Tag Archives: Patrick Cox

How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


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During the Olympics, Canadians are willing to drop their language arguments

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Charles Hamelin kisses girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais after winning the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics (Francesco Cataldo/Flickr)

Canada’s Sun News Network has been described as “Fox News North.”

Like Fox, it has its targets. It doesn’t like big government. It doesn’t like Canada’s promotion of the French language. And it really doesn’t like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Almost every Canadian is watching the CBC right now because it has the broadcast rights to the Sochi Olympics. So the people at Sun News decided they would make some news.

Host Brian Lilley brought “linguistics expert” Harley Sims onto his show to talk about how the CBC was pronouncing names — the names of Canadian medal winners: Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, Charles Hamelin and others.

Lilley and Sims didn’t like the French-sounding way that some CBC announcers were pronouncing these names. They had no objections to French-language TV using native French pronunciation. But on English-language TV, they said, the names should be anglicized. “Clo-AY” should become “CLO-ee,” and “Sharl” should become “Charls.”

“I’ll stick with the way we pronounce names in English,” said Lilley. “I will still say congratulations to Justine [pronounced the English way].”

The CBC’s overly-French pronunciations are “so selective and arbitrary of what’s politically correct and what isn’t,” said Sims.

It was classic Canadian button-pushing, like playing the race card in the US or playing the class card in the UK. In Canada, if you want to start a political fight — or if you just want attention — you play the language card.

Even though very few Canadians were watching, with the Olympics over on the CBC, word got out. By the next day, it was the talk of the talk shows.

The outrage quickly grew. People called Lilley a “redneck,” “mind-bogglingly stupid,” and worse. Much of the anger came from Quebec.

It proved too much for Lilley. He apologized.

This is the stage in the story when Canada’s Sun News stops behaving like America’s Fox News.

In his broadcast apology, Lilley said he worked in a bilingual newsroom, and his wife is from Quebec. He said some of his relatives are native French speakers.

“The focus should be on the [Olympic] athletes,” said Lilley. “It shouldn’t be on dividing Canadians, language by language, and trying to set French against English. It’s not what I intended. It is what happened, and therefore I apologize.”

Moral of the story: don’t play the language card during the Winter Olympics. It’s a time when Canadians of all stripes seem pretty happy about being Canadian.

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    Sugar Sammy: Quebec’s Multilingual Court Jester

    Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

    Sugar Sammy (Photo: Susan Moss)

    Samir Khullar aka Sugar Sammy is the Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants. As a kid, he spoke Punjabi and Hindi at home and French at school. But he learned to tell jokes in English.

    Sugar Sammy (Photo: Patrick Cox)

    “I’d host all the talent shows at school,” he says. “I’d make all the announcements on the intercoms, and when we had school trips the teachers would let me go to the front of the bus to entertain the kids.” He did all that in French. He had to– those were the rules. But he’d switch to English whenever he could, “just because it wasn’t allowed. As soon as it’s not allowed, as a kid you want to do it.”

    That sense of linguistic rebellion has stayed with Khullar as Sugar Sammy. For years, he did shows in French and shows in English. He wanted to do a bilingual show, but people told him it wouldn’t work, that the public wouldn’t want to see it. Last year, he finally started performing bilingually, flipping back and forth between French and English.

    Traditionally, Quebec is viewed as consisting of ‘two solitudes,’ one Francophone or French-speaking, the other Anglophone or English-speaking. But Sugar Sammy says that’s no longer the case. “I knew here was a certain demographic in Montreal…who live in French and English on a daily basis without even thinking about it. So I decided to put this show together and try to mix both sides.”

    Sugar Sammy’s bilingual show, You’re Gonna Rire, is a raging success. It’s the kind of mash-up that Quebec’s French language charter is supposed to guard against. So you might think that some Francophone politicians, especially from Quebec’s separatist ruling party, may not appreciate Sugar Sammy. But he has become so popular that politicians court him in public.

    He appeared recently with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on French language TV. Quebec’s most powerful politician and its hottest comedian each used the occasion to prod each other linguistically. Smiles all round, of course.

    Sugar Sammy now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). It’s mainly in English, with some French, Punjabi and Hindi thrown in.

    The Indian connection has developed beyond that: Sugar Sammy just completed a series of sold-out shows in Indian cities. He told audiences there how surprised he was to find himself in a modern society, and how he’d have to tell his Canadian-based parents that they had misled him. “It’s no longer that pure India that they thought it was.”

