Category Archives: General

The slinky, seductive sound of brand names


Dec. 2, 2011

The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L’Oreal somehow makes you feel that you’re worth it.

Let’s face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.

One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.

Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that’s created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.

Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.

His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.

Slinky sounds

“There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings,” Leben says.

The shiny bull's horns are fine but linguists would say it is the zoom zoom that makes Mazda move. 

In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.

The company’s Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.

What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.

Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.

No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.

That’s because “voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made,” Leben explains. “Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it’s more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it’s more likely to sound luxurious.”

He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with “san” for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it’s voiced. Tasani wouldn’t have been the same.

Some sad words

In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.

One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.

They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.

So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L’Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.

Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.

Names that use haplology can work too. That’s when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys “R” Us or Crunch ‘n Munch.

An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Name Changes

All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.

What's in a name? Lady Gaga accepting a Bambi media award in Germany in November 2011.

It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).

But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture (“accent on future” which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.

Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it’s more hip than ever now to create your “brand.”

For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.

I’ve dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo’s birthday. But it never really caught on.

Next frontier

Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.

But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They’ve been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.

Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.

When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.

But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?

And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.

In our globalized world, it’s more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.

Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.

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Technology is turning us into fast talkers

Oct. 31, 2011

From Strombo to Jon Stewart, let’s agree that some broadcast hosts can talk at the speed of lightning. They’re smart and satirical even if they do sometimes trip over their own brilliance.

Indeed, the media are full of fast talkers from talk shows to sitcoms and newscasts.

But it’s not just media types who motor along.

Texts, tweets, and technological gizmos are making communication ever faster and it’s causing many of us to speak more quickly in our everyday lives to keep up with it all.

Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.

“A decade ago,” he says, “I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech.

“That is certainly not what we’re finding today. People are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm, as I have measured it.”

Too fast for our brains

Some of us, of course, like to speak trippingly on the tongue to show that we’re smart and funny. But fast talking is also a result of our overwhelmed brains trying to cram more into the same amount of time. For broadcasters – more news; parents – more activities; teachers – more information.

CBC TV and radio host George Stroumboulopoulos, a fast talker. 

Hull’s mission is to slow the world down, one person at a time. Teachers, broadcasters, doctors, lawyers, even parents, they all come to him to learn to speak more deliberately and with greater clarity.

Hull is particularly concerned with elementary school teachers. He recently conducted a workshop for teachers in a large school district in Kansas. And last July, he spoke to teachers, professors and administrators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education.

He says that he’s measured elementary school teachers in the classroom speaking at 180 words per minute. At that rate, he says, “those children simply cannot comprehend what is being said. Their central nervous system is not designed to do that.”

Hull says the human brain is best able to comprehend speech at around 124 to 130 wpm; when we speak slowly, our brains have the time to fill in the gaps of speech with elongated vowels and consonants.

The 30s slowdown

Now, perhaps you already speak at the Mr. Rogers rate of 130 wpm. Fantastic. Or you may speak quickly and be perfectly understandable. Carry on, I say.

Mr. Rogers, a slow talker. 

But others (our foreign minister, for example) can end up clipping word endings, slurring words together or eliminating pauses. End result? Sometimes we understand only half of what’s being said.

So when teachers or parents think that kids don’t listen, it may be more that they don’t understand what’s being said.

It isn’t just the speed of words that’s the problem. A recent study showed that fast-speaking and fast-moving cartoons negatively affect children’s “executive function,” meaning their ability to stay on task without being distracted.

It found that four-year-olds who sat down and watched just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants had lower concentration levels than other kids their age.

So while fast-speak may be fun, it’s also fraught.

Seniors also can have a hard time with people who speak quickly, especially on the phone. And who doesn’t get frustrated with phonemessagesthatruntogether?

Hull says that when we hit our mid-30s, our central nervous system slows and we’re less able to understand people who talk quickly. By around 73, we have the listening abilities of a three-year-old.

Slow down

Hull says we all need to advocate for slower speech.

That may be especially true for those of us who live amid a growing population of new immigrants. Heck, if native speakers can’t keep up, then people with a lesser grasp on English must get really muddled by the motor mouths.

