Standing On The Shoulders Of Pygmies

A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine and fellow Church of God intellectual, Craig White, posted a timeline to go along with a paper he had previously written about the pioneers of the Church of God, which I happened to find on under my most popular papers of the week:


In looking at this particular timeline I was hit fairly rapidly with a variety of thoughts and questions.  Is this list arbitrary or is there a logic behind it?  How is it that I know so many of the people on this list, that someone as obscure as myself would be not that far from the greatness that these men represent to so many?  Why do I feel such a strong degree of ambivalence about this list and the way that certain people are considered to be experts here?  Although my own perceptions about these pioneers of the Worldwide Church of God are likely to be somewhat different than the perceptions that the timeline’s maker has, and likely that the majority of my readers will have, I thought it worthwhile at least to share my own reflections, as conflicted as they may be.

The timing of the posting of the timeline was itself highly significant in my estimation, coming as it did at or around Father’s Day.  It seems likely to me, at least, that Craig White was making a statement that the men on this timeline were in many ways the father of the faith that I hold to and that is held to by many of this blog’s readers–though by no means all or even most.  A still larger portion, perhaps, of people will be somewhat familiar with at least a few of the names on this list for one reason or another, either because of a prior background with the Church of God themselves or because of a fondness for the terrifying art of Basil Wolverton, a man responsible for a few of my childhood’s many nightmares, though fewer than my father, alas.  Most of the people on this list have died although a few remain alive, including one of the gentlemen I know personally, although I must admit he is not particularly fond of me.  For all of my considerable ambivalence towards many of the names on this list, there is certainly a debt to which I and those of my generation owe to these people for having worked out and researched and blazed a trail for a faith which I and many still hold in our hearts and follow to the best of our modest abilities in our conduct.  If that debt cannot be paid, it should at least be recognized honestly and as graciously as possible.

Besides paying a debt in a general sense, there are at least a few people on this list to which my debt is more personal in nature.  Despite the disappointment of his refusal to stand up to the corruption of the 1990’s Worldwide Church of God, I met Herman Hoeh near the end of his life when we sat near each other while watching Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  We had a friendly talk during the intermission and I have found his compendium to be a worthwhile read [1] as well as an inspiration for some of the titles of my blog entries [2].  Anyone who teaches me a useful word and opens up my mind to an obscure genre of literature that I enjoy writing is worthy of having that debt recognized.  After the death of Dean Blackwell, I ended up with some of his books in my own personal library, and anyone who enriches my library, however unintentionally, deserves my praise and respect.  Leroy Neff has a connection to me through Pittsburgh, Gerald Waterhouse through his own epic sermons as well as through his brother [3], and Dibar Apartian through his descendants.  My father attended Roderick Meredith’s Global and then Living Church of God for many years and viewed him with a great deal of respect. As I alluded to earlier, I know Leon Walker and some members of his family personally, even if our memories of each other are not uniformly positive.  These are men whose lives have touched my own personally.  My life would certainly have been different without those personal encounters or indirect influence, and would likely be at least somewhat poorer.

Yet even I feel compelled to give honor to these people in recognition of the debt I owe them, and that are owed by those who like me were born and have grown up under the influence of the papers and books written and doctrines expounded by these men, I feel as if there is a great deal left to do.  When I look back on the generations before me in the Church of God, I am struck by a great deal of sadness at so much ground has yet to be covered, how many truths have yet to fully sink into our practices, how many implications have yet to catch our attention and our interest.  There has been a great deal of effort spent to preserving what these men (and others) uncovered in their own research of the Bible and what they said and wrote during the course of mostly long and productive lives, but their efforts were a beginning, and there is much that these men did not even begin to accomplish that remains for us to do.  Will the efforts of our generation be viewed with timelines and with calls to honor us for our contributions?  Whether we feel like we are standing on the shoulders of giants or pygmies, the record of those who came before us lays down a challenge for us to accept, a standard for us to surpass, and a foundation on which to stand.  Let us hope that the foundation is a sound one, and that we leave our institutions in better hands than we found them, that we recover the best of what we have lost, retain the best of what we have been given, and reach for the best of what we have yet to attain.  Much work remains to be done.  Much work has not even begun.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:


