Name 3 words that end in ‘gry’

February 21

Language is the soul of a nation… Do you want to make a people disappear? Destroy its language.

Jules-Paul Tardivel, L’anglicisme, voila l’ennemi, 1880


Today is International Mother Language Day.

For some reason the excitement surrounding this occasion is not quite as intense as other more important holidays, such as Talk Like a Pirate Day. This may be because our national linguistic experience differs from most countries. As one joke goes:

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one language?


Even our neighbors to the north have had a very different outlook on language. In Canada there are laws monitoring the use of the French and English languages, down to the size of words on cereal boxes.

Conflicts between dueling languages (like the Quebecois woman who complained to a pet store owner that her parrot didn’t speak French) are not always trite. As Quebec’s Jean-Charles Harvey wrote:

In the middle of an ocean of English-speaking men and women, the only chance of survival for the French is if it becomes synonymous with audacity, culture, civilization and freedom.

Jean-Charles Harvey, La peur, 1945

+  +  +

The origin of International Mother Tongue Day lies in the aftermath of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The nation now known as Bangladesh was East Pakistan after the partition. Even though over half of Pakistan’s 69 million inhabitants lived in East Pakistan, the country was largely ruled from West Pakistan’s central government. In 1948 the central government declared Urdu as the nation’s only official language. This meant Bengali, the native language of over 90% of the people of East Pakistan (and thus one of the most spoken languages in the world) could not be taught in school or used in government affairs. The change also threatened to make the majority of educated people of East Pakistan essentially ‘illiterate’ and unable to participate in government or hold national posts.

This understandably outraged the East Pakistanis, and a Bengali Language Movement formed. Pakistani Governor-General Muhammed Ali Jinnah proclaimed that the Bengali language movement was a “fifth column” movement attempting to sabotage true Pakistani unity.

In February Dhaka University planned mass protest demonstrations, but the central government imposed a ban on all public assemblies in the city of Dhaka. On February 21 students held the protest anyway.

Bangladesh demonstrators, Feb. 22, 1952
University of Dhaka demonstrators, Feb. 22, 1952

Police attacked the students with batons. Students fought back, throwing bricks at the police, who responded with tear gas and gunfire. Several students were killed. The outcry over the police attacks led to more demonstrations and violence over the following days. On February 22 police attacked a mourning rally, presumably for violating the ban on assemblies.

The government-censored news reports purported that the demonstrations were instigated by communists and Hindu foreign influences. After two more years of protest Pakistan passed a resolution accepting Bengali as a national language of Pakistan along with Urdu, and the anniversary of the first martyrs was adopted by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day in 1999.

The story of Bengali has been repeated, and preceded, by countless stories of language repression

In the twentieth century Spanish dictator Franco banned the Basque language—one of the oldest languages in the world—for thirty years, nearly destroying it. (Basque has no known linguistic relations, and as such is one of the four language families in Europe: the others being Indo-European, Uralic, and Turkic.)
Picasso's depiction of the bombing of Guernica

Of the over 6,000 recorded languages in the world today, less than 300 are spoken by populations of 1 million or more. Much like how McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble have driven out local restaurants and book stores, so the larger languages are replacing indigenous ones. According to the U.N. thousands of languages are in danger of extinction.

South America had an estimated 1,500 languages before European contact. Today it has 350. Strangemaps displays a map of the world (from Limits of Language by M. Parkvall) distorting the size of nations and continents by their linguistic diversity:

Lingual Map
Linguistic map of the world

The lingual giant Papua New Guinea boasts some 850 languages. Countries in red speak over 200 languages.

The U.S. gets a bad rap for how few languages we speak, but as you can see, as a whole its inhabitants speak nearly as many as the entire European continent.<

Yesterday I drove through a stretch of Westminster, California that, I kid you not, was entirely in Vietnamese.

The most popular* languages in the world are:

  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Hindi
  • English
  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Russian
  • Portuguese

and the one that started today’s holiday: Bengali.

(*popular as in how many people speak them, not as in votes on Americal Idol)

Today’s language question: Name three words in English that end in “gry”

Language map of Europe
European Language Map

Also from Strange Maps:

Languages of Europe: Praise the Lord and Pass the Dictionary

Other Links:

Urdu controversy is dividing the nation further

National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language

Bengali Language Movement and History

Wikipedia: Bengali_Language_Movement

Wikipedia: Languages of Europe

International Mother Language Day

February 21

I’d like to take this moment to assure you that all typos in this blog are my subversive attempts to alter the English language.

