Tag Archives: words

How to say “extinction” in Chumyl: “The Linguists”, a film.


If you are interested in language and languages you might like to see the film “The Linguists”.
The film, presented as “a very foreign language film”,  is about David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, two researchers who travel the world to document vanishing languages. Most of the action takes place in Siberia, India and Bolivia and focuses on the Chulym, Sora and Kallawaya languages. In one of the first scenes one of the linguists says that one reason to study language is to “figure out the possible ways the human mind can make sense of the world around it”.  Read more…

The Whole Country Dances – The North Korean Music Scene

KJuvMusic(This article was first posted in February 2008. I think it is time for people to be reminded of North Korean music. Nordkorea.info.de doesn’t seem to provide songs any longer, which is a great pity, but there is a good selection here. In particular, I would recommend Heroic Workers’ Factory, which has an English translation. It is a song you can try out at work yourselves. See if increases your output.) 

I was leafing through the Rough Guide to World Music one day, looking up countries I had visited in order to find out which melodies I had missed and remembered (but how could one forget) that one of the countries I have been to is North Korea. The book has a box on the musical scene in North Korea with a list of titles including the following:


Song of Bean Paste
My Country Full of Happiness
We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly
Our Life Is Precisely A Song
Song of Snipers
The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst The Song of Mechanisation
Farming In This Year Is Great Bumper Crop
My Country Is Nice To Live In
Music Of Mass Rhythmic Gymnastics
I Like Both Morning And Evening
The Shoes My Brother Gave Me Fit Me Tight
The World Envies Us

These titles brought back many of the feelings one had while one was in North Korea. I was going to leave it at that, but I wanted to find a clearer picture for the cover of  Korean Juvenile Music (reproduced above) and in this search I stumbled across an excellent site which proclaimed

Herzlich willkommen auf Nordkorea-Info.de

and which has a substantial collection of North Korean CD’s for sale. You can even listen to some of the tracks in their Pochonboentirety. My favourite is My Country is the Best. We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands (also in the Korean Juvenile Music series) is excellent too, Glory to General Kim Jong Il is obviously excellent as well even though the Bavarian influence is a little strong for my tastes. But the real discovery was the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble who play with unequalled confidence and flair. If I had a record company I would not hesitate to sign them up. I think there is definitely a niche market which would go overboard for them. In fact, I have a feeling they would be particularly good at the Superbowl – the style is very similar. I watched a number of their videos, I think I counted eight keyboard players but there may be more. Here is an example of their multi-layered approach:

Someone has implied that the Mansudae Art Troupe are even better, but I can’t say I have been convinced, even though that is only on the strength of one track.

As I said, Herzlich willkommen auf Nordkorea-Info.de allows you to listen to a number of tracks in their entirety. It is a pity therefore that some of the more intriguing titles have no audio clip associated with them. I would really have liked to have heard O Persimmon Trees at a Coastal Guard Outpost. In any case, I have decided to put down here some of what I feel are the most memorable titles. I have found that arranging them in pairs conjures up a pretty accurate picture of the atmosphere one perceives in North Korea.

We Shall Live Forever to Defend Our Seas
Taehongdan Potato Good for Longevity

Oh, What Is a Party Member?
He Doesn’t Know Maybe

Fresh and Green Edible Aster on Mt. Ryongak
It Will Radiate with the General Sunshine

I Am a Blossom of the Fatherly General
I Also Raise Chickens.

We Are Honourable Infantrymen
Coming to Remove Weeds from the Sky

We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands
What Has Happened to the Thaebaeksan Hospital?

Let’s Sing of Paternal Affection
My Youngest Daughter, Pok Sun, Became a AA-machine gunner

Sea of Potato Blossoms in Taehongdan
Pleasant Snack Time

Nightingales Sing in Our Factory Compound
Song of Blood Transfusion

My Mind Remains Unchanged
I Like Rifle

and to end a couple of threesomes

Triple Rainbows
I Always See Them
Deep in Thought, the Nurse Ponders

Our Satellite Sings
Song of Automation Full of Happiness
The Whole Country Dances

