If a language is not on the Internet, does it exist?

The quick answer to the question in the title is is yes, but maybe not for long. This week there was an interesting podcast on US public radio (KERA’s Think), AI could drive most languages to extinction, which features a conversation with Matteo Wong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, who published this spring a piece on the same topic, The AI Revolution Is Crushing Thousands of Languages. Both the podcast and the article deal with the troublesome issue of the poor representation in AI of low-resource languages, i.e. languages which do not have a large written record, and which may be under-represented online. As a result, those language, in contrast to high-resource languages like English, Chinese, Spanish, French, or Japanese (and other European and Western languages), do not represent much of the training data for generative AI systems like ChatGPT. As a result, AI systems have little knowledge of those languages and therefore are likely to perform poorly in areas such as translation, providing accurate information, or even generating coherent texts.

Wong gives the example of a linguist from Benin asking ChatGPT to provide a response in Fon, a language of the Atlantic-Congo family spoken by millions in Benin and neighboring countries. The AI response: it was not able to comply, as Fon was “a fictional language”. An additional problem for low-resource languages is that the texts that do appear online may not be genuinely produced by speakers of the language, but be machine-translated, and therefore potentially of questionable quality.

This means that AI, the increasingly important source of information in today’s world, will be unavailable to those who do not know English or another large-resource language. Wong cites David Adelani, a DeepMind research fellow at University College London, pointing out that “even when AI models are able to process low-resource languages, the programs require more memory and computational power to do so, and thus become significantly more expensive to run—meaning worse results at higher costs”. That means there is little incentive for AI companies like OpenAI, Meta, or Google to develop capabilities in languages like Fon.

The information about low-resource languages is not just linguistically deficient, but culturally problematic as well:

AI models might also be void of cultural nuance and context, no matter how grammatically adept they become. Such programs long translated “good morning” to a variation of “someone has died” in Yoruba, Adelani said, because the same Yoruba phrase can convey either meaning. Text translated from English has been used to generate training data for Indonesian, Vietnamese, and other languages spoken by hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia. As Holy Lovenia, a researcher at AI Singapore, the country’s program for AI research, told me, the resulting models know much more about hamburgers and Big Ben than local cuisines and landmarks.

The lack of support for most of the 7,000 world languages is evident from the fact that Google’s Gemini supports 35 languages and ChatGPT 50. As Wong notes, this is not just a practical problem for speakers of low-resource languages, in that the lack of support sends the message that those speakers’ languages are not valued. There is of course also the danger of languages lacking AI support will become less widely spoken, as they are perceived as not offering the personal and professional benefits of high-resource languages. Losing languages loses the human values associated with those language, for example, knowledge of the natural world tied to Indigenous languages, unique cultural values, traditional stories.

Wong points out that there are efforts to remedy this situation, such as Meta’s No Language Left Behind project. That initiative is developing open-source models for “high-quality translations directly between 200 languages—including low-resource languages like Asturian, Luganda, Urdu and more”. The Aya project is a global initiative led by non-profit Cohere For AI involving researchers in 119 countries seeking to develop a multilingual AI for 101 languages as an open resource. That system features human-curated annotations from fluent speakers in many languages. Masakhane is a grassroots organization whose mission is to strengthen and spur “in African languages, for Africans, by Africans”.

Let us hope that such initiatives can help bring AI to more languages and cultures. However, the power of the big AI systems is such that only if they commit to adding more diverse language data to their training corpus will AI truly become more fully multilingual and multicultural.

Politicians visiting China: Practice your chopstick skills

Janet Yellen eating in China

Despite the frosty relations between the United States and China these days, occasionally government officials from the two countries meet. Recently U.S. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited China for talks with Chinese officials. A recent story in the New York Times did not report on the substance of the talks (the newspaper did elsewhere) but instead talked about something more perhaps equally important for visiting diplomats, namely what and how they ate while in China:

Where, what and how American dignitaries eat when they visit China is a serious matter. Choices of restaurants and dishes are rife with opportunities for geopolitical symbolism, as well as controversy and mockery. Chopstick skills — or a lack thereof — can be a sign of cultural competence or illiteracy.

American officials are closely observed, and their meals are widely reported on in Chinese social media. If they order what Chinese people normally eat, they are praised, particularly if the food is “authentic”, i.e. not modified for Western palates. Ms. Yellen has turned out to be somewhat of a sensation in the food department. She eats in a variety of different Chinese style restaurants (Cantonese, Sichuan,Yunnan), orders the right dishes, and, most importantly, is very good with chopsticks. In fact, her chopstick skill were on display in a video shared widely in China on Weibo. She also won points for not eating in a private room, but in the open with other diners. Her popularity even led one restaurant where she ate to create a set menu based on what she had eaten there: it’s called the “God of Wealth menu” (after all she’s in charge of the US Treasury).