That said, you can read all about the history of International Mother Language Day–a holiday that started in Bangladesh over 50 years ago–at last year’s post Name Three Words That End in ‘gry’.

Rather than repeat myself, I decided to research my own native tongue, English, and found that, contradictory to popular belief, English does not borrow from other languages:

English doesn't borrow from other lanugages

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of English is its pronunciation, as T.S. Watt noted in the poem, “Brush up your English”, published in the Manchester Guardian in 1954:

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart –

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Women’s Heart Disease Awareness Day

February 5

Today’s Wear Red Day, but it’s not a fashion statement. It’s a life statement: to build awareness of women’s heart disease.

Today women are at greater risk of fatal heart attack than men.

Each year more women die of cardiovascular disease than cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria combined. While mortality rates for men have gone down, the danger for women has risen. Around the world 16 women die of cardiovascular illness every minute.

Recognizing the early symptoms of a heart attack is essential in saving lives. Women rush their husband or male family members to the hospital, but tend to be more dismissive of the same warning signs in themselves.

Sweats, heart palpitations, shortness of breath–Could be more than menopause.

The “Hollywood Heart Attack” in which someone clutches their chest in pain is not the standard for everyone. Chest pain is the most common symptom, but almost half of all women who experience a heart attack do not have chest pain. Atypical symptoms include:

  • back, neck or jaw pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • indigestion
  • weakness, fatigue
  • dizziness, lightheadedness

Symptoms that can occur months prior to a heart attack include:

  • fatigue
  • sleep disturbance
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • indigestion
  • anxiety
  • shoulder blade or upper back pain

Recognize the symptoms: Women tend to end up at the emergency room 15 to 20 minutes later than men, and those minutes can mean a life.

Both women and men can fight heart disease through cardiovascular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular screenings.
Heart Disease Signs
Heart Healthy Women

New Year’s Eve

Tonight as you count down to midnight, if you’re wondering why we picked such a completely random date to celebrate as the New Year—neither solstice nor equinox nor anniversary—take a moment to thank the folks of Segeda, Spain, a town that stood near present-day Zaragoza.


Up until the 2nd century B.C., the Roman civic calendar began in mid-March, around the spring equinox and the beginning of the planting season; officials convened in Rome on the full moon (Ides) of that month.

The number of the year was determined by which consuls were in office that term. e.g., the “8th year of the term of Glutimus Maximus”. [We use a similar system today in the West, though we don’t generally say it’s the “2009th year of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (2009 Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi). We just say 2009 A.D.]

Around 154 BC. the Romans were extending their empire westward into Spain, which was then inhabited by the Celtiberians. That year the Celtiberians of Segeda, having no respect for the Roman civic calendar, inconveniently rebelled while the government was not in session.

Rather than waiting until March to respond, the Romans called an “emergency session of Congress”, so to speak, in January, in order to appoint Quintus Filvius Nobilior as consul to deal with the western territories. His mission: go to Spain and kick some Celtiberian butt.

Filvius wasn’t very successful. In fact, it would be a hundred years before the peninsula was fully subdued.

But the January tradition stuck.

Most folks continued to celebrate the New Year in March as they always had. (Persians still do celebrate Norouz on the spring equinox.) But over the centuries the Julian calendar–implemented by Julius Caesar–replaced the older agrarian traditions.

15 centuries later Pope Gregory XIII overhauled the calendar to correct the 11 extra leap days that had misaligned the Julian calendar from the solstice. Northern Europe was the last to adopt the new “Gregorian” system. Britain, and by extension, the American colonies, only did so in 1752. Before that, most of us still considered March to be the start of the New Year.  March 25 to be exact–believed to be the anniversary of the conception of Christ back in 1 A.D.

So had the folks of Segeda just been a little more patient and waited a couple of months to rebel, we might still be celebrating New Year’s in March.

But as it is, we toast a cup ‘o’ kindness on December 31, to days of Auld Lang Syne, and to the Celtiberians who made this night possible.

See you in 2012!

Why the Fuss of January 1?

The Celtiberian War and Numantia

Zamenhof Tago!

December 15

Originally celebrated as Zamenhof Day, Esperanto Day is the birthday of Esperanto founder L.L. Zamenhof. He would be 149 today.

