Archive for the ‘language’ Category




Another article from my old China notes, which I hadn’t published before: Other trips came up, and these got pushed onto the back burner.

Note:  I have a lot of photos, so please be patient, scroll through and enjoy.

To get a feel for the way of life for the vast majority of Chinese people who live in cities you have to leave the modern city center and walk along suburban streets—preferably alone, so you get an unfiltered view! The cities are getting more and more westernized, with the same or similar chain stores as we find in USA, Europe or Japan (the homogenization of society). Other than the script, I could be anywhere in the world (almost), with the same type of tall skyscraper, with lots of glass etc.



Bike “taxis” waiting

To see how the ordinary Chinese live, spend a day just strolling up and down a couple of large suburban streets or even smaller alleys off them.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did, on a Monday, in Nanjing, a few years ago, and on another trip in Hangzhou, and it was great to begin to get a feel for the rhythm, the pulse, the tempo of daily life here. Here it does feel different—I know I’m not in USA or Europe. The character of the place is different. Another afternoon, Rod and I were able to just wander around too.

On my first walk, the wide 4-lane avenue (this might be suburban, but this is still China with its teeming millions) was always busy, mostly with cars, buses and taxis (people use taxis a lot), but very few trucks. Bikes and scooters have their own lane next to the pavement (sidewalk), as many people ride bicycles. Traffic was still chaotic but not quite as bad as in the city and the big intersections. There is a special sidewalk for pedestrians and it’s mostly lined with trees, so is quite pleasant.


Many of the “stalls” are actually conducted off bicycles


This seems to be a bike repair business


Corn and a series of hats shops

The street is lined with row upon row of large apartment blocks, which stretch like kids’ building blocks away from the street. Some are older, some new, most festooned with laundry from small balconies or from retractable clothes lines. Many of the flats seem to be grouped into complexes, with one main entrance off the street, often with a guard at the gate. And each complex seems to have a bit of a garden, a piece of lawn, a few flower beds, so it’s not a true concrete jungle, not just sterile concrete. I saw one old guy on his piece of lawn just behind the fence, doing a kind of tai-chi.


A tailor? An alteration service?



I saw quite a few people with small dogs

Some of the complexes are separated from the pavement by a fence and strip of grass. Others have the first floor directly on the sidewalk, and in this case the lower level is given over to small shops. Looking at these is when it gets really interesting. In the afternoon things get much busier after 3pm, after a kind of ‘siesta’ time. Mothers with babies in strollers or with kids appear, as do some people with small dogs. Old couples venture out for a stroll and young people saunter along. Many are out to do their daily shopping, which they carry home in 3-4 plastic bags.


But, birds are very popular too



Not sure what these are!

The mix of small shops is amazing. Except for a China Post, Construction Bank, and Bank of Communications, a Foreign Language Institute and an Office of Community Development, all are small enterprises as far as I could tell. For example:

–Barber shops and general hairdressers, with revolving poles—but of different colors to the west.

–tyres and fixing tyres, or bicycle repair

–a tiny pet shop, with two small dogs in cages


Rod checks out this shop

–birds in cages

–hardware, with a hard-packed sand floor

–little boutiques with old-fashioned mannequins

–a small grocery

–cigarette shop, which also sells boxed alcohol

–flower shop, carrying mostly fake flowers

–another boutique, with silky-looking slips (peticoats) hanging outside from the tree branches

–a couple of stores using the branches in front as a place to dry their laundry

–newspaper kiosk


Rod checks out another mystery

–real estate office

–a restaurant on the corner. The corner window is full of shelves with live chickens peering out. At the door is a make-shift tank (a large box lined with stripey plastic and a hose running into it continuously) with two swimming fish and 3 gone belly-up.

Interestingly, some of the small “businesses” are conducted from a parked bicycle! I was the only westerner wandering around. I got a few stares, a few smiles, a few hallo’s, and no animosity.