My experience in China is that the Chinese are (justifiably) very proud of their cuisine and find it important for foreigners to try authentic Chinese food, and to like it. They are also very appreciative if foreigners make a effort to learn Chinese, and quite surprised when a Westerner can speak even a little Chinese. I wrote a while back about my positive experience when ordering beer in Chinese and getting the pronunciation correct. US diplomats would be even more warmly received in China if they not only were able to use chopsticks but also could speak a little Mandarin.

Eggs “over easy” and reflections on the authenticity of ChatGPT’s language

Eggs cooked over easy

I was in Vietnam last fall on assignment from the US State Department (Public Diplomacy Division) to serve as an “English Language Specialist,” giving workshops to foreign language teachers (mostly of English, come Korean and Mandarin) on integrating technology into language learning. The main topic: generative AI like ChatGPT. There was a lot of interest, as well as plenty of concern (students cheating, teachers losing their jobs). AI offers a variety of opportunities for language teachers and learners, as well as bringing with it lots of issues, both in education and for society as a whole. I just finished up an upcoming column on that topic for Language Learning & Technology.

One of the topics we talked about in the workshops was the quality of the language output from AI systems. While the language generated is grammatically correct, fluent, and coherent (although sometimes inaccurate), I pointed out to the teachers that AI systems have a quite different orientation to language than do humans, with a likely result that the social and cultural aspects of AI output might be questionable. I decided to try out an experiment with ChatGPT based on an incident I witnessed at breakfast at the hotel where I was staying in Hanoi. I entered the prompt below:

Me

An American tourist is staying at a hotel in Vietnam. At breakfast, he goes to the grill station and requests, in English, fried eggs “over easy” (i.e. with runny yokes). The cook has trouble understanding what he wants. The tourist repeats his request, but the cook still does not understand. The tourist says, “Ok, I’ll come back later. Thank you.” The cook does not respond. The tourist starts to walk away, then turns back to the cook and says, “I SAID thank you.” Why did the tourist make that last statement?

ChatGPT

The tourist likely made the last statement, “I said thank you,” as a polite way of expressing gratitude and acknowledging the cook, even though there was no verbal response from the cook. In some cultures, including American culture, expressing gratitude is considered polite and is a social norm. The tourist may have wanted to convey that he appreciated the cook’s efforts or wanted to ensure that his gratitude was acknowledged, even if the cook did not respond verbally. It’s a common social convention to say “thank you” after making a request or receiving assistance.

Of course, ChatGPT was wrong and took literally what was said instead of understanding the real meaning of “I SAID thank you.” The American tourist expected (unreasonably) an “Ok” or “You’re welcome” or some kind of verbal response and was repeating his “thank you” from irritation over the lack of response (and over not getting the eggs he wanted). From the perspective of language pragmatics, the Vietnamese cook failed to complete an “adjacency pair”, a conversational turn-taking pattern that stipulates a standard reply to an utterance. Unfortunately, the cook didn’t know enough English to play his role as expected. These are formulaic sequences, without real semantic meaning, rather a form of socialization, connecting speakers together. The American English greeting “How are you?” is not asking for a health report, but just offering a greeting, with an expected reply of “Fine, thanks”. Below is an abstract for a talk I am giving (virtually) in Portugal at an upcoming conference on “Digital Learning Environments and Authenticity in English Language Teaching.” My presentation deals with the question of social and cultural authenticity in AI language production:

The ability of ChatGPT and other AI systems to generate language that resembles closely human-produced speech has led to claims that AI chatbots can “facilitate an authentic, interactional language learning environment” (Chiu et al., 2023), that AI use is “essential for promoting cultural sensitivity, intercultural competency, and global awareness” (Anis, 2023, p. 64), and that AI-based VR supplies “the benefits of in-country immersion programs without the hassle” (Divekar, 2022, p. 2354). The suggestion in these studies is that AI output is linguistically and culturally “authentic” and could substitute in language learning settings for human interlocutors or could even provide similar benefits to a study abroad experience.

