Friday, November 26, 2010

Made in America — Finished 2010.11.24

Began 2010.10.17
Secondary comment 2010.11.15.

Much, MUCH, MUCH more than a history of the English language in America! Bryson with magical and funny writing links the evolution of language with the evolution of culture, science, recreation, food, politics. His controversial or almost heretical debunkings of accepted history are supported with an extensive bibliography of the sources.

The debunking is endless! Barely a page was turned that didn't leave me amazed at how much I don't know, and just how far away from documented history is the accepted and taught history of just about every aspect of the Europeans' settlement of the 'new' world. About the only thing somewhat factually correct about the white man's settlement of North America is that Europeans came and decimated and displaced the natives. As an example, one of the unknown reasons that the Natives were able to help the first American settlers was that one of them spoke very good English. That synopsis does Bryson's writing a severe injustice, so here is his (slightly abbreviated) telling:

... Before long, as every [American] schoolchild knows, the Pilgrims were thriving, and Indians and settlers were sitting down to a cordial Thanksgiving feast. Life was grand.

A question that naturally arises is
how they managed this. Algonquian, the language of the eastern tribes, is an extraordinarily complex and agglomerative tongue... full of formidable consonant clusters that are all but unpronounceable by the untutored...

...The answer, surprisingly glossed over by most history books, is that the Pilgrims didn't have to learn Algonquian for the happy and convenient reason that Samoset and Squanto spoke English — Samoset only a litte, but Squanto with total assurance (and some Spanish into the bargain.)
I also learned that the so-called Christian purity that, amongst other things, has been accused of distorting American English into using euphemism in place of body part words, originally spoke sexually explicit language enough to make fans of Playboy blush. And, even more astonishing, that the Puritans actively encouraged premarital sex in the 18th century as an accepted method of testing physical compatibility.
Sex among the Puritans was considered as natural as eating, and was discussed about as casually, to the extent that, the historian David Fischer writes, 'the writings of the Puritans required heavy editing before they were thought fit to print even in the mid-twentieth century.' Premarital intercourse was not just tolerated but was effectively encouraged. Couples who intended to marry could take out something called a pre-contract — in effect, a license to have sex. It was the Puritans, too, who refined the intriguing custom of bundling, or tarrying as it was also often called, in which a courting pair were invited to climb into bed together...

As one seventeenth-century observer explained it: 'When a man is enamoured of a young women, and wishes to marry her, he proposes the affair to her parents; if they have no objections they allow him to tarry the night with her, in order to make his court with her. After the young ones have sat up as long as they think proper, they get into bed together, also without pulling of their undergarments in order to prevent scandal. If the parties agree it is all very well; the banns are published and they are married without delay. If not they part, and possibly never see each other again; unless, which is an accident that seldom happens, the forsaken fair proves pregnant, and then the man is obliged to marry her.'

...Although never expressly countenanced, fornication was so common in Puritan New England that at least one parish had forms printed up in which the guilty parties could confess by filling in their names and paying a small fine... "
Bryson defrocks most of Kroc's reputed claims to fame, critically examines myths around the evils of immigrants, suggests that one of the best living examples of how 'real' English may have been spoken is to listen to Yosemite Sam, points out that the famous 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' was in fact the miss-heard version of 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' Bryson also wades into the issue of politically correct language with intelligence, diplomacy, and razor sharp observations — and, of course, humour.

This books re-affirms the vivifying joy and beauty and aliveness of the English language. A gem of a book, and one I will now go out and buy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Made in America — Continues with Economic Lessons — 2010.11.15

I am continuing to thoroughly enjoy Bryson's Made in America. He demonstrates in a way that words cannot convey, that language, in this case the English language, is alive like a giant garden — the masters of English are constantly weeding, trimming, hedging, and 'improving' the garden, but Nature is constantly adding to it in the wild untamed corners, poking weeds and shrubs into the garden, especially its edges, with wanton abandon and joy.

And in his typical fashion, Bryson makes comments about society as he is examining of the evolution of the society's language and words. I am putting together an 3-day economics course for my local Continuing Education programme. Shortly after receiving confirmation of the course approval, I read the following, which I'll be incorporating into my course and/or reading materials:

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the end of one war and the beginning of another: the cold war. The cold may not have generated a lot of casualties, but it was nonetheless the longest and costliest war America has ever fought. War was unquestionably good for business — so good that in 1946 the president of General Electric went so far as to call for a 'permanent war economy.' he more or less got his wish. Throughout the 1950s, America spent more on defense than it did on anything else — indeed, almost as much as it did on all things together. By 1960, military spending accounted for 49.7 percent of the federal budget — more than the combined national budgets of Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy. Even America's foreign aid was overwhelmingly military. Of the $50 billion that America distributed in aid in the 1950s, 90 percent was for military purposes ( p300-1).

I am building a web page this course, which I've called Economics Demystified. [At the time of this blog, the web page is still under construction, and will be for a month or two more.] Anyway, within Economics Demystified I have created a page called 'Found Economics.' And I am including the above as my first example of a non-economist commenting on economics outside of a formal economic context.