The son of a German teacher, Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, Russia, in what is now Poland. He spoke all three of those languages as a child, and studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and French. He grew up to be a doctor, but had an incredible ability to pick up languages. During his formative years in Poland, conflicts in Eastern Europe led Zamenhof to believe that much of the world’s violence could be stemmed by a common language. Zamenhof set out to create an international language, easy to learn, simple to use, that could unite the world’s speakers for the first time since the Tower of Babel.

In 1887 he published a booklet of the rules of “An International Language” using the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (one who hopes).

Ludoviki Lazaro "Dr. Esperanto" Zamenhof

The pseudonym became synonymous with the language, and Esperanto was born. It was an uphill battle promoting his language. At the first Esperanto congress in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, Zamenhof stated:

And now for the first time the dream of thousands of years begins to be realized. In this small French seaside town I have met men from the most varied countries and nations, and they meet each other not as deaf-mutes, but they understand one another and speak to one another as brothers, as members of one nation.

One common criticism of Esperanto is that English has become the default “international language”. However, we forget how many languages have attained that position during the peak of their mother country, only to ebb away. The Romans, the Spanish and Portuguese, and the French empires once could say the same.

After the First World War delegates from Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia submitted a proposal that the League of Nations: to make Esperanto the working language of the league. Ten voted for the proposal, one against…

The French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux, argued that French was and should continue to be the language of international affairs. It didn’t work out that way. Because of Hanotaux’s objection, the League of Nations failed, and the world plunged into the Second World War.

Okay, maybe the chain of cause-and-effect wasn’t that drastic, but the twentieth century proved that the ability to communicate was of paramount importance to international peace and stability.

Today France is the leading host country of Esperanto’s Pasporta Servo, where Esperanto speakers can travel the globe practically for free, lodging at the homes of Esperanto hosts in 92 countries. The Pasporta Servo is actually a major incentive for young people to learn Esperanto, which can be learned in a fraction of the time of other languages.

Pasporta Servo host map
Pasporta Servo hosts

Of course with the growing popularity of sites like Babelfish, and increasingly accurate voice-recognition software, it may be that one day everything we say will be instantly translated into whatever language the listener desires.

But until that day…mi provas lerni Esperanton.

Esperanto FAQs

Human Rights Day

December 10

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion…”

— from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

December 10 is Human Rights Day…

The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first global enunciation of human rights.

Voice of America – Human Rights Day 2009 – Discrimination

The Declaration, signed in Paris, France, goes beyond “life, liberty, and security of person” (Article III) to demand 30 specific rights, many of which even the most developed nations still struggle to provide six decades later…

“Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”  — Article XXVI

Each year on Human Rights Day, groups organize demonstrations around the globe to bring attention to issues and areas where the rights are in question. Also on or around this day, the United Nations awards individuals its UN Human Rights Prizes.

Declaration of the Rights of Man, French forerunner of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Human Rights Day Marks Progress & Setbacks – Voice of America

World Toilet Day – Why you should give a s***

November 19

Privy at Goat Peak, Curt Smith

November 19 is World Toilet Day.

You should be in for a funny post.

Unfortunately you are not.

Poor sanitation kills more people each year than AIDS, but you won’t see any celebrities sporting brown ribbons at this year’s Oscars, and discussions of toilets still emit a response from educated adults akin to the uncomfortable, strained snickering of 7th graders during a sex ed lesson.

“As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water…more like watery mud than muddy water…we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it…we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it; and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it…we saw a little child…lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her…As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil was poured down from the next gallery.”

India? Bangladesh? Nope, the above description is from the London Morning Chronicle, circa 1849, during a devastating cholera epidemic that few understood. Today we know about the importance of separating feces from drinking water. Yet toilets are not considered a top priority for many inhabitants of developing countries, even for those residents who chat on their new cell phones in public, but do their business in the stream. And even in countries like the U.S. it was only recently that public outcry over restaurant sanitation led to that industry’s standardized ratings system.


World Toilet Day was created by the World Toilet Organization not only to spread awareness of sanitation issues, but to lend ‘speakability’ to one of the most important and overlooked inventions of the past 200 years.

A lot of people asked why we use the word ‘toilet‘,” says Naureen Nayyar, a representative of the WTO…

“It’s because…if we tell people we want to change the role and the way people view toilets we can’t go about it in a bashful manner. Every change that’s come about in society…has come from making people uncomfortable at first.”

