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Activision Blizzard® –

The lovechild of communism and capitalism?

Yes, it’s been a while and yes, I said I wanted to work on more reviews over the summer break. As per usual my plans came to a hold due to some family stuff. And just as I came back and started working on one of said reviews, I stumbled upon this gem of a disaster…

Part of the following topic would usually be something I don’t report on or write about: the ‘Revolution of our Times’ in Hong Kong – a movement started by students in protest to the supposedly non-democratic elections held in Hong Kong even though the people were promised fair elections. There is a reason as to why I would avoid a topic as this because I am usually not too interested in politics which has more to do with my disgust towards lobbyism more so than anything else. But this movement has crept into a topic I very much enjoy covering, which is gaming. So how does all of this connect? 

Back when I decided to write about gaming – long before my time at eMAG – I figured it would be mostly limited to a few reviews here and there about some indie games. But the more you get invested in a topic, the deeper you dig and not long before the whole cesspool of drama within the industry and scene would unfold – topics for articles for another time when I’m bored. But I have never quite lost my interest in the gaming scene, as you can probably tell from one of my last articles. I mentioned that one of my favourite companies there is Activision Blizzard. Years ago, when it was still only known as ‘Blizzard’, their major contributions to the gaming world consisted of the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo series. The company was known to have high standards in regards to development; trying out new things but always keeping the consumer their first priority. A goal that was highly regarded by the community and has always been at the heart of the company so much so that outside the Blizzard headquarters you can see a statue and three plaques that read:

Think Globally; Lead Responsibly; Every Voice Matters.

Back in 2012, with the release of ‘Diablo 3’ the company probably hit the biggest controversy with the introduction of what they called the “Auction House“. A virtual place in-game where you could spend money to buy gear off of other players to help your own character – with a cut of the money going directly into the company’s pockets. In theory sounds like a really cool idea, right? It all depends on the implementation and that’s when Activision Blizzard first poked the bee hive that is their own community and comments on their greediness arose. The whole idea of directly buying power in-game with your hard earned cash seemed ridiculous because why would you even want to spend money to basically avoid playing the game as the whole point of Diablo was to find gear for your character. And that’s where the dilemma of being consumer or community-friendly and being a corporation at the same time first started to peek for Activision Blizzard. The chances of getting any sort of loot where so abysmal that if you wanted to complete the game many people felt like they were forced to buy gear.

A few years later a new hit struck the market: Hearthstone. And the trend continued. With Hearthstone being what it is, a digital card game, a lot of players voiced their unhappiness after a while as to why it was necessary to have so many unnecessarily bad cards in their – just inflating the pool of potential cards to draw from with each booster pack and in turn making it less likely to get the cards you want and need to play competitively. I’m not going into detail here about the monetisation system behind the games and how the booster packs are basically just loot boxes because that will be an entire article in and of itself. It shall serve simply as a showcase of how the consumers have directly been affected by the changes over the last 2 decades even by one of the companies known to be the most consumer friendly.

There have been more subtle changes as well over the years, though. Some of these changes more obvious than others to the players, the consumers and the critics. The most important little detail here is most likely that a Chinese gaming company called Tencent bought up 5% of Blizzard’s stock in 2007. Combine that with the ever growing business potential that is growing in China and you see why a largescale company would have a vested interest in keeping their Asian shareholders happy. And that is exactly what Activision Blizzard tried last week when during an interview with the professional gamer ‘Blitzchung’ who won in a tournament – ‘The Grandmasters Asia-Pacific’ of aforementioned Hearthstone. The games as well as the interview were streamed live over the internet. Blitzchung went on in his interview to ask if he could say some lines of his own. The interviewers very reluctantly agreed and Blitzchung went on to speak out for the Hong Kong movement:

Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Times.

Something that I would assume strikes most of the Western audience as something totally relatable. And I get that there are cultural differences which is why the casters and interviewers probably saw it coming and were not too happy to be associated with said statement. The response by Activision Blizzard followed within minutes. The livestream went down and later on it was announced that the official winner Blitzchung would be stripped of his well-earned title, the prize money and the right to now on compete in the tournaments to come. The casters were struck with a similar fate in that their contracts were terminated immediately followed by a very clear statement to the public (taken from

Hearthstone’s official Weibo wrote that they “express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events” and “will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honour].”

While the Western audiences got the bare minimum excuse of a legal statement within the rules of conduct for the tournament in which Blizzard hinted at a paragraph that explains they kept the right to remove any player that damages the company’s image (taken from

“Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.

