Category: Miscellania

Anglish and English: Why our language is 750 and not 1,500 years old

Sample text of Anglish (Anglo-Saxon), circa AD 1000

How the English language arose is a captivating story with a great cast of characters, though they happen to be groups of people and texts rather individuals. It’s the story of a language emerging out of the mists, seemingly out of nowhere, before catching wind and taking over the planet as the first truly global language. It’s also a story that’s been told by many authors and scholars in different ways. And it increasingly appears that for the past 100 years most of those telling the story have gotten it mostly wrong.

The Celtic problem

Let’s begin at a starting point far enough back in time to take in the larger view, the situation of the British Isles some 2,000 years ago. The isles were populated by one or two million Britons, scattered throughout the land in hamlets or homesteads, who, the story goes, spoke various Celtic languages and dialects, about which there remains a fair amount of uncertainty since they never wrote their language down. It’s assumed the Celts crossed over from the Continent in successive waves over the previous several centuries, bringing a new version of their language each time. For instance, the hostile tribes known as the Picts who had been pushed up to northern Scotland by newly invading Celts may have spoken an earlier version of Celtic. Collectively the Celtic tongues spoken in Britain have been variously termed “Insular Celtic,” “Brittonic,” or simply “British,” to distinguish them from the Celtic spoken on the Continent.

An American talisman

shutterstock_98877740A talisman has appeared in 21st-century America, one with astounding magical powers. Fitting in the palm like a mini crystal ball, it can bring people to life on its screen. To young kids submerged in the dreamy developmental phase of childhood, this glass amulet must seem utterly bewitching and miraculous, a veritable Wonderland of miniature toy stores and colorful games. With parent’s permission, it can even send real toys and snacks to one’s very home. Then when they reach their early teens, kids begin adapting to the adult world of reality. The talisman soon becomes jaded and the magic fades. Still, it remains a fun, complex toy, capable of shooting videos and photos with incredible ease and realism, playing movies and music from an infinite list and packing more information at the fingertips than the city library.

If someone from the future had attempted to describe this mysterious thing to me back when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I would have found it pure science fiction and more or less incomprehensible. I refer of course to the smartphone, now the most mundane of objects. In the US, however, the smartphone has a very particular status and function. For American teenagers, and only American teenagers, the smartphone retains its magical and untamable powers — of the black magic variety. It is a scary, indeed terrifying object.

My problem with the atheists (it’s not what you think)

Courtesy of Maddy (MadE14 on DeviantArt)

Group marriage does not look quite so terrible as the philistines, whose minds cannot get beyond brothels, imagine it to be.
— Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Nothing need be said

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, aka. the Marquis de Sade, has his first taste of prison at the age of 23 when he’s arrested for blasphemy after forcing a prostitute to hurl abuse at Christ. At 28, he lures a homeless woman to his chateau, where he binds and whips her and pours hot wax into the incisions he makes in her flesh with a knife; she escapes, and he does as well — from the police. He is never idle. While on the run he haunts the brothels of France. Five years later he organizes a sadomasochistic orgy with a bevy of prostitutes in Marseilles, one of whom almost dies after overdosing on the Spanish fly he’s forced down her throat. By this point the 32-year old aristocrat has become fodder of Continental proportions for the tabloid press (by then already a well-established industry). His wife’s family, also of nobility, secure a letter de cachet from the King to have Sade put away and save the family reputation. Sade manages to return to his chateau and seduce his wife’s younger sister, who flees with him to Italy. She returns early; he’s arrested in Sardinia but escapes from his prison and wends his way back to his chateau in France. Two years later he conspires with his wife to hire a series of unsuspecting female servants on whom to act out more sadomasochistic fantasies. The orgies and the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities drag on for several more years, until he is finally incarcerated for a lengthy prison stay with a freshly issued letter de cachet, at the age of 37.

