an annoying and conveniently unobservant love interest in the news industry. They each have an obscenely wealthy and overly ambitious arch-nemesis, who of course inevitably end up threatening the aforementioned love interest.

Superman Returns was pretty much what we have come to expect from Hollywood superhero movies. Lots of action, feats of strength and derring-do, and a semi-tortured alter-ego. Most Western heroes of late, especially Spiderman and Batman, are given to a bit more introspection than Superman, (but then, he was the first, the archetype, and had no need to be overly individualized,) spending a great deal of time having moral wars with themselves about their duty to society, using their power for good, etc. In the last Spiderman movie, he even lost his powers when he decided not to use them for heroism any longer. The loved ones who know the hero's true identity are required to always be supportive and encouraging of the hero's necessarily dangerous lifestyle. The love stories in these movies tend to be a bit taken for granted. To oversimplify, the hero's cute, and once the girl finds out who he really is, of course she falls for him. Much as I liked the fact that Superman Returns was so neatly matched to the previous works in the Superman canon, I have to admit that the plot didn't have much development beyond what was necessary to get Superman from one feat to the next. The audience enjoyed it because they could, if they felt like it, add in their own interpretation of Superman-y background details, but it did require the audience to already be familiar with the essential elements, particularly with regards to the whole Clark-and-Lois interplay (or lack thereof, in this case).

In Krrish, however, the hero is a very reluctant one. He's been forbidden by his grandmother to demonstrate his powers to anyone. She lost her son to such supposed acts of heroism, and she doesn't intend to lose her grandson. The entire issue of being more than human is treated as more of an unfortunate personality trait than as a mixed gift, and is therefore downplayed as much as possible in a movie supposedly about a superhero. In fact, in the true tradition of Bollywood, the movie is more about the relationship between the hero and the girl. The entire first half of the movie is just about their intensifying interest in one another out in the mountainous adventure-tourist areas of India. It isn't until almost 2/3 of the way through the movie that the hero actually does anything heroic (saving his love and several children from a burning circus tent,) and then he feels intense guilt about having disobeyed his grandmother. His entire purpose in having traveled to apparently crime-ridden Singapore was to ask the girl to marry him (and get her mother's permission, like a good boy), and all these crimes are a dreadful nuisance. The movie ends, not on a note of more heroic adventures to come, but with a return of the young lovers to the grandmother's rural farmhouse. The movie was all about the interpersonal relationships, with more acts of heroism and fewer song-and-dance numbers than normal for a bit of sci-fi interest.

Update: As soon as I published all the above, I thought of a more elegant way to sum it all up. The Hollywood version offers us a superhero story with a love story thrown in for interest. The Bollywood version presents the opposite: a love story with superheroism for flavor.

Now I'm curious to compare the latest version of Pride and Prejudice with Bollywood's Bride and Prejudice.

*From the Dept. of Useless But Interesting Information, the actor who plays Krrish, Hrithik Roshan, has an extra thumb on his right hand.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Howl's Moving Castle: Book vs. Movie
While I was at the aforementioned conference in Rhode Island, I found myself with a bit more time to read than I had anticipated. (The convention center was attached to a mall. Vendor's hall business was, to put it mildly, slow.) After having read the two books I brought with me, and cursing myself for not bringing the third because the second one ended on a really annoying cliffhanger, I went over to the mall myself and replenished my print addiction aid supply. I ended up getting Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle. As you may recall, I'm a Miyazaki fan, but when I saw his adaptation of Howl, I was left feeling like I was missing something.

As it turns out, there was a huge amount of the plot of the book that got left out of the movie. The essential plot was still there, certainly, and I understand why Miyazaki left out the parts that he did, as they would have required a lot more explanation and screen time, but having now read those parts, it explains why the movie seemed to skip in some places, mostly when dealing with Sophie's life.

The other interesting thing is the way Miyazaki changed the character of Howl and his plotline. The book adds a lot more explanation of why Howl is running away all the time, and I think the movie does away altogether with the idea that he was supposed to be tracking down the king's brother, but the movie made his character a lot more vivid. In the book, he's just kind of shallow and disorganized, but in the movie, his magic, when he does choose to use it, is much more interesting and impressive. (There's nothing about turning into a bird in the book.) Somehow, this also makes the love story between Sophie and Howl more plausible. In the movie, it was easier to see how such a thing might happen. In the book, they snipe at each other the whole time, and then suddenly, Sophie's curse is broken, she's young again, and she and Howl are in love, all on the last page and for not much of a reason that I could see.

I want to see the movie again now, so I can compare them more clearly, but I thought all the changes that seemed to happen to the magic, the characters, and the love story when they went from a British to a Japanese interpretation were interesting.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Multilingual Military
Late Saturday night, I finally got back from being a vendor at the Autism Society of America National Conference in Rhode Island for most of the week. My flight back was, of course, delayed by several hours, since my flight up had been completely on time. My very extended layover in Philadelphia and the subsequent flight were enlivened, though, by my striking up conversation with a fellow passenger. A young, multiethnic, polyglot, special forces Marine, to be more precise. It's amazing what you can find out about a person in 5 hours of conversation, especially if he's trying to be charming and intelligent in an understatedly flirtatious kind of way.

