Das Lied der Deutschen

The German Language

A new history of German shows how it came to be, and how it could have been

German: Biography of a Language. By Ruth H. Sanders. Oxford University Press

MOST people regard grammar books and dictionaries as a codified set of rules prescribing dos and don’ts. For professional scholars of language, though, they are more like history books. Languages are constantly in flux, but it takes a rather long view to show just what a contingent and transitory thing a language can be at any point in time. Ruth Sanders, a professor of German Studies at Miami University in Ohio, takes just such a view in her new book, telling the millennia-long story of German and how it got that way.

Ms Sanders neatens the history by choosing six turning points to trace the development of German or, more accurately, the Germanic languages. During the third millennium BC, speakers of Proto-Indo-European reached most of Europe. Ms Sanders’s biography ranges widely over not just linguistics, but also over archaeology and genetic history to tell the story of these prolific Indo-Europeans and their languages; an eighth of this slim book has passed before the reader first encounters the first Germanic-speakers (on the coasts of Denmark). No one knows what made the Germanic language branch off from the Indo-European family. Whether the pre-existing population in Scandinavia influenced it, or if it had already branched off when it arrived, is hard to say for certain at this distance. But Ms Sanders does usefully correct a common misconception. Languages do not usually spread because newcomers replace indigenous peoples. Rather, those already there often take up the new settlers’ tongue.

The next turning point was courtesy of Arminius, also known as “Hermann the German”, a Roman-trained soldier; in 9AD he stopped a Roman advance eastward across the Rhine. At the battle of Teutoburg forest, the troublesome locals ambushed three Roman legions. As a result, the Roman borders, known as “limes” (from which comes the word “limits”) stopped at the Rhine. Whereas the Germanics took up as many Roman ways of life as they could afford, they never took up their language as the conquered—primarily Celtic—people of France and Spain had. Germanic marauders would later devastate the empire itself, but in another twist, those who settled in Italy, Gaul and Spain did in fact begin speaking Late Latin. Arminius had saved a bit of the map for German.

At another of Ms Sanders’s turning points, the Germanic dialects had split into High (mountainous, southern) and Low (northern, flatland) varieties, giving modern (High) German ich, for example, while old Anglo-Saxon had ic and Dutch, ik. Perhaps the most celebrated turning point in the history of the German language is the work of another rebel against Rome, Martin Luther. His belief in salvation through personal faith alone, not the intermediation of the Church, led him to violate a longstanding prohibition on translating the Bible into vernacular languages. Luther had to compromise between the many different “Germans” that filled the German lands in those days, hundreds of years before there was a single German state (the creation of which is Ms Sanders’s fifth turning point). Luther borrowed an emerging standard used by the Holy Roman Empire, “chancellery German”, as a base with some currency in different regions.

Luther’s genius was to infuse his translation with the words he heard on the street in his bit of Saxony, in east-central Germany. He obsessively asked friends and fellow scholars which dialectal words would be most widely understood. The common touch was so successful that a Catholic opponent complained that “even tailors and shoemakers…read it with great eagerness.” It was the bestseller of the century and remains the most popular German translation. Rarely has a single man had such a mark on a language. The German of Luther’s Bible was nobody’s native language in his day. Today it is so universal that it threatens Germany’s once-vibrant dialects with death by standardisation.

Ms Sanders’s work contains some disappointments. Occasionally she reintroduces the same fact as if it were new. And with under 250 pages to tell her tale, there is little room to spare. There are no examples of the earthy Saxonisms that Luther made into today’s standard German. Ms Sanders reports that the Latin theodiscus is the first mention of German’s name for itself (Deutsch), but not where theodiscus comes from. (The answer is that theud was a Germanic root meaning “people”, so that Deutsch meant “Peoplish” to its speakers.) The chronological tables contain more errors than they should. The last turning point, German’s cultural revival after two crushing world wars, feels too brief.

Ms Sanders’s book is a biography, not of the modern German language proper, but of the Germanic languages and the people who speak them. She takes in the development of Yiddish, Dutch, Icelandic and of course English, as well as others. As such it is an ingenious telling of just how German emerged from the primordial Germanic soup, and how many other ways it could have been if, say, Luther had been born 100 miles farther north. For all its flaws, this is an enjoyable yet still-scholarly read for the historian, linguist and Germanophile alike. It would be a fine thing to have more such brief histories, made easily readable to the non-specialist, of the major world languages.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/16740435

Beach-Blanket Lingo

When Jake Tapper of ABC’s “This Week” asked Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey last month for his opinion of the MTV reality series “Jersey Shore,” the contempt in the governor’s voice was obvious. “What it does is it takes a bunch of New Yorkers — most of the people on ‘Jersey Shore’ are New Yorkers — drops them at the Jersey Shore and tries to make America feel like this is New Jersey,” Christie said. In other words, in the parlance of the Jersey Shore, the show is about a bunch of bennies — disagreeable tourists from the metropolitan New York region who crowd the beaches every summer.