Hull has worked with television newscasters who he has timed speaking at 200 wpm.

“People call in and complain that they cannot understand what that news broadcaster is saying and that’s why that news broadcaster is referred to me.”

You’d think, he says, “that people would begin to take the hint that they… need…to…slow… down.”

There are a few ways to do that. Communications experts suggest looking people in the eye to get feedback, and pause between phrases.

[Pause inserted here.]

You can also time yourself. Mark 130 words on a page and clock how fast you read it out loud. If you’re done in less than a minute, try slowing down and see what that feels like.

Then again, I clocked myself at 170 wpm, and I’m often told how clearly I speak. So it may depend on how well you enunciate your words.

Instead of sighing dramatically, throwing up your hands and saying “nobody understands me,” do your bit to help people understand you.


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Java jargon: Coffee lovers take lessons from wine snobs


Sept. 15, 2011

You’ve been there, sitting in a restaurant beside some tweed jacket type who swills his glass of red through tobacco-stained teeth and expounds on the delicate notes of currants and figs, the slight eucalyptus aftertaste. Or perhaps the young professional, giant sunglasses perched on immaculate updo, droning about the complexity of the white, what with its blend of vanilla and lemon, its slight taste of cotton sheets.

Really? Who tastes their sheets?

Let’s face it, wine snobs are annoying — what with the way they crowbar ordinary words to describe something many of us just slug back and quietly enjoy.

Well, now there’s a new snob on the block. With the growing interest in purity, body and single-origin, this drinking dialect is expanding to a different beverage.


Coffee, it seems, is the new wine.

It was inevitable. Most accounts plant the origin of the word “coffee” in the 1600s. It stems from the Turkish word kahveh and the Arabic word qahwah, which originally meant –– wait for it –– wine.

History professor Ralph S. Hattox explains the etymology in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East:

“The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something,” he writes.

“According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is ‘wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].’ The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

‘Pure coffee’

So, with coffee linguistically linked to wine, it makes sense that we’re now using similar language to describe it.

With a disdain for foam, the caffeinated wine snob is embracing “pure coffee,” mimicking the move from table wine to Cabernet, if you will. A quick trip to a few pure-coffee blogs yields the following: “the coffee held notes of fig, chocolate milk, a bit of wheat, black bean and bran. The overall feel was smooth with a little kick. As it cooled, a smokiness entered the sensory picture.”

And, “the espresso held bright lemon, ginger, rosemary, milk chocolate, with a velvety texture amidst a brown healthy crema.”

That all sounds quite nice, but I’ve never detected rosemary in my espresso. Then again, the two packets of sugar eliminate the need for all but one adjective: “sweet.”

Coffee connoisseurs talk more about single-origin or single-estate coffee, made with beans from one country or one farm. So, instead of Bordeaux and Gray Monk Riesling, you have Costa Rican Tarrazu and Panama Geisha Aristar.

And what of body? Like wine, java has body, and it’s being increasingly sized up (better assessed if you swirl it in your mouth). We yak about Brazilian and Honduran coffee having light and medium body, of Tanzanian beans being full-bodied.

So, why is java jargon becoming more refined?

Chocolate, salt also have own vocabulary

Morton Satin says people are trying to express their individuality through the products they consume. He’s the author of Coffee Talk: The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew and vice-president of the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt producers. Satin says it starts with marketers making us want to buy a product like coffee or wine and is driven by the likes of the Food Channel.

Once we taste a product and learn more about its nuances, we then need the language to describe it.

Satin says what’s happened with oenological language is spreading to not only coffee but chocolate, too. The brown stuff is described in terms of how well-tempered it is (whether it has a good gloss and healthy snap); its aroma (released by rubbing the chocolate with your thumb), which can range from kumquat and mushroom to juniper and baked bread; and how it melts in your mouth: creamy or greasy, or perhaps waxy and gritty. Like wine and coffee, more attention is paid to terroir, and cacao content is also of essence.

A man holds sea salt harvested from a salt field near Karachi, Pakistan. Salt is now being described with similarly elaborate vocabulary as wine, coffee and chocolate. 