There is no doubt what image could potentially have been damaged here. The image in the eyes of the Communist Party of China. I guess it is important to know here that the Communist Party is known to censor content they might dislike on a whim. Don’t believe me? They banned Winnie the Pooh because of comparisons made to their president Xi. Banning an entire video is the least of their problems. There is an entire procedure for gaming companies that they have to undergo before their product will be listed for the Chinese market as far as I know. So a company as Blizzard that tries to make as much cash as humanly possible with Asian shareholders on their board has no other interest here than trying to please the Chinese market that is just such a lucrative opportunity for any company nowadays.

So I definitely have to give Activision Blizzard credit where credit is due. They certainly still uphold their value of „Thinking globally“ albeit maybe oriented a bit too far to the east currently. But they seemed to have censored their own ideas of Leading Responsibly or making Every Voice Matter anymore.

This article should really only serve as a quick introduction to what is happening here with the American corporations and the Chinese censorship that is creeping into all sorts of media. If I somehow managed to get you interested in what’s going on here, have a look at some of the professionals’ works like
– Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition on this topic on YouTube

– RockPaperShotgun

for more news on the gaming related side of things and basically all big news outlets for the Hong Kong protests directly or Amnesty International. The organisation focusing solely on Human Rights worldwide.

Addendum: After I had been done writing this piece and had everything set up to post it, there had been more news on the whole topic which I thought would be worthwhile including. In particular, the US congress agreed on writing a letter to the CEO of Activision Blizzard, Bobby Kotick, in which it stated:
“We write to express our deep concern about Activision Blizzard’s decision to make player Ng Way Chung forfeit prize money and ban him from participating in tournaments for a year after he voiced support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The decision is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech.”
Seeing how the US congress or any government have never really showed any concern for what happened in the gaming industry (with a slight movement in the right direction towards loot boxes, to be fair) it came quite surprising to see quite a few members of the congress speak out and sign this letter; namely: Ron Wyden, Marco Rubio, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher, and Tom Malinowski.

Text by Tobias Lorenz
Picture by Kevin Muto from Pixabay


The Heart of Gaming

Muslims have Mecca. Metalheads have Wacken. Gamers have GamesCom. Yes, it was this time of year again. Gamers from all around the world have flooded the exhibition halls of the Koelnmesse in Cologne for the 11th time now. But not only them but also developers, publishers, cosplayers and so many more that hold gaming dear to their hearts. On an area of 218,000 m² – roughly 30 football fields in size – 373,000 nerds have come together. Me being one of them…

Anime, Cosplay1 and Gaming

This year has been my third year in a row to attend GamesCom and seeing how my favourite games publisher, Activsion Blizzard, did not have a stage or booth I decided to go there rather unprepared. I had no list of things I desperately wanted to see. (I’ll admit, I would have sold my soul in a heartbeat to get to play Cyberpunk but alas, the queue was so quickly filled up every day that I decided it wouldn’t be worth the wait.) So my first day pretty much consisted only of strolling through the exhibition area, admiring some of the work developers have put into their stage presence and was blown away by some of the amazing cosplays – albeit a lot of it from League of Legends. The sheer time energy and dedication people must have put into some of these outfits is stunning. So I sat there in front of the ‘Cosplay stage’ until the cosplay dance off started which was hilarious to watch. But in a good way. Major props to everyone who took part in this event and so gladly embarrassed themselves!

Statue of Sylvana. Character in World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment.

But this was only a really small part of what has been shown. There have been entire halls filled just with merchandise for all sorts of games, mangas, comics and even gaming soundtracks. Another hall was dedicated entirely to indie games where smaller studios or sometimes even one-man-projects showcased their games on a single computer. Ironically enough, I got stuck on Nanotale, the successor to Epistory. A game that is entirely about typing words which will then appear in the game world so you can continue onward on your journey. I guess writing is following me even into my video games. But there has been one thing I low-key had been excited for: the advancement on VR. Seeing how Valve released their latest headset just a few weeks ago with some major improvements on tracking, I was curious about its competition. At the GamesCom in 2017, there was an entire hall dedicated to VR, headsets, games and programs to be showcased to the masses. Queues so long you had to sign up a day before for a mere 5 minutes of playtime. Fast forward to 2019 and you would only find a few indie developers or universities that specialize in game development with some neat little VR features. Walking on a plank with a simulated abyss beneath you, for example. Back then I already got into some heated debates with my fellow gaming friends about whether VR is the future of gaming and I always saw it just as a gimmick but nothing more. I’m a bit sad now that I might have been right but who knows. Maybe it’s just the calm before the storm.