Such a view ignores the process used by AI systems to reproduce language and the limitations of that process for the linguistic features and cultural content of the resulting output. AI systems break down language (their training data) into mathematical symbols and use machine learning to find patterns and regularities to form a “large language model” that enables next word prediction in a text string, which is then used to very effectively construct sentences, paragraphs, even complete discourses. Humans, in contrast, are socialized into their language abilities, learning gradually how to use language appropriately within an ever-expanding circle of social contexts. Through interactions with others, we acquire the social and cultural norms of language use, including the contextually appropriate use of nonverbal communication, i.e., facial expressions, body language, and paralanguage. The statistical model of language in AI lacks the sociocultural grounding humans have through sensorimotor interactions and from simply living in the real world.

Studies of AI’s capabilities to engage in pragmatically effective language use have shown significant limitations (Lee & Wang, 2022; Su & Goslar, 2023). While AI systems can gain pragmalinguistic knowledge and learn appropriate formulaic sequences (politeness conventions, for example) through the verbal exchanges in their training data, they have proven to be much less effective in sociopragmatic engagement, that is, in generating contextually acceptable speech reflecting an interlocutor’s state of mind, intentions, and emotional status. AI systems are likely to improve through user interactions added to their language models, through enlarging their datasets, and through multimodal incorporation (adding video and image training). However, those measures still will not supply the lived experience humans go through in negotiating common ground linguistically and culturally in social interactions and therefore the ability to deal with nuanced pragmatic scenarios. AI generated language–while valuable as a resource in language learning–will remain artificial and inauthentic in ways that cannot serve as an acceptable substitute for actual learner engagement in the L2 with peers and expert speakers.

What’s in a name? Maybe getting elected

Chinese ballot in San Francisco

Interesting piece recently in the New York Times on politicians in San Francisco, using Chinese names to help them get elected. That city, in fact, has itself an interesting Chinese name: 舊金山 (Jiù Jīn Shān), which translates as “Old Gold Mountain,” referencing the 19th-century gold rush in California. San Francisco has one of the oldest and best-known “Chinatowns” in the US, with many residents speaking Cantonese or Mandarin as their first language. Due to the large number of Chinese-speaking residents, San Francisco has mandated since 1999 that names for political candidates in local elections appear in both English and Chinese. That is no problem for candidates with a Chinese heritage; they likely already have Chinese names. For non-Chinese candidates, they can simply transliterate their English (or Spanish) names. Foreign names are usually transliterated into Chinese by phonetically selecting characters that approximate the sound of the name, as explained in this post from “Fluent in Mandarin.”  So “Anderson” becomes 安德森(Āndésēn). It’s not an automatic process, as there are often different characters that can be used for a specific sound.

As pointed out on that site, “The problem with ‘transliterating’ foreign names into Chinese is that they can often sound very unnatural, and not like a native Chinese name.” It’s also the case that the actual meaning of the name (through the characters used) chosen for phonetic similarity may be quite strange (for Chinese speakers). The Chinese transliteration of “Anderson” (安德森)means Install-Virtue-Forest. For foreigners in China, it’s sometimes better to come up with some kind of nickname, as those are frequently used informally in China. In China, I go by the name 老牛 (Lǎo niú), meaning “Old Bull”; that references my age but was particularly chosen as my oldest son (who’s married to a Chinese woman) is “Young Bull” in China.

In San Francisco, it used to be that non-Chinese politicians could come up with their own Chinese names. As it turned out, many did not simply use transliterations of their names, but instead came up with Chinese names that made them sound good. That has now changed, so that Chinese names can only be used if you were born with that name (i.e. are from a Chinese background) or have publicly used that Chinese name for at least 2 years. Otherwise, your name will be transliterated into Chinese phonetically by the election authorities. This has resulted in some candidates having to change the Chinese versions of their names. According to the Times article,

Michael Isaku Begert, who is running to keep his local judgeship, cannot use 米高義, which means in part “high” and “justice,” a name that suggests he was destined to sit on the bench. And Daniel Lurie, who is challenging Mayor London Breed, must scrap the name he had been campaigning with for months: 羅瑞德, which means “auspicious” and “virtue.” Mr. Lurie’s new name, 丹尼爾·羅偉, pronounced Daan-nei-ji Lo-wai, is a transliterated version that uses characters closer to the sound of his name in English but are meaningless when strung together.

According to a piece in the San Franciso Standard, this rule may actually disadvantage ethnic Chinese Americans: “American-born Chinese candidates may be unintended victims of the law, if they don’t have a birth certificate in Chinese that proves they were born with Chinese names.” They may have to supply alternative proof, which meant, according to the article, candidates, “were scrambling to seek old Chinese newspaper articles, Chinese school homework or Chinese family books to find the appropriate records.”