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Book Review: Gettysburg: You Are There

Gettysburg:  You Are There, by Robert Clasby

This book was instructive, which is perhaps a bit surprising given its utter simplicity.  The most interesting part of the book was the way the author discussed how he took photos and re-engineered them with the help of other photos of reenactors to make them look as if they were actual photos of the 1863 battlefield.  As someone who reads a fair amount of books about Gettysburg [1] and a lot about the Civil War in general, I am intrigued by looking at what sort of audience a book is aiming at, and in this case I think it is clear that the author is aiming at the audience of readers who want to imagine themselves in the immensely significant scenes of this important Civil War battle, one which appears to have largely ruined Lee’s ability to conduct successful offensive warfare.  Since the vast majority of people who want to imagine themselves fighting the civil war are pro-Confederate, this side largely focuses on them, as one can see from the cover of the book alone.  This has a great importance in the book’s contents, as we will shortly see.

In terms of its contents, this book is very straightforward.  The book begins with an introduction and prelude that sets the context for the battle of Gettysburg and then contains photos that show the places of the most intense fighting on the three days of battle.  After that the author discusses how to tour the battlefield with this book as well as how the images were created, showing what factors the author considers of the most importance in looking at this battle.  The book contains a striking lack of maps for one that seeks to encourage people to see themselves in the battle, but it appears that the vision the author has in mind is more based on mental imagination of the place based on a reconstruction of what it would have looked like rather than an understanding that includes a reflection on the influence of war on society or an understanding of issues like topography.  As a result, this book is somewhat strikingly superficial, and one that will likely engage most those readers whose understanding of the battle of Gettysburg is the most shallow and the most focused on vicarious dreams of personal glory through bravery in battle.

There are some consequences of the book’s focus on the men of grey, and the fact that the author focuses so much attention on his efforts at realistic photography.  Ultimately, this book has nothing new to say about the battle itself.  The importance of this book is the way in which it demonstrates an attempt to make the battle more psychologically realistic to those who want to imagine themselves refighting it, perhaps with a different outcome.  As a result, the book has nothing to say about the experience of the battle to traumatized civilians, to say nothing of the horrors the rebel army inflicted on the free black population of the area, nor does it even have anything to say about the way the battle itself was a mistake that largely finished off the Army of Northern Virginia as an offensive force.  Rather, this is a book that attempts to glorify the rebel army and to place it in a context of encouraging the wishes for glory on the part of its readers.  Yet it was precisely the horrific nature of the battle that gave it so many glorious moments that gave it such a destructive importance as well.  The same battle that gave us moving scenes like the combat in the railway cut on the first day or the suicidal charges of outnumbered Union units buying time for Meade to reconstruct his defenses on Cemetery Ridge or the doomed and wasteful nature of Pickett’s charge led to the killing and maiming of over 50,000 men in the course of three days, the sort of waste of human life that would lead a slightly later generation to write morose poetry of a lost generation.  And yet such a tragic waste of life for among the worst causes for which men have fought leads the author to write a book seeking to glorify and celebrate the supposed bravery of the men of grey, and occasionally of the blue as well.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Gettysburg: The Story Of The Battle With Maps

Gettysburg:  The Story Of The Battle With Maps, by the Editors of Stackpole Books

If you enjoy looking at maps and getting a sense of the Battle of Gettysburg with a strong focus on possibility and the visual representation of the friction of war, this is definitely a worthwhile book.  Of course, I am no stranger to reading books about the Battle of Gettysburg [1], and this book definitely delivers a compelling picture of the tension and sense of possibility that existed in the Battle of Gettysburg, and how the initial timing of the battle influenced the course of the rest of the battle in subtle ways.  There is a lot to like about this book–to be sure, it is a short guide and does not include as much text as many other books would include, but all the same it is the sort of book that can greatly help a student of the Battle of Gettysburg get a sense of the importance of both timing and terrain in the course of the battle as a whole, and that is a lesson that would be greatly useful to many readers of military history and one that is likely to be appreciated.

