Monthly Archives: August 2004

Naipaul on W.E.B. and Booker T.

In two chapters of A Turn in the South entitled “The Truce with Irrationality” (I and II) Naipaul interviews mostly black Southerners in Tallahassee, Florida, and Tuskegee, Alabama. The title comes from Naipaul’s gloss on a literary quote.

“The most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.” The words by James Baldwin (among the most elegant handlers of the language) had stayed with me since I had read them, nearly thirty years before…. But now, in the South, in the middle of my own journey, I began to wonder whether the truce that every black man looked for hadn’t in fact been with the irrationality of the world around him. And the achievement of certain people began to appear grander.

Besides interviewing living people, Naipaul rereads famous works by two famous men, and examines their literary and educational legacies.

Tuskegee was still a going concern. It had a devoted community; and it still had heart. Its financial predicament was the predicament of black schools generally; and it was better off than some. Its physical condition was very far from that of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where in parts the campus looked ruined. There was a melancholy bronze statue there too, at Fisk, meant to set the seal on glory, but now seeming to watch over the ruins. The statue was of W.E.B. Du Bois, the rival and critic of Washington….

The quarrel or debate between the two men, Du Bois and Washington, both mulattoes, is famous. Du Bois might seem closer to contemporary feeling. But his best-known book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays and articles, is a little mysterious….

If Booker T. Washington can make a darky joke, Du Bois can speak of “the joyous abandon and playfulness which we are wont to associate with the plantation Negro”; can say, “Even today the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than Northern laborers”; and he can ask, “What did slavery mean to the African savage?”

But we can read through both the Du Bois way of writing and the Booker T. Washington manliness to the facts of Negro life of the time, and see the difficulty both men would have had in defining themselves, and establishing their own dignity, against such an abject background. As if in resolution of that difficulty, Du Bois’s book seems lyrical for the sake of the lyricism. It can appear to use blacks and ruined plantations as poetic properties. It deals in tears and rage; it offers no program.

In this beginning of Du Bois there was also his end. He lived very long, and towards the end of his life–facing irrationality with irrationality–he left the United States and went to live in West Africa, in Ghana, a former British colony that had in independence very quickly become an African despotism, and was soon to revert to bush and poverty, exporting labor to its neighbors.

At the very beginning of the century, in Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington, in his late-Victorian man-of-the-world style, had cautioned against just that kind of sentimentality about Africa. “In the House of Commons, which we visited several times, we met Sir Henry M. Stanley. I talked with him about Africa and its relation to the American Negro, and after my interview with him became more convinced than ever that there was no hope of the American Negro’s improving his condition by emigrating to Africa.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 120, 151-153.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, slavery, U.S.

Up from Slavery: "A painful coded work"

On this journey I read [Booker T. Washington’s] Up from Slavery twice. On the second reading, after I had been nearly four months in the South, I found that the book had changed for me. It became more than the fabulous story of a disadvantaged man’s rise. I began to see it as a painful coded work, making separate signals even in a single paragraph to Northerners, Southerners, and blacks.

I also began to see the book as the work of a man constantly concerned to raise funds for his school. That should have been obvious to me always, but it hadn’t been; that had been swept away by the power of the fable. Below that primary appeal, however, there were others: the man of the world appealing knowledgeably to the very rich on behalf of the wretched, representing himself as honorable and worthy and manly and educated; yet at the same time taking care to do the contrary thing, and making it clear that as a black man he knew his place.

Hence his confident, socially knowing talk, like any solid late-nineteenth-century citizen, of the “best people” and the “vices” of “the lower class of people.” But he is mortified when, on a train journey from Augusta to Atlanta in Georgia, in a Pullman car “full of Southern white men,” two ladies from Boston, “ignorant, it seems, of the customs of the South,” insist on inviting him to supper. The meal seems very long. As soon as he can, he breaks away from the ladies to go to the smoking room, where the men now are, “to see how the land lay.” It is all right; the men know who he is and are anxious to introduce themselves to him.

In England he develops a high regard for the aristocracy and the time and money they devote to philanthropic works. He is impressed by the deference of servants, who are content to be servants all their working life and, unlike American servants, use the words “master” and “mistress” without any constraint. In that ambiguous observation there are consoling messages both for blacks and Southern whites. He becomes friendly, he says, with the Duchess of Sutherland. She is a famous beauty. But as a black man he will be out of place to say so directly. He writes, “I may add that I believe the Duchess of Sutherland is said to be the most beautiful woman in England.”