San Francisco is not the only US locale printing ballots in more than one language. According to the Timesarticle:

Certain towns in Alaska must translate ballots into Yup’ik, an Indigenous Alaskan language, while some counties in Arizona must do so in Navajo and Apache. Hundreds of jurisdictions around the nation must translate their ballots into Spanish, while 19 must print them in Chinese, 12 in Vietnamese and four in Korean.

It would be interesting to know if politicians in those areas who have English names also come up with names in those other languages, and whether in the process they try to play language games to make themselves sound good.

Nonverbals in football

The kiss

In the US right now there is a lot of buzz about American football, after the playoff games this past weekend determining who plays in the Superbowl, coming up soon. As is always the case in football, the games on Sunday were not just athletic contests but spectacles, in which lots was happening beyond sports, including interesting nonverbal communication. In the game between Kansas City and Baltimore, much of the attention was focused on one particular fan, Taylor Swift, in the audience to cheer for boyfriend Travis Kelce, a player for Kansas City. One of the memorable nonverbals was their kiss on the field at the end of the game.

The taunting

Most of the nonverbals in football games involve not kisses, but dances or other celebrations when touchdowns are scored, which has become common practice in professional football. In the Kansas City game, a turning point revolved around a different kind of nonverbal, namely taunting on the part of a Baltimore player, Zay Flowers, after a tackle. He was called for a penalty, which stopped his team’s momentum. Later in the game, Flowers was about to cross the goal line and score, when the very player he had taunted knocked the ball out of his arms, preventing a touchdown. Seemed like karma.

The pinched fingers

That incident brought to mind a story from the New York Times recently on that topic of football and nonverbals. It deals with a gesture made by backup quarterback for the New York Giants, Tommy DeVito, an Italian American. In the words of Mark Rotella, the article’s author, DeVito, after throwing for a touchdown, “raised a right hand and pinched his finger and thumb together in an Italian gesture that means, roughly, ‘Whaddya want?’”. The player subsequently used the gesture again several times and later was picked up by fans, as well as being used mockingly by opponents after sacking the quarterback.

The author, himself an Italian-American, very much identified with DeVito’s gesture and discussed in the article how important hand gestures are to Italians (and to Italian-Americans). Stereotypes tend to have an element of truth to them, which according to Rotella is the case here, as of all ethnic groups in the world, Italians have the most widespread reputation for using body language to communicate.

Language change

Jean Patrick Niambé, Ivorian rapper, Arlette Bashizi for The New York Times

In workshops I gave this fall in Vietnam on the use of AI in language learning, one of the topics we discussed was the change in English language use brought about through the AI frenzy of 2023. I used as an example a Doonesbury cartoon that highlighted the shift from the career benefits of being a “creative” to the now more lucrative role of becoming a “promptive,” i.e., doing prompt engineering. Traditional careers as lawyers and artists are presented as going away (replaced respectively by ChatGPT and Midjourney), leading to the need to find a “side hustle.” “AI” itself was named the most notable word of 2023 by Collins dictionary. Lots of other AI terms have entered this year into everyday language in English including “machine learning” and “large language model.” “Prompt” is now inevitably tied to AI use.

Language change happens in myriad ways, one being through technological and societal change, another through demographic shifts. That is illustrated in a recent article in the New York Times on changes to French through new uses of the language in the growing number of French speakers in West and central Africa:

More than 60 percent of those who speak French daily now live in Africa, and 80 percent of children studying in French are in Africa. There are as many French speakers in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in Paris. Through social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube, they are literally spreading the word, reshaping the French language from African countries, like Ivory Coast, that were once colonized by France.

The article chronicles how young people in Africa have adapted French creatively in entertainment and the arts. One rapper comments, “We’ve tried to rap in pure French, but nobody was listening to us,” so language used in rapping is adjusted to the social realities of local life. An example of an African neologism having gained wide use is the verb “enjailler” to mean “having fun,” a word originally used in the Côte d’Ivoire in the context of jumping off and on buses in Abidjan. Traditional words have been given new meanings:

In Abidjan this year, people began to call a boyfriend “mon pain” — French for “my bread.” Improvisations soon proliferated: “pain choco” is a cute boyfriend. A sugary bread, a sweet one. A bread just out of the oven is a hot partner.

Interestingly, this development comes at a time when the influence of France in Africa has declined. Some countries have evicted French ambassadors and troops and French has lost its official status in several countries (Mali, Burkina Faso). This demonstrates that language change has a dynamic of its own, often unpredictable and not controllable by political policies or government dictates.