Satin says even salt is getting more descriptors. We used to speak merely of table salt, but there’s also kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel (an expensive sea salt harvested from the surface of pools of evaporating sea water in France that is said to have high mineral content). There’s Brittany and Japanese sea salt, Hawaiian sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, finishing salt, flake salt, Kala Namak and now even smoked sea salt.

Satin likes the idea of using more refined language to describe the essential things we consume. It means we’re trying to renew our interest in the basics of life, he says, that “we’re starting to recoup a certain part of our consciousness, so our life isn’t just about work.”

This new language doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, Satin admits, so we have to practise it, but as we gain more confidence in knowing what is a good wine and what is good coffee, chocolate and salt, we’ll eventually have the words for it.

And we may already have the words, even if they’re not snob-sanctioned. At a wine-tasting party I attended a while back, we had to come up with a few lines for each wine.

People wrote descriptions like “cinnamon velvet” and “amber mist.” But my favourite was an Australian Shiraz someone said tasted like a “sunset in Manitoba.” I can’t think of finer language.

Are we trivializing the language of death?


May 19, 2011

I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.

I didn’t know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.

There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let’s call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.

There were comments like: “OMG…RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r.” “You are now somewhere safe and worry free!”

“R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!” And, “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.

I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.

But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone’s condolence is there for all to read.

But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don’t even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.

Digital deathspeak

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people’s way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person’s profile is still active.

Today’s social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn’t yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.

Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.

“We don’t write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it’s said, it’s gone.”

Now it’s making sense. Now I understand the posting: “I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU.”

It’s a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.

But that’s okay, says Adria, “because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want.”

Dead people talking

Also, it’s becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they’re all still online, even after they pass away.

“Technology works as a metaphor,” says Adria. “We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well.”

And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don’t just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.

The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: “Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion.” Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: “Prince Harry Gives ‘Brilliant’ Champagne Toast.”

 Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901). She really doesn't tweet, you realize. (Reuters)  Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.

But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: “All this is but a dream.”

The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.

For instance, the telephone extends the voice but “amputates” the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.

In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.

So, perhaps, we’re just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.

Still, while I’m all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I’d rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.

That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.

Lost in simultaneous translation


Feb. 25, 2011

If you’ve been watching or listening to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, you’ve likely heard an Arabic interpreter. They’re everywhere. And they can have different takes on the same message.

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s recent “angry and rambling” speech did sound rather angry on Libyan state TV, but downright tepid via the CNN interpreter.

Then there was Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s now famous announcement that President Hosni Mubarak would be stepping down.

The Egyptian state television interpreter said Mubarak had decided to waive the office of the president, rather than relinquish, as others translated it.

Meanwhile, the CNN interpreter said the country would be run by the higher council of the armed forces rather than the Supreme Council, its proper name.

What’s more, the CNN interpreter repeated the president’s name three times, so caught up in his own excitement that he forgot the rule about trying to mirror the speaker’s emotions.

A word is like a bullet

Nit picking? Maybe. But don’t get me wrong. Simultaneous interpreters have an astonishing ability to process the words streaming into their ears in one language and instantly spew them out in another — but this highlights an interesting problem.

As the Arab world’s prominence in global affairs rises, so too does the need for Arabic interpreters.

And while interpreters hired by the news media may be very fine, they’re often not professionals, and experts say there may well be a need for quality control to ensure accuracy in message and tone.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens to the translation of a speech on his headphones at a UN conference in May 2009. (Reuters)

So I turned to the pros to find out how it’s done.

At the UN, interpreters learn to do two things no matter how intense the pressure: to faithfully render the message and, also, the emotion of the speaker.

The UN’s Arabic section chief Rasha Ajalyaqeen says interpreters adhere to the idea that a word is like a bullet: once it’s out, it cannot be retrieved or replaced.

Ajalyaqeen has worked for 27 years as an interpreter and says her heart still pounds going into the General Assembly or the Security Council. Her job is not only to be quick and accurate but to be on top of the issues.

From the moment she clicks on the news in the morning, her brain starts storing information she might need during the day.