When it comes to the seasonal exodus of sun worshipers to the Jersey Shore and other beach spots around the country, language can get fiercely local. It starts with the fundamentals: how do you describe your prospective trip to the beach? In Oregon, you might say you’re going “to the coast.” In New Jersey, you invariably go “down the shore.” Baltimore natives, meanwhile, say they’re going “down the ocean” — but in Baltimorese (make that Bawlmerese), the phrase sounds more like “downy eaushin.” The down of “down the shore” and “down the ocean” doesn’t necessarily imply a southward journey. As in many dialects along the Eastern Seaboard, down can be used as a preposition indicating movement from the inland toward the shoreline.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that the locals have some colorful epithets for you. Old-time New Englanders have disdain for the summer people. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, the come-heres are pitted against the from-heres. Hawaiians call white visitors to the islands haoles. West Coast surfers, a territorial lot, have a plethora of terms for nonlocals: Trevor Cralle’s “Surfin’ary: A Dictionary Of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak” lists put-downs like hondo, inlander, flatlander, valley and casper. (The last one is reserved for tourists whose pallid complexion resembles that of Casper the Friendly Ghost.)

On the Jersey Shore, the two main terms for unpleasant outsiders are bennies and shoobies. Roughly speaking, bennies are those who descend from the New York area to the beach towns of Monmouth County and northern Ocean County (like Seaside Heights, where MTV shot the first season of “Jersey Shore”). Shoobies generally come from the Philadelphia region to towns farther south, with the southern tip of Long Beach Island marking the dividing line between the realms of bennies and shoobies.

Shoobies came first, historically, thanks to the convenient train lines that have run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City since the late 19th century. As John T. Cunningham explained in his 1958 book, “The New Jersey Shore,” day-trippers from Philly took advantage of the $1 round-trip fare to make excursions to the shore, especially on Sundays. “That day,” Cunningham wrote, “week in and week out, found swaying Atlantic City-bound coaches teeming with Philadelphia families, laden with their ‘shoe box lunches.’ ”

Those lunches packed in shoe boxes were so associated with the influx of Philadelphia visitors that they likely gave rise to the term shoobie. The word researcher Barry Popik has traced the localism back to a 1952 recollection of Edward Brown, then a lifeguard in Ocean City, about 10 miles south of Atlantic City. Brown recalled that certain beaches “attracted hordes of ‘shoobies,’ day-trippers or weekend visitors who didn’t have a clue as to what the ocean might do in a fit of whimsy.”

Bennie or benny, though a newer word, is shrouded in greater mystery. The first print appearance documented by the Dictionary of American Regional English is in an unpublished paper by Robert A. Foster, detailing a lexical survey of New Jersey undertaken in 1977 and 1978. Foster wrote that bennie refers to “tourists from New York City and North Jersey,” and speculated that it comes from the Jewish name Benny, used as a label for Jews in general, “well-known in working-class New York City.”

Since then, a raft of other theories has been proposed to explain the origins of bennies. Some say it’s an abbreviation for the “beneficial rays” soaked up by the beachgoers — or for the mutual benefits enjoyed by the visitors and the locals who profit from them. Others relate it to the “Benjamin Franklins” (100-dollar bills) that tourists would spend. Still others claim that it’s an acronym for the chief points of departure from the north, often given as Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York. The story goes that train riders’ luggage tags were stamped with BENNY, but the lack of evidence suggests this is as mythical as the canard that posh originally stood for “Port Out, Starboard Home” (supposedly referring to the most desirable cabins on passenger ships between Britain and India).