The Beatles, AI, and authenticity

I’m in Vietnam currently, giving workshops on using AI tools in teaching English. Yesterday, we looked at what ChatGPT, Bard, and Bing might suggest as “best practices in using AI in language learning and teaching”. One of the suggestions was using AI chats as “authentic” language practice. That has set me to wonder what that word means in the context of AI text generation. That topic has been raised this month with the release of a new Beatles song, a musical group that disbanded over 50 years ago, with only 2 of the 4 members still living. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the issues related to that release:

Does it really make sense to use a song originally written by [John] Lennon alone, with no known intention of ever bringing it to his former bandmates, as the basis for a “Beatles” song? Is Lennon’s vocal, plucked and scrubbed by artificial intelligence and taking on a faintly unnatural air, something he would have embraced or been repulsed by? “Is this something we shouldn’t do?” McCartney asks in a voice-over, but neither he nor anyone else ever articulates exactly what the problem might be. “We’ve all played on it,” McCartney says. “So it is a genuine Beatle recording.” On one hand, who is more qualified than McCartney to issue this edict of authenticity? On the other: Why did he feel the need?

The author makes the point that this is quite different from what we all have been worrying about with AI, namely brand new “fakes”. In this case it is an example of using tech advances to, in the author’s opinion, make money from recycling old material:

The worry is that, for the companies that shape so much of our cultural life, A.I. will function first and foremost as a way to keep pushing out recycled goods rather than investing in innovations and experiments from people who don’t yet have a well-known back catalog to capitalize on. I hope I am wrong. Maybe “Now and Then” is just a blip, a one-off — less a harbinger of things to come than the marking of a limit. But I suspect that, in this late project, the always-innovative Beatles are once again ahead of their time.

The question of authenticity has one that is at the core of the communicative approach to language learning, with the idea that learners should not be working with made-up, simplified language materials, but be provided with real-world materials that native speakers would themselves might be accessing. For the materials to be comprehensible, learners are supplied with “scaffolding” (annotations, notes, glossaries, etc.). Online materials have been a boon in that respect, in contrast to most materials in textbooks. Now, AI is making the question of authenticity and attribution much trickier. AI generated materials are not products of native speakers, so should we treat them, as we do manufactured texts as lacking in authenticity? Certainly, the cultural perspective is missing, which is one of the principal benefits of using “authentic” materials. Stay tuned, as AI and attitudes towards its output are evolving rapidly.

A Confederate hero finally gone

Robert E.Lee’s head about to be melted down

This week the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, (just down the highway from me in Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy) was melted down, to be later transformed into a new statue of some kind, likely representing ideas and beliefs very different from those Lee’s statue represented. The statue was built during the Jim Crow era and was designed to champion the “lost cause,” the claim that the  cause of  the Confederate States in the Civil War was just, heroic, and not about maintaining slavery in the South (which it was). An article in the New York Times puts the Confederate monuments (many of which were here in Richmond until recent times) into context:

Confederate monuments bear what the anthropological theorist Michael Taussig would call a public secret: something that is privately known but collectively denied. It does no good to simply reveal the secret — in this case, to tell people that most of the Confederate monuments were erected not at the end of the Civil War, to honor those who fought, but at the height of Jim Crow, to entrench a system of racial hierarchy. That’s already part of their appeal. Dr. Taussig has argued that public secrets don’t lose their power unless they are transformed in a manner that does justice to the scale of the secret. He compares the process to desecration. How can you expect people to stop believing in their gods without providing some other way of making sense of this world and our future?

There has been a lot of discussion about the Confederate statues since 2017, when the Alt-right marches happened in Charlottesville (in large part to protest the planned removal of the Lee statue) and even more since 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. Some have argued the statues should be kept as a historical record, perhaps with more in-place context provided (information on the origins and intended meaning of the statues). The NY Times article argues that the fate of the Lee statue was appropriate, given that no possible recontextualization or relocation (to a museum) would please everyone and that the original statues were erected with great fanfare:

That’s why the idea to melt Lee down, as violent as it might initially seem, struck me as so apt. Confederate monuments went up with rich, emotional ceremonies that created historical memory and solidified group identity. The way we remove them should be just as emotional, striking and memorable. Instead of quietly tucking statues away, we can use monuments one final time to bind ourselves together into new communities.

The city of Charlottesville has awarded the remains of the Lee statue to The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which leads Swords Into Plowshares, a project that will turn bronze ingots made from the molten Lee into a new piece of public artwork to be displayed in Charlottesville.