Avoid duplicity

The last thing an interpreter wants is to be caught speechless. But sometimes a delegate can quote from an unknown or unseen document.

Ajalyaqeen says in the event of a disaster or high-profile death, someone is almost certain to quote from the Koran. To be prepared, she scribbles down verses to have on standby such as: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return.”

Interpreters also like to have on hand the Isaiah quotation: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

A good interpreter can move seamlessly between the syntax of Arabic and English, which is tricky because they’re so different.

Ajalyaqeen says preposition placement is important and so is verb, noun and adjective collocation — the first thing to go, she says, when you’re under stress.

Sentences in Arabic are also extremely long, so they need to be broken into more manageable components; Ajalyaqeen stresses that while you need to follow the rhythm of a speaker, you also need to remember the audience.

And, of course, you need the right words. Ajalyaqeen was in the Security Council during the first Gulf war when instead of saying “avoid duplication“, she said “avoid duplicity.”


Stress levels

To faithfully render a speaker’s message, simultaneous interpreters need to be on their toes.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi during his first ever address to the UN General Assembly in September 2009. He was supposed to speak for 15 minutes but went on for 96. (Reuters)

That means an hour of rest after 30 consecutive minutes of work. Less than that and quality suffers.

That rule was demonstrated in the fall of 2009 when Libya’s Gadhafi insisted on bringing his own interpreter to the General Assembly.

About 75 minutes into a meandering speech, observers noticed the interpreter was getting more and more stressed, and the interpretation was suffering.

Then he reportedly blurted into the live microphone: “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Ajalyaqeen heard it and sprinted the two blocks to the General Assembly to interpret the final 20 minutes of the speech. Talk about being on your toes.

Content and tone

The other element to good interpretation is accurately rendering the emotion of the speaker.

That means that if someone is outraged, you need to be outraged. If that person is disappointed, same goes for you.

If the speaker is passionately warning of dangerous civil unrest and you sound like a monotonic Tibetan monk, well, your credibility drops.

“No matter what your personal beliefs are, you’re supposed to be invisible,” says Ajalyaqeen. “You need to melt into the voice of the speaker. When they hear you as an interpreter, that’s when you fail.”

So if you’re translating for Gadhafi, you might need to bite your tongue. The potency of the message should override any subjectivity in the interpretation.

Speaking in more tongues

Today, interpretation may be more important than ever. The number of items at the UN requiring interpretation has skyrocketed, and more delegates are speaking Arabic.

Ajalyaqeen says that in the diplomatic world, it’s long been a matter of pride for delegates to speak other languages. But now, using one’s own language has that cachet.

More often than not, Arab delegates know a second or third language, but choose to speak Arabic, confident that their message will not be compromised.

Obviously, much of what interpreters at the UN deal with doesn’t affect those interpreters who work only in broadcasting. But the principles of staying true to content and tone remain the same.

As the number of issues affecting the Arab world increases, as activists try to use Egypt’s success to pull the rug out from long-sitting autocrats in the Middle East, and as satellite media expands, we’ll be hearing more and more interpretation.

Already, the voices of the interpreters on Al Jazeera are quite recognizable.

Mind you, it remains to be seen whether media interpreters, like those at the UN, can manage to stay invisible.

A better way to say hello


Nov. 9, 2010

It’s high time to do away with the mechanical greeting we North Americans employ. You know, the garden variety Hihowareyou/Good exchange that doesn’t really expect a serious answer.

In fact, when it comes to saluting our fellows, we could probably all learn something from the Dogon people in the West African country of Mali, where I recently spent a couple of months.

The tenacious Dogon live in villages on sandy plateaus clinging to rocky cliffs, an area of such unique cultural, geological and historic significance that it has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Dogon language family consists of more than 20 languages and, where I stayed, the villagers spoke Tommo So.

Unlike us, they have elaborate greetings. One might go something like this:

First man: Let’s go into the morning.

Second man: Indeed. Did you pass the night?

First man: I did.

Second man: Did your menfolk pass the night?

First man: They did. Are you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are your menfolk in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Is your wife in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are you not ill?

Second man: There is no evil.

First man: Is the white woman staying with you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: I see.