Yes, now I remember

Wordle Quiz

wordle obs car You can’t get away from word clouds by now. Tags, authors and names get pasted into swirls and displayed in patterns everywhere. The presidential and vice-presidential debates were followed immediately by a pictorial analysis of the words most frequently used by each contender. So my subject is not a particularly original thing to write about.
But some time ago I came upon a page called Wordle where you can generate word clouds by pasting in text or linking to a website with an RSS feed.
I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the way I wrote myself and so I pasted in the English text from my book The Observation Car. The result is here on the left.  For those who are new to word clouds it might be worth pointing out that the higher the frequency of a word in a given text the bigger it will appear in the word cloud. “One” seems to be my favourite word, though it is so common and can be used in so many ways that I think it could have been filtered out along with “and”, “a”, “the”, “which”, etc.  “Two” and “three” also get a fair share of hits, but then my numbers peter out, though “five” puts up a shy hand.
I should obviously put up a sign on the wall behind my computer to remind me how prone I am to using “just” and “like”.
I find it interesting that going through the arrangement of words as you would pick up nails or beans scattered on a floor, it seems to come natural to put together clumps of pidgin haiku fragments.

Stare sounds, glass city

Rain made three go away, another keep shoes. Klaxx ! Bang !

Umbrellas stand behind waiting

Door faces seem oh !

Sit like air.

Read more…


(Listen to the poem here)

They thought it was a good idea
to put the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria.
Such a convenient and clever thing
to have so many fish steaks
quickly growing at the bottom of the road.
The way it grew so quick, they found, was by
devouring everything in sight and in mouth’s way.
Two hundred species used to live
inside the lake, and now they’ve gone,
mostly by means of being nileperch lunches.
Read more…

Stalin’s socks and Goethe’s thistles

6a00e5502c099d883400e553a9ed798833-800wi(NOTE – The International Year of the Potato was in 2008)

I know several people who are constantly being reminded that this year we are all supposed to be celebrating  the International Year of the Potato (Peru’s gift to the world). The Colorado Potato Beetle (Colorado’s gift to the world), the most serious insect potato pest, is also celebrating.

Very few people, however,  are aware that this is Global Artichoke Week (because it isn’t) and in view of this I have decided to post Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Artichoke.

This poem is one of his Elementary Odes. He wrote three books of Elementary Odes, which number almost 180 in total, covering such themes as the birds of Chile, conger eel soup, thread, numbers, laziness, a watch in the night, barbed wire, his socks, the liver, soap, the smell of firewood, bicycles, a large tuna in the market,   a ship in a bottle,  a village cinema, the colour green, the migration of birds, clouds, stones, scissors and tomatoes, maize, lemons and lots of other plants and foods.  My favourite of his vegetable odes is actually the Ode to the Onion, from which I recite every time I chop one:

y al cortarte
el cuchillo en la cocina
sube la única lágrima
sin pena.
Nos hiciste llorar sin afligirnos

(And when we cut you/with our knifes in the kitchen/it prompts the only tear/devoid of sorrow/You made us cry without distressing us)

Read more…

San Serrife Day

6a00e5502c099d883400e5519eb65e8834-800wiSan Serriffe (main islands Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse) is a country  people first noticed on 1 April 1977 after the Guardian published a seven-page supplement on it complete with advertising. Philip Davies, the person who had the original idea, apparently said, “The Financial Times was always doing special reports on little countries I’d never heard of. I was thinking about April Fool’s Day 1977 and I thought: why don’t we just make a country up?” One special feature about the islands of Sans Serriffe is that they are migratory, therefore the map on the left no longer gives their exact position.

Other 1 April facts and reports  are listed, described and documented in great detail at  Museum of Hoaxes, including the masterful Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, Alabama changing the value of Pi to 3.0, the left-handed  hamburger,  the  temporary closure of the Internet for Spring Cleaning and  the distribution of  powdered  water in Hong Kong.


This is what Diderot had to say about “aguaxima” in the Encylopédie.

AGUAXIMA, (Hist. nat. bot.) plante du Brésil & des isles de l’Amérique méridionale. Voilà tout ce qu’on nous en dit; & je demanderois volontiers pour qui de pareilles descriptions sont faites. Ce ne peut être pour les naturels du pays, qui vraissemblablement connoissent plus de caracteres de l’aguaxima, que cette description n’en renferme, & à qui on n’a pas besoin d’apprendre que l’aguaxima naît dans leur pays; c’est, comme si l’on disoit à un François, que le poirier est un arbre qui croît en France, en Allemagne, &c. Ce n’est pas non plus pour nous; car que nous importe qu’il y ait au Brésil un arbre appellé aguaxima, si nous n’en savons que ce nom? à quoi sert ce nom? Il laisse les ignorans tels qu’ils sont; il n’apprend rien aux autres: s’il m’arrive donc de faire mention de cette plante, & de plusieurs autres aussi mal caractérisées, c’est par condescendance pour certains lecteurs, qui aiment mieux ne rien trouver dans un article de Dictionnaire, ou même n’y trouver qu’une sottise, que de ne point trouver l’article du tout.