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Hip hop worldwide and social change

Afghan rapper and activist Sonita Alizadeh (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

This year, 50 years of hip-hop or rap music is being celebrated. While recently country music has been in the news (particularly Try that in a small town and Rich men north of Richmond – see my blog post) due to controversial positions on social and political issues, hip hop has since the beginning integrated into its lyrics themes of social inequality and discrimination against African Americans. “Gansta rap” of the 1990’s dealt largely with violence and drug use, while also being accused of promoting misogyny and gun use.

Although identified with the US and inner-city Black communities, hip hop has in its 50 years spread across the world, used often as a tool for social change. A recent piece in the public radio show, Here and now, discussed a number of examples, as shown below. It would be easy to find examples from other cultures. The story points out that “the genre has been the voice of various generations demanding social change and even revolution: Rappers in Tibet are using hip-hop to preserve the traditional language. And in Tunisia, hip-hop even helped launch the Arab Spring.”

While the musical style of hip hop remains anchored in its North American roots, the language and culture of rappers adapts to the local conditions. This is imperative if the music is intended to carry a social message and effect societal change.

E

l général, “the voice of Tunisia”


‪Dekyi Tsering‬ ལམ Road “yang sal དབྱངས་གསལ། ”


Sonita Alizadeh “Daughters For Sale”

“Rich men north of Richmond” and Dylan’s “Only a pawn”

Oliver Anthony in 2023

The Republican debate this week of presidential candidates (minus Trump) began in an unusual way, with an exchange over a song, “Rich men north of Richmond,” by Oliver Anthony. The country-music-style song has hit the top of the Billboard charts, despite the singer being unknown. It’s an angry workingman’s anthem complaining about the “rich men” north of Richmond (i.e. politicians in Washington, D.C.) over low pay (overtime hours for bullshit pay), lack of respect (cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down), and control over people’s lives (they all just wanna have total control / wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do). There are also complaints familiar from right wing US politics such as welfare cheats (taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds) and over-taxation (your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end). Included as well are conspiracy theories such as the QAnon pedophilia story (I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere). Since then, the singer has insisted that his views have been misinterpreted (despite the song lyrics) and complained over the use of the song in the debate.

“Rich men north of Richmond” is not a call to action, but a cry of frustration:

Lord, it’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is

The popularity of the song taps into the sense of grievance felt by many in the US that the mainstream economic, social, and political systems in the US are against them; a perspective that Donald Trump rode to the presidency in 2016.

Bob Dylan in 1963

Interestingly, this is the 60th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Music was a big part of that event, with folk singers Joan Baez leading the crowd in “We shall overcome” and Bob Dylan singing protest songs such as “Only a pawn in their game”. The latter song was about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. The target of the song is racism, portrayed as leading not only to discrimination but to the existence of violent groups such as the Ku Klux Khan. Dylan portrays Medgar Evers’ assassin as a “pawn”, a poor white man manipulated by the “game” played by white supremacists:

But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

As in Oliver Anthony’s song, politicians too are to blame:

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train

The persona in Oliver Anthony’s song is part of the aggrieved population (people like me and people like you); the emphasis is on victimhood – we are being trodden down by the elites. Dylan’s perspective is less personal, from the outside, reporting on injustice, calling for civic engagement. The most widely sung protest song of the 1960’s was “We shall overcome”, which invites the singers to celebrate solidarity with all groups and to believe in a future better, more just world. That reflects Dr. King’s message from the March on Washington, a vision of a society free of racial prejudice: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The March on Washington was instrumental in leading just months later to new civil rights legislation. The sentiment expressed in “Rich men north of Richmond” may or may not be harbinger of things to come but it certainly has resonated widely in the US. It remains to be seen whether that might lead to an aggrieved former president finding enough support to reclaim the White House.

 

Barbie’s origin story: Lilli, the German sex kitten doll

Barbie and Bild-Lilli

The Barbie movie comes out this week and has been heavily hyped in the media (lots of pink!). Barbie has been a controversial figure, representing a stereotypical male-gaze version of women (blond, thin waist, oversized breasts). Reacting to criticism from feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the toy company marketing the doll, Mattel, tried to counter the Barbie image with the release of black and Hispanic dolls. I commented on “Treetop Barbie” in 2019, which portrays the doll as a forest canopy researcher. That was better received than the 2014 book, Barbie: I can be a computer engineer, in which Barbie is shown having the idea for a video game, but has to have her male friends actually do the coding. Apparently, Greta Gerwig’s movie will feature many different versions of Barbie in various professions.

It may be that it has been difficult for Mattel to change the image of Barbie due to its origin, as a heavily sexualized doll, Lilli, who first appeared in a comic in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung in 1952 and was then released as a doll in 1955. In the comic strip Lilli, a secretary, appeared scantily clad and portrayed in provocative poses.

