Fun With Language

September 28, 2006

From a menu in a Chinese restaurant in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is an excellent example of how difficult the English language can be and also how much language is connected to the social context of a society. The restaurant propietors, not familiar with American culture, were oblivious to the dramatic affect of their mispelling of the word “crab”.

Language is a fascinating part of culture. There exist some 6000 languages in the world. Language serves as both a primary unifying and divisive factor in human relations (I remember in high school we thought we French students were way cooler than those taking Spanish). It serves as a primary defining characteristic of a culture. In France, it is illegal to publicly display the use of a foreign word if a suitable French word exists to express the same meaning. A sign for your NYC styled restaurant reading “Cafe Central Park” would have the language police all over your derriere. Think how many words and phrases we use that make very little sense outside of the cultural context. A very simple example of this is the phrase “have a ball”. Outside the confines of the culture in which it is understood to mean “enjoy”, the phrase is silly, unless that is you are politely offering someone a ball – then it makes perfect sense. An excellent examples of this was recounted in a documentary about refugees from Sudan getting use to living in the States. When one of the young men boarded a Seattle bus the driver told him “it’s cool” (I forget to what she was referring). He responded very politely that it actually was not cool but quite warm which he found pleasant.

For whatever reason shirts with words or phrases written in a language other than the language of the land are quite popular. It is quite trendy for people in the States to wear shirts with words written using Japanese/Chinese kanji, Japanese hiragana and/or katakana. When asked if they know what their shirt says most say no. The response to the follow up question – then why wear the shirt – is typically “Because it looks cool” (accompanied by a look that says get out of my face and let me get on with my groovy self in my funky foreign language t – shirt). And typically it does look cool but more often than not says something absolutely meaningless. This situation gets quite a bit more interesting when the meaning of a word or phrase is vulgar, offensive, off color, etc.. But keep in mind that often the words of a language are culturally defined. Outside the cultural context they mean nothing. One could write a very offensive word in the language of the Khoisan, and it would mean nothing to the majority of the people in the world. You could repeat the word to your mom, kids at school, boss etc and nothing – blank stares all around. But if a person popped up in the area of Botswana where Khoisan is used and greeted the first person with such a word they would most likely get a bit more than a blank stare.

The following are excellent examples of how much language is connected to the social context of a culture and outside of that context means very little.

“The other day I was at the bowling alley overseeing the afternoon activity period and noticed a fellow with the word “walrus” printed boldly on his shirt. That was it – a green shirt with “walrus” emblazed across his chest. No image, no quirky description just “walrus”.

“At the mall the other day Alicia noticed a young girl, probably in 5th grade or so sporting a shirt with (and I am going to use censors here for those of the social context where this word is culturally quite offensive and certainly not emblazoned across 10 year old girls shirts!) “F……. U” as in “Harvard U” or “Stanford U”

– both described by an American living in Jakarta, Indonesia



May 28, 2006

One of Toyota’s regional headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia looms large over a shanty town in the northern part of the city. Huge transnational corporations like Toyota often operate in developing nations taking advantage of cheap labor and low production costs. Companies like Toyota, and the way they do business, are an important part of globalization.

What do fashion, potato chips, diapers and dandruff have in common? Proctor and Gamble. Better known simply as P & G, it is a huge TNC (transnational corporation) and is the owner of Hugo Boss, Pringles, Pampers, Head and Shoulders and hundreds of other brands (P & G – go to the “choose by brand” scroll box). It operates as a horizontal monopoly, controlling a diverse number of businesses to insure its survival in our very cutthroat global economy. If people ever quit eating Pringles because they make you fat that’s OK, because then they will get skinny and buy Hugo Boss designer wear, look really good, attract a member of the opposite gender, make a baby and then have to buy Pampers. It all works out in the end for these global behemoths. They are an integral part of globalization, the latest economic process directing human activity and use of space. It is also quite a trendy catch word and oft used to explain all sorts of things going on in the world today.But what exactly is globalization? A generic definition reads something like this; globalization is the increased mobility of goods, services, labor, technology and capital throughout the world. It is due in part to a relaxing of trade barriers between countries and new developments in technology, particularly in the fields of telecommunications and transportation. Some simply describe it as the process of the world getting smaller or people working on a more even playing field economically due to the all powerful leveler the PC. Have a computer, a phone line, reliable electrical outlet and you are in business, literally. You don’t need to have the suit and the money to get the plane ticket to fly around the world to make various business deals. Just dive into the World Wide Web and go to town. The use of new communication tools and techniques is certainly a key aspect of globalization. But it is the giant corporations who are the major players and driving force behind this economic entity. Globalization seems to be one of these things that is easier understood by looking at real life examples of the process rather than investigating various definitions and explanations. Let’s investigate a couple of the major players in the globalization game and see if their stories will shed some light on this rather elusive concept.