Paul Mulshine, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, witnessed the birth of the bennie brouhaha in the mid-1970s, when “Bennies Go Home” bumper stickers began showing up around Ocean County, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. Mulshine doubts the acronym story, as well as Foster’s Jewish-name theory. “The ethnic variant I’ve instead heard is that it is derived from bene, the Italian term for ‘well,’ ” Mulshine told me. “Italian-Americans have traditionally had a somewhat loud and flashy approach to summering at the shore. And they are much more likely to have been the target of lampooning by the locals in the area where bennie sprung up.” Though that explanation might fit well with the stereotypical “Guidos” and “Guidettes” of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” Mulshine concedes that the true etymology of the term “probably can never be known.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/magazine/08FOB-onlanguage-t.html

When Did We First ‘Rock the Mic’?

Talk about a culture clash. Last month I found myself playing snippets of old-school hip-hop over tinny laptop speakers for a roomful of lexicographers at Oxford University. The occasion was the Fifth International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, an erudite gathering of scholars interested in exploring the work of dictionaries structured on historical principles.

The granddaddy of historical dictionaries in the Anglophone world is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the conference was also an occasion to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the O.E.D.’s ambitious revision project, rolled out in quarterly online updates. As the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, announced in his keynote address, at the end of the year the dictionary will open a new chapter in its history, with a far-ranging overhaul of its online home.

Being a historical lexicographer in the 21st century is a task worthy of Janus, with one eye on the language’s past and another on new information about language that is emerging from advances in the digital world. So it was only fitting that my conference paper focused on how the Web is opening up previously unexplored terrain in documenting the history of American slang.

As an informal consultant for the O.E.D., I’m always on the lookout for new sources to shine a light on the nooks and crannies of American English. You never know what you might find on the Net these days: Texas Tech University’s Virtual Vietnam Archive, for instance, catalogs the graffiti scribbled on bunk beds by Vietnam-era recruits making the lonely Pacific voyage on a troop transport ship. On YouTube and music blogs, meanwhile, fans of old-school rap are sharing ancient recordings from hip-hop’s cradle in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan. And by “ancient,” I mean anything from before October 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang’s blockbuster single, “Rapper’s Delight,” unceremoniously made the musical genre an international phenomenon, no longer the insular concern of New York’s record-scratching D.J.’s and rapping M.C.’s.

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

When it came time for the O.E.D. to revise its entry for rock, the task of picking apart this thicket of related meanings fell to Jesse Sheidlower, the editor in charge of North American English. Sheidlower told me that he used to torture applicants in the O.E.D.’s New York office by having them draft coherent dictionary definitions out of disparate citations of the verb rock. Eventually he had to take on the actual revision himself.

To help in the revision of rock, I went hunting for examples of the signature phrase “rock the mic” that would predate “Rapper’s Delight,” a song widely viewed within the hip-hop community as a derivative pastiche of rhymes already in common use among the M.C.’s of the day, before any of them had recording contracts. I was happy to discover a few live recordings of rap performances dated to 1978 on YouTube (posted by Ali Sarkeshik, a football coach in San Diego) and the Web site Hip Hop on Wax (curated by a German rap enthusiast using the alias Spitfire).

Even though New York had many battling crews of D.J.’s and M.C.’s at the time, the musical scene “was not self-documenting,” as the rap historian Johan Kugelberg laments in his book “Born in the Bronx,” a loving compendium of hip-hop photos and fliers from local shows. The recordings that do remain from the early days are the audio descendants of mix tapes that circulated around New York, often bought by luxury gypsy-cab services that would use the cassettes as exclusive entertainment on their rides.

One such tape captures a December 1978 performance at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, starring Grandmaster Flash and the Four M.C.’s (soon to be known, with the addition of one more M.C., as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). Just as Flash innovated on the turntables, his M.C.’s pioneered much of what would become foundational in rap, earning them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One M.C., Melle Mel, can be heard on the tape rapping, “Like white on rice, I rock the mic.”

Would this example pass muster with O.E.D. editors? It helped that elsewhere on the tape, a voice, very likely Flash’s, raps, “Dec. 23, Audubon, rocks on,” providing indisputable internal evidence for the recording’s date and provenance. “We don’t reject important examples from nontraditional sources if they are trustworthy,” Sheidlower says, “and a first quotation from a bootleg recording where the date is clearly spoken during the performance would certainly fall into the categories of ‘important’ and ‘trustworthy.’ ”

And so, in the revised entry for rock included in the O.E.D.’s June 2010 update, Melle Mel trumps Big Bank Hank as the earliest known M.C. to “rock the mic.” Though fresh evidence could always push the usage back even further, there’s a certain justice to setting the record straight, more than three decades after the fact. Historical lexicography? It rocks.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/magazine/11FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Quants

For the uninitiated, financial writing can sometimes sound like science fiction. Take this sentence from “The Quants,” a new book by the Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson: “To the quants, beta is bad, alpha is good.” Out of context, that could easily be mistaken for dialogue from the “Star Trek” franchise.