The contents of this book are immensely straightforward, as might be expected.  A foreword includes the legend for how the map is organized before the authors give a prelude to the book that includes the context of the Chancellorsville campaign and its outcome as well as the state of the war in the West at the time and the factors that led to the encounter battle at Gettysburg.  Throughout the book the authors comment that Lee seemed not to take as much direct control as he might have been expected to, and as a result many subordinates were simply not at their best.  There are chapters for all three days of the battle, and a significant amount of space is shown dealing with the cohesion of various units as well as the possibilities and goals for each of the armies and the behavior of various generals, ending up about 150 pages total including the bibliography and acknowledgments.  Overall, this is not a book that will be too taxing to a student of military history who looks at this book as an aid to a study of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the authors even manage to include a great deal of detail about the importance of cavalry and artillery.

As a whole, this short book is an excellent guide to the battle if one wants to get a sense of the topography involved.  One gets a sense of the importance of terrain, and how some generals–Sickles comes off particularly poorly here–were lured by an incomplete understanding of terrain in order to seek high ground that was not supported by other units.  The importance of beats and timing as well as seizing momentum is covered here to a great degree, and there is much in this book that offers insight to those who wish to understand why battles work the way that they do.  The authors take a critical tone at many of the generals for their behavior, showing how petulance and a lack of creativity as well as some off days on the part of many officers led to the battle that developed.  While few of the readers of this book would ever apply the topographical insights that this book demonstrates, this is the sort of book that will at least make many readers more aware of the importance of terrain and timing in the way that battles work, which will at least make the audience of this book more savvy readers of military history and better armchair generals, which is itself a worthwhile achievement.

[1] See, for example:

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The Muslim Minority As Dhimmi

As someone who tends to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to concerns and fears about religious minorities, for somewhat personal reasons [1], it should probably come as little surprise that I view the recent terror attack on a crowd outside of a London mosque a bit differently than most people do.  There is much, for example, I find to be a bit craven that so many people feel it necessary to point out that they hate one form of terrorism as much as they do another as a way of pandering to a particular group.  Likewise, there is a great deal I find objectionable about attempts on the part of people within Western societies to appeal to sharia law as a legitimate source of law within Western society, not least because it is immensely hypocritical for biblical law to be viewed with such disrepute while inferior standards of law are accorded respect and honor because of fear on the part of those whose expressed opposition to religion depends on the harm they feel will result to them based on their expressed opposition.

The way that different religious minority populations deal with their status is quite instructive.  As a fond reader of Jewish history, for example, one comes across the phenomenon of the court Jew, a politically well-connected person who takes the troubles of the Jews of a given area to government leaders with whom he (or perhaps she) has built relationships so that those problems are smoothed over as quickly as possible.  This semi-official position, official within the Jewish population while unofficial within the host nation, allows for an informal backchannel to be developed that keeps religious tensions down and that rewards a peaceful and productive though often hated minority for behaving with restraint.  As someone of part-Jewish background and a high degree of anxiety and paranoia about the place for religious minorities within the areas I have lived, I can understand and appreciate a role that allows for the resolution of problems before they get out of hand, provided that the government is made of people who have a sufficiently high degree of concern for justice and equity.

Muslims, as a general rule, have not had an official doctrine concerning their status as minorities.  Throughout much of their history they have ruled over other religious populations, and in many cases there was a high degree of slightly enlightened pragmatism in the ways that they dealt with such populations as dhimmi.  The dhimmi was a protected minority but one that was clearly in a disadvantageous position relative to the dominant culture.  In practice, if not in doctrine, Western countries have adopted a mindset towards Muslims minorities that in general accords with the practice of giving peaceful Muslims an identity that corresponds with dhimmitude.  I find little that is objectionable in making this informal status a bit more formalized, or at least in laying out the implications of this view on the tensions between Muslims and the dominant Western culture in which many Muslims have sought refuge from the kurplunkistans from which they have fled in large numbers.