But that’s not what most of the people have been there for. Apart from Cyberpunk by CD Projekt Red, the other major titles represented there have been Monster Hunter: Iceborne – the upcoming expansion to Monster Hunter World – as well as Borderlands 3. Impossible for a regular mortal to get into any of these exhibition booths unless you’d want to wait for 10 hours straight.

Statue of the Elder Dragon “Teostra”. Monster in Monster Hunter by Bandai Namco.


I had some time to kill on my second day to see some presentations by ‘THQ Nordic’ which I mostly watched because they have fantastic stage presence and really showed their games and interacted with the crowd. So in the meantime, I had dropped by a Super Smash² eSports-tournament by Nintendo. Damn, these people are good. For all the uninitiated: eSports is the term given to tournaments and the scene surrounding sporting events that take place entirely on virtual playgrounds. While still being chuckled about by most people, there are reports within the industry that by 2022 eSports will have grown to the size of the NFL in terms of people following it and money spent on the events by sponsors. The comparison is quite apt in my opinion. There are already tournaments like ‘The International‘ that can be compared to something like the Super Bowl. Back in 2011, the first ‘International’ was being held by Valve for the game DotA 2³ with – for that time – an astounding amount of 1 million dollars in price money. This was groundbreaking news for the scene as for the first time ever such an amount of money was thrown at a tournament and from there on it only continued to grow. In 2019, the price money reached a staggering 34 million dollars. And within the fanbase, it already has reached the status of something like the Super Bowl. A lot of viewers and supporters don’t actually play the game anymore themselves but still are excited as ever for that one week every year to cheer for their team. Yes, I’m talking from experience here.

Statue of Solaire, praising the sun. Character from Dark Souls 1 by From Software.

Gaming and politics

As we are already on the note of America here, I want to tackle a more serious topic. Video games are constantly under fire by mass media after killing sprees. Usually criticized by politicians, Donald Trump has been the most infamous recently to do so after the attacks in El Paso in which 22 innocent people have been killed; several more injured. In a response, Trump gave a speech in which he blamed video games as a reason for domestic terrorism.“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this.”, so Trump in his speech 5th August. I am sick of this nonsensical rhetoric that has been proven wrong so many times now and neither will I let a talking orange with a wig destroy part of my gaming culture. In a country where video games are as easily obtained as real weapons of war, you can not go around spouting these idiotic paroles just to defend the biggest lobby in your country. Lobby-ism is all that Trumps politic has been about for the past years and he shows no different face in this matter.

But let me tell you: It’s not the pixel-guns on a screen that kill people. It’s the actual guns sold in American stores that do. So start policing that shit maybe?

Should I give you an example on how ludicrous this has gotten? After the aforementioned shooting that happened in a Walmart, the chain decided to remove “all signs, displays or videos that depict violence in an internal memo.” This decision led to all video games, consoles and movies above a certain age rating to be removed from the stores while happily continuing to sell guns. (Source:
This whole discussion that is being stirred up by politicians so eagerly has only one purpose: To move attention away from the actual problem. The guns.

Fuck redneck rhetoric! Fuck white supremacy!
All hail to my fellow nerds!


1: Cosplay = a showcase of an anime, manga or video game character in costume and behaviour.
2: Super Smash = A popular fighting game by Nintendo with playable characters from many different games. Very popular as a casual party game with a massive professional scene behind it for years now.
3: DotA 2 = short for Defence of the Ancients 2. A videogame by Valve Entertainment that belongs to the genre of Mobas in which you take on the role of a character together with your team and try to defeat the base structure of the enemy team.

Text and pictures by Tobias Lorenz

Interview with SZ -colleagues A European perspective…

Maria Aquaro, who teaches Italian

1. What do you miss most about your home country? And what do you like best in Germany?

Oltre alla mia famiglia, mi mancano il calore della gente, che comunque prima si sentiva molto più di adesso, il mar Jonio e tutti i colori, i sapori e i profumi ad esso collegati.
La cosa che apprezzo di più in Germania è l’aria di libertà che si respira nelle grandi città, il rispetto per il diverso.

2. How has your language/identity changed over time?

La lingua della mia infanzia è l’italiano ma sono sempre stata esposta a più lingue, e sono cresciuta con il desiderio di studiarne tante, per cercare di scoprire, capire, conoscere culture diverse dalla mia. Adesso tante lingue fanno parte della mia lingua interiore.

