Archive for the ‘Language/Linguistics’ Category


What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: All the King’s Men

June 10, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at Indiana Humanities Council

Somehow, I escaped college and high school without reading many of the classics—a feat I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, but one that I now regret. So, I am constantly trying to weave in a few of those with my ever-expanding list of “new” novels. My current classic is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.

Set in the South during the 1930s, the story follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark—a farm boy turned governor, narrated by Jack Burden, Willie’s right-hand man. What I love most about this book is not it’s overarching themes—original sin, responsibility, love, hatred, etc.,–it’s that each sentence Warren writes is ripe with imagery—whether it’s Willie’s stump speech, an apartment building or his mother’s demeanor towards men.

Willie Stark is bigger than life–so big, in fact, he has to be fiction. Or is he? Some say he’s patterned after politician Huey Long, and we can all pull a few traits out of ol’ Willie that have infected even our favorite politicians. But what about Jack Burden? Anne Stanton? Like any good novel, the characters are bursting with fictional and non-fictional experiences, choices and thoughts.

There are many classics that I avoid reading, some for sheer length, but this should not be one of them. “All the King’s Men,” is a great, timeless novel that offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into 1920s and 1930s politics in the South. History? Check. Poetry? Literature? Check, check. Politics and law? Check, check. Entertainment? CHECK.

Does Warren present an accurate portrayal of what you think  politics were like in the South during the 20s and 30s? Why should we continue to read about fictional politics from the past?


Salman Rushdie and I, Rushing to the Singularity

August 27, 2008

Sometimes the world moves in ways that force you think about specific topics and that topic for me is Salman Rushdie.

I read Stanley Fish’s column over at the New York Times. And in a column on Sunday he wrote a complaint about some recent statements that Rushdie made about Random House refusing to publish Sherry Jones’ debut novel. I don’t have any opinions about Jones or her novel, because I know nothing of either, save what I found out in Fish’s column.

And at first I thought very little of Fish’s column other than his opening sentence was immature and snarky–an attitude that Fish routinely adopts to no good purpose. Rushdie is not “the self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment” as Fish asserts. To be one would hardly have done Rushdie a lot of good since his self-expression was put in jeopardy–along with his life–not by the U.S. government but by Iranian mullahs. And if Rushdie were championing a First Amendment cause in his criticism of Random House, someone in Fish’s line of work should hardly be diminishing the effort by saying that they were “at it again” as if fighting the good fight for free expression were nothing more than a dog barking at the moon. It’s also funny that a guy with a built-in soap box at the New York Times would criticize Rushdie (or anyone else) from attempting to get their opinions printed in the newspaper. And…

OK, I’ll admit it, as per usual I thought a lot about Fish’s article and what I thought made me mad. Some of what I thought about Fish’s article appeared here, at Language Log, another blog I read regularly. Bill Poser, the blogger at LL who wrote on Fish’s column found ways to make me even more angry. It turns out Fish’s reading of “censorship” was not just overly narrow and therefore wrong. It turns out he’d actually altered the facts of the case to fit his argument better. Harumph! (He has since corrected one his alterations/omissions).

And then! Over at the Sycamore Review blog (which I linked to yesterday) I stumbled across this post from earlier this month which directed me to this article on the most recently added book to my Incredibly Long Reading List.


Preserving Our Language

July 25, 2008

In writing about the Salish people of western Montana, I mentioned their language. Native American languages are among those in danger of disappearing, but the Salish are employing interesting and successful methods to preserve their language.

For example, they are using a version of the International Phonetic Alphabet to write down the words in a script that captures their sound. They are also learning, from their elders, the Salish names for places in their traditional homeland — names that are often a capsule history — and putting them on road signs in both English and the phonetic script. Finally, they have elementary schools for language immersion and an impressive tribal college, a highlight of our visit.

One of my colleagues happened to strike up a conversation with some non-natives and told them about these efforts at language preservation. The huffy response: “Someone should work on preserving English!”

Well, there’s an idea. It’s a little late, though. Old English, also known as Anglo Saxon, lost its purity when the Vikings invaded the British Isles beginning in the eighth century and again during the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought a flood of French derivations into the language. Then came my favorite linguistic event, the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the sound of Middle English entirely. Finally, a myriad of different cultures donated their vocabularies to English, which is why we don’t get on the phone and order an “Italian pie” for supper. Oh yes, and we Americans, along with the Canadians and Australians and so on, have participated in both the spread and corruption of the English language.

