The Blog Without A Name
So, as a linguist and a native Texan, I do feel obliged to comment upon the recent article
in the New York Times
about the so-called "Texas Twang". It's largely an accurate and good-humored exposition of the topic, until you get to this section:
The opposite syndrome, known as r-lessness, which renders "four" as "foah" in Texas and elsewhere, is easier to trace, Dr. Bailey said. In the early days of the republic, plantation owners sent their children to England for schooling. "They came back without the `r,' " he said.
This claim makes a certain amount of sense at first glance -- afterall, wasn't England the model of elite culture for over a century after the American Revolution? The problem is that this elite culture had always constituted a tiny proportion of the population. Literacy itself was comparatively rare: no more than about a third of the population was literate in the US on average, and that figure would have been much smaller in the poorer South. But the claim compounds this problem, because it also assumes a large number of people had enough money to cross the Atlantic
to get their educations. The number of such people would have been so spectacularly small in comparison to the rest of the colonists that their speech patterns simply were swamped by surrounding dialects. No, the real cause for nonrhoticity is likely a result of settlement patterns from the UK.
The other big problem with this article is that r-lessness is, at least in my experience, extremely rare in most parts of the state. Texas had a rather complicated settlement pattern
. The very first Anglo settlers, the "Old 300" from Missouri, carried with them their broadly upper Southern dialect features with them, including rhoticity. Missourians and Tennesseans predominated for decades, settling largely in the northern and west-central Texas. Settlers from the Deep South, from Alabama and Mississippi, settled largely in southern East Texas, from Nacogdoches down to north of Beaumont, and east-central Texas. Louisianans settled almost exclusively along the Gulf Coast. R-lessness is common only in these latter three states, and seems not to have reached very far
into Texas (on that map represented maximally in blue).
Another problem: the well-known raising or diphthongization of front vowels /I/ and /E/ before nasals, resulting in the "pen"/"pen" merger, which is common throughout the South, is alive and well. Indeed, it may well have even been further generalized to apply to /&/ also. (It certainly is in my case: the vowel quality of my "pan" is remarkably close to a Northerner's "pen".) The claim that notions of sophistication have anything to do with this is hard to fathom; most Texans are almost certainly unaware that there are dialects where they are not homophonous. If any reinstitution of the previous contrast is occurring, I strongly suspect that this is an effect of the writing system which, of course, still distinguishes the vowels. (Because the merger is conditioned, Texans of course still distinguish /I/ and /E/ in "pit" and "pet".)
ON THE SCREEN
, by Akira Kurosawa. So many of Kurosawa's works are devoted to exploring the internal structure of human societies
: what classes or castes there are, and how they relate to one another. They are also usually fully Japanese movies in being set in Japan, having Japanese casts and dialogue, and taking on Japanese social institutions.
This movie is different in all these respects. Dersu Uzala
is set in the frozen wastes of Siberia, during the early 20th century under the imperial rule of the Russian Tsars, and has a mostly Russian cast. The plot is equally un-Japanese. Alentiev, a Russian cartographer, has been sent by the goverment to survey and chart the topography of the Russian far East, near the border with China. In doing so, he runs across the eponymous Goldi tribesman, Dersu Uzala, an old man who lost his wife and children to a small-pox epidemic decades before. Profoundly tied to nature and animist notions of humanity's relationship with it, Dersu is scorned by Alentiev's troops who think him backward and uncouth. Alentiev is more tolerant, and asks Dersu to be their guide in this rugged and relatively unknown wilderness. As their journey progresses, taking the company sometimes through breath-takingly beautiful open expanses, the Russians come to appreciate Dersu's talents for survival in an unforgiving land, for his ability to observe and respond to crises. His remarkable aim; his ability to track down animal and man from subtle changes in the environment; his defense of Alentiev from a bitterly cold blizzard on a wide open plain by creating a make-shift thatch hut; his repair of a traveller's hut and providing provisions for future travellers. All of these show Dersu to be a wily yet compassionate man. In time, Dersu is not only their guide, but a fast friend.
After Alentiev's first expedition is completed, Dersu and he part company, only to find each other some years later on a second surveying expedition. Dersu is again many times invaluable to Alentiev, saving him and his troops from certain death. On one of these travels, the company are walking along a forest path when Dersu stops, noticing an animal's trail. They soon discover that no less than a tiger has been prowling the vicinity. They scare it off, but Dersu is visibly scared, for tigers are a special manifestation of his god Kanga's will. The tiger returns, and Dersu and Alentiev are forced to shoot at it. This deeply disturbs Dersu, who feels he has fundamentally violated his special relationship with the wild. No longer able to shoot, or sense his way through the forest, he eventually asks Alentiev if he may come to live with Alentiev in Vladivostok. His life in Vladivostok proves emotionally crushing and rather than freeing him of the forest has in fact thrown his dependence on it into sharp relief. The mysterious circumstances of his ensuing death are thus all too eery.