    You could go several ways with material like that. Sugar Sammy turns it into comedy.

    There’s more on Sugar Sammy on his website and his YouTube channel. Also, check out this previous World in Words blog post and podcast on Quebec’s latest battles over language.



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    Damon Albarn’s Soundscape Gives the BBC Something to Celebrate

    Damon Albarn (Screen shot of BBC interview)

    These past few weeks have difficult for the people who run the BBC (which of course is one of the co-producers of The World).

    No-one at the Beeb feels like celebrating a birthday. But the BBC is 90 years old. And, awkward or not, it’s marking the day—November 14, 1922—when it made its first broadcast.

    At exactly 5:33pm London time on November 14, 2012, scores of BBC stations in the UK and around the world dropped their regular programming. Instead, listeners heard the chimes of Big Ben, followed by a scratchy old recording of an announcer: “This is 2LO calling…” 2LO was the name of the BBC’s first transmitter from 1922.

    After that, an old tune—a hit from 1922. Mixed into it was rhythmic birdsong. And then a child’s voice: “Hello future,” the child said. “I hope music still matters because music is everything. Without it there’s nothing; just silence.”

    And then there was silence, before the program restarted with a mishmash of more sounds—some eerie, some sweet. All made you listen on.

    The BBC commissioned musician Damon Albarn to put this audio collage together. Albarn’s resume is itself a bit of a collage. He’s the front man of the bands Blur and Gorillaz. He’s also recorded songs with African musicians, and he’s written an opera that was staged by the English National Opera in 2011. The BBC asked Albarn to create something that would convey a sense of not just the past 90 years, but also the next 90 years.

    And through its various radio outlets – talk stations, music stations, foreign language stations – the BBC solicited responses to this question: “What message would you give to somebody listening in 90 years time?” Albarn said he was overwhelmed by the responses.

    “It varied from the very old and wise who tended not to imagine the future but were interested in providing a piece of hard-earned wisdom,” said Albarn.

    Middle-aged people tended to be “quite downbeat,” said Albarn. But the young were different. “They in a way were the most interesting because they were very free—in a sense, the only people will have the only connection with 90 years.”

    In the soundscape, one child says: “I think there will be more people and because there’ll be more people I will tell them to be careful not to get lost because it might be like really, really busy.”

    Not all the messages are delivered with the human voice. Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous quote, “Love is wise, hatred is foolish,” is rendered in Morse code. There’s also the sound of what Albarn calls a “scary” Cold war spy station.

    At the end, there are the BBC’s “pips” which—like Big Ben—usually mark the top of the hour. Albarn weaves the pips in and out of a piano tune.

    And then, after three minutes, BBC programming returns to its regular schedule.



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    Aramaic Revival in the Holy Land

    Israeli Maronite children learning Aramaic (Photo: Ksenia Svetlova)

    Aramaic is best known as the lingua franca of the Holy Land of two thousand years ago. It’s still spoken now—in various modern dialects—by an estimated 200,000 people worldwide. But few speak it as their mother tongue.

    In Israel, there’s a move afoot to change that. The country’s roughly 10,000 Maronite Christians are seeking official recognition as a national group. They’re currently classified as Arabs—a label that the Israeli government insists on. But the Maronites say they’re distinct, and they are appealing to Israel’s high court. They say they should be known as ‘Aramaic.’

    As part of an effort to maintain their culture—and to prove to the authorities that they are deserving of their own classification—Maronite activists have organized Aramaic language courses for kids. Most Israelis Maronites speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Volunteer teachers—whose Aramaic skills are of varying quality—want to ensure that the next generation speak the language better than they do.

    In the pod, we speak with Israel-based reporter Ksenia Svetlova about all this. Her fascinating report for the Jewish Daily Forward outlines the history and politics of this linguistic initiative. It also explains why largest concentration of Aramaic-speakers today is in, of all places, Sweden.

    A book written in Aramaic




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    What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

    Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

    Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

    A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

    A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

    Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

    View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

    An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

    Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

    “We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

    Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

    Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

    “Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

    “I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

    Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

    An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


    Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

    “We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

    Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

    One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

    “We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

    “The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

    But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

    This video was produced by the Israeli government:

    Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



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    Hiroshima, Nagasaki and self-censorship


    (Updated) I originally wrote this post around the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The recent earthquake in Japan seems to echo those incidents in certain ways: a calamitous event, followed by massive destruction and huge loss of life; entire communties wiped out; high levels of radiation in the atmosphere; unpredictability; fear.