Perhaps the next question is what will happen to English in the age of the Internet. It will continue to evolve because it is the language of a living culture, just as the Salish language belongs to a living and thriving culture. The point is that it has always been, and will still be, English.

Side note: The Anglo Saxons had this odd sound in their language, represented by the letter called thorn. It’s the diphthong “th,” and it doesn’t exist in most other languages. That’s why English language learners have a tough time with “the” and will often say “zee” or “da” (da Bears) instead. (I’m sure the Anglo Saxons would enjoy knowing that.)

This entry was posted by: Nancy

¿Cuando volverás de la luna?

July 2, 2008

One of the blogs I’m subscribed to is the Spanish Club blog from Ball State. No particular reason other than that they post in Spanish and I occassionally need to read something in Spanish for fear of losing a skill I quit my previous job in order to obtain.

Yep, language is Serious Business for this here lonely blogger.

At any rate, I have no idea why they’re doing this but a couple of days back they started writing “letters from the moon” and I’ve read every one. Rather than try to articulate what it is that I like about this as a language or a creative writing exercise, I will try to explain what it has done to the blog reading I do every day.

Imagine this. You’re going through your mail: bill bill bill bill coupons advertisement bill letter. Oooh! A Letter!. So you open it. You with me so far? I think we’ve all had that moment, that billbillbillLETTER moment. How exciting! You open it up and start reading.

I’m writing you from the moon…” it begins.

I was nonplussed.

I have to say, the incongruity of reading the Indianpolis Star, the Indian Law Blog, the Historic Preservation blog and then a letter from the moon, it made my day.

If you can read Spanish, you might want to head over there for a bit of a distraction. But you have to imagine the Byronic hero that’s writing to you from the moon, try to imagine who’s more distant and strange the author or the glowing rock they are writing from. It makes the exercise more fun.

And Spanish Club folks, if you can measure your subscribers, I am one of them. Y ahora lo saben.


Humanities and the Future of Law

June 26, 2008

In the paper “LSAT Scores of Economic Majors” in the Journal of Economic Education, Michael Nieswiadomy lists the average LSAT scores of the top 29 academic majors. While there’s no cut-and-dry rule for what majors are or are not Humanities disciplines there’s fairly wide acceptance on three: Philosophy, English, and History. And how did those three rank?

  • Philosophy/Religion came in at #2 (below only Physics/Math);
  • History came in at #8 and
  • English just below that in 9th place.

Social sciences (large aspects of which are Humanities-related) were all over the board

  • International Relations, #4;
  • Government/Service #6;
  • Anthropology/Geography, #7,
  • Other Social Science, #11;
  • Psychology, #16,
  • Sociology, #23, and
  • Criminology, #29.

Foreign Languages was #13.

It is most intersting, and telling, that Prelaw and Criminology were #28 and #29 respectively of those ranked and both were well below the sample mean.

Not that I want to encourage Hoosier humanists to pursue careers in law, but I don’t see anything wrong with encouraging those about to pursue a career in law to get an educational foundation in the Humanities.


Online Writing

June 24, 2008

Reading a short Slate piece this morning directed me to this essay on online writing/reading by Caleb Crain. Much of this essay addresses my own concerns and mirrors some of my own reflections on the topic (and I too have a personal blog that is rarely read, but serves as the inspiration for much of these reflections).

The observation here is particularly astute (or at least accurate to my own situation):

This willingness in readers to overlook form raises a question as to whether online writing entertains, in the traditional sense of the word. I am not sure that it does. Reading online does not seem to me to be a pleasure in itself but a response to irritation. That is, it is not like eating an ice cream cone; it is like scratching an itch. I am only reporting on my own feelings here, of course, but while I am doing so, let me report a further kink in them. Between us, my boyfriend and I subscribe to more than a dozen magazines, and if I pick one up, I know instantly that I am goofing off. Online reading, however, fails to set off my leisure detection system. Part of the failure may be perceptual—online reading takes place while I’m sitting in front of my laptop, immobilized, as I am when working. But I think, too, that online writing may, even in its supposedly silly moments, be covertly work-like: there is a fair amount of tedium in its unedited prose. Many of the jokes and references are only comprehensible to regular visitors. No one, my hit counter tells me, reads blogs on the weekend. And reading online prose is not refreshing. An action movie leaves the viewer juiced; a novel may leave the reader wistful. But reading blogs, in my experience, leaves me more addled and nervous than when I began. This work-like character makes the internet particularly corrosive , by the way, to the productivity of those who work at home, such as writers. Through web browsing, the freelancer communes with the procrastinating office drone—at his peril, because the freelancer receives no weekly paycheck.

