Silent in a thousand languages

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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."


  1. John Cowan said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:57 am

    The distinction between [ɪŋ] and [εŋ] (and [iŋ] too) has long been neutralized in English (we still spell our language English but pronounce it [ɪŋglɪʃ], so it's not surprising that people vary in this respect.

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 2:25 am

    I don't understand why people insist on adding a vowel. Why not just leave it off? Ignorance is a valid excuse, but not here.

  3. AJD said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:16 am

    The distinction between /ɪŋ/ and /εŋ/ isn't neutralized in English in general (though it is in some dialects), even though English spells /ɪŋ/ with eng. Words with /εŋ/ include length, strength, penguin, and merengue.

    And the reason people "insist on adding a vowel" is because a syllabic [ŋ̩] by itself isn't a possible word in English. And since Konrad Ng and Maya-Soetoro-Ng are native speakers of English, there must be a way to pronounce their name in English.

  4. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    While syllabic [m] might qualify as a word in English, syllabic [n] doesn't and that doesn't stop us from being able to say a kind of long drawn out 'nnn' when we're tentatively starting to disagree with someone. The difference is that [ŋ̩] doesn't qualify as a word-initial phoneme in English.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    And then there's the old joke, "I'm just a girl who can't say nnnn…"

  6. JS Bangs said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    Syllable-initial [ŋ̩] is also disallowed in English, making syllabic [ŋ̩] doubly difficult for most Americans to pronounce. That's also why these approximations universally add a vowel at the beginning.

    I'm sure that the Democratic convention is portraying Obama's family as "All-American" to allay the fears of those who find an international extended family suspicious or threatening.

  7. language hat said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    My Malay dictionary gives the expression (s.v. diam 'be silent') as diam seribu bahasa "to keep silent in a thousand languages, i.e., to keep mum in spite of many words struggling for utterance"; I note that the word dalam 'in(side)' is not there, and I wonder if it's a genuine alternate form of the expression or if it's inserted because an English speaker feels the need of an "in" equivalent?

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    AJD: Pfft. So to speak.

  9. Chris said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    Well my Indonesian dictionary has it with (definition "absolutely quiet"). But a quick google search does not seem to suggest that this is another case of where usage differs in Malaysia and Indonesia, of which there are plenty. The variant without "dalam" seems to be more frequent, which might indicate some degree of lexicalisation.

  10. hamdanil said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:17 am

    I am Indonesian and I definitely wouldn't insert dalam. maybe the reason is what language hat say.

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