Unlike virtually all the rest of Kurosawa's films, society usually plays almost no direct
role, but remains backgrounded. But clearly, the film addresses a clash of cultures which make vastly different assumptions about man's place in the world, and his control over it. Probably the best way to explain this is by reference to another myth about civilized man coming into contact and befriending the Noble Savage: the Epic of Gilgamesh
. Like Gilgamesh
's Enkidu, Dersu's contact with Civilization forces him to make a dangerous exisentential choice between innocence and being in harmony with nature on the one hand, and the confining and artificial comforts of city-life on the other. And like Enkidu, the choice is one that ultimately kills him. (This analogy should not be taken too far. Alentiev, though civilized like Gilgamesh, has in no sense exaggerated qualities analogous to Gilgamesh, who was 2/3 divine and stronger than all other men.)
This film is, quite possibly, one of Kurosawa's finest. Few other films have managed to capture on the screen the vastness, and quietness, of wilderness untouched by civilization, while making profound statements about man existing in that wilderness (though The Fast Runner
comes close). Dersu Uzala
is worthy of any cinema buff's home collection.
Ultracool quote of the day:
Sigismund (1361-1437), Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, gave this answer to a prelate who, at the Council of Constance in 1414, had objected to His Majesty's grammar:
"Ego sum rex romanus, et supra grammaticam."
The point of blogs being self-indulgence, it's about time I tell the world what my favorite movies are. That would be a tough question, of course; when you get into the very, very top bracket of film quality, any ranking you might give is largely meaningless. Films like that will cover such a wide array of issues that there is frequently little or no basis for comparison. Here're ones that I've liked, though, in roughly descending order:
, by Hiroshi Inagaki
2. Wild Strawberries
, by Ingmar Bergman
3. Seven Samurai
, by Akira Kurosawa
4. Thone of Blood
, by Akira Kurosawa
5. The Seventh Seal
, by Ingmar Bergman
6. Through a Glass Darkly
, by Ingmar Bergman
, by Akira Kurosawa
8. The Satyricon
, by Federico Fellini
9. Atarnajuat, the Fast Runner
, by Zacharias Kunuk
, by Akira Kurosawa
, by Akira Kurosawa
12. A Clockwork Orange
, by Stanley Kubrick
13. Slaughterhouse Five
, by George Roy Hill
14. 10th Victim
, by Elio Petri
15. High and Low
, by Akira Kurosawa
16. Red Beard
, by Akira Kurosawa
, by Andrei Tarkovsky
, by Fritz Lang
19. Umberto D.
, by Vittorio de Sica
20. La Notte
, Michelangelo Antonioni
21. Open City
, by Aldo Fabrizi
22. Dersu Uzala
, by Akira Kurosawa
23. Autumn Sonata
, by Ingmar Bergman
24. Citizen Kane
, by Orson Wells
, by Luchino Visconti
So, some comments. (1) It's obvious that I have an Akira-Kurosawa-problem, because an unhealthy number of his movies show up in this list. (2) Equally obviously, I might be taken to be one of those who can't stand most Hollywood movies. That's a fairly accurate portrayal. (I mean, seriously, I didn't even like Gone with the Wind
all that much, and Citizen Kane
is, IMHO, overrated.) (3) A number of directors simply don't do it for me, or do so only inconsistently. I really enjoyed Visconti's Ossessione
and Fellini's The Satyricon
(the latter perhaps because of my classicist training), but La Terra Trema
by those respective directors just seemed to drag on.
Most of the films are fairly old, and so lack a lot of the snazziness possible in modern movies, but I think that at the same time gives them a certain mystique. A lot of these are also good, in part, because the director got handed to him a great plot: Throne of Blood
(both based on Shakespeare plays), Chushingura
, The Satyricon
, and Atarnajuat
are all like this, as is most of the rest of the list. Thus when you combine a world-class plot with world-class directors and cast, you almost have to try not
to produce a great movie for it to be bad. Anyways, these are just some off-the-cuff musings.