The founders of Nike, originally called Blue Ribbon Sports, started selling running shoes out of their cars at local track and field events. Now the company is one of the most recognized brands in the world and is presently in a very tight battle with Adidas for the top spot in the multi billion dollar athletic equipment and apparel industry. It employs some 24,000 people and operates on all the inhabited continents. Nike also operates as a horizontal monopoly acquiring some high profile companies in its 33 years in operation. Cole Haan, Bauer, Hurley and Converse are all owned by Nike. But it hasn’t been all easy going for the global giant. Several years back Nike offered a promotion in which customers could get a personalized slogan placed on their Nike shoes. A potential customer requested that the word “sweatshop” be emblazoned across his new Nikes. The Nike Brass declined citing a bunch of technical legal mumbo jumbo and linguistic gymnastics rather than simply explaining the obvious that they would not produce something detrimental to their own image. The story gained quite a bit of bad press for the company. You can do a quick internet search and find the original or read about it here via a secondary site. Many TNC’s operate factories in less developed countries to take advantage of cheap labor and low production costs and are often accused of running virtual sweatshops. Other typical critiques of TNC’s and globalization include economic entities controlling too much of world affairs, environmental devastation, exploitation of the developing world, and suppression of human rights.

A Scottish owned tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia employing Indians and Indonesians as laborers. These particular housing units were for the workers from Indonesia. A good example of companies from the developed world operating in the developing world to take advantage of cheap labor and low production costs so that we can drink less expensive tea.

Rows of cultivated tea plants in the Cameron Highlands. Interesting thing about tea, if the bushes are not closely cropped and tended to they will grow into a proper tree like shrub reaching heights of twenty to thirty feet. These were very well tended.

Enjoying less expensive tea. This is at the “Smokehouse”, a remnant of the British imperialist lifestyle in Malaysia. It is now a restaurant that serves a very nice high tea. TNC’s are often refered to as the newest batch of imperialists in the developing world.

Kraft is another TNC with a rather interesting story which indicates another aspect of these multinationals that are at the forefront of globalization. Kraft started a long time ago and slowly began creating new food items and buying out others as the company grew. It is now the second largest food company behind another monster in the globalization game, Nestle. The company has branches in many countries around the world, employs almost a 100,000 people and owns many of the most recognizable food brands such as Kraft Cheeses, Oreos, Post Cereals, Kool Aid, Maxwell House coffee, Planters nuts, Nabisco brands, Toblerone, and Oscar Mayer meats to name a few. But what most people do not know about Kraft is that it was acquired by Philip Morris of Marlboro cigarettes fame. In 2003 the company renamed itself Altria Group “to better clarify its identity”. It seemed that it wasn’t such good publicity having Fruity Pebbles cereal and Kraft Mac and Cheese so obviously linked to a cigarette company. So now Kraft is owned by Altria Group which is Philip Morris minus the name change.

Globalization is very evident in the field of professional sports. Sports are big business and like any economic activity are influenced by economic trends. Consider the English Premier League, one of the wealthiest, competitive and well known sports leagues in the world. It is home to many of footballs most high profile teams, players and managers and is also an excellent example of globalization. Thirty years ago, while Bowerman and Knight were still hawking Blue Brands, English football was a very different beast than it is today. The FA Premiere League did not exist. The teams that battled it out in the First Division were primarily made up of players from Britain. The owners and mangers were also most likely Englishmen. The adverts on the pitch and team uniforms carried the logos of British companies. Much of this changed as the tide of globalization began to flood various world markets including the lucrative business of sports. In 1992 the English (FA) Premiere League was introduced to the world and globalization hit the “joga bonita” like a Ronald Koeman free kick (really hard).

Other than the fact that the Premiere League is English, and played in England it is barely English. What???? Consider Chelsea, the league Champions two years running. Most of their players are not English; the owner is a Russian oil magnate, the manager is Portuguese, and their primary sponsors are Samsung, a Korean technology giant and Fly Emirates, the royal airlines of the UAE. Most of the top tier Premier League teams offer similar lineups. It is big business and extremely competitive. Manchester United is one of the most recognizable sports brands in Asia. Singapore has a giant Manchester United store and a while ago I had a very mediocre sandwich at the Manchester United restaurant in downtown Jakarta.

So the next time you go shopping play this little game – select a giant TNC that operates as a horizontal monopoly and only buy its brands. If you select the right TNC(s) you might be surprised how many diverse products you can get! And then go home, kick up your Reeboks (owned by Adidas) poor yourself a nice glass of Tropicana OJ and bust open a bag of Cheetos (both PepsiCo), and enjoy watching John Arne Riise (Norway) in his Liverpool (England) red Jersey with the Carlsberg logo emblazoned across the chest (Denmark) rocket a shot at the Arsenal (England) goal keeper Jens Lehman (Germany) while coaches Rafael Benitez (Spain) and Arsene Wenger (France) yell frantically from the sidelines.

