Friday, October 15, 2004

Back to life, with Te Reo thoughts and a Billion 7500G wireless setup too!

It's been some time (OK, six months) since the last post, and pressure of work is as good an excuse as any to plead.

On the equipment front, the trusty but dusty D-Link DSL-500 has been tossed and a Billion 7500G wireless set-up substituted. With the addition of a work machine, we found ourselves with 3 Centrino laptops and lots of cables, so it was a natural choice. The selection process was aided by a marvellous Oz site which, together with the Whirlpool forums convinced me to steer well clear of Telecom's D-Link offering (the DSL-G604T+). The Billion worked out of the box, and I've added MAC address filtering plus port filtering to secure things. WEP and/or WPA to follow, but these are a bit trickier...

Another idealistic article recently in the NZ Listener from a writer who spends time in Quebec, about how golly gosh wunnerful it would be if we mandated a dual-language labelling regime here in Helengrad. I half-penned a letter to the editor, then realised, WFT, just do it here. Less constraints, more to the point, quicker. Here's the unbowdlerised version.

Barbara Burstyn's article on 'With language comes understanding', urges an enforced dual-language environment for New Zealand - English and Maori.

She bases her argument on the English/French admixture in Quebec. This will reap a rich harvest of unintended consequences if implemented.

Burstyn's comparison of English and French is instructive: both have common roots, and shared equally in the explosion of knowledge and the application thereof, that have provided us with our modern world. After all, the native speakers of each, are only 20 minutes now apart by EuroStar and half a day in a boat apart, for the rest of recorded history. One would be very surprised indeed if such close linguistic cousins were not able to co-exist in a mandated dual-language area.

But French and English are not at all like Maori and English. And Burstyn's choice of this particular pairing, obscures the issues.

To take the two most serious: the economic impact, glossed over in her article with the phrase 'importers and manufacturers of everything consumed..would be affected'. Let's think that one through. Every large supermarket carries around 20-30,000 SKU's. Every one of those would have to be dual-language labelled, and not just with a cosmetic transliteration: a heavy-duty, tested, completely up-to-date translation which would stand up to, for example, product liability legal challenges.

Supermarkets are a small fraction of the commercial environment.To use an analogy - suppose Melbourne (Australia, look on a map, around the same population size as the whole of NZ at say 4 million) had it's own native language. Let's call it Melburnian. What chance would it have, as a single city, of pursuading every supplier to supply Melburnian labels, workshop and training manuals, price lists, Web sites, credit card imprints, tram passes and street signs? Suppliers would simply decamp to Sydney, Brisbane or Perth and a thriving cross-state under-the-counter market in monolingual goods would rapidly ensue.

But by far the most damaging consequence of the enforced labelling regime would be for the Maori language itself. It's 'taonga' (treasure) status rests entirely on the fact that it is one of the very few pre-scientific and pre-literate languages to have survived alongside a global language. It has sufficient speakers and enough political wind pressure behind it to keep it alive in some form.

But to offer it up as a serious commercial partner to English in the manner suggested is daft. The Maori language is pure oratory, oral history, and essential if elemnetary survival knowledge. It is completely devoid of all Western scientific, engineering, mathematical and literature-based terms, concepts and context - elements which were themselves some 2,500 years in the making. It could not have been otherwise, and that is it's distinctiveness.

To attempt what Bursytn suggests would be to subject this survivor language to massive change. Just to translate, in legally acceptable terms, one line of the label before me on a bottle of milk: 'Calcium - 280mg per 200ml - 35% of the recommended daily intake' into Maori, is to require the importation of the Periodic Table, the metric system, and the mathematical concepts of fractions. And in their full sense, not just a 'William-to-Wiremu' makeover of word sounds without the concepts to underpin them. It is hard to imagine (something Burstyn seems to do a lot, in her article, BTW) that this would not fundamentally alter the Maori language by overwhelming it with neologisms and, in the truest sense of the word, 'foreign' concepts.

It is certainly possible to force such a change in the language, by mandating it and thus opening the valve to the flood of new terms, concepts, sounds, and their written equivalents. But it is certain that the Maori language which resulted from that process would bear very little resemblance to that existing now.

Somehow, I don't think that's what Burstyn imagined could happen.

But then, idealists rarely have to worry about the details. Wherein the devils reside.