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     Volume 5 Issue 97 | June 2, 2006 |

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Food for Thought

Signs of the Times

Farah Ghuznavi

One of the nicest things about developing countries is the street-life, which provides individual postcards for the memory. These vignettes of life are also experienced in developed countries, but the enjoyment to be derived from peculiar cultural mutations is more often found in less "civilised" (or rather, "sanitised and homogenised") cities.

A friend of mine once put it this way: the problem with being in developed countries is that everything looks the same (yes, yes, I know that's a generalisation!). Whereas in developing countries, things are constantly changing, taking place all around you! Of course this is an over-simplification, and some of the time you might well feel that you would pay not to see some of the things that are happening around you, but there is a grain of truth in there somewhere.

And of course, there is always some entertainment to be had in the "naturalisation" or local adaptation of foreign ideas, and the particular indigenous form taken by their implementation. In this regard, language contributes significantly to the quality of the final product, since local languages often interact with international ones to produce some charmingly strange results! As evidenced in the rather clever naming of a Chinese restaurant and food van entitled "Yeantun khai jan" (often seen plying the streets of Dhaka) - a name which to the untrained ear sounds vaguely Chinese, but in fact means "come and get something to eat here" in a certain Bangla dialect…

Of course, for anyone who is trying to sell something, finding a snappy or clever way of getting across the message about their product is important. This is true whether you are wandering around the noisy, vibrant streets of cities like Dhaka or Nairobi, or more sophisticated capitals like New York and Paris. But in the latter cities, you tend to see more self-consciously clever or sexually humourous kinds of advertising.

These may include an attempt at something cute, like "French Frank's" sandwich restaurants (which have been rendered sadly redundant by the advent of the euro!). Or something more sophisticated and subliminal, like the Benson & Hedges "flash of gold" advertising campaign, which featured a cigarette packet subtly tucked into some scene (such as the gold-inlaid sarcophagus/coffin for a mummy), and instinctively left most of us feeling that almost any billboard with that shade of gold in it was a cigarette advertisement (a prime example of successful brainwashing!). Or it could even be something so obscure or bizarre, that nobody really got it (like the "Well, Nice" Cafe in London)…

Sometimes the use of sex to sell a product can get fairly obnoxious (as opposed to merely unnecessary!) A case in point was the recent campaign by Renault, which built an entire theme around how "sexy" the car was by showing a wide range of people "shaking their booty". It was amusing to see some subversive graffiti providing an effective riposte to a similar ad. The billboard featured a car with a half naked woman draped on the bonnet, while the tagline read something like "If this car were a lady, she would make your tongue hang out". Underneath, someone had crossed out the tagline, and written "If this lady were a car, she would run you over"!

By contrast, street signs in the developing world can produce an effect which may be less sophisticated (or as in the last case, less stupid!) but far funnier. The increasing domination of the English language in street signs or store names all over the world provides a rich vein of amusement. Different countries have made use of a local "brand" of English, which reflects their particular preoccupations or preferences - like the "God is the Answer" hardware store in Malawi.

Closer to home, streetside entertainment also offers some non-linguistic charmers. One of my favourites is the delightfully kitsch life-size, red tin goat that sits atop the "Shaad Restaurant and Kabab Garden" on Mirpur Road, presumably to entice prospective mutton-loving customers into the premises...

Some countries are more innovative than others in how they "adapt" English for local use. For example, in Kenya, I saw a number of signs that read "POLITE NOTICE" (as opposed to merely "NOTICE"), which provided some kind of instruction as to what you should do. The use of the term polite left me slightly confused! But it seems it's literally a "polite" way of telling you what you should be doing (whereas at home or in Europe it would probably say ATTENTION, WARNING, IMPORTANT etc). A friend of mine did suggest that it might be a subliminal attempt to induce people to obey the instruction because they might misread it as "POLICE NOTICE", but I would prefer to give the notice-providers the benefit of the doubt - maybe they do just want to be polite!

In one case, there was a sign outside a house on the main road, which read "POLITE NOTICE - This is NOT a bus stop!" It's quite a change from the message scribbled on a wall on a house on the main road in Banani, which reads "Prosab (sic) korley khobor achhey" (roughly translating to "Don't even think about urinating here, otherwise you'll really be in trouble"!), which has a distinctly more threatening tone!

In southern Africa, I came across a bus that had stopped outside one of the main shopping areas. On the side of the bus, just above the doorway it said "Best for Whites"! I got a real shock, and suddenly wondered if I was temporally displaced in apartheid South Africa, with separate buses for white people, before realising (with some relief!) that the front of the bus had some kind of advertisement for detergent…

The occasional car bumper sticker, where particularly relevant, can also provide cause for hilarity. Like the one that read "DON'T STEAL - The government doesn't like competition"! While this would admittedly have great resonance in many developing countries, the massive amounts apparently "missing" (i.e. presumably misappropriated by someone!) in the post-occupation administrations of Iraq - including the US-led administration - as well as the recent peerages scandal in the UK, indicate that this sentiment may have wider currency!

In India, linguistic innovation often takes the form of deliberately misspelling words in some mistaken attempt to make the product more appealing or "cute". Hence, the billboards in most Indian cities are strewn with fictitious words such as "krunchie" and" cheezee". And of course, the ubiquitous South Asian tendency towards "nakami" is evident in the pouting women and prancing men (which can be entertaining in small doses!)

Fortunately, in Bangladesh (while also suffering from"nakami") we have opted for the far more amusing (however unintentionally so!) option of simply using English words as we please. This leaves the meaning open to interpretation, and allows the reader to explore all kinds of possibilities! And in this regard, my personal favourite remains the Angels ELFRA establishment, the acronym standing for "Eternal Life Foundation Reformation and Reservation Organisation" (even if it doesn't quite match!), which assures its customers that it is attached to a "Homeo Health Complex" providing, among other services, "Sexual, Educare and Sleeming Point" (sic) - all of which of course really inspires confidence...!

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