P7160081.JPGMy first actual encounter was interesting. In the China Post we managed by sign language and pointing and showing the amount on a calculator. Outside, I had no idea which box to post my postcards in. Two young girls came by, watched me a bit, then checked my postcards. They saw that they were to a foreign place, and pointed to the right box and the right slot, even pushed them in when I couldn’t seem to find the right angle (the slot must be very narrow: I still don’t know how they did it!)



Another bike repair outfit 


Tourists in a rickshaw

My next adventure was “Finding (the) Coffee and the Coffee Ceremony”. I saw a small place at the base of one apartment complex with a sign, “Tea-Coffee-Seafood” so I decided to peer through the glass doors to see if there was an espresso machine. As I leant forward, two young women in black opened the doors, smiled and beckoned me in. I walked to the front desk just by the door. “Espresso Coffee?” I asked hopefully. Blank stares.

I looked round to see if I could see any coffee P7010107.JPGmachine (I couldn’t) and one girl held a menu out to me, all in Chinese, pointing at one item, which sounded like “Mira Kahee” when she said it. I looked blank. Another menu, with some items translated into English, all rice or noodles. Next, she handed out an English phrase book called “English for Nanjing Citizens”, gave it to me and seated me on a nearby couch. I was sweating profusely, as it was really hot and humid (no a/c), as I paged through the book. This was a perfect example situation to see if these books work for this kind of situation/problem/real life incident. It didn’t. All the chapters about Mr. Jones (or Johnson) arriving in Nanjing, talking to the hotel clerk, going shopping, having dinner in someone’s home don’t prepare for this: a simple way to ask for black coffee. There’s no sample menu.


Furniture delivery it seems

I left without coffee but it was an interesting experience. The next day I returned (with Chinese instructions written down by some locals at the conference) and I got some black coffee. The people in the shop were so happy to oblige and there were happy smiles and much bowing! It was a happy experience.

The other main point about these walks I took was how many different types of transport I saw—fascinating. The best way to describe it is to show this series of photos I took.P7020005.JPG

Postscript today: What a great experience, and I feel very blessed to have been able to do this when we did. Life is not quite the same now! Not there, and certainly not anywhere right now, with the corona pandemic.



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Watch out for kuku, dassies (or hyrax or rock rabbit), and small buck (deer)

Watch out for kuku, dassies (or hyrax or rock rabbit), and small buck (deer)

A rural shop where the braai meat might be bought

A rural shop where the braai meat might be bought

Just about every country has their own ‘way of speaking’, their own special words, even when the most popularly spoken language is a common one (like English). South Africa is definitely one of those countries. We were in this wonderful country recently and thought it would be fun to give you a few ideas about these phrases and  how to speak English ‘South African Style’. These are some of the words/phrases that we find people in the US often get confused over.

Things you’ll probably hear (often) in South Africa:

Just now (in SA)—Sometime soon; Shortly.

Now now—Sooner than “just now”.

Howzit—Friendly greeting as in, “How is it going?

Play play—Pretend.

A leg of lamb for the braai

A leg of lamb for the braai—thanks Vera G

Boot—Trunk of your car.

Bonnet—Hood of your car

Robot—Traffic lights.


Braai —Barbecue.
 Having a braai is a favorite SA pastime

Hold thumbs—Cross your fingers that something will happen.

Make a plan—Somehow, we’ll make it work.

Lekker—Very nice.




And some road signs:

Rumble strips

Traffic calming zone

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Nomade dominates the plaza

Nomade dominates the plaza

The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, has a collection of remarkable, eye-catching sculptures (see here for 2 heads I covered earlier: https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/more-heads-mischievous-and-child-like-in-des-moines/ )

But another, huge, symbolic sculpture dominates the plaza, I think. I was especially drawn to it, as I am very interested in language and communication.

Called Nomade (2007), it’s painted stainless steel created by Jaume Plensa (Spanish, born 1956).