So many snares; so many people to please; so many contradictions to resolve; so many possibilities of destruction. The achievement was great. But at what cost. He died at the age of fifty-nine.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 153-154.

Leave a comment

Filed under slavery, U.S.

Yapese Spelling Reform: "That Damn Q!"

Like Marshallese speakers at the eastern end of Micronesia, Yapese speakers at the western end seem to be resistant to spelling reforms designed by outside linguists.

The most recent Yapese Bible orthography makes do with only 5 vowels, but writes all the consonants. However, it spells glottal stop inconsistently. A glottal stop is implicit between any two adjacent vowels in a word, as in gaar ‘to say’, which has two syllables with a glottal stop in between. People used to use the same device to indicate final glottals, as in pii ‘to give’, but the most recent Bible orthography now writes the final glottal with an apostrophe, thus pi’. Except on a handful of grammatical forms, like u ‘at’, i ‘he, she, it’, glottal stops are predictable on words written with initial vowels, just as they are in English or German, so the Bible orthography doesn’t write them at all.

In the new orthography, however, the glottal stop is everywhere spelled with a q, and resistance to the new orthography centers on “that damn q” in new spellings like Waqab ‘Yap’, girdiiq ‘people’, qarcheaq ‘bird, bat’, and even Qapriil ‘April’ and Qaawguust ‘August’. (Imagine German Qach, du lieber Qaugustine!)

The decision to use q in place of the apostrophe for glottal stop was motivated by the fact that the apostrophe was already used to indicate a glottalized release on consonants. Yapese, like Navajo, has a whole series of glottalized consonants in addition to plain equivalents in initial, medial, and final position within the word, thus:

p, t, k vs. p’, t’, k’

m, n, ng vs. m’, n’, ng’

f, th, vs. f’, th’

l, y, w vs. l’, y’, w’

So, in theory, it is possible that rung’ag ‘to hear’ might be ambiguous between rung+’ag and the nonexistent forms *ru+ng’ag or *rung’+ag. In practice, this seems to be an awfully weak justification for introducing “that damn q.

Writing more vowel distinctions, on the other hand, seems well motivated. Yapese distinguishes among 8 long vowels, with a further possibility of 8 short vowels–although length is partially predictable from the position of the vowel in the word. All eight long vowels show up in the following minimal octet, so convenient for linguistic analysis: miil ‘to run’, meel ‘sail rope’, meal [æ] ‘rotten’, mael [a] ‘war’, maal [a] ‘taro type’, mool ‘to sleep’, moel ‘adze handle’, muul ‘to fall’. Using digraphs to write vowels, of course, precludes the old reliance on adjacent vowels to indicate glottal stop.

Examples of the old and new renditions of the most common greeting exchange follows.

  • ‘Where are you going?’

    Old: Ngam man ngan

    New: Nga mu maen ngaan
  • ‘I’m (just) going over there’

    Old: Nggu wan ngaram

    New: Ngu gu waen nga raam

The Pacific Area Language Materials website gives a sample of what the Japanese story Momotaro looks like in the new orthography. Look at all those paragraphs beginning with Q, especially on Qeree ‘and then’, which in the Bible is written Ere.

Once again, a socially optimal orthography in actual use can get by with even fewer alphabetic distinctions than a linguist might desire for the purpose of distinguishing each word in isolation from the sentential, semantic, and social context in which those words are normally used. A simpler, underspecified writing system would allow more Yapese to write their own language without having to run everything by someone with sufficient linguistic training to understand the New Orthography. It would take literacy out of the hands of experts and give it back to the people who need it most.

SOURCES: John Thayer Jensen, Yapese Reference Grammar (Hawai‘i, 1977; out of print) and Yapese-English Dictionary (Hawai‘i, 1977; out of print); Thin Rok Got nib Thothup [‘Word of God that’s Holy’ = the Bible].


Filed under language, Micronesia

Identity as Religion, Religion as Identity

Naipaul interviews theology students in northern Georgia.

Identity as religion, religion as identity: it was the very theme of another theology student, a young man from a background quite different, a mountain community in northern Georgia.

He said, “When I think of growing up, the two things are very much the same thing–family and church. The church was a small church, with about forty-five members, all related. Seven or eight generations ago the first member of our family moved into that area and bought four hundred acres, and we still live on that. It isn’t a plantation. There might have been slaves early on, but that disappeared pretty soon. We were a family of small farmers. My grandfather had fifteen or sixteen brothers, and their descendants all live within three miles of one another. It is very rare that anybody moves away. When you go up there you know people, and you know them as relatives.

