‘How English sounds to non-English speakers’

‘Skwerl’ is, according to the description attached to the YouTube upload, “a short film in fake English”.

The gag here is that everything else about this piece has the trappings of a short, highly charged drama exert, the only thing missing is recognisable English vocabulary. It has been exchanged for English phonics, the actual constructed sounds that make up word, delivered with conviction and in character, so that the audience can infer everything that you may be able to infer from watching a foreign language film without subtitles or dubbing – the setting, the atmosphere, the interpersonal tension and the swings of mood, as well as broadly from this context – the “meaning” of the dialogue.

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 12.13.12This whole grand delusion is designed to give an insight into what it would be like to watch an English Foreign Language film, if you had no grasp of the English language itself – the strict ties of vocabulary and meaning are pulled out from under you, leaving you with noises that are tantalisingly familiar sounding, but whose precise meaning is impenetrable.

This particular experiment has strong cultural undertones – with the prevalence of English across the world as a stable of cultural expression, recasting English as a foreign language that native English speakers are not familiar with allows.a degree of insight into another world – the wealth of English culture not being directly accessible to you.

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As well, Sociologically (the YouTube rule of ‘never read the comments’ aside) there are some occasional attestations as to the truth of this rendering of “How English sounds to non-English speakers” from honest-to-god ESOL (English as a second or other language) speakers from the days before their fluency. This is a testament to the thorough research or prior understanding of English phonics, or perhaps merely an intuitive ability of the presumably English native speaking screenwriters to create English sounding non-English words.

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The greatest enemy of clear language is insecerity – George Orwell

There is a scene in Dreamland (the Australian title is Utopia) a satirical, “bureaucracy comedy” – think Twenty Twelve or W1A, in which Tony, the boss of the National Building Authority is trying to explain to the head of a Spanish contractor company they’ve hired why there have been delays to the project.

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There is a translator between the two, who keeps clearly breaking what would be the normal flow of conversation and either over or under translating things, until at one point he stops entirely as the Australian boss waffles niceties and clichés, hiding behind corporate-speak. The Aussie boss asks: “You’re not gonna translate this”and the translator replies: “I do not know what you are saying”.

 

 

On History and Perspective

I enjoy and am rather good at tasks requiring precision and problem solving.

I particularly enjoy precision of language; strict definition, objective and legally enforceable meanings. Moreover, I enjoy analysis that uses precise language, but has a scope that is able to holistically link seemingly disparate subjects. Economics and politics seem to do this a lot of the time.

I like being able to delve into the context of a case study in order to understand it better.

Take, for instance, the planned Queen’s speech for the state opening of parliament tomorrow, the 22nd of June. There are many angles one can approach the event from;

  • You can talk about the history of the relationship between the monarchy and Parliament,  Bad King John, the English Civil War, and the fact that the Prime Minster’s party technically derives its power from the Queen, asking her to form a Government on her behalf if they have a majority in the House of Commons.
  • You can examine the direct political context – the snap elections which shrunk Theresa May’s small majority down to a plurality of 317 (compared to Labour’s 262), just shy of a majority of seats in the House of Commons, which is of course, 650 and how this has forced her to tread much merely carefully
  • You can frame the event as in contrast to former state openings of Parliament, and how much of the Pomp and Ceremony has been suspended, officially because of clashes with other Royal commitments and the suddenness of this event, caused by May’s snap election decision
  • You can talk about the larger political context – how it was David Cameron’s Conservative Government took the gamble of a decision to hold the IN/OUT referendum, partially to put the issue to bed after decades of, mostly, Tory backbench grumblings, and how he expected an easy victory that would embolden his party and him personally as having A) given the people the chance to decide directly and B) he personally having campaigned for the winning Remain side, but in reality it shook the political tectonic plates and created new and deep fault lines
  • You can talk about Northern Irish politics, devolution, the Good Friday Agreement as the culmination of a difficult and drawn out peace process, and the power sharing that has occurred since, etched into the operation of the Northern Irish assembly. Crucially, you can also talk about how Northern Irish MPs from Sinn Fein are elected time and time again, but do not take up their seats in Westminster out of Protest and how this time, this left the DUP, ideologically closes to May’s Conservative party, very much in the driver’s seat and with disproportionate power as any rebellion may cause Government Policy to fail, votes of No Confidence, and perhaps, a fresh election.

It is not vital to have a deep understanding of each of these angles, but it is importance to have a broad understanding – as each allow you to understand the event in a slightly different way, and the culmination is a in-depth understanding underpinned by perspective.

Okay Google, what is a troll?

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Burger King released an ad in the US with a clever ploy.

The BK employee acknowledges the time constraints he is under before revealing that he has ‘an idea’.

“Okay Google,” he begins, the phrase which triggers any compatible devices to read aloud the definition gathered from the website at the top of the corresponding Google search “what is the Whopper Burger?”

Initially, the gambit was successful, as presumably the company knew, the phrase successfully activated the feature on compatible products in homes across America. Slight problem – trolls.

Those looking for kicks, presumably the good folks over at /b/, edited the Wikipedia article in order to get the new, fecicious definition to be read out instead – that the whopper was made of “child” and contained cyanide.

Their fun was cut short when Google, who were not consulted about the ad, made sure that the phrase no longer activated the feature.

At work, an Italian staff member asked to lend a pair of headphones. She then questioned herself, asking whether it should be lend or borrow.

I told her it should be borrow, but a lot of people use lend to mean borrow.

She then said that the reason she got confused is because in Italian, lend and borrow are the same word; ‘presta’.

It reminded me of a story of a hacker who typed with clearly “broken” English. In order to try and identify the identity of the hacker, a linguist was tasked with determining the mother tongue of the speaker, based on the specific grammatical mistakes he was making – on the basis that mistakes made in a second language are not random, rather (usually) a misapplication of the same grammatical rules of the speaker’s mother tongue.
Here’s the super interesting part: the hacker was using fake broken English – that is to say, he was a native English speaker, deliberately making mistakes in order to try and throw investigators off the scent – the mistakes were too random, not based in any specific grammatical structure.