Then it starts all over again with the other person asking the questions.

Chorus of hellos

And that is just one exchange. Imagine greeting people each day as if you hadn’t seen them for months or years.

The Dogon repeat this ritual with every adult they encounter who is even remotely within earshot. They shout across waving fields of millet, from one motorbike to another, mid-way down a rocky path, with engines revved, while carrying awkward loads of craggy sticks to fuel the fire.


If a group is addressed, they even respond in chorus, which can make a visitor’s heart just sing with joy.

Like us, the salutations are modified according to the time of day — morning, after work or night.

What’s more, the greetings are such an important ritual that if you master them, they say that you are Dogon, because you can speak the language.

There are opportunities, of course, to talk about deeper issues, but only after the greetings are exchanged.

To greet, indeed, is to be human.


The greetings reflect West African society, where relationships are paramount, says Dogon expert Dr. Walter van Beek at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

They are an acknowledgement of a relationship — you’re a neighbour, a kinsman, a peer — a recognition that you’re part of a larger group and that you depend on each other.

This could explain why Malians always asked me (in French): Ça va bien? La famille, ça va? Et le Canada, ça va?

I wasn’t used to being asked how my country was doing. Ça va bien, ça va bien, I’d reply, secretly wondering if something horrible had happened back home while I was away.

Here in North America, our greetings essentially play the same role: to acknowledge one another and exchange information.

They are just more individualized. I am asking how you are doing, not your family and friends and hometown.

In our society, for the most part, the individual is paramount.

But if you factor in small talk, our salutations aren’t so different from these long African rituals, suggests Jerry Barkow, a social anthropologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Years ago, he worked among Hausa speakers in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and he sees similarities with our greetings here.

“In Nova Scotia, where I live, we talk about the weather,” he says.

“You can wonder why we bother because little or no new information is exchanged. But in fact, we are doing precisely what Hausa do with an extended greeting. We are maintaining and at times re-establishing or repairing a relationship.”

For sure, we do go on and on about the weather.

You know those exchanges: This weekend is supposed to be cold. Really? I thought it was supposed to be warm. Oh no, I saw snowflakes this morning. Well even so, they’ll melt by noon. Oh, I don’t know, they say this winter is going to be cold.

And then you both start to shiver, nod politely and move on.

A nod

I have to say, though, that I really liked the Dogon style of greeting. Within the first few weeks of my stay, I had memorized their elaborate ritual and could perform it flawlessly after a while.

Of course, as soon as they threw in an unfamiliar question, I became flustered and they laughed, good-naturedly of course. It felt so nice to spend time exchanging these words with the people who crossed my path. Never mind that it took twice as long to get anywhere.

The Dogon way seemed so much better than the quick Hihowareyou I was used to in Toronto. It was as if they cared more about each other’s well-being.

Since my return, I’ve been mindful of how I greet people. Sometimes there really is only time for a Hihowareyou/Good exchange.

But there are many occasions, I’ve discovered, when I can ask a thoughtful question that requires more than just a one-word answer. Questions like: What do you think of our new mayor? or How do you look so perky when you get up at 3 a.m.? or That’s the biggest backpack I’ve ever seen, what do you carry in it? (granted, this could get awkward).

It is gratifying to see the conversation, laughter and insight that a sincere query can elicit.

But I’ve also learned that even a quick nod or rushed greeting has value. It means we’re at least acknowledging each other’s presence.

In an age where hand-held devices have practically become a physical extension of our bodies, the mere fact that some of us are still looking up to SEE the people around us is a very healthy sign.

To greet, after all, is to be human.

A very slippery story


June 25, 2010

The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters) 

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.

It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”

According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.

What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”

Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.

The passive voice

So how did Obama lose control of the story?

The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.

The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.

But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.

The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.

Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”

The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.

So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?

“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.

Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).

It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.

The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.

Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.


The latest from the font


April 16, 2010

I have Georgia on my mind. Literally.

I recently changed the typeface of my document program at work to Georgia to synchronize it with my e-mail and word processing program at home, so I am now immersed in the same familiar characters all day long.