At its core, the dhimmitude of Muslims in the West represents an informal social contract whose outlines are becoming somewhat clear.  On the one hand, Muslim immigrants find in the West a safe place to reside that offers a certain base standard of living through programs of social welfare and that offers at least some freedom of opportunity for those willing to master the language and culture of their host countries.  On the other hand, though, such minorities are clearly seen as potentially dangerous populations where there are certain restrictions on the exercise of their religious beliefs and cultural traditions on humanitarian grounds.  For example, traditions of purdah or female circumcision or honor killings of females or childhood arranged marriages are either viewed with suspicion, restricted, or outright forbidden.  As the religious law of Muslims is not compatible with the Judeo-Christian background of law in the West, the dominant moral and legal tradition takes precedence, where there is freedom to exercise religion where it does not contradict with the higher law.  This generally informal social contract corresponds particularly well to the traditional Muslim practices, although with the shoe on the other foot, and recognizes that Muslims come from civilizations whose ways are not our ways.

How do we expect Muslims to respond to the anxiety and insecurity that comes from being a legally protected but generally unpopular minority?  Different groups have adopted different strategies to deal with this reality.  As we have previously discussed, the Jewish community has become hyperconnected and sought informal ambassadors with access to centers of power to defend the interests of the community.  Other religious minorities, like the Amish, have set up private communities where alien religious ways are viewed with respect and curiosity and interest because there is clearly no desire to control the majority culture and the maintenance of such ways forms a subtle and implicit rebuke to the moral decline of that majority culture.  Other minorities, like the Catholics or Mormons, have adopted a strategy which denies the existence of wide and unbridgeable gaps between majority and minority culture, making a case for acceptance and toleration without stigmatization.  In order for any of these strategies to work, though, there needs to be a substantial degree of community policing of its own so that members of a given minority do not prove themselves to be obnoxious people who bring trouble on that larger community through evil conduct.  So far, at least, it appears that Muslims have been unwilling or unable to ensure that their community is viewed as peaceful and decent, if unusual, by others, and as a result, longstanding fears of antisocial conduct have only increased the anxiety of the Muslim populations viewed with hostility and suspicion wherever they exist as a minority.  Embracing the status of a dhimmi and acting accordingly is a way for the community as a whole to recognize that its place as a protected minority depends on its continued good conduct, and also encourages the larger population to protect peaceful minorities out of their own enlightened self-interest.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Story Of Yiddish

The Story Of Yiddish:  How A Mish-Mosh Of Languages Saved The Jews, by Neal Karlen

My own relationship with Judaism and the Jewish culture have long been deeply ambivalent and complicated.  Belonging from birth to an religious tradition that has a high degree of respect for Jewish law, I was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the Torah.  A couple of lines within my mother’s family can be traced to “Jewish” ancestry (one of which is a priestly line), and yet the Jewish parts of my own background acculturated a long time ago, with one line becoming filled with reform-minded Unitarian ministers and the other seemingly nonreligious.  In my own personal life my engagement with Jewish matters has been similarly halting and ambivalent, for my knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish is not particularly profound but I have traveled to Israel and prayed at the Western Wall and have an immense fondness for books relating to Jewish history and culture and mindset [1], of which this is one.  Moreover, it can be said that my own highly anxious temperament and tendency towards self-effacing humor and an existential struggle against despair are themselves at least in part a heritage of my background and family upbringing.  I say this at the outset because the author himself appears to be a cultural but not particularly religious Jew who has a similarly ambivalent but ultimately fond view of the culture and language about which he writes, and the ground from which I come is distinct but not unrelated.