Jaume Plensa uses letters as the basic component in a lot of his art, as he explores communication issues between individuals and cultures. This work depicts an anonymous torso, with a “skin” composed of letters from the Latin alphabet. Plensa has always been interested in ideas presented as written text, as well as in the human body and how it perceives the world around it, and here he has combined the two. back

Look closely and you will see the individual letters

Look closely and you will see the individual letters











He has described individual letters or symbols as having little or no meaning on their own, but blossoming into words, thoughts and language when combined with other letters or symbols. His shapes in letters offer a metaphor for human culture, in which a person alone has limited potential, but when formed into groups or societies, becomes stronger. Nomade engages the viewer on many levels, from our recognition of the letters that form the shape, to our own physical and emotional interaction with the work as we look at it from a distance or from within it. It’s also not certain whether the figure is holding another smaller figure or not.

Very clever!

Is that another, smaller figure, or not?

Is that another, smaller figure, or not?

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We see the strange writing on the wall at the back of the cathedral

We see the strange writing on the wall at the back of the cathedral

Zagreb's imposing main cathedral

Zagreb’s imposing main cathedral

Zagreb’s Cathedral, Croatia

In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saintly Kings Stephen and Ladislav (wow, that’s quite a mouthful!), is usually just called “the Cathedral” or Katedrala.

Many Croatians are Catholic and this is the country’s main church. It’s a very large imposing Neo-Gothic building, what we see today built a little more than 100 years ago. But, it has a long history, as the first church went up here in 1094 when a diocese was established in Kaptol, one of the two towns that originally made up what is now Zagreb (the other is Gradec, up on the hill). Invading Tartars destroyed the original cathedral in the mid-13th century. The citizens rebuilt it, but an earthquake destroyed it in 1880.

The three main features inside the church are: the main altar with a lovely silver relief

Beautiful cathedral interior and ornate silver altar

Beautiful cathedral interior and ornate silver altar

of the Holy Family; the grave of Josip Jelacic, a Croatian statesman; and the modern tombstone of Alojzije Stepinac. Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb in World War 11, supported the Ustase (puppet Nazi government in Croatia then), believing it would help gain independence from Serbia. For some Croatians he is a hero and inspiration, but for others he is a villain because of this.

However, for me, there is another feature in the cathedral that is even more interesting. As you face the exit to the church, on the left side is an arched wall between pillars. Most of the wall panel is inscribed with a very different script, some kind of writing that I have never seen before, very bold and very obvious in this setting. We photographed it and then I determined to learn more.

We step a little closer to this new (for us) alphabet...

We step a little closer to this new (for us) alphabet…

Apparently it is the Glagolitic alphabet (glagoljca). The popular story is that Cyril and Methodius, Byzantine missionaries in the 9th century, invented it as a way to translate the Bible and church doctrine into Slavic languages. They worked mainly in Moravia (in the eastern Czech Republic today) but it was here in Croatia that it caught on and was used in some places until the 19th century. The name Glagolitic also exists in Macedonian, Serbian, Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, and Ukrainian.

Other ideas are that Glagolitic was created in the 4th century by St. Jerome, and is then called Hieronymian, but this seems to be less substantiated. Later, it was adapted in Bulgaria and became part of the Cyrillic alphabet, which Russia and Serbia still use. When Croatia gained independence in 1991 there was some idea of making Glagolitic the official alphabet, but this didn’t happen. Nowadays, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovena use and speak basically the same language: the biggest difference is the writing, as Croatians and Bozniaks use our Roman alphabet, while the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Linguists are having fun trying to figure out the history, development and use of this

…and then zoom in. I wonder what this says?

…and then zoom in. I wonder what this says?

strange script, how many letters it had and how the characters were modified and changed.

This web site gives a chart of the alphabet if you are interested,


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English sprouts here, not Brussel sprouts!

English sprouts here, not Brussel sprouts!

Croydon Market, London, UK

Wandering around this lively market the other day, I found a number of vegetables that go by another name here, compared to what people call them in our part of the USA and/or Asian countries we’ve visited.  It got me thinking about other vegetables that have multiple names depending on where you are: for example, eggplant/aubergine/brinjal.

Any other examples you can think of?

"Mooli" in Croydon, known as "Daikon" in USA and Japan

“Mooli” in Croydon, known as “Daikon” in USA and Japan

"Kanella" in Croydon, known as "Bitter Melon" (English name) in China

“Kanella” in Croydon, known as “Bitter Melon” (English name) in China

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