A Traveling Campaign Slogan

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Imagine my surprise yesterday when (after 21 hours of traveling involving four airports in three countries) I stumbled toward baggage claim in the Tallinn airport and saw a photograph of Barack Obama on the side of a large trash can, next to this legend:

Yes We CAN

Jah Meie Oskame!

I passed the first trash can without quite registering this rather surprising ad; then my brain caught up with my eyes, so I inspected the next trash can carefully, and wrote down the Estonian words. Later I asked one of my kind Estonian hosts what Jah Meie Oskame means — not surprisingly, it means "Yes We Can" — and what the link given on the ad (www.pakendiringlus.ee) was about. Turns out to be an ad for recycling. Not, say, an exhortation to dump the U.S. President in the trash. Whew.

I was too jet-lagged yesterday to register much else, but at the opening reception for the conference — the 12th International Conference on Minority Languages — I learned that the three distinctive lengths of Estonian consonants and vowels are not always indicated in the orthography, and I was told that (some dialect of?) the Finnic language Livonian has FIVE distinctive lengths of consonants and vowels. I think it was Livonian. It was certainly a five-way length distinction in either consonants or vowels, or both. But possibly I merely dreamt this, or maybe they were kidding me. I am very gullible even when I've had some sleep.


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    Your gullibility is just part of your charm.

    I wonder about the use of this expression "jet-lagged". I suspect it often just means "fatigued", with an added fillip of jet-set sophistication. Speaking of which, I just returned from Hawaii, where lengthened vowels appear to have acquired a macron since last I checked.

    Entirely off topic, I have recently encountered, for the first time, an expression "deserves merit", with at least two people, probably British, insisting it is no error. Google finds examples in the low thousands, after I filter out "merit pay", "merit increase", and the like. It notes innumerable movie and record reviews, and even captures San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spouting "This Police Department deserves merit".

  2. J. said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 2:57 am

    Ohhhh – I get it! "Can"!

    Bilingual puns are the best.

  3. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    If you travel east to west or west to east and find yourself in a very different time zone when you arrive at your destination, then you are indeed likely to be jet-lagged, because your body clock won't agree with the local time. If you travel more or less north to south or south to north, there's no jet-lagging. So someone returning directly from (say) Alexandria to Tallin couldn't claim to be jet-lagged, merely fatigued. But from North America to Tallin, yes, jet-lagging is to be expected.
    As for "deserves merit", I think it's just elliptical. "Merit" here simply means recognition of merit.
    I can't imagine five-way distinctions in length. In Maori the word "kaka" has four different meanings depending on length of the vowels: both short, both long, or one short and one long. So if we imagine that "kaka" in Estonian might have five different possible lengths for each vowel and each consonant, how many possible words are there? Granted none of them might exist in Estonian, but that's not the point. How many could exist?
    I have heard Estonian spoken (by Arvo Pärt in a television program). Apart from a very few international words, it was TOTALLY incomprehensible.

  4. roger said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    Estonian has three phonemic lengths based on syllable length and syllable weight. Phonetically vowels can be undershort, short, half-long, long and overlong (dialectally also underlong), but phonemically only short, long and overlong. The three distinctive lengths are only indicated for plosives: e.g. mägi 'mountain' (short), aken 'window' (long), mäkke 'into the mountain' (overlong), where g /k/, k /kk/ and kk /kkk/.
    Livonian has two phonemic lengths, short and long, and three phonetic lengths, short, half-long and long. Livonian does have five accent types in stressed syllables: acute, grave, falling, broken and unmarked.

  5. Karen said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    Viktor Yushchenko's slogan was: Вірю – Знаю – Можемо! (Viryu – Znayu – Mozhemo!) which too many official translator's rendered as "I believe – I know – We are able!"

    No. "We can!"

  6. Karen said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 5:51 am

    I'm jet-lagged (Maryland to the UK) – that's my excuse for that apostrophe!

  7. David said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 6:00 am

    I remember this Guardian article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/11/greenland-denmark-independence) where "yes we can" was used (mainly in the English original) during the autonomy referendum on Greenland.

    I'm also intrigued by the five different syllable lengths in Livonian. Old Swedish (and, I presume, the other medieval Scandinavian languages as well) also used to have the four different lengths which Simon listed – modern standard Swedish has dropped the long V+long C version and uses short V+short C only in unstressed syllables – but I don't know what the fifth version would be like.

  8. Mossy said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 7:37 am

    I was recently in Istanbul where the streets were also plastered with Obama posters. He was advertising good rates at a Turkish bank. In Russia there is an ice cream ad that involves Obama (discussed here, I think). I wonder how many other companies and countries are using Obama in their advertisements. I also wonder why. Did he get instantly branded as "truthful, reliable, progressive and cool"?

  9. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    One factor in the popularity of the name "Obama" must be that unlike many English names (eg "Washington"), it is readily pronounceable in the majority of languages.

    I think that the reason for "we are able" rather than "we can" is that "can" is not a full verb: one cannot say the equivalent of "we will be able" using "can", so bilinbual dictionaries will translate a verb like French "pouvoir" or Spanish "poder", etc by "to be able" rather than "can".