    Some foreign media organizations have made the comparisons (for example, here and here). Also implicitly making the connection was Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has called the quake and its aftermath Japan’s worst crisis since World War Two. A further sign of the historical significance of the moment, and of the country’s plight: Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first television address of his reign.

    That said, there are significant differences between the 1945 bombings and the earthquake. The most obvious is that the 1945 events were military attacks (though the vast majority of victims were civilians). The destruction of two cities and the radiation released was fully intended by Japan’s wartime enemy, the United States. Also, radiation levels today are nowhere near as high as in the aftermath of the bombings. Nor, so far, is the loss of life, as shockingly high as it is.

    I checked in with a couple of  Japanese friends (one is a Hiroshima-based journalist; the other, a professor who has interviewed many A-bomb victims.) Their reponses were similar: for whatever reason, the Japanese media and public are not making a strong connection between Japan’s current crisis and the A-bombs. One connection, though,  has made, as reported in the New York Times: the earthquake and tsunami have rekindled memories of conventional World War Two air raids among elderly survivors of those bombing campaigns.

    In the podcast I put together for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bombs, there are two takes on self-censorship. A child survivor of Hiroshima explains why she kept quiet about her experiences for so long, through the pain and guilt of survival. She was seven when the the bomb fell, killing her parents and siblings but inexplicably sparing her. Late in life, Sueko Hada tells her story, in the presence of her daughter and granddaughters. They’ve heard some of it before, but she includes many new details this time.  I snapped this picture of the family on the day I interviewed Mrs Hada in 2005. My report originally aired on The World as part of a series on the mental health of Atomic Bomb survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

    Before I met Mrs Hada, I don’t think I fully understood why people with painful pasts remain silent, essentially censoring their own histories. But if you grew up in post-war Japan, surrounded by people who believed that radiation sickness was contagious and hereditary, you too might keep quiet about your past.

    The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hard to gauge. Japanese children still visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (above). But these days, Tokyo Disneyland is a far more popular destination for school groups.

    For many Americans, the use of the bomb remains a hugely sensitive issue.  Views both pro and con seem entrenched, dialogue virtually impossible. The debate — such as it is — hasn’t progressed much since the 1995 controversy over The Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition.  But there has been new research about some of the earliest news reporting of the bombs. That began in 2005, when several dispatches written by Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller were published first time by the Tokyo newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.  That was followed by publication in English of those and other reports in First into Nagasaki, a book put together by Weller’s son, Anthony.

    Weller blamed U.S. military censorship for the previous non-publication of his reports.  But Japanese freelance reporter Atsuko Shigesawa disputes that in a new book. (Japanese links here and here.) At the Library of Congress, she came across a statement from Gilbert Harrison, who was a sergeant in the US Army Air Forces and went to Nagasaki with Weller. Harrison went on to become editor of  the New Republic. In his statement, he describes how he delivered Weller’s reports to a Chicago Daily News employee in Tokyo. As far as he knows, he says, the reports were filed there and then and were not subject to military vetting. He says he “doesn’t know why”  the New York Times and the Arizona Republic reported in 2005 that “our reports were censored and not printed for 60 years.”

    Atsuko Shigesawa believes that the true acts of censorship in reporting on the A-bombs were self-imposed, sometimes by reporters, sometimes by their editors. In Weller’s case, she believes his editors at the Chicago Daily News killed many of his stories. And when it came to other reporters filing stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shigesawa found that newspapers routinely cut the segments dealing with radiation sickness and other after-effects of the bombs on the human body.  (The photo above was taken at a hospital in Tokyo. The original caption reads: “The patient’s skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion.”) In addition to these editorial cuts, at least one correspondent chose not to report on his hospital visits, believing that they were part of a plot to hoodwink him. William Lawrence of the New York Times wrote that American reporters were being subjected to “a Japanese propaganda campaign calculated to shame Americans for using such a devastating weapon of war”. He continued: “I am convinced that, horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating its effects in an effort to win sympathy for themselves in an attempt to make the American people forget the long record of cold-blooded Japanese bestiality.” For those reasons, Lawrence did not write about his hospital visits and the cases of radiation sickness he witnessed until 1972, in his memoir.

    We don’t — and probably never will — have the full story of what influenced those initial reports of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s enough to suggest that self-censorship played a prominent role.

    For another take on the meaning of Hiroshima and memory, check out Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir Hiroshima in the Morning. It was a 2010 finalist in the autobiography category of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

    Listen via iTunes or here.

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