In any case, at one point it came up that he had spent two years at the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, and I have to say, I'm jealous. Being able to attend language classes there is about the only reason I can think of to join the military, as it's pretty much the best intensive language school in the country. The Marine in question certainly seemed to have appreciated his time there.

When I had some time the next day, I looked at all the language teaching possibilities there, out of curiosity, and I started thinking about the whole idea a bit more. The idea of the Monterey school is very attractive to me, but on the other hand, it's also very depressing to me that the best language school in the country, and the organization that seems the most dedicated to turning out students who can truly, practicably use the language skills they are taught, is the military. The rest of their operations, at least under the current administration, seem to be intent on keeping the rest of the citizenry isolated from wanting to have much contact with the rest of the world, and the only people really being encouraged to spend an appreciable amount of time learning another language are doing it for, realistically, probably questionable ends. *sigh*

None of which is to say that, if given the opportunity to study a language in such an intensive environment (without having to join the military), I wouldn't do it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Betty la Fea in English
When I lived in Chile, my host family and the entire rest of the country was addicted to a Colombian telenovela called "Betty la Fea," about a pitifully unattractive and shy young woman working at a fashion industry company. The show took all of the Latin American world by storm, winning a bunch of awards in the TV industry down there, and becoming the obsession of pretty much every Spanish-speaking country in 2000-2001. Every other Spanish major I know from college who studied abroad that year, from Costa Rica to Chile, knows what I'm talking about.

And now it's coming to the US! Yesterday, while I was watching the World Cup final on ABC, they advertised some of their new shows for the upcoming season. One of them looked awfully familiar, and lo and behold, when they flashed the title, it was indeed "Ugly Betty."

So far, besides the fact that it's in English and set in the US instead of Colombia, the biggest difference I've noticed is that this Betty isn't nearly as ugly, primarily because her bangs aren't shellacked down to her forehead. I hope they're really going to follow the original plotline and actually have the show end when the story has run its course, even if it does do as well here as it did in the Latin America. Having shows that actually ended when the story line was finished was a huge advantage.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sign of the Geek
How do you know you are a certifiable language geek? You find yourself leaving the house with a handful of dictionaries. On purpose. At least, that's what happened to me earlier this week. Granted, two of them, the Spanish-English and Spanish-Spanish ones, were for the purpose of translating a Mexican air permit for my dad, but the other one was for... fun.

And fun it was! I had just gotten it that day in the mail, and I couldn't resist taking it with me to look at later. What dictionary am I talking about? The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, by Grant Barrett, aka Double-Tongued Word Wrester. Essentially, it is a dictionary of modern slang terms. (A visit to the website will give you a good idea.) The words and definitions are funny enough by themselves, and caused me to spend about 15 minutes on the phone with the long-distance boy saying, "Pick a letter! Okay, here it is... One more... Oh, and this one!" The thing that struck me as a nice subtle addition to the humor was noticing where some of the citations came from, because really, there are just some newsgroups with ridiculous and, um, rather descriptive names. Really, seeing this dictionary, it's no wonder that Grant's reported to be one of the happiest lexicographers out there.

In short, I am having entirely too much fun with this dictionary. Even more than my classmates and I had in high school with the German-English dictionary that revealed the German language had an actual verb for "to murder with a chainsaw." (Not that I remember what it is, but we did work it into our assigned skit that day.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Proper Fireworks!
Last night, for the first time in 7 years, I got to see a proper fireworks display on the 4th of July. For many years of my childhood, my family always saw the fireworks in Manteo, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and these occasions became the standard against which I measure all other 4th of Julys. Last night, I sat on the grassy area behind the art museum in Raleigh, and watched the fireworks explode over the trees.

Seven years ago, I was in the final weeks of my semester abroad, and the 4th of July marked the first day of my trip to Peru. I spent most of the afternoon that day in Arica, the furthest north city in Chile, waiting for the rest of the group I would be traveling with to arrive. Though for the wrong country, I took a very patriotic picture: Chilean flag at the top of a cliff the Chilean army had to scale to take back the land from Peru, behind a statue of Bernardo O'Higgins, liberator of Chile.* The flag colors were still red, white, and blue.

Two years after that, I spent my 4th of July in Japan, and on my way home from work, took a picture of some beautiful red roses above some other white flower, all above a blue hydrangea bush, growing in a little corner between my apartment building and the house next door.

Alas, I recall no particularly patriotic pictures from my summer in China, nor one from my ever-so-brief residence in Taiwan last summer. But this year I got to see fireworks, so things are getting back on track.

(*I was going to scan the picture and post it, but it appears that I haven't completely finished moving in enough to be able to find it, even though I've been in my apartment for 9 months. I'll try to find it later.)

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