Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Language of Flags - DC

Above, the distinctive flag of the District of Columbia. Its stars and stripes evoke the US (federal) flag, but most descriptions say the DC flag design derives from the coat of arms of George Washington's family (see here for more on the flag's origins).

Here's the Washington family shield as it appears in 14th-century stained glass on a window in Selby Abbey, Yorkshire (England). In proper heraldic vocabulary, these design motifs should be designated as "mullets and bars" and not "stars and stripes" (see the last section of this page). For more about the Washington Window at Selby Abbey, see here. For an extensive website exploring the rich legacy of Washington's arms in American culture, see here.

I was trying to find out more about the symbolism of the DC flag but the website on DC symbols wasn't that informative. For what it's worth, I have heard somewhere (was it on a Capitol tour?) that the three stars represent the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and bars symbolize equality. This could be an urban legend or even some sort of ironic political commentary - since DC residents lack equal legislative representation in Congress (i.e., DC has no voting representative). For more on the DC voting rights issue and how the flag is used on both sides of the issue, see this alternate version of the DC flag and this DC license plate).

Creative Logo (Department of Transportation)

Today I spotted this logo on a construction vehicle as workers were repaving part of the street. The logo bears the DC flag, and below a lower-case "d" and a punctuation mark (period). District Department of Transportation = D-DOT. Get it? (This logo also appears on the D-DOT website.) Capitol Hill.

(For another use of the DC flag, see this license plate.)
[Added Oct 1, 2010] Just noticed this brand new solar trash compactor (yes, this is what DC tax dollars pay for!) at Eastern Market. A snazzier version of the D-DOT logo superimposed upon a DC flag (colors reversed) and a map indicating the shape of the District.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

As the Old Sing, So the Young Twitter

I was mildly disappointed when I walked into the Library of Congress to discover that this exhibition is NOT about social media. Instead, "As the Old Sing, So the Young Twitter" explores the long-standing relationship between human music-making (via flute instruments) and birdsong. If you happen to be walking by the LOC Madison Building, it's worth a look. Exhibition ends October 30, 2010.

German, American, and Chinese Poems (Community)

I've walked passed the Goethe-Institut in Chinatown many times (see an earlier post), but usually I keep on walking. A few days ago, something caught my eye: these posters displaying German, American, and Chinese poems. These posters are part of "Time Shadows," an annual competition that features poems from each culture. The theme for 2010 is "Community."

This Chinese poem by a poet from Taiwan is entitled 望夫石 ("Husband-Gazing Stone"). The German translation states that this poem concerns "die Legende von der Ehefrau, die so lange nach ihrem verschollenen Ehemann Ausschau hielt, bis sie sich in einen Stein verwandelte" [the legend of a wife who kept watch for her missing husband for so long that she transformed into a stone]. You can read the poem and its English and German translations at this website.

I found this excerpt from the work of an American poet particularly interesting. This poem, entitled "Locals," reminds us that all of our ancestors ultimately come from "somewhere else," displacing whoever was there before. The poem offers an insightful commentary on the ever-shifting nature of  community and the constant migration of people over time and space. The final 2 stanzas in the original English text read as follows:

Bedouin-Brython-Algonquins; always there
before you; the original prior claim
that made your being anywhere intrusive.
There, doubtless, in Eden before Adam
wiped them out and settled in with Eve.

Whether at home or away, whether kids
playing or saying what they wanted,
or adults chatting, waiting for a bus,
or, in their well-tended graves, the contented dead,
there were always locals, and they were never us.

See this website for the entire poem in English, plus translations in Chinese and German.

For a poem from the "Time Shadows 2009" competition (the theme was "City Life"), see this earlier post or this website.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Formosa Betrayed" Poster

Poster for the political thriller "Formosa Betrayed" = 出賣的台灣. The verb 出賣 (chū mài) = to sell out or betray. Although the Chinese text uses the name "Taiwan" (台灣 in traditional script), the name in the English movie title is "Formosa," from the Portuguese name given to the island ("Ilha Formosa" = beautiful island). February 2010, Foggy Bottom.