The contents of this book, which take up about three hundred pages of material, are divided into fifteen chapters.  The author begins with encouragement to Gentile readers that one does not have to be Jewish to get Yiddish, just have the right mindset, a certain degree of compassion on other people and a sense of melancholy or self-loathing, of which this book is full.  The author then talks about Yiddishkeit, a concept that is repeated often, or the acceptable cultural way of Jewish thinking.  The author spends a few chapters discussing the soul of Yiddish, the complicated history of Yiddish and how it acquired words someone promiscuously from other languages, as well as the sounds and secrets of Yiddish.  The author spends time talking about the incessant tendency for Jews to ask questions, the relationship between Jews and celebrities, the hostility within the Yiddish-speaking community concerning the Chasidim (Hasidic movement), the envious nature of much Yiddish discourse concerning famous Yids like nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the way that old world shetl culture became imported into the Jewish ghettos of the United States, and what coming to America was like for both Jewish elites as well as common folk.  The author closes the book with a look at the institutions of Yiddish daily newspapers as well as the state of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in America today.

Ultimately, this book has a melancholy feel to it.  Yiddish as a language is always said to be dying, and there are many more scholars of the language than those who live it and breathe it.  Yet at the same time the author writes about aspects of Yiddish culture that are vibrant and growing.  In grounding his book on Yiddish in history, the author uncovers a great deal of humor, but the humor has a dark edge to it.  Those who forsake Judaism retain some aspect of their culture about them, there are concerns about assimilation, about what it means to be a Jew, and about the relationship between Jews and themselves, each other, outsiders, and even to God.  Obviously, a book like this is most of interest to those who have a fondness for or a connection to the world of American Jewry, but at the same time those who read this book deeply are likely to have the sort of nagging feeling after laughter where one returns to reality a bit sadder and wiser despite having found much to laugh about here.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: By Hook Or By Crook

By Hook Or By Crook:  A Journey In Search Of English, by David Crystal

As someone who greatly enjoys reading about the origins and the tortured history of the English language [1] and languages in general, I found this book to be delightful if somewhat intentionally scattered.  Being a somewhat scatter-brained person myself, I can hardly object to a book that is delightfully random, though.  To be sure, this author does not take a different approach to language than most others in the field–he is describing language as it is or was, and not as it should be, and he seems to think that it is possible that the adherents of Standard English overstated the rules of spelling and grammar and included details that were sometimes irrelevant in conveying meaning in our written communication.  The fact that the author praises bloggers consistently is something that is well-calculated to obtain the goodwill of a prolific blogger like myself, though.  When all else fails in seeking a sympathetic hearing, an author can always appeal to the self-interest of the people reading and reviewing such a book, after all.  In reading this book, one gets a sense of the sort of person that the author is, and in general the author comes off as friendly and likable, the sort of chap that one would enjoy having a meal with or engaging in conversation while browsing large collections of used books.

In a bit under 300 pages, the author goes on a journey to see how English is spoken all over the world.  As a Brit, it is not too surprising that most of the places the author explores are in the British Isles, including a few locations in Wales (most of them in Gwynedd), the West Midlands of England as well as East Anglia, and a few places of interest in Europe, Africa, and the United States.  We read the author browsing for books, trying to determine if there is an official Euro-English or Canadian English dialect forming, and enjoying his communication with people with as diverse speaking habits of English as possible.  There is a clear love of language and of the people who speak them in this book, and that makes this a far less heavy-handed book than many linguistics books happen to be.  The author does not rant and generally portrays himself as being occasionally clueless and generally well-meaning, and the book sparkles with encounters between the author and ordinary people, where there are many questions about background and the complexity of dialect and accent.  Overall, it makes for an immensely enjoyable and often light-hearted read.

