Swede vs. Swedish citizen

The Swedish flag

Today is National day of Sweden. In many places across the country, part of the celebration is a ceremonial welcome of new citizens. “New citizens”, “people who have become new citizens.” Now and then, however, you hear and read references to “new Swedes” being welcomed by their Swedish home municipalities.

“Swede” is more of a trait of ethnicity than that of citizenship. And there’s a clear distinction between the two. Citizenship is what you can choose. Ethnicity is what you’re born into. By choosing to associate myself with the country of Sweden and becoming a Swedish citizen, I cannot alter my ethnic origin.

Ethnicity has to do with belonging to a group (or several groups) of people of common descent, language, history, not necessarily bound by territorial constraints. Citizenship has to do with associating oneself with a group (or several groups) of people constituting a state, a country, united under a government and on a particular territory.

True story. I was born in Latvia to a Russian father and half Ukrainian, half Russian mother. Ethnically, I am Russian, but by citizenship, I associate myself with the country of Latvia. I do not call myself “Latvian”, which in my opinion signifies one’s cultural and linguistic upbringing, but rather “a Russian from Latvia”. Since late 2014, I hold double citizenship – of Sweden and Latvia. I will not start calling myself a Swede for the very same reason described above.

The word “nation” has the same roots as “nativity”. The Latin word nāscī means “to be born”. Naturally, nationality is closer to ethnicity than it is to citizenship (that is if my thoughts on the above two concepts which I am trying to explain in this post are correct). Nevertheless, “nationality” has gradually come to imply what country one is a citizen of, which is now the predominant connotation in the English language. In Russian, the word retains its original implication, which is why, when prompted, I sometimes take a second to realise what it is I am expected to state as my nationality.

Photo credit: The Swedish flag by Daniel Goude (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How are reality and words related?

Language, as a result of sapiens thinking, is powerful. Power is often about control and manipulation. But what happens when a meaning of a word, which was meant to be conveyed by certain usage, is changed by reality? What happens when intended domination and manipulation fail and give way to the opposite?

Mark Forsyth describes how politics are connected to controlling language:

Politicians try to pick words and use words to shape reality and control reality, but in fact, reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality.

Watch Forsyth’s 6-minute talk here:

What’s a snollygoster? A short lesson in political speak is a talk by Mark Forsyth at TEDxHousesofParliament in London

True freedom of speech

When I went to school, one of my classmates (let’s call him Danny) was short. Not abnormally short, just shorter than anyone else in class. One day I was being picked up by my mother. The other kids sat waiting for their parents, talking. For some inexplicable reason, probably just stupidity on my part, I shouted as we were walking past the youngsters, “And this is Danny, ma, look how short he is!”

The choice of words in a given situation is crucial for a message to come across. Just because you can say something does not necessarily mean you should. Freedom of speech is bound by limitations. My freedom to express what I believe must be guided and controlled by whether my words will harm or offend others.

The problem does not lie in my uttering the words of hate, disdain or scorn. It lies in my fostering the thoughts in my mind. The words are the result, the reflection of what’s happening inside.

But we are free to use language to encourage one another, build each other up. True freedom of speech is not about saying what you want—it is about saying what you should. It is also about knowing when to talk and when to keep silent.

When my mother and I left the school building that afternoon, she touched my shoulder and told me, “You know, some people do not like their height, and if you remind them of it, they may get offended. It wasn’t polite of you.” Her words stayed with me since shaping how I view people different from me.

I never got to apologise to Danny. To exercise my freedom to resist the norm, to burst it. But some day I will. Not because I should, but because I want to.

Ed Rondthaler vs. English spelling

This is one of my favourite videos on English spelling. Ed Rondthaler was 102 years old, when he recorded it.

[Ed Rondthaler] has been engaged in the spelling reform movement since 1961 and is a strong advocate of the Ripman-Dewey principles of simplification. His writings on spelling reform have been published widely. For his contribution to the reform movement and related areas of typography and letter design he has been awarded an honorary doctorate. (Source)

Ed Rondthaler on English spelling from Bob Smartner on Vimeo.

Scott Berkun teaching how to write by showing his writing about writing

Writing is at the core of the #blogg100 challenge. It is about transforming my ideas into your ideas, by transporting them from my mind onto paper (or screen) and transferring them thenceforth into yours.

Today, I have come across a notable author and speaker Scott Berkun. Come across his site, that is. During the next 48 hours or so, he is offering the world to download his book Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds for free.

You can read about the book and dowload it here.

Scott Berkun – How to write well, instantly, every time is a video by Ignite Seattle on YouTube.

Flags to symbolise languages? Think again!

Symbols are culture dependent. A little worn-out example is that a cow bears a different symbolic value in India than in Europe. Our understanding of what a symbol represents is also dependent on time. An arrow denoting movement is as topical today as it was thousands of years ago. Some other signs, in the manner they were used once, have become obsolete. It is just a matter of time before a floppy disk discontinues being equivalent to saving a document in Microsoft Word, one might think. It is still present in 2013, for lack of a better symbol, I suppose.

Symbols are fascinating. They do not barely bear a meaning—they represent and recreate it. An image of a tree represents a tree. Sometimes, it stands for growth. Depending on context and author’s intention, it can also signify nourishment, strength, life, or health.