The World Toilet Organization has taken on the extremely uphill battle of making the toilet ‘sexy’ and hence desirable to residents of countries seeking to emulate Western lifestyles. While cell phones are the rage, you won’t find toilets of the rich and famous on film or TV. In fact, the ubiquitous porcelain bowl didn’t make its big screen debut until the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho.

With the trendiness of the green movement and environmentalism, sanitation has finally come to the forefront of world attention, but for some reason the concept of the toilet has remained behind (no pun intended).

On the World Toilet Organization’s website, you can sponsor a household toilet for $140. I asked Nayyar why on earth toilets are so expensive in the 3rd World. She explained that part of the money goes toward education, teaching the public about the importance of a safe, separate place for defecation.

“Toilets are not a great topic, they are not loved, they are not appreciated, but they are a huge necessity that could help reduce the increase of diseases as populations grow, and the sanitation business is a vital part of keeping our waters and world clean.”

The river runs stinking, and all its brink
Is a fringe of every detectable stink:
Bone-boilers and gas-workers and gut-makers there
Are poisoning earth and polluting air.
But touch them who dares; prevent them who can;
What is the Health to the Wealth of man?

Punch, Sept. 2, 1854

The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Ode to the Commode – LA Times

International Students Day

November 17

“It is interesting that the press and the politicians are beginning to refer to the student body of our nation as one of those “aggressor enemies” that we have become all too familiar with in the past: the “Huns,” the Nazis, the Commies; and now it is our kids, virtually the entire generation of them…For make no mistake; a generation is speaking.”

–Murray N. Rothbard, The Student Revolution, 1969

The kids are alright.

–The Who, 1965


They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and at times the student body is as powerful as an army.

On the average day students are more interested in unlocking the secrets of their universe, or in securing that elusive A than in prompting massive social change. But at pivotal moments throughout history–from Jesus’ Disciples (Disciple come from the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘pupil’) to the demonstration at Tiananmen Square–students have been the first to vocally question and defy ruling paradigms, and the university has become the battleground for society’s deepest rifts.

Holidays we’ve documented this year that stem from student protests include:

Hungary’s Republic Day – October 23, 1956

South Africa’s Youth Day – June 16, 1976

International Mother Language Day – February 21, 1952

Panama’s Martyrs Day – January 9, 1964

But in the 20th century, perhaps no campus symbolized the havoc that ravaged the Western world than than that of Prague’s 760 year-old Charles University (Universitas Carolinas).

Charles University has never shied away from conflict. One of its first rectors, Jan Hus, translated the heretical writings of John Wycliffe into Czech and was rewarded by being burned at the stake by the Church in 1415, a full century before Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses’.

Five centuries later Charles University became a battleground of a different kind.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ensured his subjects “Peace for our time” by trading Czechoslovakia’s heavily fortified Sudetenland for the German Chancellor’s signature. The following year Hitler annexed the remainder of now-defenseless Czechoslovakia anyway, splitting it into the Slovak State and the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Jan Opletal
Jan Opletal

On October 28, 1939, the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s foundation, anti-Nazi demonstrations broke out in Prague, during which a medical student named Jan Opletal was shot and killed by German police. After Opletal’s funeral on November 15, thousands of his follow students marched to protest the Nazi occupation. The Nazis responded on November 17, 1939 by arresting and executing 9 student leaders without trial and by deporting 1200 students to Saschenhausen concentration camp.

Today, November 17 is remembered as International Students Day.

Prague demonstration, 1939
Prague demonstration, 1939

But the story of Charles University’s students doesn’t stop there.

Following World War II, Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the Communist Soviet Bloc. On the 50th anniversary of the student executions and deportations, 15,000 Prague students and citizens led a non-violent protest against Communist rule, taunting riot police (not much older than the average demonstrator) with songs and placing flowers in their helmets. The demonstrators demanded passage to Wenceslas Square, where Czechs annually paid homage to the unofficial shrine of Jan Opletal, but riot police put down the demonstration with violence.

The police response sparked public outcry across the nation. By the end of the month approximately 800,000 people participated in anti-government rallies in Prague. Media outlets such as Federal Television and radio supported a growing national strike, and the Ministry of Culture agreed to uncensored anti-Communist literature. On December 29, just 6 weeks after the student march, the Federal Assembly elected anti-Communist writer Václav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia.

The events of November and December 1989 are referred to as the Velvet Revolution.

Youtube – Nežná revolúcia