One of the areas of particular interest for the writer, and the subject of many of its chapters, is the origin of particular words and phrases and the ways that people shape a language through their own use of it.  Beyond the journeys of the author himself in terms of place, the journey through time of words and expressions as discussed here is quite entertaining as well.  This is a book that is full of useful knowledge and certainly an instructive book, but it is never pedantic or boring, rather focusing on providing learning through stories and also asking questions as to why some words catch on and others do not, or why some phrases and expressions are continually reinvented by those who fancy themselves original, or why some archaic aspects of grammar become new again and are viewed as new errors rather than old accepted forms returning to the language after a long absence.  One of the more entertaining aspects of this is the plural informations, which many speakers of Preferred American or Standard English tend to think of as entirely a singular word, but which was once plural.  If you enjoy an odd but pleasant excursion through the random expanse of the English language, this is definitely a book to enjoy.

[1] See, for example:

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Juneteenth: A Case Study In Acceptable Holidays

One of the more obscure holidays on the American calendar is that of Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, the day the Emancipation Proclamation became known in Texas.  Given that I have a somewhat critical attitude towards the celebration of many days [1], it may come as a surprise that I view Juneteenth as an entirely legitimate festival.  This is no mere personal judgment, but rather has a logical reason.  Given the fact that Juneteenth is not well known, it makes for a worthwhile case study on how holidays can be categorized.  In order for us to place Juneteenth in its proper context, therefore, we need to know something about the day itself and also something about the categories of holidays based on biblical standards.

Juneteenth is a historical festival that celebrates the end of slavery.  After the Battle of Antietam, the issuing of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation [2] informed the world that the Civil War would become a war for the liberation of slaves in the Confederate States of America and not only a war of reunification against the traitors and rebels of the Southern United States.  A period of some months gave fair warning to the Confederacy that this change of policy would take place on January 1, 1863, at which point the Union armies became armies of liberation wherever they happened to go within Confederate territories.  This is only fair, as Confederate armies, wherever they traveled, were armies of slavery and kidnapping for free blacks wherever those armies traveled.  It took some time for the news to spread to the more remote corners of the rebel territory, and June 19th is the date at which it is judged to have reached Texas, the farthest flung of Confederate states.

Having given a brief summary of the day, it is worthwhile to then explain what categories of holidays exist.  There are, biblically speaking, three categories of holidays.  Some observances are commanded by God–the Sabbath and Holy Days, for example–for which observance is not optional if one wants to be obedient to the clearly expressed will of God.  Other holidays–those which are tainted with heathen worship practices and which are attempts at syncretism–are strictly forbidden.  The rest of the space consists of holidays that are permissible to celebrate but not required to celebrate.  Most of these days are historical days–independence days, memorial days, days of Thanksgiving, or days which give honor to those whom the Bible also honors, like fathers and mothers.  Juneteenth squarely falls as a historical day which is not connected to heathen worship but is also unconnected with scripture, and so its celebration is allowed by biblical principles but not commanded.

What might lead someone to want to celebrate such a day?  At least within my observation, Juneteenth is of the highest importance to descendants of freed slaves, for whom the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of the national effort at repaying a longstanding debt of honor concerning the granting of full social and political equality to a substantial portion of the American people.  To be sure, there are other people who might want to celebrate the end of slavery, particularly those who celebrate Abraham Lincoln as well as more enthusiastic abolitionists whose eloquence helped pave the way for the eventual granting of freedom during a time of war over the paranoid desire on the part of rebels to protect what they viewed as their property from the threat of even eventual loss.  It is important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation did not pretend to end slavery within areas under the control of the federal government with loyal populations, but the fact that freedom from slavery became a war aim meant that slavery was doomed throughout the United States, and that is something well worth celebrating even today, lest we forget that great men (and women) and momentous times are often necessary for beneficial social change.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Inventing English

Inventing English:  A Portable History Of The Language, by Seth Lerer

Fond readers of this blog, at least those who pay attention to my book reviews, will likely note that I am fond of reading about linguistics for fun [1].  At time I even converse with people about this subject when they share an interest in it, although that is not often.  This book deals, technically, mostly with a related subject to linguistics, namely philology.  Nevertheless, like books on linguistics this book discusses the great vowel shift, especially as it is shown in the justly famous Paxton family letters, and so it belongs in the general family of books about the linguistics of English.  This sort of book has a rather specific target audience:  if you like reading books about the change of English over time from Old English to today, with a focus on written language, the fecundity of English when it comes to both creating and appropriating words, and the complexity of English grammar and spelling and its political context, you will likely find something here to enjoy despite it being a somewhat challenging book to read.  The fact that the author references Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Uncle Remus stories that formed the basis of Song of the South gives the story some additional cachet for certain audiences.