Known as “Bild-Lilli” in Germany, the doll was particularly popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s with men. According to a recent article in Business Insider, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as suggestive keepsakes” (citing the Robin Gerber biography of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler). Handler had seen the Lilli doll on a trip to Europe and on her return to the US convinced Mattel to create Barbie. The striking similarities between the two dolls led to multiple lawsuits between Mattel and the German company producing Lilli, Greiner & Hausser. BTW, Lilli too spawned a movie, Lilli – ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt (Lilli, a Girl from the Big City) released in 1958.

In an interesting contrast, this week is also the start of another high-profile event featuring women, the World Cup; in this case highlighting athletic prowess rather than appearance

Is this English: “Get down from the car!”?

For anyone familiar with the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Florida, it will come as no surprise that in the Miami area (and elsewhere in the state), everyday language use is characterized by a mix of English and Spanish. “Spanglish” is a term used to describe the influence of English into spoken Spanish. Now a linguist at Florida International University (Phillip Carter) has published findings that indicate a new version of English is emerging in the Miami area which is heavily influenced by Spanish. An article on the research in Scientific American provides some examples:

“We got down from the car and went inside.”
“I made the line to pay for groceries.”
“He made a party to celebrate his son’s birthday.”

For most speakers of North American Spanish, those sentences sound strange. In fact, as Carter points out, these are “literal lexical calques,” i.e., direct, word-for-word translations.

“Get down from the car” instead of “get out of the car” is based on the Spanish phrase “bajar del carro,” which translates, for speakers outside of Miami, as “get out of the car.” But “bajar” means “to get down,” so it makes sense that many Miamians think of “exiting” a car in terms of “getting down” and not “getting out.” Locals often say “married with,” as in “Alex got married with José,” based on the Spanish “casarse con” – literally translated as “married with.” They’ll also say “make a party,” a literal translation of the Spanish “hacer una fiesta.”

Carter provides additional examples that are based on phonetic transfers: “’Thanks God,’ a type of loan translation from ‘gracias a Dios,’ is common in Miami. In this case, speakers analogize the ‘s’ sound at the end of “gracias” and apply it to the English form.

A YouTube video provides further examples from Carter’s research:

A multicultural sash: opening the floodgates?

The Mexican-American graduation sash

At a high school graduation in Colorado, a student of Mexican-American heritage wanted to wear a sash to celebrate her bicultural identity. The school’s administration refused her permission with the justification that “allowing that regalia would ‘open too many doors.’” The student, Naomi Peña Villasano, sued the school but a federal judge last Friday upheld the decision barring her from wearing the sash. According to an article in the New York Times, at the graduation on Saturday, Ms. Villasano flouted the ruling and wore the sash anyway, apparently without incident. The article points out that Ms. Villasano’s case comes amid disputes elsewhere about what is protected free speech at commencement ceremonies. In Oklahoma on Thursday, the State Legislature overrode Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of a bill allowing students to wear Native American regalia at high school and college graduations.

In fact, schools in the US have recently become flashpoints for disputes that reflect the stark polarization in the political climate in the country as a whole. In Virginia, that was seen recently in new standards for teaching US history, with a first version of the standards downplaying the mistreatment of Native Americans, who in fact were described as the first “immigrants” to America. In many states, history curricula have been changed to align with Republican views opposing teaching the less savory sides of US history, such as the effects of slavery on the situation of African Americans today. Discussing sexual orientation in schools has also been a target, especially any introduction of topics related to LGBTQ+. That has led to book bans in many localities, including in the county next to mine in Virginia, Hanover County. There a local organization recently gave the school board a list of around 100 books it wanted banned. According to a news report from a local TV station, the group who submitted the proposed ban-list highlighted reasons ranging from content like “alternate gender ideologies” and “controversial social and racial commentaries,” to “alternate sexualities” and “self-harm.” A parent in the report commented, “We have seen this before. The Nazis have tried to burn books and erased the contents of those books.”

Indeed, the trend is very worrisome, as removing books from circulation stifles the ability of children to learn from the experiences of fictional characters (or of historical figures) that might mirror or illuminate their own lives and help them with the development of their personal identities. On a more positive note, I heard today that the English Department at my university (VCU) is seeing an uptick in the number of declared English majors entering the institution. The reason, according to the Department Chair: young people’s opposition to book banning.