Aguaxima, a plant growing in Brazil and on the islands of South America. This is all that we are told about it; and I would like to know for whom such descriptions are made. It cannot be for the natives of the countries concerned, who are likely to know more about the aguaxima than is contained in this description, and who do not need to learn that the aguaxima grows in their country. It is as if you said to a Frenchman that the pear tree is a tree that grows in France, in Germany, etc . It is not meant for us either, for what do we care that there is a tree in Brazil named aguaxima , if all we know about it is its name? What is the point of giving the name? It leaves the ignorant just as they were and teaches the rest of us nothing. If all the same I mention this plant here, along with several others that are described just as poorly, then it is out of consideration for certain readers who prefer to find nothing in a dictionary article or even to find something stupid than to find no article at all.

There doesn’t appear to be much more information available about aguaxima than there was in Diderot’s day. I find that it Is a variety of Brazilian black pepper, commonly called Caapeba (Latin – Piper marginatum Jacq.). Synonyms in Portuguese: pariparoba, piperomia, malvaísco, caapeba-cheirosa, capava, malvarisco, capeba, capeba-branca, pimenta-do-mato, pimenta-dos-índios, nhandi.

It seems to me that there are many people capable of making  long speeches and writing intricate articles on subjects like aguaxima.  Most of them hold a degree in tautology. The problem is that often you only realise this after you have heard the speech or read the article. I suggest that we label them aguaximatists. If we could identify them with just one word, it might save us time which could be spent more usefully watching clouds or counting the spots on passing dalmatians.



There are lots of things you can do with a real handkerchief which you can’t do with tissue. I remember that people used them to wave from trains when passing houses of people they knew. Actually you just stuck the handkerchief out of the window and it would wave itself. Of course, now you can’t even open train windows at all. I also have recollections of people in hot weather tying knots in the corners, soaking the hankie in cold water and wearing it on their heads.

And surely to be handed a freshly ironed, neatly folded, soft handkerchief to wipe one’s tears must be a consolation in itself. Thinking of that use, I believe that I have a whole class of new words to suggest. I do this with some apprehension, because though new words are amusing and sometimes mesmerising, they are a bit like unknown animals you bring back to your own house; some of them turn out to be bad guests and there are a few hundred words which in my opinion we desperately need to get rid of.

Despite this, in the single-volume dictionary I have to hand I am busy trying to push handiwork one way and handknit the other, so that I can make room to fit in a whole new pageful.

Let us suppose some bad news has blown in through the window or that something which never was supposed to happen has just knocked on your door. You are sad and distressed. What do you do to console yourself if no one hands you a handkerchief ? A handkerwalk makes me feel better sometimes, my footsteps stretch my cares out in all directions  around the town until they’re too thin to notice any more. Or perhaps you prefer to pick up the phone and have a handkertalk about it all. If there is someone you always call when you need to do this then that is your handkerfriend.

At night or in times of stress you might of course be seen opening the fridge in search of handkerfood. But there may be something specific you may find more comforting (and I want to point out that none of the following examples apply to me),
for example, a handkersausage, handkerchocs, or handkerchup (a thick layer of ketchup spread over what is pretty bad food to start with) There may be some people, though I find this difficult to believe, who turn to handkerporridge.

How about handkercraft ? A word which straight from its coinage rolls wobbling on its edge into ambiguity. Is this some hobby like woodwork or brick-laying which you turn to in dark times ? Or is it the motorcycle you tear down the road on while howling ? Or is it a car or even a boat ?

You may have a favourite handkerchair, perhaps there is only one handkerplace that makes you feel better, or you could be compelled to buy some handkershoes. Some people have handkerchildren. In Autralia there probably are handkeroos, but I don’t know what they are. Neither do I know what a handkernaut is, but I’ll know one when one turns up and I will know what to call  it/ her/him.