In fact, the quants are the protagonists of Patterson’s gripping tale; experts in mathematics, physics and computer science who brought sophisticated quantitative approaches to the world of Wall Street. The number-crunching techniques of the quants promised something better than beta, which is “shorthand for plain-vanilla market returns anyone with half a brain can achieve,” in Patterson’s words. If you can deliver a return that surpasses the benchmark indexes, you’ve achieved alpha — and with it, the “ephemeral promise of vast riches.”

In the pursuit of alpha, the quants managed to reshape the financial markets by relying on computerized algorithms to generate huge gains for investors. But with the unfolding economic crisis of 2007 and beyond, the alpha dogs ended up in the doghouse.

Regardless of how much blame the quants deserve for the current economic mess, their impact has been undeniable. From the early ’70s, math-minded academics began moving to Wall Street, designing complex models to assess risk and predict market movements. On their arrival, they were often called “rocket scientists” by traditional traders, a term of derision that belittled their lack of down-in-the-trenches business know-how. (Think of folksy disclaimers like “I’m no rocket scientist, but . . .” or “It’s not rocket science!”)

Quants then emerged as the new word for Wall Street’s rocket scientists. It had long been a scholastic shortening for “quantitative,” defined as early as 1896 in a glossary of student slang as “quantitative analysis or quantitative chemistry.” In its financial application, the word could refer either to the analysis or to those who conducted it. In 1979, Forbes magazine characterized quants as “the young consultants who do much of their monitoring by questionnaire and most of their evaluating by quantitative analysis.” That same year, in “The Dow Jones-Irwin Guide to Modern Portfolio Theory,” Robert Hagin offered some “new words”: “quants (those who apply quantitative investment techniques), superquants, pseudoquants and even turncoat-quants.”

The big quant boom began in the mid-’80s, when investment firms started attracting venerable names like Emanuel Derman, a South African-born physicist described by Patterson as an “überquant,” who eventually became a managing director at Goldman Sachs. When I asked Derman recently about his early years in finance, he said that at first he felt that quant, like rocket scientist before it, was largely a derogatory put-down for the brainy newcomers, many of them foreign-born: “two-thirds pejorative, one-third grudging praise,” by his calculation. Another popular epithet from the era was quant jock, on the model of other eggheaded jock compounds like math jock or computer jock.

Quant was still new enough in 1986 that its origin stumped William Safire, who surmised that it was an abbreviation of “quantum jump.” But soon there were quant funds (investment funds with securities selected by quantitative analysis) and quant firms (firms specializing in quantitative investment). Wall Street recruiters scoured the top tech schools for all manner of quants. As described by Mark Joshi, a former quant at the Royal Bank of Scotland, in his paper “On Becoming a Quant,” subspecies include desk quants, a k a front-office quants, who work directly with traders, and statistical-arbitrage quants (stat-arb quants for short), who plow through mounds of data to find opportunities for automated trading.

As quantdom grew more glamorous in the ’90s — and as nerdhood in general became more firmly entrenched in the business world during the dot-com boom — any lingering ridicule behind quant faded away. Derman proudly identified with the Q-word in the title of his 2004 memoir, “My Life as a Quant,” and 25 financial analysts reminisced about their roots in the collection “How I Became a Quant,” published in 2007. Reviewing the latter book in The Wall Street Journal, Derman wrote that quant had become more all-encompassing, noting that several of the contributors were in his estimation “not true quants” steeped in advanced university research but instead were simply quantitative in their investment approaches.

The geeky glamour of the quant took a big hit with the financial downturn, beginning with the so-called quant crisis in the summer of 2007, when quant funds took a nosedive. “All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffett memorably told Charlie Rose in October 2008. But The Times reported last year that student interest in the quant career track remains strong, as demonstrated by the standing-room-only attendance at a workshop at M.I.T. called “So You Want to Be a Quant.”