The slightly more than 250 pages of material in this book are made up of 19 mostly short chapters that take a broad look at the changes in the written (and spoken) English language over the course of its history so far, from the origins of English poetry during the times of Caedmon, to the language of Beowulf, to the dramatic effects of the Norman conquest that formed the end of Old English.  After this the author discusses the influence of French in Middle English, Chaucer’s bold and inventive encouragement to Middle English as a written language, and the variety of Middle English dialects that existed, if sometimes poorly attested, for centuries.  A discussion of the great vowel shift and the making of English prose through the efforts of Caxton and others precedes a chapter on Shakespeare’s English as well as the flowering of new words in 17th century English and the inevitable reaction by Orthoepists who sought to create a standard English dialect.  Samuel Johnson’s efforts at creating his idiosyncratic dictionary follow before the book takes a turn towards American English in chapters on lexicography, dialect, Mark Twain, and African American English.  The last three chapters of the book look at the influence of the Oxford English Dictionary, the role of war on language, and the widespread nature of contemporary English before some appendices, glossaries, references, acknowledgments, and an index.

Ultimately, this book promotes the sort of descriptivist English that is very common among those who seek to describe the varieties of English rather than promote a standard sort of language.  Nevertheless, the book does acknowledge the contrary pulls that exist in English between a love of creativity and a desire for standardization, between the influence of conservative forms of English throughout the centuries and that of French, Latin, and other languages with which English has had fateful interactions.  The author celebrates diversity while still understanding the need for different dialects of English to be able to understand each other.  Likewise, this book offers considerable insight into the way that English became a language known for vagueness and misdirection during the period of Norman domination, yet another loss suffered by the people of England after the wicked conquest of William of Normandy.  At any rate, although this book talks a lot about the past, it is clear that the author has a certain expectation about the future and that there will continue to be a great deal of interest in the changes of English that are yet to come, something that does not appear to trouble the author in the least.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Language Matters

Language Matters:  A Guide To Everyday Questions About Language, by Donna Jo Napoli and Vera Lee-Schoenfeld

As someone who reads a fair amount of material concerning the practical implications for linguistics [1], even if I am generally far more interested in the written language than the spoken one in my general life, this is the sort of book I am not surprised I came across.  If this was a disappointing read, it was not so much for the questions that the authors dealt with but rather with their answers.  Clearly, the authors and I are on opposite sides of a serious political and philosophical divide, and in our contemporary divided society I am simply not inclined to think highly of those on the other side of the line, nor to greatly value what they have to say.  A lot of the social commentary of this book is simply rubbish and I lack the interest in viewing it any other way.  That is not to say that this book is useless or without value, as there is always value in seeing how other people think, even when they are mistaken, but this book was not an enjoyable read and it certainly added nothing to the discussion, except for another voice on the side of descriptivist linguistics, with a sense of reverse snobbery for those who desire to maintain standards of decency within the discourse of the English language.

This mercifully short book of a little more than two hundred pages is organized in a set of socratic discussions based on fifteen questions divided into two parts.  The first part deals with the human ability for language based on theorizing and studies and answers questions on language acquisition, what linguistics is, why is translation and learning a new language so difficult, the lack of one-to-one correspondence between language and thought, the legitimacy of sign languages as real languages, the limitations of language ability among animals, and the question of whether computers can learn language.  The second part of the book deals with questions of language in society, looking at whether one person’s speech can be better than another’s, the differences between dialects and creoles from standard languages, the difference in speech between men and women and between people of different power relationships, the problems of spelling reforms as a way of improving literacy, the question of whether English should be the official language of the United States, the power that language has over us, the supposed lack of harm of offensive language to children, and what is lost when a language dies.  The authors ask some good questions, although their answers are not particularly good.