3. What role does ‘bilingualism’ play in your life?

Io e mio marito abbiamo scelto di vivere in Germania perché abbiamo sempre ritenuto che fosse importante per i nostri figli crescere quantomeno bilingui. Per essere veri cittadini europei è necessario conoscere più lingue europee.

4. What would you recommend someone from your country coming to Germany?

È importante essere consapevoli del fatto che la cultura di appartenenza non è quella “giusta” in assoluto. Per un approccio positivo è necessario fare tabula rasa di tutti i pregiudizi.

5. What was your reaction to Brexit?

Da ragazza ho passato tante estati in Inghilterra a studiare inglese con tanti ragazzi da ogni paese d’Europa. In tutta sincerità sento di essere “diventata europea” proprio in Inghilterra. Ed è per questo che la Brexit è motivo per me di enorme tristezza.

Fredrik Ahnsjoe, who teaches German, and who has also taught Swedish

1.What do you miss most about your home country? And what do you like best in Germany?

Det jag faktiskt saknar mest är somrarna, naturen, kusterna och känslan som infinner sig omedelbart efter att ha passerat gränsen.

2. How has your language/identity changed over time?

Mina föräldrar kom till Tyskland 1973, då var jag två år gammal. Hemma pratades det alltid svenska. Om man sedan bara kommer till Sverige en gång om året några veckor under sommarlovet avbryts språkets naturliga utveckling. Släktingar påpekar då från tid till tid att det låter en aning gammalmodigt när jag pratar…

3. What role does ‘bilingualism’ play in your life?

Att vara tvåspråkig gav mig chansen att få jobba på universitetet här i Augsburg som lektor i svenska – nog det bästa som kan hända en språkmänniska som älskar sitt modersmål men har studerat germanistik i Tyskland. Nu är det Tyska som främmande språk som gäller – inte illa det heller!

4. What would you recommend someone from your country coming to Germany?

Att diskutera är bra, men här lär du dig att ta beslut!

5. What was your reaction to Brexit?

Hur kunde ni?!?

Luis Martín, who teaches Spanish

1. What do you miss most about your home country? And what do you like best in Germany?

Lo que más echo de menos es el mar y el contacto con los míos, mis amigos, el ambiente por las calles, la comida…

De Alemania me gustan los bosques, los veranos en los lagos; también la sensación de que las cosas funcionan…

2. How has your language/identity changed over time?

Sin duda alguna se produce una simbiosis entre las dos lenguas y las dos culturas. Entras en una especie de estado esquizofrénico: no eres de ningún sitio y de los dos a la vez. Vives una sensación de extrañeza y desarraigo constantes: para los de allí soy el alemán, y aquí sigo siendo el español. Digamos que tengo una doble identidad; al fin y al cabo soy géminis… (risas)

3. What role does ‘bilingualism’ play in your life?

El bilingüismo es fundamental en mi vida. Desde que vivo en Alemania es el pan de cada día. Con mis hijos lo integramos desde el primer día. Pero no solo aquí experimento el bilingüismo. También en España vivimos con la familia de Barcelona situaciones de bilinguismo y diglosia.

4. What would you recommend someone from your country coming to Germany?

Que debe tener la mente abierta y aceptar que las cosas aquí son algo diferentes. Ya sabes: In Rome do like the Romans (risas de nuevo)

5. What was your reaction to Brexit?

Incomprensión, tristeza, impotencia frente a la estupidez humana. Creo que ha sido una decisión en la que todos vamos a salir perdiendo. También creo que la población británica ha sido manipulada inflando el sentimiento nacionalista. Fue una lástima que los jóvenes no participaran más activamente en le referéndum; porque serán ellos los que sufrirán las consecuencias en el futuro fuera de la UE.

Christophe Lips, who teaches French

1. What do you miss most about your home country? And what do you like best in Germany? 

J’habite à l’étranger depuis si longtemps (quasiment la moitié de ma vie déjà) que j’ai désormais l’habitude de savoir patienter jusqu’au prochain séjour pour pouvoir obtenir ce qui pourrait me manquer. En fin de compte, rien ne me manque plus vraiment, si ce ne sont des petits moments comme lire un journal/un magazine sur la terrasse d’un petit café dans une petite ville française 😉
Ce que je préfère en Allemagne : l’aménagement des infrastructures pour favoriser la mobilité en vélo. Et, au fond, c’est tout un mode de vie (plus écologique, plus lent, moins stressant) qui est favorisé.