  10. Karen said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    True, but it rings false. A worse translation I saw was "we are capable" – that construction has a lot of sub-text going on.

  11. Andrew said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    I think that 'deserves merit' may arise from the fact that in some cases 'merit' stands for something that can be awarded; you might get 'merit points' at school; or it might be possible to pass an exam either with a straight pass or 'with merit'.

  12. Tlönista said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    "Capable"? Ouch. I think I've usually seen the Québécois slogan "On est capable" translated "We can do it".

  13. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Yes, in Québec être capable is used a lot more than in France, instead of the verb pouvoir – probably because of the influence of English "to be able": j'suis pas capable simply means "I am not able [to do something]" or "I can't" (for any reason). But capable is not used with the same meaning in the two countries: in France Il est très capable means "He is highly competent". But it almost always has a complement, and in that sense it is not necessarily complimentary: Il est capable de tout does not mean "He can do anything" (a form of praise) but "He might do anything", implying "One never knows what to expect from him" (a form of warning). And the negative always implies incompetence, never temporary inability, as in, Il est même pas capable d'enfoncer un clou "He can't even drive in a nail".

  14. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    Karen: I think the reason that "we are able" or "we are capable" rings false vs "we can" is that they are complete sentences with descriptive adjectives, while "we can" is a truncated sentence which is typically an answer to a question containing a verb phrase: "Can you do X? – Yes we can [do X]". That's why "We can" in Obama's slogan implies a whole world of possibilities which have thus far been denied or just not yet imagined, and the other sentences fall flat by comparison because they only refer to "we".

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    But isn't "Yes, we can" a kind of translation of the old UFW slogan Sí, se puede?

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Actually, Wikipedia has a good discussion of the relation between the two slogans.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    CL, even if it is a translation, it is a good (non-literal) one, appropriate for its use, while "it is possible" (which is what se puede means) would not be.

  18. mollymooly said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    "Yes we can" as a pun relies on "can" in the sense of "[put into a] waste receptacle", which is American [and, I suppose, Estonian]. For Britons, I suggest "where you bin".

  19. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    mollymooly, of course! but by now we are talking about translations of "can" in French and Spanish. "Where you bin" in North America would be a very careless pronunciation of "Where have you been" or "where you've been". (and "to can" is also used to mean "to fire" [an employee]).

  20. Barbara Partee said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    I'm at a conference outside Moscow (http://www.dialog-21.ru/dialog2009/) where I heard a talk yesterday about differences among "no", "nein", and "nyet". I was grateful to hear it because now I better understand what's going on when my husband starts sentences with "Nyet, …" and isn't contradicting or denying anything. And also heard lots of interesting examples where you can't translate "Nyet" into "No". And the converse was that you can't use Russian "Da" in nearly as many places as English "yes", and one example of that is the impossibility of giving a uniform translation to all the occurrences of "Yes we can!" in a typical Obama campaign speech. A lot of them have to be something more like "No, we can!" (or with some other specialized particle) — in particular all of the ones in the contexts like "They said we couldn't XYZ — but yes, we can!" You can never use Russian "Da" to contradict a negative statement. (This brought up discussion of German 'doch' and French "si".) It was fascinating. I had only known about 10% of it, and learned a lot factually about Russian that I hadn't known, and became conscious of things about English that I hadn't been.

  21. dr pepper said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    I first saw "si se puede" on a bumper sticker back in the 80's. I translated it as "yes it can be done" = "yes, it's possible", except in spanish it's a lot snappier. I still think of it that way. So i don't think of "yes we can" as even a loose translation but rather a functional equivalent. So it makes sense to me that people wanting to capture the feel of the slogan in other languages would look for their own equivalents.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    dr pepper: "functional equivalent" is exactly what I meant. It rarely means the same as a literal translation.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    The irreducible untranslatability of such apparently basic words as "yes" and "no" seems a good entree to introduce elementary schoolkids to the notion of linguistics.

  24. Karl Pajusalu said,

    May 29, 2009 @ 6:38 am

    Exact phonetic data about the Livonian word prosody are presented
    in Lehiste et al. "Livovian Prosody" (Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 255, Helsinki 2008). According to this data both Estonian
    and Livonian "have what could be called short, long, and overlong feet" (p. 94), additionally in Livonian there is "the phonological opposition
    between presence and absence of a broken tone" in the stressed
    long syllable (p. 95).

  25. Lugubert said,

    May 29, 2009 @ 7:49 am

    The Swedish Social Democrats, (S) for short, thought they were clever when they introduced the campaign slogan "S we can".

    Too late it was discovered that swecan is short for the Swedish cannabis organisation, a website for cannabis fans arguing for legalization of the drug.

  26. NickB said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 5:01 am

    Barack is (or at least was) a symbol of hope. When I was in the US during the election race I received lots of requests to bring back stickers, flags and t-shirts. Didn't imagine his slogan would be used for recycling, but it is a great play on words !

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