A follow-up to yesterday's post on Barack Obama's half-Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. There's a difference of opinion about how to pronounce her name, or at least the Ng part (taken from her husband, Konrad Ng). The "real" pronunciation of Ng is a syllabic velar nasal [ŋ̩]. Westernized versions of the name insert an initial vowel, but which one? When she was introduced at the Democratic National Convention last night, the announcer said [ɪŋ], as can be heard in this YouTube clip. But when John Roberts interviewed her earlier today for CNN's "American Morning," he said [εŋ]. So does the Filipino American anchor for New America Now here, but this Hawaiian host says [ɪŋ]. And Soetoro-Ng herself? In this clip, and this one, it sounds like she says [ɪŋ], or perhaps [ɨŋ]. So let's go with [ɪŋ].
While I was trawling YouTube, I came across an interesting linguistic — or rather metalinguistic — moment caught on video. In this clip, at an appearance in Maui last February, Soetoro-Ng talks about her (and Barack Obama's) mother, Ann Dunham, who married Lolo Soetoro and moved with him to Indonesia soon after the nation's darkest chapter, the bloody anti-Communist purges of 1965-66. Here is her account (starting at about 4:00 in the video):
She met my father, and in 1965 Indonesia was going through a very tumultuous time politically, and he was called back, he was on government grants, so she found herself in Indonesia. She found — came across all these unmarked graveyards, because the streets had been filled with blood. It was sort of like the 1950s, there was this big anti-Communist witch hunt in Indonesia, and people were being killed right and left. Anyway, she didn't know what had happened, because there's this Indonesian phrase, diam dalam seribu bahasa. It means, "to be silent in a thousand languages."
The expression Soetoro-Ng uses is quite fitting to describe the culture of silence that still shrouds the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia. See, for instance, "History, Memory, and the '1965 Incident' in Indonesia," (Asian Survey, 42(4):564-581, 2002) by Mary S. Zurbuchen — who, as it happens, was a friend and colleague of Ann Dunham in Indonesia. (Zurbuchen recalls Dunham's work for the Ford Foundation in Jakarta in this Time Magazine profile.)
So Barack Obama has a half-sister versed in Indonesian figures of speech (regardless of Barack's own proficiency in Indonesian). Not only that, he has another half-sister, on his father's side, who is trained in Germanic languages and linguistics. According to Spiegel Online, Auma Obama studied at University of Heidelberg's Neuphilologische Fakultät before continuing her graduate work at University of Bayreuth in the Interkulturelle Germanistik program. Her dissertation was on literary reflections of the concept of labor. It's a fascinating extended clan, though you'd never know it watching the Democratic Convention's genericized depiction of the Obamas as an "all-American family."