Tag Archive | Language

Fortune

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March 4, 2012

“It’s meaningless, but…sometimes we need something to survive” – my new Turkish friend, Feyza on reading fortunes in coffee grounds. It was all the more powerful because she is still learning English and I found her word choice really poignant and powerful.

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Russian Pasta

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This was the cheapest pasta at the corner store near the apartment. It was a decent dinner too, but let’s be honest: I bought this pasta because it was Russian. In case you, dear readers, didn’t know, I’m a little bit obsessed with all things Russian in sort of an arm’s-length-distance sort of way.

Strangely, of all the places I’ve been, Israel was perhaps the most Russian. About 20% of the population are Russian speakers. This stuff is everywhere. It was fascinating, sort of a weird thrill, and a very, very different aspect of my experience in the Holy Land.

Words

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The language barrier I encountered in Israel/Palestine was probably the most disorienting obstacle I faced throughout Walking Walls. I traveled extensively before heading to the Holy Land and from Paris to Poland, I had always been able to read a few street signs, master some key phrases, sometimes I could even understand and respond to simple conversation in German or more advanced discussion in Spanish.

I didn’t stand a chance with Hebrew or Arabic. Reading was out of the question and I only learned a few basic words in either language during the five weeks I spent in and around Jerusalem. To be fair, I didn’t have the time or resources to make a more serious effort at either language, but my resulting confusion and dependance on the prevalence of English signs and English speakers was both remarkable and isolating.

And a note about the prevalence of English on those signs. In Israel/Palestine, most public signs and notices will include writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. In my experience, the order of the languages tells you who controls the area and by extension, reveals your relationship to the neighborhood. English is usually last, but it seems to me that the real battle is between first two, Arabic and Hebrew. They switch predictably based on geography, but with an insistence that would make you think someone was keeping score.

The above photo was taken in the Shu’afat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Language is a Border

Last fall, I posted an article on how you can see the Iron Curtain on a map of Facebook friendships. I just stumbled over a map of Tweets by language, so it’s high time for another analysis of borders using social media.

Here’s a link to the original on Flickr.

Curiosities cartographer Frank Jacobs wrote a short blog post on this map last fall in which he made a few major points.

I. French tweets from Quebec are clustered and not as numerous as one might expect.

II. America is dominated by English, with pockets of other languages while the US/Mexico border is highly visible.

III. Europe is weird: Switzerland is German and French, Catalonia makes an appearance, and Austria has a sizable chunk of Italian.

These are all well and good, so I’d like to make a few points of my own, related to my recent travels in the Middle East, Cyprus, and Ireland/Northern Ireland.

This should look familiar, but just for orientation: red is Turkish, yellow is Greek, green is Hebrew, and Purple is Arabic. The freakiest thing about this map is the clearness with which it shows the Cyprus partition. The shape of the colors corresponds perfectly with the waves of the Buffer Zone, and there is little to no penetration by either side, even though its possible (for most) to cross. Language is one of the biggest factors in the ‘walls in the head’ and this map better explains the division than any political map could.

Let’s move to the east and examine Southwest Asia. The purple shape to the north of Israel is Lebanon, and I believe the straightish, multicolored line running south and east of the green clusters represents tourists at Dead Sea resorts. Now for the interesting bit: you can just make out the kidney bean shape of the West Bank in the middle of the green. It’s faint, but slightly darker with purple smatterings and one more prominent dot (Ramallah?). Israel/Palestine is an example of another language border exacerbating a political divide.

Language is a real border. It can cripple your movement and communication just as effectively as walls and barbed wire; it definitely hampered me during my travels. But I think it’s also surmountable with a little study, respect, and patience. Sometimes, just a few words and willing ears are needed to make a connection, and don’t forget that smiles and laughter are universal.