Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.

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Accent Challenge

My thanks to Polly for posting a challenge that both interested me and gave me an extra few days to write the conclusion to my hiking fiasco story! I find language endlessly interesting; I like to know how words are used, where they came from, what influences our word choices… the list goes on. So of course I wanted to join this examination of language variety. The challenge is posted below the video, along with a few additions of my own.

My own accent background, since I neglected to address it in the video: I’ve spent most of my life in the Chicago suburbs, and while I don’t think I sound like a stereotypical Chicagoan, my friends in Ohio have told me that there are times when I do. I went to college in southeastern Ohio, which had very little influence on my speaking, though it did teach me that it was impolite to flinch when people said things like, “the dishes need washed” or, “the floor needs swept.” Apparently it’s a valid construction in Ohio English. I also spent three months in Ireland in college, which definitely instilled a few Britishisms in my speech.

(Yes, I used ‘yoink’ as a verb. At least to me, it’s of onomatopoeic origin: it’s the sound my friends and I use when snagging something that belongs to someone else. And then the sound effect became a verb.)

The Challenge:

  • Pronounce the following words:
    • Aunt
    • Roof
    • Route
    • Theatre (theater, if it shows movies)
    • Iron
    • Salmon
    • Caramel
    • Fire
    • Water
    • New Orleans
    • Pecan
    • Both
    • Again
    • Probably
    • Alabama
    • Lawyer
    • Coupon
    • Mayonnaise
    • Pyjamas (pajamas!)
    • Caught
    • Naturally
    • Aluminium (aluminum!)
    • Doorknob
    • Envelope
    • Nucleus
    • Washing
    • Tomato
    • Where
    • Often
    • Greasy
    • Columbus
    • Minnesota
    • Police
    • Ask
    • Pen
    • Bag
    • Marry, merry, Mary
  • Answer the following questions:
    • What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
    • What is a bubbly carbonated drink called?
    • What do you call gym shoes?
    • What do you call your grandparents?
    • What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
    • What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
    • What do you call a large open metal container for water?
    • To carry groceries home, you put them in a ….
    • What do you call window coverings on rollers?
    • What do you call the glowing insects that kids catch and put in jars?
    • When waiting to check out your groceries, you stand __ line.
    • If your living room is messy, before company comes you…
    • If you’re talking to a group of friends, what do you call them?
    • It’s a quarter ___ five.
    • When the little girl started drowning, the lifeguard ______ into the pool.
    • What do you call the contraption that you drink water from?
    • Do you think you have an accent?

So, dear readers, please feel free to take up this challenge yourselves! I’d love to hear all your lovely accents.


The Internet Knows Nothing About Mongolia

Mongolia is a country large in land but small in population, and as a result, it’s not exactly on the world’s radar. The most common question I received when I told people I was coming here was, “What are you doing there?” The second most common questions were, “Why Mongolia?” and “Where is that, exactly?” The Chinese people I spoke to asked if I meant Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province; when I informed them that I meant the actual country, they referred to it as Outer Mongolia. But there is no “Outer” in the country’s name; it seems to me that only the Chinese, or those with a China-centric point of view, call it Outer Mongolia.

The only things that people are likely to associate with this country are Genghis Khan and Mongolian barbecue, both of which are varying degrees of inaccurate. The Mongolians do not call him Genghis, but Chinggis. The name passed through Persia on its way west, and the Persians, lacking the /ch/ sound, replaced it with a hard /g/, the closest approximate in their language. And so the one Mongolian of world-renown is known to the world by a different name than that used by his own people.*

As for Mongolian barbecue, well, it has even less relation to Mongolian food than Taco Bell does to Mexican. Mongolian food traditionally features meat (usually mutton), flour, milk, and little else; in more recent years, they’ve added cabbage and root vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, beets) to their repertoire. It’s plain, unadorned fare that has nothing to do with the fancy array of meats and vegetables and sauces you’ll find at a “Mongolian barbecue” restaurant.

A while back, someone posted a picture of a bottle labeled “spicy Mongolian barbecue sauce” to the Expats in Mongolian Facebook page, and I wanted to put that here. Alas, I can no longer find it, so y’all will just have to use your imaginations. We all about split our sides laughing at the absurdity of such a thing; Mongolians don’t really do barbecue or sauce, and they really don’t do spicy.

The world, in short, knows very little of Mongolia. And no wonder; in this world where you can find everything online, from pictures of breaded cats to instructions on how to strip a car’s paint job using lunchmeat, Mongolia has next to no Internet presence. That sounds like a gross exaggeration, I know – but it’s not.

