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Posts Tagged ‘New Zealand’

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

Hear That Lonesome Gasket Blow, Part 4: Tonight the Sea Is Douce

February 19, 2013 | by


On the Saturday closest to my thirtieth birthday, I went out on the town with Andrew and Izzy, two of my Highbury flatmates. With my time in dreamy Wellington drawing to a close—to say nothing of my waning metabolic rate—the need to run a little wild at the end of an afternoon spent contemplating fiction felt realer than ever.

To this end our trio wound up, at three in the morning, after hours of dancing, walking toward a Burger King on the corner of Cuba and Manners. This Burger King occupies the ground floor of a heritage building with an Edwardian Baroque façade. Once home to the first Te Aro branch of the Bank of New Zealand, the building now shoulders what the local government describes as “considerable townscape significance.”

“My uncle used to be the president of Burger King,” said Andrew, sitting across from me and eating fries. The Burger King before us teemed with loud, drunken revelers.

“I can one-up you,” said Izzy. “My grandfather used to be the chairman of the National Front.”

“What’s the National Front?” I asked.

“You don’t know what the National Front is?” said Izzy. “Are you kidding me? Fucking Americans!”

“Look,” I said. “I know about a lot of things outside of America. I can’t know about all of them.”

“You know what the Klu Klux Klan is,” said Izzy.

“Well, of course.”

“It’s like the Klan, but in the UK.” Read More »


Hear That Lonesome Gasket Blow: Part 3

January 31, 2013 | by

urlRead part 1 here and part 2 here.

I had only just started stepping to and fro under the shifting blush of light-emitting diodes, and with only the most pitiable amount of rhythm or flair, when a strawberry blond officer of the Wellington Police crossed the dance floor, tapped my shoulder, and asked me to come outside. My first thought was that, at last, I was getting hit on by someone who had their own car. Then I prayed, “Please, please be arresting me for writing about my impressions of the South Island.”

Since arriving, I had not suffered so much as one evil eye in the world’s southernmost capital city (the closest being when I somewhat brusquely thrust a five-dollar note, the front of which shows the grinning profile of explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, at a middle-aged Chinese fruiterer at the Vivian Street open-air green market; she glared at me and my bag of ripe apricots). A peachy, pacific place. What could I have done to attract this sun-damaged arm of the law, aside from describing the kea parrot as a “bastard”? Being a bastard myself, I have nothing but affection for the kea. Had my two-step been so criminal?

“Slow night?” I said.

He asked how much I had been drinking. I managed a modest guess, adding, as he copied the details of my driver’s license onto a clipboard, that I worked for the university.

“And how long have you been here?” The officer pointed his pen at the indefatigably thumping club.

“About two minutes.”

He sighed, embarrassed by his task (a random check, I would later learn), and wrote my two minutes down on his official paperwork. “All right. You wanna head back in?” Read More »


Hear that Lonesome Gasket Blow: Part 2

January 9, 2013 | by

Read part 1 here.

On the table, next to an incomplete, five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle meant to show a pair of docile horses, a magazine calls my name. It calls to me with bold yellow proclamations in sans serif (“MY MAGIC WEDDING!” “THE FROCKS THAT ROCKED AND SHOCKED”), photo-framing pink boxes, and a rogues gallery of fame-brushed faces. This is the rope bridge, heavy with gossip, across which your sunburnt correspondent has teetered for the last two weeks—over howling, hungry rivers with names like Little Devil and Charming, further and further into a land where the bone marrow of J. R. R. Tolkien is used to fashion everything from high-grossing puberty allegories in 3-D to cheeky airline safety videos. This is Woman’s Day, New Zealand’s number one weekly magazine. The date is December 31, 2012, and, according to the mag’s house astrologer, manic Mars is moving smack-dab into my center stage.

Read More »