Despite hand-wringing over the failure of the quants, neither the term nor the type of financial analysis it designates is in danger of disappearing, according to David Leinweber, author of “Nerds on Wall Street” and the founding director of the Center for Innovative Financial Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. “As long as there’s data and money, there will be quants,” Leinweber recently told me. And as the markets move increasingly toward computer-driven, high-frequency trading, with exchanges made by the millisecond, the enduring influence of the quants will remain vast — maybe even unquantifiable.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/magazine/16FOB-OnLanguage-t.html

A Web Smaller Than a Divide

AT first glance, there’s a clear need for expanding the Web beyond the Latin alphabet, including in the Arabic-speaking world. According to the Madar Research Group, about 56 million Arabs, or 17 percent of the Arab world, use the Internet, and those numbers are expected to grow 50 percent over the next three years.

Many think that an Arabic-alphabet Web will bring millions online, helping to bridge the socio-economic divides that pervade the region.

But such hopes are overblown. Although there are still problems — encoding glitches and the lack of a standard Arabic keyboard — virtually any Arabic speaker who uses the Web has already adjusted to these challenges in his or her own way. And it’s no big deal: educated Arabs are exposed, in various degrees, to English and French in school.

The very idea of an “Arabic Web” is misleading. True, before the Icann announcement declared that Arabic characters could be used throughout domain names, U.R.L.’s had to be written at least in part in Latin script. But once one passes the Latin domain gate, the rest is all done in Arabic characters anyway.

Nowadays almost every computer can be made to write Arabic, or any other script, and there is plenty of Arabic software. Most late-model electronic devices are equipped with Arabic. I text with friends using Arabic on my iPhone. Many computer keyboards are now even made with Arabic letters printed on the keys.

And where there’s no readily available solution, Arabic Internet users have found a way to adjust. Many use the Latin script to transliterate messages in Arabic when there’s no conversion program or font set available. Phonetic spelling is common. For sounds that have no written equivalent in Latin script, they’ve gotten creative: for example, the number 3 is commonly used for the “ayn” sound and 7 stands in for the “ha,” because their shapes closely resemble the corresponding Arabic letters.

So what will happen? In the short term, of course, some additional users will move to the Web, especially as they take advantage of the new range of domain names. Over time, though, this will peter out, because, as in most of the world, the digital divide still tracks closely with the material and political divide. The haves are the ones using computers, and many of them are also the ones long accustomed to working with Latin script. The have-nots are unlikely to have the luxury of jumping online. Changing the alphabet used to form domain names won’t exactly attract millions of poor Arabs to the Internet.

We should all celebrate the diversity that comes with an Internet no longer tied to a single alphabet. But we should be realistic, too. The Web may be a revolutionary technology, but an Arabic Web is not about to spur an Internet revolution.

Sinan Antoon, an assistant professor of Arabic literature at New York University, is the author of the novel “I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16Antoon.html

Search Engine of the Song Dynasty

BAIDU.COM, the popular search engine often called the Chinese Google, got its name from a poem written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The poem is about a man searching for a woman at a busy festival, about the search for clarity amid chaos. Together, the Chinese characters băi and dù mean “hundreds of ways,” and come out of the last lines of the poem: “Restlessly I searched for her thousands, hundreds of ways./ Suddenly I turned, and there she was in the receding light.”

Baidu, rendered in Chinese, is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning. But written phonetically in Latin letters (as I must do here because of the constraints of the newspaper medium and so that more American readers can understand), it is barely anchored to the two original characters; along the way, it has lost its precision and its poetry.

As Web addresses increasingly transition to non-Latin characters as a result of the changing rules for domain names, that series of Latin letters Chinese people usually see at the top of the screen when they search for something on Baidu may finally turn into intelligible words: “a hundred ways.”

Of course, this expansion of languages for domain names could lead to confusion: users seeking to visit Web sites with names in a script they don’t read could have difficulty putting in the addresses, and Web browsers may need to be reconfigured to support non-Latin characters. The previous system, with domain names composed of numbers, punctuation marks and Latin letters without accents, promoted standardization, wrangling into consistency and simplicity one small part of the Internet. But something else, something important, has been lost.

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. Chinese is composed of approximately 20,000 single-syllable characters, 10,000 of which are in common use. These characters each mean something on their own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words. Níhăo, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and hăo — “good.” Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?

The Romanization of Chinese into a phonetic system called Pinyin, using the Latin alphabet and diacritics (to indicate the four distinguishing tones in Mandarin), was developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Pinyin makes the language easier to learn and pronounce, and it has the added benefit of making Chinese characters easy to input into a computer. Yet Pinyin, invented for ease and standards, only represents sound. In Chinese, there are multiple characters with the exact same sound. The sound “băi,” for example, means 100, but it can also mean cypress, or arrange. And “Baidu,” without diacritics, can mean “a failed attempt to poison” or “making a religion of gambling.” In the case of Baidu.com, the word, in Latin letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and been turned into a brand.