2. How has your language/identity changed over time?

J’ai découvert qu’une identité évolue en fonction des expériences, dont les expériences à l’étranger. J’essaie de m’approprier le “meilleur” (c’est subjectif bien évidemment) de chaque culture que je rencontre pour me construire et avancer dans la direction qui me convient le mieux dans la vie. Mon identité est en constante évolution, au rythme des découvertes d’autres cultures et modes de vie, mais aussi au rythme de mes découvertes linguistiques qui m’aident à comprendre profondément comment une culture est influencée (et influence) un langage.

3. What role does ‘bilingualism’ play in your life? 

Je vis dans un environnement trilingue, voire quadrilingue, au quotidien, que ce soit chez moi, ou au travail. C’est un ‘outil’ de travail, de communication, de rencontres et de compréhension de l’Autre et du monde au quotidien.

4. What would you recommend someone from your country coming to Germany?

“Ne traversez pas quand le feu est rouge, sous peine d’essuyer les regards les plus durs!”. Traverser la rue lorsque le feu est rouge en Allemagne (une habitude très répandue en France), c’est, j’ai l’impression, comme si je bousculais l’ordre établi, comme si je ne respectais pas tout un système construit autour du respect des règles qui doit éviter le chaos et favoriser les libertés. Un petit geste anodin pour un Français, mais lourd de conséquences en Allemagne.

5. What was your reaction to Brexit?

Etonné d’abord, parce que je ne pensais pas que cela pouvait arriver. Puis, déçu et triste de voir une Europe qui n’arrive pas/plus à se construire. La construction européenne est certes un processus, avec des progrès et des revers, des hauts et des bas, mais lorsqu’un pays décide de quitter l’Union européenne, le revers n’est pas sans conséquences. Je suis un enfant de l’Union européenne, j’en ai profité à travers mes voyages, les projets financés par l’UE, etc., pour rencontrer l’Autre et continuer de construire (jusque ma propre famille) ce projet humaniste inédit et exceptionnel. Aujourd’hui, elle est fragilisée et cela m’inquiète évidemment. C’est d’autant plus inquiétant que les arguments sont basés sur des questions d’identités et de cultures notamment. Puisqu’il n’est pas possible d’agir directement sur cette décision, tirons-en des leçons! La plus importante à mes yeux : c’est de ne pas/plus faire l’erreur de considérer une identité/une culture comme un phénomène fixe et facilement définissable. L’identité et la culture sont mouvantes, évolutives, dynamiques et bien plus complexes que la simple démarche de poser des étiquettes sans fondements ou de tenter de ‘ranger’ les Autres dans des boîtes. Cette démarche est en effet dangereuse car elle est réductrice et nous empêche de comprendre le monde dans sa riche complexité.

picture: pixabay

How about some HORROR tonight?

…and I’m not talking about your exams

With the upcoming summer break and our current topic of ‘Language and Identity’ in mind, I got inspired to read more books. Books that revolve specifically around our main topic in a very varied way, but more on that in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

“The Frighteners – Why we love monsters, ghosts, death & gore“, by Peter Laws, will start my little review series. And while the subtitle already gives away what the book is all about, the cover itself makes its own very direct statement: red gothic skulls, zombie hands and tombstones are thematically arranged around the title. If you’ve read my own article, ‘Torn between two cultures‘, this term, you might have already gathered that the macabre certainly is nothing I would ever back off from. Quite the contrary! I guess this is why a dear friend of mine gifted this book to me a few months back. How right she was in doing so…

I went in completely blind – nope, not even the blurb to what this book wants to tell me – and the more surprised I found myself after the first few pages. I hadn’t heard of Peter Laws before, just like most of you, I will assume, unless you’re an avid reader of “The Fortean Times – The World’s Weirdest News”. If so, you’ll also have probably come across his monthly column about horror movies. I assume that this is what sparked my own interest, and curiosity made me have a look at the blurb after all. This man certainly knows what he’s talking about, right? A quick google search of his other books mentioned tried to shock me with some mysterious and eerie-looking cover art to his novels “Purged” and “Unleashed”. Amazing! Someone that really revels in their fascination for the morbid. What else is there about him? Well, the usual. Apart from the books already mentioned, some podcasts on YouTube, and he’s an ordained reverend. Hold on a second. A man of God writing about the supernatural? I left my pitchfork rest in the closet just a moment longer and see what he really wants to convince me of before I call the Inquisition.