This workiness is exaggerated in those who, like me, maintain personal blogs and work blogs. It confuses the line between work-related reading/writing and funtime-related reading/writing. Work becomes more enjoyable but leisure becomes more work-like blending together into seamless tedium. This is probably a situation not too far different than lifetime readers who pursue graduate literature degrees, but perhaps more detrimental in the way Crain describes above, the PhD student, afterall, can use leisurely reading in future research.


Friday Blincoln Blog

June 20, 2008

When Lincoln was running for president he was routinely called “the western candidate” or “the candidate from the West” and other variations. In that time the western states truly were backwaters and the people from the area were often demeaned as hayseeds, rubes, and the like. Casting Lincoln in that role was purposeful baiting. Stephen Douglas, during his historic debates with the future Emancipator, referred explicitly and implicitly to Lincoln’s less-than-cosmopolitan upbringing as a way of turning the crowds against him.

Of course such political liabilities have been turned on their heads in recent years. Contemporary presidents have all made every effort to downplay their elite childhoods or Ivy League educations. Bill Clinton, although a Rhodes Scholar, famously ate at McDonalds during his morning jogs and wore boxers. His nickname was “Bubba.”

George Bush and Ronald Reagan were sure to get photographed on their ranches. Et cetera.

Although we now look back on Lincoln’s childhood in rural Kentucky and Indiana as a kind of moral play–an inspiration for poor children across the country–Lincoln was never proud of it. He refused to romanticize the life of subsistence farming as many of his political contemporaries did, and he was ashamed of his lack of formal education.

But Lincoln was a powerful intellect by any measure. Although he lacked the advantage of a schoolroom, he was sure to provide himself the education he needed. As this Lincoln Bicentennial blog reminds us, Lincoln was a book devourer, famously reading borrowed books by candle and fire lights. He taught himself to write by scratching the alphabet onto the dirt on a shovel, and so on and so on.

But my favorite image of Lincoln’s dogged pursuit of self-edification is one remembered by a colleague of Lincoln’s while they were sharing a room while running the court circuit–of having come home from some event or other that Lincoln was curiously absent from. Returning to their room he opened the door to find Lincoln surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper, his fingers stained with ink. After having worked his way through much of Euclid’s geometry on his own, Lincoln had spent the evening trying to square the circle.

It is hard to think of any modern politicians being so distracted.

Photo from flickr user Angie C used under Creative Commons License.


Sameer Mishra wins Scripps National Spelling Bee

June 9, 2008

Congratulations to West Lafayette resident Sameer Mishra, who, with the winning word of guerdon is the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.

A guerdon, for those of you who, like me, have no idea what it means, is a reward or prize, an accolade–which, to me, seems a pretty fitting word to win with.

This here You Tube clip starts with the numnah/numbnut bit that you may have already seen on the news and then highlights various words he spelled on his way to victory. Unfortunately the huge AP logo blocks the correct spelling of each word so let me assure you, he spells them all right.


The Other Cultural View

May 29, 2008

Like a lot of people, I sometimes use Wikipedia to check a quick fact (“Fargo is not the capital of North Dakota?!). I wasn’t quite satisfied, though, with the Wikipedia entry for the word “kata,” an idea that is central to Japanese culture.

Wikipedia tells us that kata are choreographed patterns of movements, primarily in the martial arts. My sense of kata is more general: that there are certain traditional “ways” of doing things, such as the way of Zen, the way of writing, the way of business, and so on.

At first glance, it seems that the cultural message is not to deviate from that which is taught. But I think it becomes something else: to understand thoroughly in order to know what alternatives exist. When you learn what is correct, you are ready to innovate.

Such a concept is not natural to us in the West, in other words, not intuitive in our culture. The great value of Eastern thought, it seems to me, is to show us what we are not and thus what we are.

Still, I can think of two places in American culture where the intense discipline of kata can be found. One is sports — so perhaps the martial arts are in fact the proper venue for kata. The other is computer programming, where knowing what is correct is the entrance to much innovation. Not surprisingly, there is such a thing as Code Kata.

Boye Lafayette De Mente has a good book on Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese.

This entry was posted by: Nancy