Coca-Cola's multilingual "America the Beautiful"

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The Super Bowl may have been a lackluster blowout this year, but the commercials provided an opportunity to inflame the passions of some viewers. Coca-Cola ran a commercial with a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful," with languages including English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew.

It might seem like an innocuous marketing gimmick signaling cultural inclusivity, from the company that brought us "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." Multilingual marketing appears to be getting popular these days — witness the version of "Let It Go" from the Disney movie Frozen encompassing 25 languages, including Catalan, Cantonese, and Flemish. But that kind of public display of linguistic diversity still frightens or offends some people, especially when a patriotic song like "America the Beautiful" is given the polyglot treatment. For a sampling of the more extreme reactions on Twitter, see Deadspin, Salon, Huffington Post, and Time.

All of this gives me flashbacks to 2006. In advance of that year's Super Bowl, I wrote a post about a Toyota commercial featuring Spanish-English code-switching. (The ad was for a hybrid, of course.) While that commercial wasn't particularly controversial, a few months later there was a big political kerfuffle over a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, "Nuestro Himno." Language Log covered that controversy here, here, here, and here.

If you'd like to avoid reading the boneheaded "Speak English!" comments on Twitter, you could instead sample some of the videos that Coca-Cola made about the commercial. There's a behind-the-scenes video about the young female singers, as well as standalone renditions in each of the languages featured (and a couple — Mandarin and Arabic — that apparently didn't make the cut): Spanish, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, Hebrew, Mandarin, Keres Pueblo, and Arabic. Oh, and English.

Update: And here's Jon Stewart's take on all of this.

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40 Comments »

  1. Yuval said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    OMG, that was supposed to be Hebrew in the end?

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 6:29 am

    What language is the lady with the hijab (head scarf) singing? I could hear no Arabic which is what I would have expected although most Muslims are not Arabs and, I suppose, not all head coverers are Muslim.

  3. Joseph F Foster said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    We Louisianais have had a French version of la Banière Êtoilée for many many decades; how far back it goes I don't know.

    And there is one State among the 50 whose National Anthem > State Hymn is never so far as I am aware sung in English. The National Anthem of the Kingdom and State of Hawai'i is Hawai'i Pono'i, lyrics composed by His Majesty King David Kalākaua and music composed by the Royal Bandmaster.

    It is sung only in Hawai'ian, even by people from the Mainland.

  4. Christopher Sundita said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    The Filipino-American community, for the most part, seems to appreciate the inclusion of Tagalog in Coca-Cola's ad. However, the lyrics were poorly translated, and people have been poking fun at that.

    The part the Filipina girl sang was supposed to be a translation of "above the fruited plains," but what she sang in Tagalog was "sa ibabaw ng mga prutas," which in English translates to "on top of fruits."

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    For a long list of negative tweets and Facebook posts, see e.g. "Speak English!", Public Shaming 2/2/2014. As often noted, many English-only partisans seem to have a hard time with the norms of English spelling. But a surprising number of literate wingers were also outraged…

  6. Craig said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    "America the Beautiful" sung in a bunch of different languages? You'd think this was, like, a country of immigrants or something. How un-American! :)

  7. Craig said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    Oh, and speaking of "foreign languages"… An older man I used to work with grew up in New Mexico and had a friend who was a Navajo. During WW2, his Navajo friend got called up to the Selective Service board to be evaluated for the military draft. One of the questions they asked him was, "Do you speak any foreign languages?" He replied, "Yes — English."

  8. GeorgeW said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    Did Coca-Cola not realize that this would be controversial? If they did, I wonder if they intended to appeal to a particular market and were willing to sacrifice another.

  9. Joe said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    @GeorgeW: "Did Coca-Cola not realize that this would be controversial?"

    60% of Coca Cola's revenue comes from international markets and it's growing. On top of that, the controversy's generating a lot of Internet comments (such as this one) which takes this ad's appeal from a regional forum to a global one. Allen West may be disturbed by this, but he's doing what Coca Cola wanted in the first place – free publicity on the Internet.

  10. B.BarNavi said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    As a born and raised American and native Mandarin speaker, I couldn't for the life of me decipher the "Mandarin" girl's super-American accent.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    The classic "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad stands perhaps for a somewhat different multiculturalist proposition – namely, the thesis that no matter how exotic looking they may be, no matter what country's passport they may bear, everyone in the world is fully capable of functioning in English if it's in their self-interest to do so.

  12. Avi Jacobson said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

    Yuval, yeah it's Hebrew but I wish they had found someone without such a heavy American accent. If you listen carefully (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHVYp3lt378), you can make out some of it:

    הוי יפת שמיים רחבים
    וגלי
    (unintelligble)
    דגן…

    The only Hebrew that made it into the commercial sounds like
    ורק טובך יכתיר אותך

    The Arabic sounds much better. Too bad it didn't make it into the commercial.

