October 23, 2006

The seventh question

I recall being taught in elementary school that a newspaper article is supposed to answer six questions. Some things have changed since I was a kid, and the most important one is the internet. So I'd like to suggest that the traditional list of six should be expanded to seven: who, what, where, when, why, how and URL. For all I know, those traditional six questions are the journalistic equivalent of the Eskimos' snow words, so let me put it more directly: reporters and editors, give me the *!%&@ URLs!

I thought of this when I read an article by Larry Rohter in today's New York Times ("At Long Last, a Neglected Language is Put on a Pedestal" 10/23/2006), about a new Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paolo. The article's lede:

More people speak Portuguese as their native language than French, German, Italian or Japanese. So it can rankle the 230 million Portuguese speakers that the rest of the world often views their mother tongue as a minor language and that their novelists, poets and songwriters tend to be overlooked.

An effort is being made here in the largest city in the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking country to remedy that situation. The Museum of the Portuguese Language, with multimedia displays and interactive technology, recently opened here, dedicated to the proposition that Portuguese speakers and their language can benefit from a bit of self-affirmation and self-advertisement.

Along with the multimedia displays and interactive technology, I bet that the museum has a web site. Unfortunately, Rohter's article doesn't give it to us.

Luckily, the first Google hit for {"museum of the portuguese language"} is the Wikipedia article on "Portuguese language". This article also includes the answer to one of the six traditional questions that Rohter's article also doesn't answer, namely when:

In March of 2006, the Museum of the Portuguese Language, an interactive museum about the Portuguese language, was founded in São Paulo, Brazil, the city with the largest number of Portuguese speakers in the world. [emphasis added]

(I guess that seven months ago is "recently", if you're thinking about the time course of language change...)

The link takes us to the Wikipedia site for the museum itself, where we also learn the answer to another of the traditional six questions, namely what -- or at least the Portuguese name of the museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa) -- as well as some interesting information about who that is also lacking in the NYT article:

The idea for the museum came from Ralph Appelbaum, who also developed the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and the fossil room of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The architectural project was undertaken by Brazilian father-son duo Paulo and Pedro Mendes da Rocha. The director of the museum is sociologist Isa Grinspun Ferraz, who coordinated a team of thirty Portuguese language specialists for the museum. The artistic director is Marcello Dantas.

This is perhaps more information than an American newspaper article really needs, especially one whose focus is the Portuguese language as much as the museum itself. However, you'd think that American and especially NYC audiences would be interested in the role of Ralph Appelbaum, whose credits also include the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the United States Capitol Visitor Center, and the Newseum.

Given how easy it was to find the relevant links via Google and the Wikipedia, I guess I shouldn't complain that of the five hyperlinks in the (online version of the) NYT article, four are distracting and irrelevant (George Bernard Shaw, Brown University, the United Nations, and "Nobel laureate"), while one is of marginal relevance (Brazil). And for similar reasons, perhaps I shouldn't complain that the only semi-concrete piece of information in the article about the Portuguese language is this:

The issue is not just the contrast between the mellifluous, musical accent of Brazil — “Portuguese with sugar,” in the words of the 19th-century realist Eça de Queiroz — and the clipped, almost guttural sound in Portugal. There are also marked differences in usage that have traditionally led to misunderstandings and provided fodder for jokes.

In Portugal, for example, a word for a line (the waiting kind) is to Brazilians a derogatory slang term for a homosexual. A Portuguese word for a man’s suit of clothes means a fact or piece of information in Brazil.

If you're going to tell us about accents, how about a sidebar with audio clips? And if you're going to tell us about usage differences, how about telling us what the actual words are?

The Wikipedia article on Portuguese offers an interesting display that helps give readers a quick sense of the diversity among Romance languages:

In spite of the obvious lexical and grammatical similarities between Portuguese and other Romance languages outside the West Iberian branch, it is not mutually intelligible with them to any practical extent. Portuguese speakers will usually need some formal study of basic grammar and vocabulary, before being able to understand even the simplest sentences in those languages (and vice-versa):

Ela fecha sempre a janela antes de jantar. (Portuguese)
Ela fecha sempre a fiestra antes de cear. (Galician)
Ella cierra siempre la ventana antes de cenar. (Spanish)
Ella tanca sempre la finestra abans de sopar. (Catalan)
Lei chiude sempre la finestra prima di cenare. (Italian)
Ea închide întodeauna fereastra înainte de a cina. (Romanian)
Elle ferme toujours la fenêtre avant de dîner. (French)
She always shuts the window before dining.

Something similar could have been done for the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese.

Anyhow, one of Ralph Appelbaum's other designs, the Newseum, is an interesting and perhaps relevant case. According to its Wikipedia page,

The world’s first interactive museum of news, the Newseum, opened in Rosslyn, Virginia in Arlington County, on April 18, 1997. Its stated mission is "to help the public and the news media understand one another better". In five years, the Newseum became an internationally recognized attraction, drawing more than 2.25 million visitors and receiving some critical acclaim for its exhibits and programs. The plaudits, however, were not universal. Thomas Frank wrote a particularly scathing review in his 2000 book, One Market Under God:

Maybe Arlington is where journalism has come to die, in a place as distant as could be found from the urban maelstrom and the rural anger that once nourished it, within easy reach of the caves of state, sunk deep in the pockets of corporate power, here where busloads of glassy-eyed, well-dressed high schoolers from the affluent suburbs of Virginia can play anchorman on its grave.

In 2000, Freedom Forum leadership determined that the best way to increase the impact and to appeal to much larger audiences would be by moving the Newseum across the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. The original Newseum was closed on March 3, 2002 in order to allow its staff to concentrate on building the new, larger museum.
After obtaining a landmark location at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, the design of the building and its exhibits became the focus. The Newseum Board selected noted exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum, who had designed the original Newseum in Arlington, Virginia, and architect James Stewart Polshek, who designed the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to work on the new project.

The new Newseum is still under construction, but the artists' renderings suggest that it'll be a grand edifice:

And the way things are going, maybe they should rename it the Newsoleum.

Meanwhile, the Wikipedia also gave me the URL of the web site for the Museu da Língua Portuguesa. It's a nice short one: http://www.estacaodaluz.org.br.

[I should add that the museum's web site is disappointing -- there are very few good websites on varieties of language, and this is not one of them. But that's a topic for another post.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 23, 2006 06:03 AM