I’m glad I stuck with it. Peter Laws’ narrative style is fantastic. From the start, you’ll feel right there with him on his journey. A journey straight to the land of vampires, but also through time – to explore the development of horror culture – or straight into the depths of the human psyche. He really knows how to keep the reader engaged and how to convey his message, which is researched in great detail, with footnotes for the curious. As a student during exam time, I would usually throw a book with footnotes straight on the pyre with some of the witches Mr. Laws mentions. He introduces it so intuitively, though, that it didn’t bother me in the least. I guess that might be the famous priest rhetoric shining through here.

On the topic of priests: I can already hear all my fellow agnostic and atheist friends’ alarm bells ringing at once. And I’m not going to lie; I expected more preachy-ness after reading Mr. Laws’ biography. But this ‘fear’ is just rooted in more stereotypes that, either through his ingenuity or rhetoric, he manages to subvert completely. Frankly, he’s exactly the kind of person that would make me listen to a sermon once in a while again. That’s not to say that he doesn’t bring up his professional career here or there. But could you blame him as a man of God that is pondering whether God himself is just slowly getting more and more frustrated with having to protect a reverend all day long from all the “horror demons” trying to pull him to the dark side?

Last but not least, my personal favourite chapter was the one that’s inevitably linked to horror culture – death. Not because of a morbid fascination, but because, as he so rightly mentions in his book, too, it’s a topic that is never brought up in society nowadays. What could shed more insight on this taboo than a casual interview between a reverend and an undertaker? The transitions between these funny bed-time stories and the serious ones of two people talking about our (most likely) last moments on this planet happen so seamlessly, yet professionally. And right before you get lost in between the pages, Mr. Laws makes sure to take you right out of it, metaphorically speaking, by putting you on a chair next to him, and to straight up tell you “that he will understand if you want to put away the book for just a few moments to ponder your own life. He will be waiting right here”. I took one of those many moments in the book to do exactly that: put away the book, but instead of reflecting on my own decisions, I decided to start writing what you see on your screen right now.

If you’re curious about what else Peter Laws brought up in “The Frighteners”, make sure to pick it up and try to escape from everyday life. A journey I promise you won’t regret.

© Copyright by Icon Books Ltd.

The Frighteners – Why we love monsters, ghosts, death and gore

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Icon Books Ltd.
ISBN: 9781785782206
Publication date: 22/03/2018
Price: 12.99 GBP or 11,99 Euro

Review by Tobias Lorenz
Book by Peter Laws
Pictures: Icon Books Ltd.

Spell it out for me!

More history of more languages you’ll never learn…

A fancy word that’s relatively easy to spell? Masochism. I guess you know what it means. And yet, here you are, ready for a second serving of random facts on language history, politics and orthography. You have (presumably) had a look at, maybe even finished, an article entitled “Playwright, conscience … fish?” in eMAG #34. Amazing details about Korean writing and the evolution of Modern Greek have been revealed to you. What’s next, you ask? More irrelevant facts! And prepare for puns, as well.

Hanoi’ing spelling habits? Thank the French.

Remember how Koreans had to use Chinese characters before they developed their own alphabet? How, just to write down the most basic things, they were forced to learn the writing system of a completely unrelated language (I know they’re geographically close, but no relation between Korean and the Chinese languages has been proven so far)? Vietnamese speakers, whose language is equally unrelated to Chinese, and whose country is equally close to China, had similar problems. Unlike the Koreans, the Vietnamese had some success in adapting Chinese characters to Vietnamese, to a point where they were illegible even for Chinese speakers. This script, Chữ Nôm, was the first real Vietnamese writing system. It was used for administrative purposes at first, but later on, even poetry would be written in Chữ Nôm. But that doesn’t solve the problem that Chinese characters, a very reduced form of writing, can’t illustrate grammatically important changes within a word.

The most modern form of Vietnamese writing came from a complete outsider, the Jesuit monk and missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. De Rhodes, who came from the French-speaking region of Avignon, created an adapted version of the Latin alphabet that could reflect the pronunciation of Vietnamese words better than Chinese characters could. He did take over a few rather inefficient French spelling habits, e.g. <ph> to express the f-sound, so the system still contains some traces of other languages. In general, however, it is a neat writing system that has survived since the 16th century, throughout all kinds of political regimes, occupations and the division of the country. For this reason, despite his colonialist background, the Vietnamese still look somewhat fondly at de Rhodes.

There’s Norway around spelling rules.