The three bodily rights

A massage shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand

1. The right to health

It may seem a truism to regard health as a right, but for people the world over health has been anything but the norm. For millennia past until modern times, starvation or malnutrition was the rule for the vast majority, as it still is today in many locales, which includes pockets of the US, where poverty confines people to a harmful carbohydrate-based junk food diet. More momentously, the manmade famines in the Soviet Union and China in the mid-20th century alone, totaling some 60-75 million deaths, belie the notion that civilization has advanced much at all. If it has, it could easily slip back into barbarism. Predictions of manmade ecological catastrophe in the foreseeable future may return us to something even worse: the global collapse of agriculture.

From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim

Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil

O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror

In late 2015, I was one of 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet (2016 will presumably pass the two million mark). I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a change. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays on his life, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. That was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Gogh’s paintings of their own (along with several traveling exhibitions of the painter). All his paintings had coalesced in my mind into a montage detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff — on the first floor — that it was indeed the same building. Meanwhile, a huge new wing of temporary exhibits pairing Van Gogh and other artists (Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; an airy atrium and elegant cafeteria joined the two buildings.

John Dowland and the lost English Consort School of chamber music

Clockwise from upper left: William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, William Lawes

In 2006, Sting came out with Songs from the Labyrinth, an album devoted to the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. It was an unlikely choice of musical material for a rock star, yet Sting approached Dowland with enthusiasm and respect, refraining from rendering his songs into pop or setting them to a rock beat (as Richard Thompson for example has done with various Renaissance tunes and Italian madrigals). He employed a professional lutenist, Edin Karamazov, and accompanied some of the pieces on the lute himself, a new passion of his acquired for the recording project. And showing restraint and taste, Sting did not attempt to sing the songs in the stylized “classical” manner but used his voice’s natural register to adopt at times a relaxed and conversational, at times a more hushed or emphatic tone to suit each song’s occasion.

The result was oddly compelling and delightful. In the decade since the recording was released, the album’s Amazon page has accumulated over 200 largely favorable customer reviews. The minority of negative reviewers are not, as one might suspect, regular Sting fans baffled by his newfound classical preoccupation, but finicky classical purists upset with his vocal incompetence, his nerve in attempting something out of his league. Yet they missed the point. The rocker’s homespun approach revealed the music’s texture in a fresh way, and moreover reflected the actual conditions in which Dowland’s music was often performed, namely by musician friends in a relaxed and intimate setting.

Dowland appeals to us in that he shares certain affinities with the modern notion of the artist — the artist as alienated, rebellious iconoclast, misunderstood by society, striking out on his own in proud defiance of convention. The English long for a Caravaggio, Beethoven or Van Gogh to call their own (actually they do have one: Shakespeare, but he’s not neurotic enough). Dowland can, partially at any rate, be said to fit the bill. He is indeed an enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure, in the Greek sense, his fate largely self-inflicted. Before we investigate the reasons for this, and what it all has to do with the point of this essay, we need to slip some decades back in time, to the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the extraordinary story of her chief court musician, Alfonso Ferrabosco.

Why Airbnb ain’t my cup of tea



Airbnb has of late been getting unfavorable news coverage. Clever property owners have discovered that by turning over their residential units to Airbnb guests, they can take in more cash than renting them out to regular tenants, while at the same time exploiting legal loopholes to avoid paying hotel taxes. In San Francisco, disenfranchised residents have accused the company of exacerbating the affordable housing crisis. Proposition F, which would have curtailed Airbnb’s ability to facilitate such profiteering, has just been defeated. This legal battle is reminiscent of those recently pitting local taxi drivers in various cities around the world against Uber, Airbnb’s equivalent in the private car-for-hire business. But Airbnb and Uber have their finger on the technological pulse of the times, and with some tweaking of their business model I suspect they will ride out the resistance and not only survive but thrive.

I don’t take a position on the above controversy. I do, however, have a negative view of Airbnb, for entirely unrelated reasons.