29 August 2015

Clemens Notebook on Language: The book of the magicians

I am going to keep up a series of quotes from various sources on language and linguistics, just because it interests me. The first one is from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, A Novel, by Susanna Clarke. It is a description of a crazy old lady who was once brilliant with languages.

As a child she had learnt several languages and spoke them all perfectly. There was nothing she could not make herself mistress of if she chose. She learnt for the pleasure of it. At sixteen she spoke - not only French, Italian and German - which are part of any lady's commonplace accomplishments - but all the languages of the civilized (and uncivilized) world. She spoke the language of the Scottish Highlands (which is like singing). She spoke Basque, which is a language which rarely makes any impression upon the brains of any other race, so that a man may hear it as often and as long as he likes, but never afterwards be able to recall a single syllable of it. She even learnt the language of a strange country which, Signor Tosetti had been told, some people believed stilll existed, although no one in the world could say where it was. (The name of the country was Wales.)

[late in life she is forced to seek refuge in the Jewish Ghetto of  Venice where she is completely isolated.]

And a great deal of time went by and she did not speak to a living sourl and a great wind of madness howled through her and overturned all her languages. And she forgot Italian, forgot English, forgot Latin, forgot Basque, forgot Welsh, forgot every thing in the world except Cat - and that, it is said, she spoke marvellously well.


22 August 2015

Southern aristocartic attitudes on Education return to haunt us

Ever wonder why the people of a state, say North Carolina, might turn against public education? We've all been taught, and poor working class southerners once believed, that public education was a good thing, something that would allow their children to have a better life. Well, as someone one said, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Here is an excerpt from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer (p. 347), a ground breaking study in its time on how the origins and attitudes of the first English settlers to America shaped regional culture and thus, regional history. It is the historian's answer to our question. This is the way the "better" folks of the south did it, and now they are returning to it. North Carolina, in effect, was an offspring of Virginia, the colony of the colony so to speak.

During the eighteenth century, literacy rapidly increased on both sides of the Atlantic. As it did so, differences between people of high and low status tended to diminish in New England and Britain. But in Virginia the opposite was the case. Disparities in literacy between rich and poor actually grew greater. Here was yet another system of inequality in the cultural life of the colony.
As it was with literacy, so also with learning. There was a stiking paradox in attitudes toward schools and schooling in Virginia. The elite was deeply interested in the education of gentlemen. “Better be never born than ill-bred,” wrote William Fitzhugh in 1687. By “ill-bred” in that passage, he meant “unschooled.”
At the same time, visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkeley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: “I thank God,” he declared, “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!