“At the same time it is very easy for your own identity to get lost. But I have since grown to appreciate how wonderful that is: a warm, loving, open kind of family, not just father and mother and brothers and sisters, but cousins, aunts, and uncles.

“The church is very much the same thing. Family members. The Holiness Church is a very emotional religion, and what struck me early on was how very different people were in church from what I knew of them at home. The emotion they expressed in church was different. There would be a lot of shouting. The preacher would try to work them up to the sinfulness of human nature. There would be moments during the service when people would get up and speak in tongues, and people would try to interpret what was being said. And there were times when people would get saved.”

“This religion was not a reaching out to the world?”

“This religion was a calling away from the world, an excluding of the world. I still struggle to find how I relate to all that now. The first year in college I spent alone in my room. I was scared to go out. Then I became angry with some aspects of the faith that had such a rigid view of the world.”

But now (like the Mississippi plantation, and for the same, economic reason) the mountain world was changing. “A lot of the people have to go away to get work.” They came back, it was true; they never lost touch. But: “The twentieth century is pouring over the mountain.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 48-49.

Leave a comment

Filed under religion, U.S.

Politics as Identity, Religion as Community

Mountain family, old planter family: old ideas of community no longer served, and the descendants of those families were finding a new community in the ministry. But it hadn’t been quite like this for Frank. He grew up in a blue-collar white urban neighborhood. It wasn’t “ethnic,” and it had no sense of community. It was Southern, but the Southern history and Southern past that were bred in the bones of the mountain boy and the plantation girl had had to be learned, studied, by the boy from the city. Because he had been born into a crowd, his early ambitions had been different.

“I wanted to be an individual, a nonconformist, a person with his own rights, opinions. But at the same time I did want an identity. And I found that in the Democratic Party. It started at high school. I got into the Democratic group and quickly became a leader of the teen Democrats. It became my religion, because I evaluated everything according to the party’s success or failure. When I left school I went straight into the party organization. The party became my community. But it wasn’t a real community. It didn’t have the caring that a Christian community should have. In the Navy I had the sense of meeting Christ in reading the Scriptures, and I was touched by that. But it was isolated until I came here, which makes real on earth this relationship with God. I have found the real community here, in theology school.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 49-50.

Leave a comment

Filed under religion

Muslim WakeUp: Progressive Muslim Voices

Muslim WakeUp, a site I just discovered via One Hand Clapping, has a couple of stories with nice ironical twists.

The first concerns a young Muslim woman, whose singing is banned in North America but welcome in Southeast Asia.

If anyone needed a reminder about how far out of sync the American Muslim establishment is even from most Muslims in the world, then this is a good example.

A few months ago, Ani, a Los Angeles-based American Muslim artist who has produced some of Malaysia’s top music albums and worked with top performers from around the world, decided to make an album that expresses her faith as a Muslim and a message of empowerment for young people and women. The album (whose title and title track was inspired by our website) is called Ummah Wake Up, and MWU! was the only American Muslim site to feature it.

She reached out to American Muslim distributors, American Muslim music festivals, American Muslim websites. The response she got almost across the board was, Sorry, but women’s voices are awra, religiously prohibited due to their allegedly harmful effects on public morals. Effectively, her work was banned by North American Muslim institutions, including the recent Muslim Fest in Canada.

Now Ani is in Malaysia where she is embarking on a major media blitz there and headlining several concerts, including a huge stadium show to celebrate Malaysia’s National Day on Monday and a benefit Concert for Palestine on Saturday, September 4th at Kuala Lumpur’s Renaissance Grand Ballroom where she will be joined by Raihan, the country’s top nasheed group. Then she’s off on a similar itinerary in Indonesia.

In both countries, Ani will be appearing on over a dozen major TV and radio programs promoting her album’s official release in Malaysia and Indonesia….

So once again, what’s good enough for some 200 million Muslims “over there” is not good enough for 6 million or so Muslims “over here.” Shame on the self-appointed Islamic morality police in Los Angeles and Toronto and Indiana and Illinois. Ummah Wake Up indeed!

The other article, entitled Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Hollywood Pagan Islamic Sajdah, explains an Olympic moment misunderstood by many non-Muslims.

Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco won the Gold in the 1,500 meters race at the Athens Olympics….

But we are not here to talk of sports. The San Francisco Chronicle sports page has a large headline about the event that reads “A Gift from God.” There is also a giant picture of El G doing a post race sajdah. The picture caption says that Hicham is kissing the track. He is not!

So here is a little trivia for the non-Muslim readers of MWU! Muslims perform a particular prayer ritual five times a day called the salat (or namaz in Persian/Urdu/Turkish speaking areas). The sajdah is one of the physical motions that make up the salat. The movements of the salat are performed in simple cycles. You can think of movement as a very simple cycle similar to yoga’s sun salutation. Strict Muslims would probably find this analogy a little annoying.

The sajdah is performed by men just as Mr. El G is doing in the picture. The women do a slightly different version, keeping their elbows and butts a little lower. The forehead and often the bridge of the nose touch the ground. The lips never do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Indonesia

Confederates and Shias

Naipaul interviews the scion of a former plantation owner in South Carolina.

The North was now very concerned with all its minorities. It might have been thought that they would have considered the South a minority area. But they didn’t. The official Northern view could be put like this: “The white Southerner is not a minority. He is a backward fellow American who oppresses a minority, the Negro.”

Had he looked at his father’s book about the plantations recently? No, not recently. But he knew the book well, and he had some of the feeling for the old plantation life.

I said, “But you can’t feel nostalgia for what you don’t know?”

“Although I didn’t grow up with any knowledge of the working life of the plantation, still, life on the plantations–when we went to visit them when I was a child–it was more like the old Southern countryside, even though we didn’t have slavery. It was the old easygoing rural life, and relations between the races were much more what they had been. So I can feel nostalgia for a past.”

He was as concerned, even obsessed, as his father had been by the superficial destruction of the South–the highways, the fast-food chains–and pained by the alienation of some of the plantations to people and firms from outside.

The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.

When–again as in a stage set–we got up from our chairs and went inside, for a salad provided by our hostess, I said I felt he was dealing in emotion without a program. He agreed; but then he said the program was being created….

He told me because of the developments of the 1950s his father had ended as a Southern separatist; and that was where he himself was now. The defeat of the South, the surrender of Lee, was for him an unappeasable sorrow, I felt.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 106-107.

Leave a comment

Filed under Islam, religion, U.S.

Stepin Fetchit in Trinidad

“Does the name Stepin Fetchit mean anything to you?”

It certainly did. Stepin Fetchit was adored in my childhood by the blacks of Trinidad. He was adored not only because he was funny and did wonderful things with his seemingly disjointed body and had a wonderful walk and a wonderful voice, and was given extravagant words to speak; he was adored by Trinidad black people because he appeared in films, at a time when Hollywood stood for an almost impossible glamour; and he was also adored–most importantly–because, at a time when the various races of Trinidad were socially separate and the world seemed fixed forever that way, with segregation to the north in the United States, with Africa ruled by Europe, with South Africa the way it was (and not at all a subject of local black concern), and Australia and New Zealand the way they were–at that time in Trinidad, Stepin Fetchit was seen on the screen in the company of white people. And to Trinidad blacks–who looked down at that time on Africans, and laughed and shouted and hooted in the cinema whenever Africans were shown dancing or with spears–the sight of Stepin Fetchit with white people was like a dream of a happier world.

It wasn’t of this adored figure that Jack Leland was speaking, though. He had another, matter-of-fact, local attitude. He said, “The ambitious people went north, and we were left with the Stepin Fetchits.” Now there was a movement back; not big, but noticeable.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 109.

1 Comment

Filed under Trinidad, U.S.

Marshallese Spelling Reforms

The public renunciation by several media giants of spelling reforms promulgated in Germany less than a decade ago has generated some discussion in the blogosphere, notably on Rainy Day, Crooked Timber, and a Fistful of Euros, the last two with wide-ranging comment threads.

To take the discussion a little farther afield, I’d like to add a glimpse of what teachers and writers of two Micronesian languages are up against. In Marshallese and Yapese, spelling reforms promulgated in the early 1970s have yet to take hold. (I use “promulgated” to mean ‘imposed by specialists whose expertise is unimpeachable, but whose vision is clouded by thoroughly impractical ideals’.)