Logic (Chinatown)

Logik = 邏輯 ("luó ji," which means "logic"). Very logical. November 2009.

Synagogue to Church (Judeo-Christian Palimpsest)

The building now known as the Tried Stone Church of Christ was once a synagogue. The Southeast Hebrew Congregation was founded on Capitol Hill by Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1909, and after World War II this house of worship was built. The congregation relocated to Silver Spring, MD in 1971. When the church acquired this property, the new congregation changed the name of the building but retained the Ten Commandments (inscribed in Hebrew) which were part of the original entrance façade.

Above, a photo from early in 2008 before the entrance sign was changed. How fitting that different periods in the building's history are visible in the layers of stone and brick.

P.S. For a more famous appearance of the Ten Commandments in DC, see this post. See also this torah ark.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dog Poop Gallery (Passive Aggressive Signs)

Throughout Capitol Hill, one can find many signs gently reminding dog owners to clean up after their pets. Here's a treasury some of the best ones I've seen, ranked from least to most favorite:

7. This is a classic example of passive-aggressive signage. A cute dog-shaped sign in a calm shade of green subtly guilt-trips the owner who allows his or her dog "let loose" on this lawn.

6. This little "house" goes a step further to induce guilt. We see a pleasant sign, plus a little container that actually contains little dog poop bags. Note that one is NOT supposed to deposit filled bags in here. (Find out more about these pet waste containers and other products on this lovely website!)

5. This attention-grabbing signpost (note the CAPITALIZED RED LETTERS) admonishes unruly dogs -- or rather, their negligent owners.

4. This sign at Lincoln Park serves two purposes: to encourage poop-scooping AND discourage public drinking. For the record, I have never actually witnessed anyone drinking a martini while sitting outdoors in this park.

3. Another attempt at being "friendly" and cute, this time with a cartoon dog holding a pooper scooper. Note the passive-aggressive strategy of reminding the reader of the potential fines (plus penalty, in parentheses - nice touch!) that one could face for not scooping.

2. I like this sign very much.

1. My favorite dog poop sign stands right in front of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Appropriately enough, there's quite a "literary" flair to this sign: not only do we get some unusually authoritative word choice here ("police your dog," rather than a more colloquial "scoop the poop"), but the sequence of verbs also provides an elegant litany of actions: leash, curb, and clean.

Read to your baby

Read to your whatever language you choose. National Book Festival, September 25, 2010.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Txt ad nt so gr8

Shouldn't an ad for graduate study at least use proper grammar and punctuation? Somehow this attempt to appear "cool" via texting lingo doesn't really inspire much confidence. On the metro, September 2010.

London: Sundry Items

Continuing my blog entries beyond DC, I include some things from another capital city: London.

Welcome sign at Gatwick Airport. Unusual choice of languages, among them Swedish, English, and (simplified) Mandarin Chinese. Not sure what those other two languages are.

A selection of newspapers in Bloomsbury. I see papers in English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Norwegian, and (perhaps) Arabic.

Elsewhere in London, some silly ethnic stereotyping. Posters on the walls of various tube stations feature celebrity chef Jaime Oliver promoting different "exotic" cuisines (French, Spanish, Italian).

In Southwark, a warning sign on one of the entrances into a mid-day RSC performance of "the Scottish play" (Macbeth) at the Globe. I don't know if this was intentional, but the adjective "gruesome" has been associated with the Scots origins (the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, cites Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott as some of the earliest quotations). For what it's worth, the verb gruwe(n) does exist in Middle English and the word has even older Germanic origins.

On a side street near the British Library, I spotted this storefront sign. Nice choice for the business name - it signals how the establishment caters to "transvestites, transsexuals, and transgendered" clients (see the website).