One of the most common symbols on the web is a flag. Flags are used to help users pick their country of residence in an online form. They can also be used by users to choose a preferred language of a site. The problem is that it is in some cases impossible to tie a language to a country that the flag is to symbolise. And it has little to do with the world having become a global village.

Here is a simple example. You are building a website in four languages: English, Spanish, French and Russian. For the English version of the site, you pick the flag of the UK, for the Spanish version—the flag of Spain, for the French—of France, and for the Russian—the flag of Russia. Now, consider this. Should you be guided by the country the language originated in or by the country that the language is most widely spoken in, to denote a flag for you to pick? Are there other factors that affect the choice of a country, like a percentual contrast between the number of first-language inhabitants in two countries?

Neither of the four languages is easy to pick a country flag for, without offending certain groups of people. The issue here is some people (myself included) would not identify themselves with a country when picking a language of preference to view a website in. There are plenty of first-language speakers of Russian, French or Spanish who might have never set their foot within the borders of the respective country in the example above. And if we choose the flag of the UK, what are our grounds for not choosing the flag of the USA or Australia, where English is the de facto language?

As argued by several respected people in the web and usability industry, I, too, recommend using the best symbol for a language there is to date—the name of the language in the language itself. After all, it is something anyone speaking the language can understand, even if they live in different countries.

Further reading:

Assumptions about content and context

Always readily and all too often without grounds, I assume things. For example, I assume that the readers of this blog post are proficient in the English language enough to understand what I’ve written. Some of my assumptions have been proven wrong or even plain broken before. I am certain though that I am not the only one with the experience.

One of the things I assume right now is that I can prove that you do not need to know a language to understand the meaning of a phrase. My premise is that if content is king, then his queen’s name is context. The nagging can’t-live-with-or-without-her queen. Context defines, refines and represents content in the marvelous light, just like a queen completes her king.

Here’s the example. Here are seven words in the Russian language:

Понедельник, вторник, среда, четверг, пятница, суббота, воскресенье.

Now, if you do not read or understand Russian, is there a way for you to know the meaning of these words? (Without any translation help, of course.)

What if I abbreviated the words like this? Would it give you any hint?

П.

В.

С.

Ч.

Пт.

Сб.

Вс.

Let me give you another hint. Maybe this will help?

П. 10:00-12:00

В. 9:00-12:00

С. 10:00-13:00

Ч. 8:00-11:00

Пт. 9:00-11:00

Сб. закрыто

Вс. закрыто

The seven words and their abbreviations as content did not change their meaings. Just like the fact of king being king that does not change whether you know it or not. At first, the content was empty to you, provided you were not familiar with it. The meaning of the seven words could not produce any effect.

Not so if you add some context adorning its neck. What changed throughout the three parts of my example was context. It brings out the beauty of content and makes you connect with the king on a new level.

You might argue that the assumption I made (that I could prove you did not need to know the language to understand what a phrase meant) was lame: take a word or phrase in a language you don’t know, and you are left with an appliance without a manual – you can guess what it’s for, but if you’ve never used it before, it’s to no benefit for you. Absolutely, that’s exactly what my point is. Without knowing what an axe is for, you can end up using it for the wrong purpose – cooking an axe soup or porridge will ruin your axe and leave your stomach empty.

Yes, I assume things. I do, because assumptions help me stop treading water and move on. They enable me to glance past the used-to, mundane and common-place. I believe using assumptions as a tool is legitimate – however, throwing them as a spanner in the works isn’t.

Acronyms and context

There’s something about shortening of words that makes my heart beat faster. The subgroups of abbreviation, (grammatical) contractions and acronyms, aren’t less of a trigger for my linguistically inclined mind to reel. Isn’t our language more beautiful with morpheme likes of Ms, Blvd, Interpol and HTML?

Definitions first. Abbreviation is a shortening of a word by any kind of means. Contraction is omitting some of the letters or syllables and drawing together other parts of a word (Ms, Dr, let’s, o’clock). Acronym is a shortening of a phrase formed by the initial components in a phrase or a word (HTML, AD, NATO).

If used correctly, or rather consequently and in a mindful manner, abbreviations are a powerful tool in both written and spoken communication. All too often, I come across problematic usage of abbreviations in texts. Usually, it’s acronyms that get misused.

The most obvious, and unfortunately most common, problem I see is using acronyms without providing any context for your readers. It results in segregation – though your text is publicly available, only the “elect” understand your reference to an acronym. It would not be that big of a problem, of course, if an acronym had only one meaning and it could easily be found an online acronym finder.

So, please, provide some context the next time you decide to use an acronym. Don’t assume your readers are familiar with your subject as much as you are. I assure you, the results will definitely be greater than the effort you put into making your message clear (IMHO).

Spelling is hard

“Its not easy to know how too spell words, you know? Their are just to many off them two remember. It is much easier if your studying language or something, of coarse. But the rest of us don’t have the time to think about languidge day in and day out. I mean, hey, its not like I wood loose my job, if I spelt words incorrectly, is it? I know its definately not true. Weather I spell words correctly or not can’t have affect on my relationship with my boss anywho. Were buddies. I like my boss. Alot.”

This post is inspired by The Oatmeal’s comic and Paddy Donnelly’s article.