  13. Craig said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

    Reading all these remarks about how the foreign languages are spoken with an American accent makes me wonder if that's actually intentional. Perhaps the idea is not that these are people "fresh off the boat", so to speak (and I don't mean that in a negative way), but the American-born children of immigrants, who know their family's traditional language but don't speak it as a native would. The American accents would thus indicate people who still are in touch with their traditional cultures but who are partly assimilated (which is part of the point of describing the US as a "melting pot" rather than, say, a smorgasbord). Maybe I'm giving the ad agency too much credit for subtlety, but it's an interesting thought.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    @Craig – could be, although could also be an artifact of path-of-least-resistance casting by people not themselves capable of judging the issue. I know an Iranian-American who quite enjoyed the Argo movie except for the fact that all the Farsi dialogue by the "Iranian" characters in the recreated Tehran-in-'79 was done by actors who: a) knew Farsi quite well; but b) had obviously (based on accent) learned their Farsi growing up in Los Angeles. By "obviously" I mean, of course, obvious to an Iranian-American with good L2 command of Farsi who can accordingly distinguish between an old-country accent and a Southern California accent, which I (and presumably the overwhelming majority of the movie's viewers) certainly could not.

  15. David Conrad said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    I listened to the ad several times and, although I speak some French, I couldn't catch any of the languages other than English. I searched around quite a bit looking for a list of the different languages in the ad. I saw Hindi mentioned, and, listening again, I could pick up the Hindi (I mean, I could detect it. Not understand it. I don't speak Hindi.) But although I could find plenty of criticism of the ad, and plenty of criticism of that criticism, I couldn't find a simple list of the different languages. At one point in my search, I actually said to myself, "I know I'm going to end up on Language Log". And here I am! And you have the list! Thank you.

  16. Henrison Hsieh said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    @Christopher: They seem to have picked the worst-translated of the lines from the Tagalog version as well, if the "full" Tagalog video is any indication.

    And based on what little French I know, it seems that it's the second to the last language (between Hindi and what I assume is Hebrew). I think the line is "de la mer et la mer brillant", although the "r"s sound like alveolar trills.

  17. Graeme said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

    Ah. Coke. 'When you want to feel repressed / when you're thirsting for the West…'
    The one universal language.

    Worth a $4m spot had they rendered 'God sheds his grace on thee' into Arabic.

  18. Movenon said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    As expected, this multilingual ad has just been criticized by a Fox News commentator, who said, among other things, "It wasn't the French national anthem, or the Mexican national anthem; it was America the Beautiful. It should have been in English," and "I'm worried for our country's future." lol

    unfortunately, I'm being serious. just saw it on TV.

  19. Nikesh said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    I am born and raised American and heavy Hindi speaker. And like many critics here, I too could not pick any hindi words in this indian girl's super-American accent. in fact, even the Hindi behind the scene was soooo hard to pick any hindi word! Wasted ad.

  20. Marcos said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 12:24 am

    The ones I heard were (or seemed to be):

    1. English (O beautiful for spacious skies)
    2. Spanish (Por tus bolas de granos ambar)
    3. Keres
    4. Tagalog (Sa ibabaw ng mga prutas)
    5. English (America, America God shed His grace on thee)
    6. Hindi
    7. French (de la mer a la mer brillant)
    8. Hebrew

    As mentioned in the post, it looks like there were a couple that didn't make the cut – Arabic and Chinese.

  21. Marcos said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 12:27 am

    Also, with regards to the Mandarin speaking singer having a "super American accent"… am I the only one who thought it was odd that out of all the individual language videos, she had the only one where they don't show her speaking on camera? I am a non-Mandarin speaker and assumed the awkward long shots of her just smiling at the camera and then the fact that they had a disembodied little girl's voice say a sentence at the end meant that the singer did not speak English. If her accent is super American though, I'm now wondering what the real explanation is for all that weirdness

  22. Jessie said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    That's very funny :-)

    The Spanish text is not "por tus bolas de granos ambar" as stated above. That could mean "for your balls of amber-colored grains", but it can also mean "for your testicles with amber-colored pimples" :-)

    While it's not very easy to hear it well in the song, it's much more likely that the text is "por tus OLAS de granos ambar".

  23. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    "por tus olas de granos de ambar…"

  24. ThomasH said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

    Even "Por tus olas (not bolas) de grano ambar" is a ridiculously literal translation. Something about campiñas doradas would have been better.

  25. yt said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

    As a native Mandarin (and English) speaker, the only word I could pick out was 亞美利加 (which sounded more like 阿美利加), meaning America. I couldn't pick out anything else.