This park sign provides many examples supporting the idea that the US and Britain are divided by a common language (click to see larger image). "Whilst" strikes me as a distinctly British usage. Note also "lead" (leash), [trash] "bins" [cans], and "busking" [performing in public places seeking for money - I don't see this term much in the US]. Of course the red "do not X" icons are universal - they work in any language.

I end with this photo I took on the tube (again, click to see larger image). I don't have much to say about it, other than saying I like this poem.

London: Churches and Museums

Various items from churches and museums in London.

This sign for the Chinese Church in London features a nicely stylized form of the Chinese word 華 (huá), which means "China" or "Chinese" in most contexts. Here, a "cross" (or Star of Bethlehem) motif is incorporated into the center of the character.

Near the church, in Chinatown, I saw this poster that teaches children the Pinyin romanization scheme for Chinese. Each sound in Mandarin is assigned a corresponding Roman letter. Most of the words chosen are simple, everyday ideas or objects: 大 (dà) = big, large; 土 (tǔ) = earth, dust. I'm confused by the image for for 你 (nǐ) - I always thought it just mean "you."

St. Dunstan in the West is a church that caters to the demographics of its congregation in a variety of ways. Here, an entrance sign asks visitors to pray for peace (in English, French, German, Russian, Greek, and Romanian). Although the church is Anglican, I noticed many (Greek and Romanian) Orthodox icons and motifs inside. The praying hands are, I suppose, German in origin, after Betende Hände by Albrecht Dürer (c. 1508).

All Hallows by the Tower isn't one of London's most famous churches but it's worth a visit (check out the crypt and the brass rubbing center). Some notable people associated with the church include William Penn (baptized here, 1644) John Quincy Adams (married here, 1797), and Thomas More (beheaded near here, 1535).

The crypt underneath the church allows you to view centuries of treasures. The medieval livery companies of London contributed funds to develop this space to display valued artifacts and documents. Appropriately, a French inscription reads "Conservez ce qu'ont vu vos peres" [Safeguard those things upon which your fathers have looked]. Why French? It's the language medieval guilds used in most of their administrative and civic documents.

There are maritime motifs all throughout the church itself (among other things, there's a Mariners Chapel). This heraldic device is the emblem of the old Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which bore the Latin motto "Per Mare Ubique" [Everywhere By Sea]. What I find most curious is the use of sea horses as supporters for the shield device! Apparently sea horses do appear elsewhere in heraldic insignia but in more imaginative and stylized forms; see this website (scroll to "sea-horse") for other examples.

I end with this curious detail from a medieval comic strip (or "graphic novel") version of the Book of Revelations. This panel depicts Rev. 16:13-16, when the text describes "three unclean spirits like frogs" coming out of the mouth of the False Prophet, Dragon, and Beast. Read (and hear) more about this artwork, with larger image, at this Victoria and Albert Museum website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Paris: English vs. French

Earlier this summer I saw an exhibit in the Musée de l'Armée about the work of Jean Froissart, a medieval historian who wrote extensively about the Hundred Years' War between England and France (a misnomer, since the war actually lasted over 100 years).

Here's the poster for the exhibition. The title translates as "JOHN FROISSART chronicler of the Hundred Years' War." Note the use of red in the title - this follows the medieval practice of rubrication in manuscripts (i.e., using red letters to signal important textual features like titles or section headings). Colors - particularly red and blue - were used in some interesting ways throughout the exhibit as well.

This medieval manuscript shows the King of England (L, dressed in red, with lions) speaking with the King of France (R, dressed in blue, with fleur-de-lis motif). These are traditional heraldic devices/colors associated with the two nations.

The family tree near the start of the exhibit actually uses these heraldic motifs to mark royal family lines (England red, France blue). But look what happens when Henry V of England and French princess Catherine de Valois bear a child: Henry VI is rendered in alternating red and blue. Reminds me of a line in Shakespeare when the English king woos Catherine and suggests that "thou and I" shall bear a "compound...boy, half French, half English" (Henry V, Act 5.2).