Been reading this book on phonological knowledge (Phonological Knowledge: Conceptual and Empirical Issues
) for the editor of General Linguistics
. Lotsa stuff to say here, but of course I can't because then I can't publish, so I'll just say something trite. Namely: apparently, both humans and chinchillas possess the ability to distinguish plain voiceless and voiceless aspirated stop consonants. Who knew?
In other linguistics news (as well as philosophical, historical and political), the only recent find has been John Goldsmith
of Robert Barsky's Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent
, in which he veritably rips a new one for both Barsky and Chomsky in a way that can only be appreciated by reading the thing. You know you're reading a great review when you find yourself actually rooting
for one side. Ever wanted to know why some people have problems on multiple levels with Chomsky? This is the place to start.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
The Fall of Constantinople, 1453
by Steven Runciman. Historians have traditionally been one of two types: either they fill you full of the complications of trends and events and men, thus overloading your senses and making your eyes glaze as you read page after page; or they paint a pretty picture for you, stunning in its poetic elegance and allure, but not always managing to weave analysis and fact into that work. Runciman in this book manages, somewhat amazingly, to avoid the pitfalls of both extremes of historical scholarship, and that fact is all the more surprising given the subject matter.
To start with, the book is very narrowly focused: it's basically a monograph, only 191 pages in length, covering the years immediately preceding and following the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453. At such a level, it would have been almost impossible to avoid making all kinds of assumptions about your background in Byzantine history. This is not to say that if you don't know the ins and outs of how the former Imperial family of the Cantacuzeni related to the reigning Palaeologi, what a Megadux
is, or why Constantine XI caused so much consternation by reestablishing the relations between Eastern and Western Christianity, you will find this work useless to you. It does have a few chapters of introduction that explore the state of the Empire in the early to mid 15th century and how it got there, and you will certainly get much of what you need there. But the work is simply not oriented to the beginning student of Byzantine history.
That having been said, the work is really quite breathtaking in its beauty. There's a subtle melancholy that haunts the entire work. It's usually not quite explicitly stated, but lies just close enough to the surface to make the reader feel like they are bearing witness to some great, preordained tragedy in human affairs. At key points in the story, Runciman reminds you of the fundamental pessimism the Byzantines held about their future: of "prophecies" that had been told centuries before that Constantinople would one day fall and under what conditions it would fall. When the crisis came, when Mehmet II rolled his giant cannons before the Mesoteichion, the city's famous triple walls, Runciman brings you right into Imperial councils, and makes dramatically clear how desperate the city's situation was. The populace losing confidence when hail disrupts a religious procession; the Emperor needing to sell state properties to maintain a minimal ration of food; the Venetians and Genoese nearly causing civil war when they can't past administrative differences. And then we learn that end finally came when someone left a door in the wall unlatched.
Runciman manages thus to turn a rather mundane military episode in medieval history into a pivotal turning point. Probably the most touching episode is the Emperor's closing speech to his countrymen, which ought to be repeated in full:
Constantine told his hearers that the great assault was about to begin. To his Greek subjects, he said that a man should always be ready to die either for his faith or his country or his family or his sovereign. Now his people must be prepared to die for all four causes. He spoke of the glories and high traditions of the great Imperial city. He spoke of the perfidy of the infidel Sultan who had provoked the war in order to destroy the True Faith and to put his false prophet in the seat of Christ. He urged them to remember they were the descendants of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome and to be worthy of their ancestors. For his part, he was ready to die for his faith, his city and his people....
And die for his people he did: as the Sultan's janissaries and crack troops poured forth through the breach in the defenses, the Emperor "flung off his imperial insignia" and charged forth into the melee, and "was never seen again". In fact, this was more or less literally true: the only evidence ever adduced that the body claimed to be his was his were the socks found on one body bearing the imperial Eagle. Whatever the case, the reader cannot help but be moved to compassion for a lost cause so bravely and self-effacingly fought.
Perhaps the only genuinely salient problem in the book is Runciman's characterization of Mehmet II. Mehmet is in Runciman's eyes usually a conniving, perfidious autocrat who performs gratuitous purges of perceived threats to his authority. Mehmet's ambiguous sexuality -- he once executed all the leading members of one leading Byzantine family because the father refused to obey Mehmet's demand that his son join his harem -- also makes him out to be a ruler incapable of controlling his own desires. The natural conclusion, of course, is that Constantinople is just another of these desires. Now, of course, there's every reason to believe these facts to be true; they certainly echo throughout the rest of Turkish history. But what distinguishes the gruesomeness of Mehmet II from many a Byzantine emperor themselves? Certainly Mehmet's tyrrany wasn't qualitatively different from that of Phocas
, and perhaps even better, since his summary executions were mostly limited to the elite. So why doesn't Runciman point this out? (To be fair, he does mention episodes where the Sultan's fancy makes him generous to individuals or conquered communities, and Mehmet got on quite well with the Patriarch he had installed soon after the conquest.)