    Then I found the translated lyrics to 美麗的阿美利加 (zh.wikipedia) and listened again looking at the lyrics and it finally made sense. And it sounds beautiful! It also turns out the translated lyrics has 阿美利加 instead of 亞美利加 for America.

    I wonder how much of the "super American accent" that we're detecting is due to constraining a tonal language to a melody that was originally written for a song with English lyrics. I don't know if the translated lyrics are just for understanding the lyrics or for singing. I've often surmised that if a Mandarin song does not have well-matched melody and lyrics (as in a melody that somewhat preserves the original tone of the words), the song is almost impossible to understand (the melody takes over, and one can't pick out the words in the lyrics), or the words sound grating and seem to be fighting the melody.

  26. thomas said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

    Y'all might appreciate this translation into Aramaic.

    (…, ie, as Jesus would have sung it)

  27. amsterdam said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 12:06 am

    I agree that it felt good hearing Tagalog sung in one of the lines but it could have been more aptly translated. While it is true that a word-for-word translation could be a challenge, may I suggest "above the fruited plains" be translated to "namumungang kapatagan" or "masaganang kapatagan" rather than "sa ibabaw ng mga prutas" which means "on top of the fruits".

  28. Bing said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    Thanks yt for the link. For me, the reason only the "America, America" part of the mandarin lyrics is intelligible is the rest of the translations use very obscure (poetic?) language. More so than the tones, it's the force-fitting into the original's number of syllables. I'd wager that a Mandarin-only speaker would have to think about the lyrics to get its meaning.

  29. Nausher Ahmed said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 2:22 am

    Adding Hindi translation to all that Marcos posted and also adding Avi Jacobson's Hebrew translation for a consolidated version, with the original English lyrics besides them –

    1. English (O beautiful for spacious skies)
    O beautiful for spacious skies,

    2. Spanish (Por tus olas de granos ámbar)
    For amber waves of grain,

    3. Keres (??)
    (??)

    4. Tagalog (Sa ibabaw ng mga prutas)
    Above the fruited plain!

    5. English (America! America! God shed His grace on thee,)
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee,

    6. Hindi – Aur bhaichare ke saath Taj tera chhaye(?)
    And crown thy good with brotherhood

    7. French (de la mer à la mer brillant)
    From sea to shining sea (??)

    8. Hebrew – ורק טובך יכתיר אותך
    And crown thy good with brotherhood (??)

    (?) – indicates doubtful word
    (??) – indicates doubtful lyrics or translation

  30. ec said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    above the fruited plain~in my understanding means profound or bountiful land,and in my opinion the filipino version it was translated literaly.

  31. dw said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    Well, I think I detected तेरा (terā, "thy") as the penultimate word of the Hindi line. But could be wrong :)

  32. dw said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    Whoops — didn't see that Nausher Ahmed had already covered it…

  33. Aston said,

    February 6, 2014 @ 12:29 am

    Each language has its own different version. I appreciate the tagalog version (as for me being a filipino). However combining all of them together is like mixing coffee, gravy, milkshake and honey. :D

    above all coca cola has a good motive on doing this so why complain?
    if you can make an ad like this then you can complain.

  34. Grad student said,

    February 6, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    I'm pretty sure that the Hindi is saying:

    और भाईचारा के साथ आज दे रक्षा,
    which I suppose can be translated as

    'And protect us today with brotherhood', which is a reasonably idiomatic translation of 'and crown thy good with brotherhood'.

    That said, it's *possible*, though I hope unlikely that what is actually said is:

    और भाईचारा के साथ ताज दे रक्षा

    which would be rather strained, and deeply ironic, as it would instead be: 'And may the crown protect us with brotherhood' – a rather monarchical sentiment.

  35. davidclinton said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    I enjoyed the song, with all of its translations. Our country is beautiful, and its beauty and values transcend any one language.

    As for the "English only" critics of the song, I will be that most will also consider themselves to be strict constructionists of our constitution. However, the founders were silent on the question of an official language.

    America is beautiful in any language.

  36. Sdq said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    My initial reaction is that why sing it in different languages, but after a while, it grew in me and finally I said, " why not?" Coke knew it would be controversial but I think it was delivered with all the good intentions.
    Note also that most of the ads that was aired were a bit of liberal tune. Could it be because Seattle, which is probably one of the most liberal cities in the country is the target audience.
    I wonder what the ads would have been if the Cowboys or the Texans played….

  37. Philip said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    And I made it into a quiz! :)
    http://www.sporcle.com/games/wingless_angel31/america-the-beautiful-languages-super-bowl-2014-ad

  38. Philip said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    Thanks for the Tagalog and the Hebrew — I was just missing those two. Had everything else. :)

  39. Colin Fine said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    I'm surprised to have seen no comments along the lines of Keres being a real American language.

  40. Tamakia Petty said,

    July 23, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    Keres is the language from the Pueblo people.

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