Indeed, this book and others like it demonstrate the way that like the biblical plague of frogs political concerns enter into every facet of life, including linguistics.  The authors, lacking a sound moral worldview, cannot help but parrot bogus views on language and its relationship to society because their defective worldview cannot provide them with any better ground on which to argue.  One of the few creditworthy aspects of this book is the way the book speaks on behalf of the Deaf culture and its struggles with access to the knowledge and culture of the wider society.  As someone with at least one Deaf friend at church who has at least a few people to talk to enthusiastically via American Sign Language, I am perhaps a bit unusual in being more interested in the deaf culture than most people would be.  The authors’ thoughts on this culture are about the only worthwhile contribution they make to the question of linguistics, evidence that politics and especially the stridency of left-wing thinkers has poisoned our discourse on just about every area of discourse under the sun.

[1] See, for example:

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How I Profitably Spent My Father’s Day

Given the complicated personal history I bring to Father’s Day [1], I tend not to make a great many plans for today.  It so happens though that I received an invitation to go over with some friends and I figured it would be more enjoyable than moping alone, so I took advantage of the opportunity.  Before I did, though, I wanted to get some things done, and as it happened, I managed to finish reading two books before I went off to rural Southeast Clackamas county.  With that done, I felt as if the day had already been a little bit productive and that allowed me to feel okay about a lot of driving and lazing about.  Of course, most of the time for me lazing about is still being a bit more busy than many people are on similar lazy moments.  Given that I napped a few hours after arriving home somewhat early last night, I felt it necessary to try to rest at least a bit this weekend.  I have felt the need to rest a good deal more than I have at some times.

That said, it seems as if other people were having the same mood I was.  It seemed as if the Father’s Day I went to was more than a little bit sparse.  One of my hosts joked that “his other son” had showed up, and seemed at least a bit mildly surprised, as he was when I visited there on Mother’s Day, but other than that there were only five of us eating dinner together.  I am not sure how other people recognize the number of people eating together as being the sign of how they view a day.  As it is, there were a great many people involved who probably felt at least a little ambivalent about Father’s Day in light of what is going on in life.  I had expected at least one person there who wasn’t there as I had brought a book for her to read that I figured would be useful in light of what has been going on in her life recently.  At any rate, we enjoy the people who are there and not the people we expected to see there.

While I was there I managed to write book reviews for the two books I had read this morning and read two more books as well that will likely receive somewhat critical reviews based on their contents.  I suppose that reading four (or five) books would make a day particularly productive at least in terms of intellectual life, and spending time with others certainly made the book better in terms of socializing than would likely be the case on most Sundays, which I spend either doing errands or sitting by myself and reading books on my computer.  I must admit that a day like today may not strike much of the rest of the world as an exciting day, especially given the sort of fun that other people like to have, but I am generally pleased when a day that I am not usually looking forward to for a variety of reasons ends up being a day that does not put me too far behind the sort of tasks that I find it necessary to do or for the enjoyment of the company of other people.

I’m not sure what an ideal Father’s Day would be for me.  At least at this stage of my life, the day is always going to be a bit of a disappointment, at least at present.  Yet we cannot judge a day simply because of our own experience.  We have to keep our mind open enough to understand how other people can and do appreciate a day like this even if we cannot enjoy it wholeheartedly.  This subject, surprisingly enough, came up today in conversation, as I commented that it was common for people to judge people and institutions merely by that which bothered or annoyed or frustrated us rather than their whole context.  It is important to be just and fair to others, not least because we wish to be viewed with justice by others, and there is a strong temptation for others to view us for what they find most frustrating and most irritating about us.  That is a standard few of us want to be judged with, and certainly I don’t.  I know all too well just how frustrating and irritating I can be by nature without intending to be.

[1] See, for example:

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