I find the text in this typeface appears friendly and charming, beckoning me into the white space around it. It’s to the point where if someone returns one of my documents in another typeface, I’ll convert it back into Georgia.

Indeed, I’ve become very attached — which to me seems a bit crazy. I mean, it’s a font.

There are so many types in the world today. (Associated Press) 

Today, as different typefaces become more widely available, it’s easier to find one that suits your style and personality.

There are tens of thousands of typefaces, with more being invented all the time. And thanks to a new software program called Typeface, anyone can have the ultimate personalized font.

With Typeface, you sit in front of the computer webcam and its software designs a font based on the shape of your face and expression — bulbous nose, arched eyebrows and all.

So it would appear that there is some larger desire to personalize the script we use to punch words onto screens every day.

Perhaps we’re seeking more connection to the words we type. Or perhaps typeface is becoming the new handwriting. Let’s look at the facts.

Like your own signature

Handwriting, we can all agree, is in a downward spiral. I can count the number of times I pick up a pen on an average day on one hand. The emotional connection I have with my writing has been relegated to late night scribbling.

Experts have long argued that handwriting is important to help us feel connected to the words we shape and to help develop our individuality.

But if we’re writing less by hand, it seems the emotion will have to come more through the machines we use. Hello…Georgia!

Colleen's favourite typeface. (CBC)

“More people are gravitating towards a favourite typeface,” says Keith Rushton, chair of graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

“It could be they want to personalize it, or just gravitate away from the default typefaces.”

Rushton himself has 10 favourite typefaces and he points out that many authors want their books set in a particular typeface, one they feel represents them.

Some writers, such as Mordecai Richler, Chaucer, Lord Byron and Jonathan Swift, even have scripts named after them.

“It’s like developing your own signature,” says Rushton. “Why not have your own typeface?”

Nice curves

The language that’s used to describe typefaces helps explain why some of us get emotionally attached.

Georgia, for instance, is said to be “sturdy.” It “exudes a sense of friendliness; a feeling of intimacy” and is from a family with “character and charm” whose typeface ancestors are Scotch Roman. Given this description, Georgia is practically ready to strut across the screen and down a few pints.

Rushton says it’s not unusual for typographers to say things about a favourite font like “that’s an incredibly sensual typeface,” or that the typeface has nice thick and thins, beautiful curves or nice rhythm, crescendo or composition.

In this sense, typeface imbues us with the warmth and familiarity of a favourite song, or our own script.

Evolution of style

Perhaps the evolution from personal handwriting to typeface is just part of the natural progression of language.

For his part, Rushton says typefaces are a language unto themselves and have developed along with the written word.

Letter forms have progressed as our language has moved from walls to tablets, then to leather and paper, and now to screens.

The 18th century printer John Baskerville graduated from stone to paper, parlaying his talent engraving gravestones into the popular Baskerville typeface.

In the acclaimed documentary Helvetica, design writer Rick Poynor makes the point that “people are starting to see graphic communication as an expression of their own identity. You can change the background, you can put pictures in, you can change the typeface to anything you want. And those choices, those decisions you make become expressions of who you are.”

Now, of course, just because I’m writing an e-mail or document in my font of choice doesn’t mean the recipient’s computer recognizes that font. (And the personalized font based on my face currently resides on my laptop alone.)

But an ever-growing number of fonts are available to download to help us personalize our e-interactions, and so gradually make typeface a more viable replacement for handwriting.

More than anything, I find it’s important to simply write for myself in a font I feel emotionally connected to.

Maybe you’re just fine with using Helvetica or Times Roman for your computer-based writing. But I, for one, will continue to have Georgia on my mind.

I luv phonetics


March 5, 2010

Learning to pronounce English words isn’t easy. Vow doesn’t sound anything like show, despite how they look, and trough is different from though, as is book from boot. And don’t get me started on split-personality words such as (to) close and (too) close.

When I was teaching, my students asked me why there was no consistency in how English words are sounded out and I said that’s just the way it is, silently cursing the minions who came up with these arcane rules for pronunciation (or pronounciation as some people incorrectly say).

When D'oh is not a deer. (Reuters)When D’oh is not a deer.