The color-coding gets more complicated in the war chronology: events in English history are listed in blue, events in French history are in red, and events in the shared history of the nations are in green.

This little panel describes pieces of armor worn by soldiers during the period. In the center, a nice little riddle about a chain-mail garment (in parallel translation). Not quite sure why they "re-translated" the word "haubergon" in the French but not in the English.

Insofar as English/French relations are concerned, there seems to be a love/hate dynamic throughout the museum as a whole. The displays often stress solidarity between the Allies during World War II (in this context, the English are clearly friends and supporters of the French), but other materials openly mock the English. This satirical poster mocks "les English" on their way to Transvaal (in South Africa). Above, they cry for glory and victory shouting AO YES! Below, they disembark the ships onto the land, seasick and full of "wisky."

P.S. Just noticed in the royal pedigree that "Edouard" is not anglicized to Edward, but Henry is spelled in the English way (in French it would be spelled "Henri"). Weird.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paris: Landmarks, Monuments, Museums

More linguistically-interesting things I saw in Paris.

A monument to peace within view of the Eiffel Tower. I can't tell how well the word "peace" is rendered in all these languages but the Chinese (和平) is at least legible. Not the best execution but well-intentioned. (By the way, I didn't see English anywhere among these languages! Hmmm...)

Louis Braille, inventor of the raised system of dots for the blind, is entombed beneath the Panthéon. This is one of the rare monuments that actively encourages visitors to touch and interact with it: a  bust, electronically illuminated Braille inscriptions, and audio recordings.

A similar installment for the blind can be found in the Pompidou Center. Here the Braille inscription and a textured pattern allow the visitor to appreciate a work of visual art.

Inside the Louvre Museum there's a series of signs that lay down "les règles de l'art" [the rules of art], i.e. what you're forbidden to do inside (e.g. no touching artworks, no flash photography etc.). I like the humorous and non-verbal aspect of these signs:

And, finally, a trilingual notice in the Palace of Versailles:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paris: Neighborhoods (Jewish, Japanese, Latin)

This blog entry goes through a few distinctive neighborhoods in Paris: le Marais (the old Jewish Quarter), le quarter japonais (Japanese Quarter, around la Rue Sainte-Anne), and le quartier latin (Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne - so called because university scholars used to speak Latin).

Here's a typical storefront in the Marais advertising merchandise in Hebrew and French. Incidentally, the word "Librarie" doesn't mean "library" - it means "bookshop" (the French word for library is "bibliotheque").

This excellent restaurant, "l'As du Fallafel," advertises its signature attractions in Hebrew: falafel (פלפל) and shwarma (השאוורמה). It's worth noting that the origin of falafel is disputed; some would claim it is Arab in origin. Whatever its origin, the food is delicious.

A closer view of the take-out order window reveals playing card aces (the word "As" in the restaurant name means "ace") and the motto of the establishment is "Toujour Imité Jamais Égalé" (Always Imitated, Never Equaled) - a nice jab at all the rival restaurants that have opened up nearby.

Along the Rue Sainte-Anne there's a stretch of Japanese restaurants - here's the menu for Naniwa-Ya, which probably has the best Japanese noodle soup I've ever eaten. The Japanese menu reads in the traditional manner, up-down and left-to-right. Oddly, the menu uses the letters YA rather than the kanji (character) 屋 or や (ya).

On one of the walls inside the Sorbonne I saw this sign advertising a photo competition for an international language study program. "No entiendo" is Spanish for "I don't understand," and the French translation ("Je ne comprends pas") is the URL for the website. I find it ironic that the acronym ESL (English as a Second Language) doesn't need any translation.

Inside one of the bathrooms in the university, some pedantic graffiti. One person demands that the maintenance staff replace the hand towels, and another person corrects the first person's grammatical error, correcting "essuies-main" to the proper French form "essuie-mains" (hand-towels).