Wednesday, 12 April 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 6

Siracusa (Italy) - Rome (Italy) - Athens (Greece) - Corinth (Greece) - Nemea (Greece) - Patras (Greece)

Travelling couple Michelle and Lake, eliminated from The Amazing Race 9 this week, provide an object lesson in why it’s useful whenever possible to learn how to recognize and pronounce (if it’s more or less phonetic) the local alphabet, even if you don’t understand a word of the language it represents.

In The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World I provide tables for Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew, showing the letters (both upper and lower case, where those concepts are applicable) in each alphabet, their names (useful if a local person spells a place name or other word for you), and their approximate phonetic equivalents in English (for which the racers, in one of their tasks this week, have to ask members of a crowd of toga-clad Greek extras).


If you’ll be spending much time in a place with a different alphabet, it’s worth learning the letters of the local alphabet to sound out signs, place-names, etc., written in Cyrillic, Greek, or whatever, even if you don’t learn to read or speak the language . Aside from the virtue of being able to use a map in the local language, once you can sound them out, many common words in Russian and Greek are obviously recognizable cognates of their English equivalents. At first glance, this may look like a formidable task, but it actually takes only a few days for most people to be able to recognize Greek or Cyrillic. Hindi or Hebrew is harder; most difficult are scripts like Arabic (and related scripts used for Persian, Urdu, etc.), in which the ligatures make it harder for novices to distinguish the individual letters and there are fewer cognates with English.

Your goal as a traveller studying a new alphabet is first to be able to recognize that the characters on a sign correspond to those on a map or a set of written directions (or vice versa), second to be able to recognize the correspondence between a spoken word or phrase and its written equivalent on a sign, and third to be able to speak a written word or phrase well enough that, even if you have no idea what it means, someone who knows the language will recognize what you are trying to say. Otherwise, you are likely to end up like the eliminated Michelle and Lake: “We can’t tell which way we’re going, ‘cause we can’t read Greek”.

The point isn’t that I expect tourists to learn the Greek or Russian language in two hours while waiting for their flight, but that it is possible for most people to learn the rudiments of the Greek or Cyrillic alphabet in not much longer than that. In a college-level introductory language class, learning the alphabet is typically the first homework assignment, which students might be expected to complete for a quiz within the first week.

What about more difficult writing systems? Scripts? Pictographic character-based and non-phonetic writing systems? These are, in some respects, actually easier for visitors to deal with: No one in a place like China expects any foreigner (“barbarian”) to be civilized, intelligent, or well-educated enough to learn how to read Chinese. So all signage intended for foreign friends is transliterated into the Latin alphabet. It’s rare in most of the world for signage for visitors or those who don’t know the local language to be transliterated into any other alphabet than the Latin one used in English, although there are some places in the Russian or former Soviet sphere of influence where Cyrillic is used, and of course in non-Chinese areas ruled by China the local languages are rendered into Chinese characters..

If you are going to take on the challenge of learning a foreign-language script, and your goal is to use it for travel around the world, learn Arabic: In addition to its native speakers and its use as the basis of the scripts used for Urdu, Persian, and several other languages, the Islamic “umma” (community of believers) forms a large and very widely dispersed group of people who have studied at least some written and spoken Arabic as a second language. In a non-Arab village or neighborhood of Muslims in Africa, Asia, or Europe, the person who speaks and reads a little Arabic is probably among the local community leaders — one of the people best situated to be able, if they choose, to help out a visitor who doesn’t understand the locals’ native language(s).

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 12 April 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

What a great blog! I'm glad you mentioned "China" as that caused me to discover it.

Posted by: Anonymous, 12 April 2006, 22:28 (10:28 PM)

I enjoyed your column about the need/desireability for travelers to learn enough of any alphabetic language to recognize and pronounce a few words.

In the case of Chinese, of course the problem is that pinyin consonents often don't correspond to their English equivalents. It doesn't take that much to learn the sounds of pinyin (X = a "sh" sound, etc.) but people have to know.

initial consonants should be:

X = sh sound
Q = ch
Z = dz
Zh = dj
C = ts

vowels much as in Italian.

Unfortunately, one tricky problem: sometimes syllables ending in "i" have an "r" sound (Shi = sure; Zhi = djur), but normally if they are preceded by a single consonant, they have an "i" (or rather "ee") sound (Li = lee; Xi = shee), except:

Zi = dz
Ci = ts
Si = sz

Also, it's worth mentioning Korean: weird as it looks, it's actually an alphabet and only takes a few hours to learn.

Posted by: Anonymous, 13 April 2006, 06:35 ( 6:35 AM)
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