And that silent curse was just a native English speaker’s perspective. It made me want to know how one of the fastest-growing populations of non-native English speakers, the Chinese, feel about this tricky pronunciation.

In Toronto’s Chinatown where sidewalks are crammed with vendors and shoppers loading up on the week’s fruits and vegetables, shop worker Rin Song says she often stumbles on unfamiliar English words.

“Sometimes I think this word may be pronounced like this, but actually what I hear is different. I have to listen many times. If you give me the paper, I know the meaning. But when I hear it, I don’t know.”

When I ask Song to pronounce the word latex on the package of gloves she’s hanging on the wall, she uses the short a, as in latter, instead of the long a. She’s never heard the word before, so she’s taking a flying leap into its pronunciation.

Say what you see

I’ve long wondered why we don’t have a more effective way of teaching this language of ours — so that what you see is actually what you say.

It turns out that a local teacher named Judy Thompson has come up with one, laid out in her aptly titled book, English is Stupid.

Thompson is an ESL and English teacher at Sheridan College, just outside Toronto. She says we have to start with the premise that writing and speaking are different languages with different rules.

“When you teach a set of rules for one skill, and you expect a result in another, well, you don’t get it,” Thompson says. Indeed, the road from reading words to speaking them like a native is filled with potholes.

According to Thompson, the biggest problem in teaching English pronunciation is that the traditional way of using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) simply doesn’t work.

You remember those nonsensical hieroglyphics beside a word in the dictionary. Think hard: Have they ever helped you?

The IPA was actually developed in France so that any language could represent its sounds by drawing from a standard set of symbols. Good idea, but très compliqué.

“I had a terrible time learning the International Phonetic Alphabet,” says Thompson. “And I thought if I can’t learn it, how can you learn it if English isn’t your first language?”

Those darn vowels

Thompson found the hardest sounds for foreigners to lift off the page are vowels. So she created her own system — a vowel colour chart.

“It was just kind of a freak coincidence that the colours in English, besides being the first thing people tend to learn in a language, have a vowel sound embedded in each of the names of the colours.

“So the long a sound is in the colour gray. And the short vowel a is in the colour black. And the long e is in the colour green. And on and on and on.”

So the words cat, mask, apple, laugh and plaid are all black. Thompson says it takes students less than an hour to learn the 16 sounds in the chart.

“So when they come up to a word and they don’t know, for example, busy and they want to say bussy, then you say ‘it’s pink’ and they say busy. And then you just keep going. It’s really expedient.”

Thompson says she’s getting great feedback from her students as well as other teachers.

Keep listening

Alas, new words can always trip you up. When the first Harry Potter book came out, oh so many years ago, the whole time I was reading it, I thought the name Hermione was pronounced hermee-own, like anglophone.

But it’s actually her-MY-o-nee, like anemone. D’oh! It was only by chance that I overheard someone more in the know and learned the error of my ways.

So it seems a big part of learning how to pronounce words is to keep listening.

But here’s a thought. Maybe written English will gradually come to resemble spoken English as foreigners slowly take the language over from native speakers.

There are now more than a billion non-native English speakers in the world and most conversations in English happen between two people speaking it as a second language.

A standardized “global English” is spawning new vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, spread by the media, internet and all forms of technology.

Texting alone is gradually killing off vowels. Why say “I love you” when you can say “I luv u”? They say it means the same thing. And it actually looks like it sounds.

For actors and accents, blame Meryl Streep


Dec. 11, 2009

Invictus is a great premise for a movie: the rugby game that helped unify post-apartheid South Africa. But I have to say that I was a little thrown by the accents.

Matt Damon, who plays the rugby team captain, has nailed the South African sound. But Morgan Freeman sounds like, well, Morgan Freeman.

That’s not good because he’s supposed to be Nelson Mandela. In every other way he appears to be. But without the accent, it’s just not complete.

In Invictus, Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon plays rugby champ Francois Pienaar in post-apartheid South Africa. Accent-wise, Damon nails it. (Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros./Associated Press)   Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus.

Maybe I’m being overly critical, but it seems I’m not alone in demanding our best actors make their characters more authentic by mastering these regional dialects.