“You can’t see me” gesture and racism in sports

Caitlin Clark using "You can't see me" gestureThe recent Women’s NCAA basketball tournament captured the attention of the US sports watching public, something unusual for women’s sports. Games were exciting and featured players like Caitlin Clark from the University of Iowa, whose play was described in the New York Times as “transcendent” and “electrifying”. She is also a player who makes rich use of nonverbal communication on the course, raising her hand up to her ear to rouse the crowd or holding out 3 fingers on each raised hand to signal 3-pointers, her go-to shot. But she also has used gestures to “trash talk”, as in repeatedly using the “You can’t see me” celebratory gesture, popularized by wrestler John Cena.

The use of that gesture by Clark did not generate much in the public space until last week’s championship game, won by Louisiana State University (LSU) over Iowa. In the closing minutes, LSU’s Angel Reese using the gesturestar player, Angel Reese, herself used the gesture in front of Clark. She also held up her hand to Clark, pointing to her ring finger, meaning that she, not Clark, was going to be receiving the championship ring. After the game, Reese, who is African-American, was widely criticized for using the gestures. Reese subsequently defended herself, stating that Clark, who is White, had not been accused of disrespect for using the “You can’t see me” gesture. She also pointed out that Clark, in Iowa’s game against the University of South Carolina, had used a “wave-off” gesture to mock South Carolina guard Raven Johnson, while Johnson was on the 3-point line and Clark was at the foul line, indicating that Johnson didn’t need to be guarded because she wasn’t capable of making the 3-pointer (although later in the game she scored three 3-pointers).

It’s hard to see the difference in reactions to Clark and Reese as anything other than racism, holding a Black player to a higher standard than a White player. Clark herself afterwards stated that she was not bothered by Reese’s gestures and defended the right of women to engage in trash talk, as has long been customary in men’s sports.

Today is Easter on the Western Christian calendar, which this year coincides with the periods of other major religious observances, Passover and Ramadan. It should be a time of peace, reconciliation, and renewal. But conflict is rife today, from the ongoing war in Ukraine to Black Tennessee lawmakers being expelled yesterday from the state legislature (over protesting a school shooting). Violent conflict is occurring in the holy city of Jerusalem where clashes have taken place in the last few days at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located close to historical and holy sites in Judaism and Christianity, notably that of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Conflict is perhaps inevitable in sports events, where it emerges naturally from competition, but wouldn’t it be great if that were its only manifestation in human affairs? And if it took only the form of nonverbal mockery?

Working longer? No thanks!

Commuters in South Korea

This post on work life is a follow-up to the comments on “quiet quitting”. Expectations for how long people should work (hours per week) and how long they should keep working (retirement age) vary substantially from culture to culture. In the US, the 40-hour work week has been legally mandated since 1940. The retirement age varies depending on how old one is; for those born in 1960 or later the age is 67, although it is possible to retire earlier with reduced benefits. Not much has changed in terms of the work timetable in the US for quite some time, although of course the pandemic changed where many people worked. Periodically, there is interest in moving to a four-day work week (with the same pay for 32 hours/week). Recently, for example, there has been some buzz about the recent success in Great Britain of switching to that system in a large variety of companies.

However, elsewhere there are proposals to make significant changes to work life. One that has been in the news recently is the suggestion in South Korea to move to a 69 hour (!) work week (from the current 52, which includes overtime hours). South Korea has long had an expectation that workers put in substantially more work hours through overtime or participating in after-hours work-related social activities. That has been the case as well in other South Asian countries such as Japan. The proposal in South Korea from the country’s president has been met with resistance, especially from younger works who have little interest in conforming to a “live to work” culture.

Meanwhile, in France, the French President has also made a proposal affecting work life, namely that the French will need to work till age 64, rather than the current retirement age of 62. That proposal, now officially promulgated (without a vote in the legislature) has, as in South Korea, led to wide-spread protests. The French, by the way, have a 35 hour work week, a far cry from what’s been proposed for South Korea.

Of course, the actual “on the clock” work time may not be a true reflection of the time devoted to work or at least to be available for work-related tasks. That too varies by culture. In many jobs in the US, for example, it’s routinely expected that employees be reachable electronically after hours. Many people in the US check their messages in the evening and on weekends. That’s quite different from the situation in most European countries, where there is still a separation between work life and home life. The Germans have a proverb: “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps”. That literally translates as work is work and schnaps is schnaps, the meaning being that when I’m at work I focus on work, but when the work day is over, I’m off the clock and ready to enjoy life (i.e. drink Schnaps, or maybe beer). I know from working with colleagues in Europe not to expect them to answer emails over the weekend, and particularly not when they are on vacation. Maybe that’s a “work to live” outlook that the workabholic US and South Korean cultures could learn from.