Why don’t we have a look at Norwegian next? We’ll see a language whose main writing system, Bokmål (book tongue), is essentially Danish with slight changes. Danish and Norwegian are very closely related and can be intercomprehensible, depending on what dialect speakers use. The language similarities and parallels in writing come in handy today, but they stem from the long Danish domination of Norway. The two states were seen as one country well into the 19th century. For this reason, Bokmål still is the dominant writing system, although Nynorsk (New Norse, ironically the older writing system), fits Norwegian pronunciation patterns better. The further you move west (away from Denmark), the more popular Nynorsk gets.

Both varieties are officially recognised by the Norwegian state, taught in the same schools and used in public to various extents. Members of the administration are expected to reply to mail in the same variety that was used in the request and no province is allowed to use one variety to more than 75% in official areas. Since Danish and Swedish are also allowed in official written correspondence, the system can appear quite chaotic. And we’re not even counting in the more antiquated varieties Riksmål (national language) and Høgnorsk (High Norse). These former writing standards (with  Riksmål being even closer to Danish and  Høgnorsk being even further from it) have thankfully become rare, but there are people and organisations willing to invest a lot of time, just to keep them somewhat alive. Is that a lot to take in? It gets even weirder when you take into account that less than six million people speak Norwegian at all.

In the area of writing, Norway hasn’t distanced itself from Denmark as much as Korea or Vietnam have from China. That’s because Danish rule over Norway ended very late, both languages were related to begin with and the relations between both nations are friendly today. The outcome, however, is kind of problematic: people need to be fluent in both systems and people artificially switch between two idioms just to fulfil a legal quota. However, no one is discriminated against based on how they write, and that’s still a nice thing.

I Afri-can’t spell that!

No list of inefficient writing systems could be complete without the African continent. Most African languages simply weren’t used in writing before European colonisation. When writing systems were created, they were based on European languages, mostly English and French. They also weren’t made up by linguists, but usually by missionaries trying to translate the bible (who would just work with what they were used to). Now, English and French are both kind of inefficient in their writing, since both preserve a spelling that is out of sync with modern pronunciation. Just think of fish = ghoti or the French city of Bordeaux using four letters to express one o-sound. French uses <ou> (two letters) for a simple u-sound, and the more efficient, single letter <u> for the somewhat fancy u-Umlaut (<ü> in German or Turkish) – a sound few languages use at all. English, on the other hand, simply doesn’t have a long e-sound. And of course, these inefficiencies were taken over into new languages by means of their spelling.

Using the Latin alphabet for African languages can only work out when it is a neutral form where the pronunciation of certain letters is not tied to their pronunciation in one specific Western language. On top of that, additional sounds should be expressed through accents or additional characters, rather than ever-longer combination of letters. For this reason, the German Ethnologist Diedrich Westermann developed the Africa Alphabet and presented it (to colonialists, not Africans) in London in 1928. The alphabet has been adjusted to the linguistic situation in (Western) Africa several times and now has close to sixty letters. That may sound like a lot, but since you wouldn’t need all of these in every language, learning the alphabet wouldn’t even be such a big deal.

The real problem is that Africans aren’t using this alphabet to the extent that linguists have been hoping for. That’s because many native African languages are used in more private, oral settings. And when private communication is in written form, e.g. when people are chatting, most African languages aren’t available (e.g. as auto-correct on cellphones or as spell-checks on a PC). The ones that are available, like isiZulu or Somaali, don’t use the Africa Alphabet as a starting point. And even in handwriting, few people are aware of its existence, since most African states don’t do a lot to promote a standardized use of native languages – there are just too many, and most governments have different priorities. Still, the alphabet is around and offers a good starting point to any attempt of standardisation. Although it was established through colonisation, it can be a means of self-empowerment that makes local African languages and cultures more independent, giving them a stable, written foundation.

So yeah, the struggle with spelling is real, for a lot of people. Languages influence each other, and they don’t always copy each other’s most positive aspects. If we all looked at languages neutrally, leaving aside history, customs and patriotism (like former Yugoslvia did, for instance), we could probably create a couple of pretty logical writing systems and solve a huge lot of problems. But how likely is that?

Author and picture: Niklas Schmid

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (Part 2)

Now that the sappy part of this essay is for the most part over, apologies for my sentimental outpourings, I would like to move on. From the rather unfortunate circumstances that English found me in, to where we are today.