Voice coaches say actors are increasingly expected to know not only standardized accents, such as American and British, but regional ones as well.

Think Leonardo DiCaprio’s Boston diction in The Departed; or the 1930s New York tones in the recent biopic Amelia or Cinderella Man.

A multicultural diet

All this accentuation of accents means more pressure on dialect coaches.

“I have more responsibility than my predecessors,” says Eric Armstrong, voice coach and associate professor of theatre at York University.

“When I started, I wasn’t trained to coach people to do Asian or African accents. I was focused on the former British Commonwealth and Europe. Now I’m expected to do anything from anywhere in the world.”

Armstrong has taught about 50 accents over the 15 years he’s coached actors, including the cast of CBC TV’s The Border, English actor Tom Wilkinson of Michael Clayton fame, and Dora-nominated stage actors.

He says it’s not just a standard American accent that actors are expected to know but New York, Pittsburgh and Southern Illinois. Nor is it just African, but Ghanaian and Somali; not only Asian but Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

Why is this happening? Well, because “people are becoming much more aware of accent and dialect because we’re living in a much more global market,” says Armstrong. “So our ears have become attuned to a higher standard of precision and accuracy.”

Our attention to regionalisms is partly because we’re hearing more original accents in films.

But more significantly, it flows from the steady diet of accents we take in through daily media consumption, travel, and living in increasingly multicultural societies.

Blame Meryl

Diane Pitblado, the voice coach to the stars, says the growing pressure on actors to adopt accents may go back to a single source: Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep, receiving a lifetime achievement award in Rome, in October 2009. She made accents part of the craft. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)Meryl Streep, lifetime achievement award in Rome, Oct. 2009. 

From Sophie’s Choice to Out of Africa, Evil Angels and the recent Julie and Julia, Streep proved it could be done and encouraged actors to be brave and do it as well.

Pitblado says audiences should demand their actors sound spot on. She was brought in to coach Hilary Swank, Richard Gere and the rest of the gang in Amelia.

But she says the movie makers originally questioned whether to adopt accents, whether audiences wanted to wade through such a different sound.

Her take was: you’ve got the hats, the clothes, the sets, how can you not speak as if you’re from that place and time?

There are, of course, multiple challenges in getting actors to sound like they’re from a different place and time.

For one, actors have to get used to distinguishing different sounds, something called phonemic awareness.

Lips forward

As Eric Armstrong points out, sometimes a vowel sound in one accent is split into two sounds in another accent. Take the word hot dog.

In a New York accent, the o in hot is different than the o in dog. So it becomes haht dooawg.

“New York is one of those accents where it helps to start with a visual reference point,” says Armstrong. “Imagine Donald Trump who often speaks with lips forward, like a kiss.”

Try it. Lips forward. Say hot dog. Now keep that up through an entire script. Not so easy, is it?

Armstrong says that picking up the technique is like learning how “to hear with your mouth. You learn to make new sounds, so then you begin to recognize those sounds.”

Another challenge in teaching regional accents is when the actor is dealing with a completely foreign tongue.

Say a Chinese actor wants to do a number of Asian accents, which is becoming more common.

But say that actor is second generation Canadian and doesn’t speak fluent Mandarin.

In this case, Armstrong says, the difficulty is teaching people to make sounds they’ve never had to utter in their life: “Part of it is oral gymnastics, making their tongues, lips, jaws go into new places.”

And then there are the accents that are just not that common, such as, say, New Orleans Creole. Or an accent that’s a blend of different regions like Amelia Earhart’s.

Earhart was from Kansas but lived in New York high society, so she was kind of like a blend of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Katharine Hepburn.

When dialect coaches need help, they can phone librarians in small towns or resort to the online International Dialects of English Archive at the University of Kansas, which offers audio samples of voices from Cameroon to Kuwait to Colombia.

But what if, after all that research and coaching, an actor just doesn’t get it?

Obviously it’s disappointing to the dialect coach. But it’s the audience that really suffers.

Sure, not every actor is a Meryl Streep. But if you make a living impersonating other people, it’s your duty to be as authentic as possible — right down to the last vowel.