Language is such a basic part of our lives, it seems ordinary and transparent. But language is strange and magical, too: it dredges up history and memory; it simultaneously bestows and destabilizes meaning. Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something. What we gain in consistency costs us in precision and beauty.

When Chinese speakers Baidu (like Google, it too is a verb), we look for information on the Internet using a branded search engine. But when we see the characters for băi dù, we might, for one moment, engage with the poetry of our language, remember that what we are really trying to do is find what we were seeking in the receding light. Those sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest, might appear suddenly, where we least expect them, in the address bar at the top of our browsers. And in some small way, those words, in our own languages, might help us see with clarity, and help us to make sense of the world.

Ruiyan Xu is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16xu.html

Goddess English of Uttar Pradesh

Mumbai, India

A FORTNIGHT ago, in a poor village in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, work began on a temple dedicated to Goddess English. Standing on a wooden desk was the idol of English — a bronze figure in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and holding aloft a pen. About 1,000 villagers had gathered for the groundbreaking, most of them Dalits, the untouchables at the bottom of India’s caste system. A social activist promoting the study of English, dressed in a Western suit despite the hot sun and speaking as if he were imparting religious wisdom, said, “Learn A, B, C, D.” The temple is a gesture of defiance from the Dalits to the nation’s elite as well as a message to the Dalit young — English can save you.

A few days later, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a body that oversees domain names on the Web, announced a different kind of liberation: it has taken the first steps to free the online world from the Latin script, which English and most Web addresses are written in. In some parts of the world, Web addresses can already be written in non-Latin scripts, though until this change, all needed the Latin alphabet for country codes, like “.sa” for Saudi Arabia. But now that nation, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been granted a country code in the Arabic alphabet, and Russia has gotten a Cyrillic one. Soon, others will follow.

Icann calls it a “historic” development, and that is true, but only because a great cliché has finally been defeated. The Internet as a unifier of humanity was always literary nonsense, on par with “truth will triumph.”

The universality of the Latin script online was an accident of its American invention, not a global intention. The world does not want to be unified. What is the value of belonging if you belong to all? It is a fragmented world by choice, and so it was always a fragmented Web. Now we can stop pretending — but that doesn’t mean this is a change worth celebrating.

Many have argued that the introduction of domain names and country codes in non-Latin scripts will help the Web finally reach the world’s poor. But it is really hard to believe that what separates an Egyptian or a Tamil peasant from the Internet is the requirement to type in a few foreign characters. There are far greater obstacles. It is even harder to believe that all the people who are demanding their freedom from the Latin script are doing it for humanitarian reasons. A big part of the issue here is nationalism, and the East’s imagination of the West as an adversary. This is just the latest episode in an ancient campaign.

A decade ago I met Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, a jolly, endearing, meat-eating man. He was distraught that the Indians who were creating Web sites were choosing the dot-com domain over the more patriotic dot-in. He was trying to convince Indians to flaunt their nationality. He told me: “As long as we live in this world, there will be boundaries. And we need to be proud of what we call home.”

It is the same sentiment that is now inspiring small groups of Indians to demand top-level domain names (the suffix that follows the dot in a Web address) in their own native scripts, like Tamil. The Tamil language is spoken in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where I spent the first 20 years of my life, and where I have seen fierce protests against the colonizing power of Hindi. The International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil, a tech advocacy and networking group, has petitioned Icann for top-level domain names in the Tamil script. But if it cares about increasing the opportunities available to poor Tamils, it should be promoting English, not Tamil.

There’s no denying that at the heart of India’s new prosperity is a foreign language, and that the opportunistic acceptance of English has improved the lives of millions of Indians. There are huge benefits in exploiting a stronger cultural force instead of defying it. Imagine what would have happened if the 12th-century Europeans who first encountered Hindu-Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3) had rejected them as a foreign oddity and persisted with the cumbersome Roman numerals (IV, V). The extraordinary advances in mathematics made by Europeans would probably have been impossible.

But then the world is what it is. There is an expression popularized by the spread of the Internet: the global village. Though intended as a celebration of the modern world’s inclusiveness, it is really an accurate condemnation of that world. After all, a village is a petty place — filled with old grudges, comical self-importance and imagined fears.

Manu Joseph, the deputy editor of the Indian newsweekly OPEN, is the author of the forthcoming novel “Serious Men.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16joseph.html