Stocks and News

May 15, 2006

Presently we are investigating the impact information has on the economy, particularly the value of a company’s stock value. Last week students had to trade stock on a number of made up companies based on fabricated new headlines. They then found news headlines from the newspaper or internet sites that they believe would affect the value of a certain company and had to write a paragraph explaining their logic. Two news items were especially interesting. Wayne Rooney’s broke his foot in the game where he debuted Nikes “revolutionary” new football boot. A few football aficionados voiced what many people were perhaps speculating – that the boot had something to do with the foot fracture. Rooney denied there was any connection but Rooney’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson requested that Nike pursue a full investigation into the possibility that the boot was at fault. Rooney’s out of the world cup and Nike’s most high profile player is out of the spotlight. A day or two after the news hit the stands; Adidas eclipsed Nike for the number one spot in their very competitive business. Coincident? Perhaps. One also must take into consideration that the World Cup is in Germany and starts in less than a month. Adidas is a German company and is a huge sponsor of the Cup.

Wayne and His New Nike Boots

Rooney and His New Nike Boots

Rooney Injured in His New Nike Boots

Walt Disney announced a divorce from McDonald’s. The scapegoating of McDonalds as the cause of all that’s unhealthy in the US rather than blaming the people who unscrupulously woof down mounds of unhealthy food is taking its toll on the fast food monster. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. Curious side note; Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds and Walt Disney actually served together in WWII. After the war Disney went home and began building his empire and Kroc did likewise. At an early stage in their empire building Kroc approached Walt and asked if he was interested in making some sort of deal in which McDonalds would be a primary server of food at the Disney establishments. Walt declined. Somewhere down the line, obviously, Disney Corp changed their mind but now has gone back on the deal. Maybe Walt had used a little Disney magic and saw the future of American fast-food and didn’t like what he saw.

McDisney No More

McDisney No More

The response from McDisney to the allegations that Disney broke relations with McDonalds due to the latters poor health record can be read here.


Pleistocene Overkill

May 11, 2006

Environmental overuse and abuse by human populations is nothing new. Consider the Pleistocene Overkill. Fossil records show that most large mammals became extinct in the Americas and Australia in a relatively short time period. Interestingly it coincides with the appearance of the first human populations on these previously uninhabited land masses.

Separated from human populations for millennium the Americas and Australia developed a unique flora and fauna distinctly different than that of Eurasia and Africa. It was also a flora and fauna with no contact and therefore no knowledge of human populations. Eventually populations in Eurasia and Africa became large enough to spark competition in the form of armed conflict over prime real estate. The losers and the adventurous struck out for parts unknown.

When they came to the Americas and Australia the flora and fauna had no idea how to deal with these curious and very determined intruders. So for the most part they ignored the harmless looking creatures.  The migrants took complete advantage of this situation, the end result being mass extinction.

At first consideration this might seem like a ridiculous hypothesis – that relatively small and ill equipped bands of humans could have caused the extinction of rather large and scary animals such as mammoths and saber toothed tigers. But the coincident of the first signs of humans and mass extinction at the same time in history is hard to ignore. Imagine this scenario. It is hard for a band of ill equipped humans to kill a mammoth or buffalo or tiger in head to head combat. So the hungry hunters used their big brains to figure out a less risky way of getting dinner. Instead of going after a single buffalo in a herd of 1000's, a very dangerous thing to do, they would light a fire behind the entire herd and run them all off a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff they would select a couple of the dead or near dead and eat their fill – thus leaving 1000's unused. The next time they were hungry for buffalo they would practice a similar technique. 

Efficient? From their standpoint, yes indeed. Environmentally devastating? Absolutely. An additional point to keep in mind is that these animals had never had contact with humans and had no innate sense to fear the very benign looking humans. This gave the hunters a tremendous advantage in the element of surprise – no sneaking needed – just walk up and bonk them on the head. Once they are on to your game then you run them off a cliff.

So the early humans very well could have been responsible for the mass extinctions of the large mammals of the Americas and Australia leaving very few which had potential for domestication. This would set these two continents back dramatically in the ultimate competition between the biotas of the Old World and New World when they would eventually collide via Columbus and crew. Just something to think about.   

Modern World History and Contemporary Global Studies

May 5, 2006

Contemporary Global Studies is a course designed to introduce students to the major trends effecting the world today. Students will investigate a variety of topics including culture, demographics, economics, urbanization, and environmental issues.

A man wearing only a gourd walks down a street in Wamena, West Papua, Indonesia next to a Toyota Kijang. It is pictures like this that should make us marvel at the diversity in our world and encourage exploration into the shaping mechanisms behind such diversity. This particular image inquires one to ask, as Jared Diamond's (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) Papuan friend Yali once asked him – hey, why do you guys have all the stuff? Why indeed. It is questions like this that we wrestle with in CGS.

Modern World History presents events that helped shape the world from the Age of European Exploration to World War I. A key element of the discipline of history is linking the past and present. For example, when exploring the initial impact of the Old World biota on the New World and vice versa, a comparison can be made to the devastating effect of invasive species and biological pollution in our world today.

Water Buffalo – Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia 

Plants and animals have had a huge impact on our world and continue to hold a very important place in shaping human activities and space.