In both cases, the new orthographies suffer from two major drawbacks. (1) The only major literature written in each language has been the Bible. One tampers with holy scripture at one’s peril. Just witness how many Christians still stick to the King James Bible or to Latin liturgy. (2) Linguistic experts were overzealously committed to the “one phoneme, one symbol” principle of orthography design. Among all the languages I’ve dabbled in, Marshallese, Yapese, and possibly Nauruan seem the most resistant to any orthography that places that principle above all others.

Here’s a bit of a glimpse at Marshallese. Yapese will follow in another post.

Marshallese can be analyzed as having only four vowel phonemes that differ by height, but whose roundness (oh-ness vs. eh-ness) or backness (uh-ness vs. eh-ness) depend on their neighboring consonants. For instance, the vowel phoneme /e/ can sound like eh (open e), uh (schwa), or oh (o). In the textbook Spoken Marshallese (1969) the vowels are written i, e, a, & (yes, ampersand, but it was later replaced with an ę). The linguist Mark Hale refers to these four phonemes as cup of coffee, telephone, yinyang, and soccer ball, presumably because each word or phrase contains the varying sound values of the respective abstract phoneme.

Marshallese consonants distinguish only three main positions of articulation: lips (p, m), tongue tip (t, n), and tongue back (k, ng). Voicing (t vs. d, p vs. b) is not distinctive, but three secondary articulations are: “light”/palatal (py, my, ly), “heavy”/velar (p, m, l), and rounding (kw, ngw, lw). The parenthetical examples are not orthographic, but only intended to hint at pronunciation differences. One solution is to write the “heavy” consonants as if they were voiced: b, d, g vs. p, t, k, but that doesn’t help with the nasals: m, n, ng (the latter also written g).

The “light” consonants front the neighboring vowels (e > eh), the “heavy” consonants back them (e > uh), and the round consonants round them (e > oh). Two different consonant types on either side can pull the vowel in two different directions, creating dipththongs.

Examples of “improvements” in the 1969 textbook orthography:

  • ‘Hello’

    Old: Yokwe yok

    New: Yi’yaqey y&q
  • ‘I’m going to Ailinglaplap / Jaluit’

    Old: Ij etal ñan Ailinglaplap / Jaluit

    New: Yij yetal gan Hay&l&gļapļap / Jalw&j

Since Marshallese makes too many distinctions for the standard keyboard, a linguistically optimal solution to facilitate literacy in Marshallese could go in either of two directions. The first direction seems by and large to prevail.

  • Write more vowels than strictly necessary in order to keep them less abstract and because vowel diacritics are easier to keyboard, while relying on the neighboring vowels to show some of the consonant distinctions. This allows people to write with lower levels of linguistic or computer literacy.
  • Write only the minimal (four) vowel distinctions, and add diacritics to distinguish all the consonants in order to show the full beauty of the underlying phonological system. This requires higher standards of linguistic and computer literacy before people can write their own language.

I would suggest that a socially optimal orthography might get by with even fewer alphabetic distinctions. People could write fewer vowels and consonants than would be optimal in isolation, while relying instead on sentential, semantic, or social context to reduce ambiguity. But this approach would make linguists feel rather less useful.

A revised Marshallese Bible was published in 2002. I’m not sure which of the several previous orthographic practices it relies on. Marshallese editions of (portions of) the Bible go back to the the 1860s, after the first missionaries had arrived, some of them from Hawai‘i.

Sample PDFs of Marshallese materials in a vowel-rich, consonant-poor orthography are accessible from the Pacific Area Language Materials website.

SOURCES: Heather Willson, A Brief Introduction to Marshallese Phonology (PDF, UCLA); Byron Bender, Spoken Marshallese (Hawai‘i, 1969); R.W.P. Brasington, Epenthesis and deletion in loan phonology (PDF, U. Reading, 1981).

UPDATE: David at Rishon-Rishon examines the question of “social optimality” at greater length, with evidence from Russian and Hebrew, noting that Russian writes consonantal palatalization on the vowels, while Hebrew writes velarization on the consonants.

1 Comment

Filed under language, Micronesia

U.S. Dialect Survey Map and Results

Like so many of the old Anglo-immigrant stock along the coasts from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay, I say ahnt and peeKAHN. I alternate between UMbrella when I’m not thinking about it and umBRELLA when I stop to think. And, although I pronounce poem in two syllables, my reduced vowel (“barred i”) always elicits correction from my daughter. What these dialect survey results show is how mixed-up, scattered about, and network-based U.S. dialects really are. The old regions overlap all over the place.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, U.S.