Let’s start with the obvious giant. There is a Google.mn, but I have yet to find a discernible advantage to using it. Google Translate, alas, does not support Mongolian, and Google Chrome doesn’t even recognize it as a language. Any time I visit a site with Mongolian text (even those clearly marked as Mongolian – like Bolor-Toli, the only online dictionary I know of), Google Chrome subjects me to a banner as annoying as it is futile.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.51.15 AM

I mean, you could try to translate this “Russian” webpage, but it wouldn’t work…

If I wanted, I could take the time to help Google improve its language recognition by reporting the error. And I do… sometimes. But since Chrome doesn’t actually recognize it as a language, it’s not on the list of reportable languages. I have to write it in each and every time I report the error. If I went through that process every time I needed to look up a word (or cross-reference the definitions to make sure I’ve picked the right translation), I’d never get anything done.

Mongolian: not on this list.

Mongolian: not on this list. Also note the character viewer I keep in the bottom right of my screen, since Russian Cyrillic lacks those letters and my computer doesn’t have Mongolian Cyrillic.

There is a Mongolian Wikipedia (all 9745 pages of it), though no Mongolian I’ve spoken to knows of its existence . And while some information about Mongolia is available on English Wikipedia, its accuracy and cultural relativity leave much to be desired. Take this page on the capital city, for instance.


Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 9.58.04 AM

See that vertical stack of scribblings? That’s the way Wikipedia renders all in-text instances of the Mongolian classical script. I’m not sure if they do it that way to show all of the individual components or because no one’s bothered to code the page in such a way that it will be rendered properly. But either way, that’s not what the name looks like when written out in Mongolian script. It looks like this:

Granted, this image was also taken from Wikipedia – but the image is significantly further down than I could capture with a screenshot. Why is the actual appearance of the name in Classical Script so diminished in visual importance, and why can’t Wikipedia show what the script actually looks like in-text?

No one’s bothered to update this page in a while, either. The population statistics cited in the text are from 2008 and place the population around 1 million. The sidebar (not pictured; too far down to catch in the screenshot) lists the population as 1,721,000 as of 2012. That’s a pretty enormous disparity; an extra 700,000 people might go unnoticed in Beijing, but in UB, their presence is constantly heard (extra horns honking at all hours), felt (in the crush of people on the main buses, where they pack you in like sardines), and even breathed (nearly all of those additional 700,000 would have taken up residence in the ger district, adding that much more smoke from their coal-burning fires).

But most problematic is the name under which the city is listed. The city, contrary to what Wikipedia and any number of international listings will tell you, is not called Ulan Bator. Mongolians have been fighting for a long time to get their city recognized by its rightful name in international newspapers and websites, but Wikipedia has yet to take notice.

Ulaanbaatar is a direct transliteration of the city’s name in Mongolian, Улаанбаатар. I can understand splitting the word into its two parts, ulaan (red) and baatar (hero). I can even understand simplifying it to Ulan Batar, since the double vowels will just confuse most Westerners. But changing the final a into an o implies an entirely different pronunciation. Аа and a differ only in the length of the vowel; o is a different sound. Think of the difference between cot and caught, Don and Dawn. It’s subtle, but it’s there (unless you’re from Boston). Батор is not a word in Mongolian. Nor are батар, баатор, or any of the other variations implied by this spelling. Ulan Bator makes no sense as a transliteration.

But then, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Wikipedia is inconsistent in its transliteration of Mongolian Cyrillic. An attempt to learn a particular grammatical construction recently had me puzzling over hard and soft signs (ъ and ь, respectively) and the way they affect the pronunciation of the preceding sounds. A Google search turned up no definitive answers, but it did send me to the Wikipedia Talk page on which the editors were discussing the issues of transliteration. What I found was a great deal of debate as to whether the transliteration system should be designed with native or nonnative speakers in mind, since native and nonnative speakers will assign different values to some letters.

The conclusion, unsurprisingly, seemed to be to that they ought to spell things in ways that would approximate the pronunciation for nonnative speakers. But how they proposed to find an English spelling for words they don’t know how to pronounce, I’m not sure; while several of the editors on the page reported themselves to be linguists, none of them reported themselves as Mongolian speakers.

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 10.06.44 AM

The “Mongolian contributors” listed here, so far as I’ve found, are all the students of the actual editors, and their contributions are along the lines of “this is how we spell x when typing/texting” rather than “this is how this is pronounced.” At least the editors acknowledge their ignorance.

Clearly, there’s a vacuum here – an informational gap that needs filling.** There are no online resources to learn more than a few basic phrases in Mongolian or verify your translation; Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer Mongolian. While the rest of the world’s demand for Mongolian language learning resources pales (nay, bleaches) in comparison to the demand for, say, Chinese, I’m sure Mongolians would like to see more content in their own language, and more accurate content in others. I have no idea if there’s a job market for the field of educating the Internet, but it would seem that the subject bears looking into.

*At least, this is the commonly-cited explanation. I have not attempted to verify it, for the reasons expounded upon in the rest of this post.

** Sorry, Ohio friends, but even after four years in your state, I cannot bring myself to say “needs filled.”