In summary, the book is best for those who've already read some about Byzantine history, and want to see a master of the field at work.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
So I finally finished that book on Texas history, Texas Republic
by William Ransom Hogan. (I was really tempted to go ahead and write the review right there and then, but being one never to write a review before I finish (wink wink), I held off.) And it was, indeed, quirky. The book purports to be a history of the Republic of Texas, that brief moment in Texas history when no outside colonial power managed (or cared) to impose itself on the region. These were the days of the Alamo and Goliad, and larger-than-life figures like William Travis, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. Those stories -- the ones Texans usually tell to remind themselves how "glorious" their history is -- proved not
to be the story behind this work.
Rather, it discussed all the things you never hear about in Texas history: what kinds of newspapers people read, where (and whether) they went to Church, how reliable the mail was, what was expected of duellists, how people dealt with the wild fluctuations of mid-19th century economic booms and busts, in short, a social and economic history. And to that extent, this could have been only be a valuable contribution, given Texas historians' penchant for Great-Man histories devoid of any broader context. (In a certain sense, that makes the title a little misleading, with its overt political overtones, but this is a minor problem.) Great Men only enter into this work when they impinge on some social trend of the day -- e.g., Sam Houston's ironical advocacy of the temperance movement, given his unchecked alcoholism.
The book is full of interesting little vignettes that put the lie to many of the stereotypes about Texas both then and thereafter. Although formal religion did exist, its hold on the population was relatively tenuous compared to later times. Hogan reprints extended excerpts of the diary of one young Texan who clearly is wrestling with issues of doubt and faith, showing how human and down-to-earth the real frontiersmen actually could be. Education, too, is not the first thing that one associates with Texas in the early 19th century, and it is true that in such impoverished conditions it was hard to come by one. But Hogan cites a number of examples showing how schools and universities (such as they were) were held in high esteem, what kind of curricula students were expected to master, and where and how advanced students could hope to get jobs teaching. Sometimes this is almost poetic: take Hogan's discussion of a young boy practicing reciting (in Greek!) the speech of the Scythian ambassador to Alexander the Great before his black boy-servant under the light of the moon.
Which brings up a rather consistent flaw: in a work of social history, slavery and race-relations receive only passing mention, despite the central place in the Southern economy slavery held. It's not that you feel Hogan actually supports the Peculiar Institution; it's just that for all his discussion of the economic plight this agricultural society was going through, no mention is made of the fundamental backwardness that slavery imposed on economic progress. We never hear in any detail what life was like for blacks, Tejanos, and the Indian tribes. Probably the worst point is when Hogan mentions Mexican and Indian "depredations" on the Texians (as they then called themselves). Granted: this was a frontier society fundamentally characterized by racial and ethnic tension, and violence was done on all sides. But that doesn't excuse the lacuna of what amounted to ethnic cleansing.
The other major flaw is one not so much of spin as of a straight-forward failure to address probably the most important fact about the Republic of Texas: that it ceased to exist in February 1846 and was henceforth federated in the United States. Though this was a political act, pregnant within this act were a whole host of social factors that would have motivated the Texians to give up their newly won, and highly prized, independence. The bankrupt finances and worthless currency of the Republic; the external invasions both by Mexico (twice) and Indians (more or less constantly); the deleterious effects of the panic of 1837 on the demand for Texian agriculture; the 'Code of Honor' common to many Western countries which made otherwise rational political agents do really rash and stupid things (killing other peope, mainly) to avoid social ostracism; roving gangs of thugs and vigilantes that effectively formed a state within a state. All of these things clearly made for a climate of fundamental instability which, also given the ties of kinship and affection between the two countries, would make the democratic United States look like an appealing option. Thus, when the Texian Congress licensed a convention to discuss annexation and a new constitution, and then submitted both questions to the people in a referendum, it passed overwhelmingly: 4,245 to 257, and 4,174 to 312, respectively. Why doesn't Hogan tie these facts together into one broad generalization?
Hogan's book is valuable for a number of reasons, and is not a bad choice if you happen to run across it in a bookstore. But it is a work of its times, and should not really be taken as it appears in print but in the context of those times.