With not much more to do through my formative years than watching Doctor Who, Sherlock and Downtown Abbey while imitating the oh-so-charming accents I heard in these programmes, I would accumulate a rather large vocabulary, as well as a British accent. These days, when people hear me speak, in a classroom setting or elsewhere, they usually assume that my accent stems from a year abroad. And I won’t hide the fact that it does inflate my ego just a little bit every time I get to correct them and say that I am in truth self-taught (I leave out the traumatic abandonment part of the story most of the time; it simply doesn’t have as nice a ring to it, and, in my experience, tends to drag the mood down quite a bit).

The first time I did visit an English-speaking country was after secondary school. It had been my wish to visit London for years, and so finally at the age of fifteen, I travelled there by myself (a decision that my mother was surprisingly on board with). There had always been something about the city that had drawn me to it, and the night I arrived, it took no more than a single sighting of the city lights reflecting in the pitch-black Thames water for me to completely fall in love. I really believe that on that trip I left a piece of my soul in the night sky over London.

Since then I’ve visited the city three more times and still it never fails to take my breath away. So weirdly familiar, like I had always been there, or maybe meant to be there – it’s a sense of home that doesn’t need a domicile to feel real. All this accompanied by the fact that not standing out as a tourist, at least in my mind, and being able to stroll around and pretend to belong there just gives me the greatest feeling of accomplishment.

While in London with my mum last year, she let me handle all the talking (as well as the navigation on the underground, one of my guilty pleasures when in the city. What a joy it is to know which way you’re going.). She was fascinated by me chatting with a member of staff at the Camden Market tube station, mostly, she told me afterwards, because I kept using ‘slang’ or simply colloquial language (I suspect she meant I had developed a bit of a habit of using the greeting ‘hiya’ ever since I had briefly visited Huddersfield the year before). The pride in my mother’s eyes at seeing, or rather hearing, her daughter confidently communicate in a foreign language was not only the greatest reward for my efforts thus far, but also the best motivation to keep pushing myself to be better and to hopefully one day complete the perfection of my English.

Having received a certain certificate from some supposedly smart people better qualified to judge my abilities than me which says, black ink on white paper, that I am already a level C2 when it comes to English, both written and spoken, also boosts my confidence that my goal is really achievable in my life time.  English is a huge part of my life. From writing my first poetry in sixth grade to unironically reading Shakespeare plays today, it has given me more than could ever fit on two pages. It may be words, words, mere words to some, but for me it’s a matter from the heart.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (part 1)

My first contact with English must have occurred somewhere in kindergarden.  As I was only four or five at the time, my memories are admittedly hazy. But I remember a tiny children’s book, colourful and made of cardboard, telling all the toddlers in attendance that some people refer to a Katze as ‘cat’. Not that we cared much – there were sandcastles to build and a whole world to be discovered.

Growing up in a small village in the south of Germany with both my parents native speakers of German, my overall contact with other languages was limited. The only open restaurant in town was owned by a Turkish family, so I learned the word ‘merhaba’ before even being aware of the existence of ‘hello’. So it wasn’t until primary school that I started learning English formally. At that age – I was seven in first grade – I really had priorities other than acquiring a second language. There were letters to learn, trees to climb and, unfortunately, basic maths to wrestle with.

All of this was about to change, however, at secondary. Having developed a deeply-rooted hatred of mathematics and any sort of natural science, I was already drawn to languages and the humanities, but for the time being, my relationship with English still hadn’t moved past the ‘at-least-I-can-do-this-instead-of-division’ stage. But life was about to hit me, and it was about to hit me hard. And, once again, my priorities shifted. Where before there were friends to meet and fun to be had, there was now fear to be felt and a childhood to be lost.

I won’t go into the details about what happened when I was twelve, as my incredibly dramatic, sad story isn’t the subject of this piece after all. The reason I’m bringing up this stage of the journey at all is its significance for my relationship with English. You see, it was at this moment when change became inevitable and I was forced to suddenly grow up and function. When the outside world became chaotic, I, god-like, chose to create a new world, a world inside my head, a world filled with obsessions and hyper focus, just enough to keep me sane. When I turned down invitations until I was simply not invited any more, when I was alone – that’s when it found me. A language that allowed me to express through writing what I could never say out loud, a language that let me run away with the Doctor, a language that would bring me the songs that, after hours of exhausting translation, would bring me the messages I needed to hear to survive. A language that opened up an online community in which I felt a little less alone, where others felt what I was feeling and where I could once again escape it all, at least for a little while.

English found me in my darkest place and carried me through it.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp