As many schoolboys and students know, unintended innuendo can be found in the most unexpected of places and can lend a certain mischievous serendipity to otherwise dull lessons and lectures. One major source of linguistic amusement is transatlantic confusion. This was recently driven home to me by the following passage from an Irwin Shaw story: “Across the street, on the public athletics field, four boys were shagging flies.”

My confused yet amused eyes tripped and staggered over the sentence, but made no sense of it, retraced their steps several times, then sat on the kerb of the full-stop, under the shade of the quotation mark, and scratched their chin in bemusement. Boys shagging flies? Not only is that physically impossible, but why on earth would a celebrated American writer, working in a more decorous pre-Monty Python and Little Britain age, stoop to such crudity? It had to be something else.

Some sleuthing around and further research – the OED, Google and a couple of American friends – cracked the mystery. Rather than implying that a group of young lads were attempting intercourse with insects, the sentence was actually about baseball and catching fly balls.

As George Bernard Shaw once, rather hyperbolically, claimed, Brits and Americans are “divided by a common language”. And examples abound of confusing word usages, especially when it comes to slang and popular colloquialisms, not to mention regionally within each country.

Given the growing transatlantic familiarity in the age of the internet and saturating mass media, especially the British familiarity with Americanisms, confusion is receding, but it can still occur. English slang that might confuse Americans includes: the exclamation “bugger”, “cowboy” (as in unscrupulous trader), “con” (as in con artist, not convict), “fag” (as in cigarette), to “fancy” (ie find someone attractive), to be “pissed” (as in drunk), etc. Given that we’ve grown up with American pop culture, most mainstream Americanisms are very familiar and even many obscure local expressions have made it across the Atlantic. But hearing references to “fanny bags” and someone showing a lot of “spunk” can’t but elicit a knowing smile from a Brit.

Given the length and breadth of that language ostensibly known as English, the geographical differences don’t end there. Although Australian English is, in many ways, quite similar to British English, with perhaps more borrowing from American, there are still significant differences. The first time an Australian friend told me that he felt “crook”, I wondered what crime he believed he had committed. What he meant was that he had been feeling ill or unwell.

Of course, meanings do not only change across space, but also across time, in a phenomenon known as semantic shift. Among the most popular and best-known recent examples are “gay”, ie happy and carefree, and “queer”, ie odd or unusual. In fact, such is the way of things, that a “gay man” once referred to a womanising bachelor and a “gay woman” was a prostitute. Moreover, though gay lib may have really taken off only in the 1960s but before that we had the “Gay 1890s”, without a gay pride parade in sight.

As for “queer”, which has been appropriated as a term of pride by gay people, long before Britain came out of the closet, it had “Queer Street”, where people in financial dire straits figuratively lived, and someone “feeling a little queer” was not touching up anyone, but was, instead, under the weather.

Going even further back, things get really weird! Weirdly enough, if you though the word “weird” was relatively new, think again. It was used half a dozen times by Shakespeare, at a time when it meant possessing supernatural powers. Its modern meaning was coined by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early 19th century. In fact, umpteen apparently familiar words in Shakespeare have quite different meanings today. For example, when one of the witches in Hamlet says, “You all know security/ Is mortals’ chiefest enemy”, security here means complacency and not safety, which would be nonsensical.

Over time, many words go through elevations in their meaning, or they fall from grace, or they end up meaning the complete opposite of what they originally signified. For example, “knight” simply meant “boy or servant”, while “gentle” meant of high birth, hence “gentleman”. Girl meant any young person – “gay girl” meant girl, not lesbian, and “knave girl” meant boy – while “man” meant any person, regardless of gender.

Once upon a time, people who were “awful” (ie deserving of awe) and “silly” (blessed and happy) were admired, and people who were “brave” (ie cowardly) were looked down upon. And if you were “fond” of someone, you found them stupid and silly, and if you found someone “cute” that meant they were bow-legged. If all this is a bit confusing, don’t “worry”, especially since, in medieval England, the word meant to strangle or choke someone to death.

Semantic shift is occurring around us even as we speak and, in the future, words may take on radically different meanings to the ones they have now. Today, in jest, we may say someone is “bad”, meaning good, “wicked”, meaning cool, or “fit”, meaning attractive. But future generations may have no other meaning for these words and may conclude that “survival of the fittest” means that only the beautiful live on.



While talking on cell phone is known to affect an individual’s ability to drive, a new study has shown that driving also reduces one’s ability to comprehend and use language. The study led by researchers from University of Illinois has shown that driving impairs language skills.

“The previous findings made no sense to those of us who have studied language,” said Gary Dell, a psycholinguist in the department of psychology at Illinois and corresponding author on the study.

“You might think that talking is an easy thing to do and that comprehending language is easy. But it’s not.

“Speech production and speech comprehension are attention-demanding activities, and so they ought to compete with other tasks that require your attention – like driving,” Dell added.

The new study was conducted in a driving simulator at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

The participants worked in pairs – one as a driver and the other as a conversation partner who was either in the simulator with the driver or talking with the driver via a hands-free cell phone from a remote location.

The findings revealed that a participant’s ability to remember and retell a story declined significantly if he or she was also driving during the exercise.

The older subjects performed more poorly on these tasks to begin with, and their ability to retain and retell the stories worsened as much as that of their younger peers.

In contrast to their performance while sitting still, Dell said, “the drivers remembered 20 percent less of what was told to them when they were driving.”

Declines in the accuracy of retelling the stories were most pronounced while drivers navigated through intersections or encountered more demanding traffic conditions.

“This study shows that various aspects of language go to hell when you’re driving,” said psychology professor Art Kramer, who collaborated on the study.


An international conference on promoting Vietnamese literature finished last Sunday in Ha Noi. More than 150 writers and translators from 31 countries attended the event.

Overseas Vietnamese Tran Thien Dao from France and Zhu Yang Xiu from China discussed how best to promote Vietnamese literature internationally.

Good translation is vital to promoting Vietnamese literature abroad. What does it entail?

Tran Thien Dao: Literature translation encompasses research, theory, criticism, etc. I would like to discuss fiction writing. Although translation on one level involves converting words from one language to another, the work is very creative.

Zhu Yang Xiu: Translation is both science and art. The translator does not rewrite but reads and translates original content. There was a Chinese writer who said: “If the original is whisky, the translation is brandy at the very least. It cannot be water.”

What do you think about the Vietnamese literature that has been translated into other languages, particularly Chinese?

Zhu Yang Xiu: Not much Vietnamese literature has been translated into Chinese. Promoting Vietnamese literature in China must take in two periods – before China’s culture revolution (1966-1976), which includes Vietnamese literature such as The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du and poetry by Ho Xuan Huong – and after the revolution. Work that has been translated into Chinese after that period mainly focuses on the theme of war, such as Dat Nuoc Dung Len (Country that’s Rising) by Nguyen Ngoc or Ong Co Van (The Adviser).

Tran Thien Dao: I think that translations must be accurate, fine and pure. Works that have been translated into French are accurate but not fine and pure.

What do you think of the standard of the translated works?

Tran Thien Dao: Of those translating Vietnamese literature into French, about 95 per cent has been done by translators who are overseas Vietnamese.

Translated works should be aimed at French readers not just Vietnamese researchers and Viet Nam lovers.

Zhu Yang Xiu: Not many Chinese translators are interested in Vietnamese literature. A translator must have a passion for the country’s literature and the country itself. It is important to find a publisher too. For example, before I translated The Adviser, I translated Chi Pheo, one of most famous stories by Nam Cao in 1941, but I could not find a publisher willing to take it on. They all said the story took place a long time ago and was no longer relevant.

How do you think Vietnamese literature should be promoted abroad?

Zhu Yang Xiu: Translations must connect different cultures. The work needs to be subsidised by the government. Viet Nam needs to set up a fund to support translations of Vietnamese literature into other languages.

Besides, a national award should be set up for the best translated works. The best works should be published and promoted globally.

Tran Thien Dao: Translators face many difficulties such as finding the necessary funds to complete the task.

Should the Viet Nam Writers Association set up a translation centre?

Tran Thien Dao: How will it operate?

Zhu Yang Xiu: I think it would be good to have such a centre. At the moment, translators have to find literature for themselves to translate. They have to invest their own resources. I’d translate Vietnamese literature if publisher commissioned me.


Louisiana is a cultural melting pot. Because of the state’s unique DNA a combination of the history, politics and geographical location everything about “The Boot” is a little bit different, right down to the way Louisiana natives speak. But current speech pathology tests don’t take into account dialects of individual Louisiana parishes, and as a result, children with speech and language impairments might not be getting the help they need.

Worse yet, some children may be considered speech- or language-impaired when in actuality, they happen to speak what’s known as a non-traditional form of the English language. With support in the form of $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, Janna Oetting and her colleagues at LSU are setting out across Louisiana to help solve this problem.

Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders Oetting, together with LSU colleagues Michael Hegarty of the Department of English and Janet McDonald of the Department of Psychology, plans to conduct field studies in several rural Louisiana parishes, including Assumption, Iberville, St. James and West Baton Rouge, beginning in January 2010.

“We’ll be working with kindergartners because the basic structure of human grammar is established by age four, and we want to start the process at the start of a child’s elementary school experience,” said Oetting. “About 30 percent of Louisiana fourth-grade students are not reading at age appropriate levels, so if we can do something to impact that statistic, we definitely are ready to step up to the plate.”

Oetting’s group, which includes graduate students from LSU’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders, Linguistics and Psychology, looks at how the mind handles language and how children acquire it, specifically regarding abstract grammar rules, such as verb phrasing. The group will focus on children with “Specific Language Impairment,” or SLI, which refers to children who have no contributing health factors but who nevertheless lag in the mastery of language, measured against linguistic timetables.

“Nationally, only 29 percent of children with Specific Language Impairment are identified and receive any support or assistance; we believe the rate is even lower in Louisiana because of issues related to the understudy of our dialects,” said Oetting. “This is troubling because we also know that close to 60 percent of kindergarteners with Specific Language Impairment will present with a reading impairment in fourth grade. Standard English speakers are identified much younger and much more often. In areas of Louisiana and elsewhere where nontraditional dialects are spoken, the fear is that we’re missing lots of children.”

The goal of this grant is to develop tools essential for language development that are specifically tailored to several Louisiana dialects, language subsets that include African American English, Southern White English, Creole, Cajun and any combination thereof.

“Dialects can be a taboo topic, which is part of the reason that there’s a lack of diagnosis and treatment,” said Oetting. “What we’re looking at is the concept of impairment within the context of different dialects of English. We all speak differently. We don’t want tests that falsely identify children as impaired just because they speak differently than the baseline language on which the test was modeled, but we also don’t want children who need services not identified because their language weaknesses were incorrectly identified as a dialect difference.”

According to Oetting, speech language pathologists who work with standard English speakers have hundreds of tools at their fingertips for evaluation, support and education. But clinicians who serve non-traditional dialect speakers have far fewer to guide their decision making processes.

Using videotaped stories and interactive computer games made in their research lab, the team’s first goal is to better document the variety of dialects that are spoken by Louisiana children. Then, the group will proceed, identifying clinical markers of children with SLI within each of these dialects. The end goal is to develop tools that can be used in Louisiana classrooms to assist speech language pathologists in methods of assessment and treatment and educators in methods of language testing and teaching.

“People around the country and the world think of Louisiana as a rich and valuable place to study languages,” said Oetting. “It’s similar to the way that people view us as a rich and valuable place to study our natural resources, such as petroleum. But people are the real resources and drivers of Louisiana, and we’re doing everything we can to support and assist the children of this state as they progress through school and into adulthood.”

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The Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, the Honourable Christian Paradis, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, and John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), today announced the signing of an agreement for translation and interpretation services before and during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

The agreement was signed by the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Translation Bureau, and VANOC to meet Canada’s official-language requirements during the Games. Funding of up to $5.3 million dollars will ensure that the Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau (managed by Public Works and Government Services Canada) provides, in collaboration with VANOC, superior-quality translation services before and during the Games to meet the needs of athletes, media representatives, dignitaries, and Canadians.

“These are Canada’s Games, and our Government has been clear that they will reflect the rich diversity of our country,” said Minister Moore. “Today’s announcement will ensure that our country’s two official languages are fully incorporated in the organizing and hosting of the Games, and that these will be the most bilingual Games to date.”

“There has never been any doubt that the French language will be front and centre at the Vancouver Olympic Games. I am particularly proud that my department has been able to provide expert translation and interpretation services for the entire length of the Games,” said Minister Paradis. “The Games present an ideal opportunity to showcase and enhance the visibility of our two official languages, both here at home and internationally.”

“The 2010 Winter Games provide an extraordinary opportunity to display our unique Canadian identity to the world,” said Mr. Furlong. “As part of our commitment to hosting the Games, we have devoted a great deal of time and resources to ensure that these Games reflect our country’s diversity, including its linguistic duality. The Government of Canada has been an exceptional partner and their collaboration will help us deliver on these promises.”

This funding is part of $7.7 million that was announced on September 15 and will be directed toward aspects of the Games that help reflect Canada’s official-language policies and our country’s rich Francophone heritage. The Government of Canada has committed $1.5 million to ensure the placement of permanent bilingual signage at sporting and event venues and $900,000 for the inclusion of the French language and Francophone culture in the nightly victory medal ceremonies that will be hosted by Canada’s provinces and territories.

With its key Games partners, the Government of Canada, as a signatory of the Multi-Party Agreement, is showing its determination to promote Canada’s official languages and respect the obligations flowing from the Official Languages Act and related policies.

This Government’s leadership is demonstrated by concrete and productive measures that will help make the Games a success in both official languages.


Councils spent nearly £20 million of taxpayers’ money last year on translating documents into foreign languages including Mongolian, Tagalog and Pahari, according to new figures.

Documents were translated into more than 75 languages by councils.

The heaviest spender was the City of Edinburgh council, which last year paid out £110,000 for translations into languages including Mongolian.

Two of the highest spenders in England were Northamptonshire County Council which spent £73,000 on translation fees in 2008/09 and Leeds City Council paid £141,000 over the last two years.

Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said councils should encourage migrants to learn English instead of spending public money on translations.

He said: “Even the Government have now accepted that the practice of translating endless documents into obscure languages is a waste of money, so these councils have no excuse to still be doing this. Not only is this wasteful, it is counterproductive in terms of social cohesion.”

Among the more unusual items translated were a “pigeon feeding document” translated into Urdu for Manchester City Council, and “Weight Busters”, which was translated into Panjabi, Gujerati and Urdu by Warwickshire County Council at a cost of £207.

Hertfordshire County Council also spent more than £10,000 translating at least 100 school reports into languages including Sylheti Bengali, Tagalog and Tamil, while Liverpool City Council paid £98.92 to translate a payslip into Flemish.

Documents were also rewritten in Kpelle, a Liberian dialect, and Pahari, a language spoken in northern India and Nepal.

The figures came to light after 84 per cent of British councils responded to a freedom of information request by Lingo24, a translation agency, which said the figures revealed a “phenomenal and unnecessary wastage” of taxpayers’ money.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the amount spent by councils on translation had been reduced from £25m in 2006.

A spokesman for the LGA said: “Translation has its place to ensure people can access vital services, find jobs and get their children into school. However, translation should not be a substitute for learning English and all public bodies need to adopt a common-sense approach.”


The people at Bryn Athyn College went straight to hell yesterday. It was just before 1:30 on a beautiful afternoon at the leafy Montgomery County campus, and by sometime early this morning, they planned to be well out.

They would be – if they could swing it – awash in the love that moves the sun and all the other stars. Paradise.

Traveling in a single day from the depth of Point A to the pinnacle of Point B, allowing for a layover in purgatory, was an undertaking apparently never before attempted in the United States.

But the assembled readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy (or, if you insist on the original Italian, La Divina Commedia) were dead-set on reciting every one of the 14,000-plus verses that his iconic, dreamlike, high-concept poem comprises in three volumes: “Inferno,” then “Purgatorio,” and finally “Paradiso.”

That sort of marathon narration of a milestone work in Western literature is not even the tradition in Italy, where Florentines are known to recite one of the books – canto, or chapter, by canto – in readings that move from street corner to street corner, and may include both passersby and local celebrities.

“There were times I asked myself if I were crazy,” said Duncan Pitcairn, a student of the Italian language who came up with the idea and then acted on it. “It’s not something I would have taken on if people had not encouraged me.” Said his wife, Martha: “He reports that smirking is a form of support from his family.”

Yesterday, she was with him to help out at Bryn Athyn College’s Mitchell Performing Arts Center. There, 10 readers – mostly affiliated with Bryn Athyn, a municipality whose 1,350 residents are, like the Pitcairns, nearly all followers of a denomination called the New Church – were raring to recite.

The sponsor of the event was the America Italy Society of Philadelphia, the Center City organization that runs a wide variety of programs related to Italian culture. These include the language classes that Pitcairn, 54, a descendant of the same-named industrialist family responsible for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and significant in the nation’s rail and energy development, has been taking for seven years.

“I really wanted to hear The Divine Comedy as a story,” he said. For hundreds of years that was the only way, because most people were illiterate. It was recited.”

On a train ride back to Philadelphia from New York, where Pitcairn heard the Italian actor Roberto Benigni read several Divine Comedy cantos last spring, the idea came to him. He took it to his Italian teacher, Franca Riccardi (“I thought it was wonderful,” she said), and “the Bryn Athyn theater happened to be empty because it’s the middle of a winter day.”

Well, it’s empty until 8 this morning, when people begin setting up for a Sunday service. But Pitcairn and the crew hoped to be finished with all hundred chapters around midnight, not altogether out of reach. The first hour of reading ended at the beginning of the 10th canto.

Pitcairn was not one of the official readers, although Riccardi was – and she read her cantos in Italian, while Pitcairn worked a PowerPoint presentation that threw surtitles on a screen behind her. When other readers took to the podium for English recitations, he projected an image from the appropriate canto.

The images and the fairly new translation – a prose version more accessible than typical translations into poetry – came from Princeton University’s Dante Project, headed by Robert and Jean Hollander.

The day began at 1 p.m. with notes on the work from Victoria Kirkham, a professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania. Dante Alighieri – a poet who also wrote in Latin, a deeply religious dreamer, and a politician ousted from his beloved Florence by the opposition – was forced to roam the palaces of northern Italy for the last two decades of his life, when he wrote the work. He finished just before dying in 1321.

It’s both powerfully rich in imagery and dense with literary and religious illusions, this story of a poet (named Dante) who is accompanied into hell by the poet Virgil. (Yes, a now-famed sign at one of the gates says “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”) They see, depth by depth, the most astonishing, even gross, things. The two then work their way to purgatory, where Virgil leaves his young charge in the company of Beatrice, an angel in whose eyes Dante finds his way through paradise.

“Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood,” recited Eric Carswell, the minister who began with Dante’s first lines. About 45 people were in the audience, which expanded and contracted as the afternoon moved forward and the story moved downward, to the center of the earth, before Dante’s ascent. Other readers, who rotated canto by canto, included a Temple University doctoral candidate in technical writing, a theater teacher, and a college student.

Another was Christopher Clark, the new president of Bryn Athyn College, who said he knew The Divine Comedy “only like most college-educated civilians” – having only a general idea of it. Chara Daum, a Latin translator and one of the readers whose final recitation would be the very last, was asked whether she had special plans for it. “I plan to be upright,” she said.

A $20-a-person dinner was prepared for 7 p.m., but the event was free. And during the day, onlookers were asked to offer a respite to readers by volunteering for a canto. That was what Dario Galanti, 17, the son of Giorgio Galanti, head of cultural affairs at the Italian consulate here, did at Canto 16 in “Inferno.” The younger Galanti rehearsed to himself in the theater lobby, then took the stage and rolled the canto, about three netherworld spirits, gracefully from his tongue in its beautifully trilled original Italian.

“He knows very well his Dante,” said his dad.

Except for readers, Pitcairn expected no one would stay throughout. “I’ve been saying to people, ‘Come for five or 10 minutes and get a taste of the afterlife.’ We’ll hopefully get to the end, where we meet God in heaven, before it’s too late.”