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Wednesday, 28 February 2007

What is a native language?

In the largest and easternmost Swiss canton of Graubünden, natives speak two varieties of German (68%), at least two of Italian(10%), and no less than six of Romansh (15%). A goodly number also speak English. So, what is the native language of a Graubündner?

The origins of the aboriginal Graubünd race, the Rhaetians, are hidden in the mists of time. Were they Estruscans who moved in from the northern end of the Italian peninusal? Dalmatians from Illyria? Or Semites from the Levant? In any of these scenarios, their original "native" tounge" has long since gone extict, and obviously left no trace behind. Instead, the Rhaetians took up the language of their conquerors--Vulgar Latin, spoken by soliders and merchants of the Roman Empire. The Alpine variety which developed now survives in the form of seventeen distinct dialects in Graubünd and its bordering provinces in Italy. These in turn are grouped respecively under the language headings of Friulian (3), Ladin (9), and Romansh (5).
In addition to the above, there is an "official" standardized form of Romansh, which no one actually speaks as a native language.

So, by the time of the Reformation, for at least 1000 years the Rhaetians had been speaking an utterly foreign language--originally the language of their conquerors, during which time it had fragmented into essentially tribal dialects. Latin remained the language of law, letter, and liturgy: in short, the official language. The Bernese dialect of German served as the language of wider communication.

Enter the Reformation. Martin Luther published the Bible in what would henceforth be known, and taught, as Standard German. The tribal speech of the Teutons had finally gained official status as a language, and as such, eventually replaced Latin altogether. But through a quirk of geopolitics, Romansh, backed by its own seventeenth-century translation of the Bible, emerged as a national language of Switzerland. There was only one problem: no one spoke it! Rhaetians continued to speak at least five different dialects, collectively referred to as Romansh.

To this day, the five official dialects of Romansh continue to be taught in the elementary schools of Graubünden (one of them, in only a single classroom). But the children speak their "native language" with a German accent, because for all but two hours a day (one hour for the official form, one for the dialect? not sure), their instruction is conducted in standard German.

In what sense is a system of speech a native language when it has no monolinguals, no native speakers of its official form, and no chance of surviving another generation without official sponsorship?

It is a native language because a government policy has declared it to be one.
And on that basis alone, it will survive as such as long as does the policy that created it.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Some interesting consequences of instant unemployment

CounterHit counter
"Instant Unemployment" isn't a very suitable way of describing the impetus behind the Interesting Consequences I'm about to discuss. But this being a blog, not a journal article, the term will suffice. As we shall see shortly, "Unemployment by Edict" would be a more descriptive term.

I begin with the army of stonemasons assembled by Herod the Great, King of Judea, Galilee, Idumea, and Perea, to renovate the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This task stretched on for more than a mortal lifetime, thus involving several generations of sponsors, overseers, and workers. In short, an entire industry emerged focused on beautifying the Temple. Inevitably, this work finally came to an end, and abruptly so, when the Temple was totally destroyed in 70 CE. Instant unemployment ensued for every stonemason formerly on the government payroll. What was the result?

Interestingly enough, the destruction of the Second Temple was the direct impetus, through the instant unemployment it engendered, for the explosive growth of a whole new industry, and the cultural artifact it produced: The Ossuary. These hand-carved boxes of stone, into which the bones of deceased Judeans were placed for permanent burial, had begun to be used by the rich and famous as work on the temple began to wind down during the earthly lifetime of Jesus, but they became an integral part of the local culture as long as the previously government-employed stonemasons were forced to practice their craft in the private sector.

Another act of the Roman imperium resulted, perhaps not so directly, in yet another cultural artifact. In 392 CE, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II put an empire-wide ban on the production of all artifacts of pagan culture, including the Egyptian mummy portraits associated with the worship of Isis and Serapis. An entire industry, thus instantly unemployed, turned their creative attention to theologically approved art forms, resulting eventually in the icons which to this day form an integral part of the rites of Eastern Orthodoxy throughout its various patriarchates.

Closer to home, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution resulted both in Prohibition, and in the enabling legislation--which produced an army of Treasury Agents whose sole duties involved the arrest of those producing and selling alcoholic beverages. With the repeal of Prohibition in the Twenty-First Amendment, instant unemployment was about to ensue. This, however, being the Roosevelt administration, something surely would be done to keep them on the federal payroll. The result? The first piece of federal Gun Control legislation, the impetus behind the addition of "Firearms" to the name of the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco. Treasury agents would henceforth arrest those who produced and sold guns, and the handgun as an artifact of mainstream American culture was now on its way to eventual oblivion.

Three examples of instant unemployment by government edict: the first two pushed artisans from the public into the private sector, resulting in the emergence of a new cultural artifact; the third was tampered with in such a way as to retain on the government payroll men who had made no contribution to the physical culture of their nation; a retention which continues to lead towards the extinction of part of that physical culture.

An unintended consequence?

This post was thoroughly edited in March 2015.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Guns are like books

Counter I was recently directed (by mistake, apparently) to a book that is wildly popular with the gun culture. As a result, I'm now a full night behind on my sleep, but at least I wasn't (as was the husband of one very frustrated bride) just beginning my honeymoon at the time.

I can't recommend any other book to someone wanting to learn an insider's view of the gun culture of America--one that may well be unique to that country, although it appears modeled on that of Switzerland. But due to other elements of the plot, I won't be giving it any free publicity. Those who are able to find it and read it using the information in this blog would probably be able to without it.

I have minimally paraphrased (mostly by deletion) the following content from the book:

* * * * *

What if a government required every book, new and used, to bear a serial number?
What if it were a felony for any person to sell any book at a profit without first obtaining a federal license?
What if everyone (except government agents) who wanted to own a book under a certain size had to first pay a federal tax, get fingerprinted and photographed, and wait months for federal approval?
What if it were a felony for anyone (except government agents) to buy or sell books made out of anything other than a specifically approved grade of paper?
What if some states made it a felony (except for government agents) to buy more than one book a month, and banned outright (except to government agents) books with more than a certain number of pages?
What if it was a common occurrence for government agents to destroy someone's house, seize all his property, and imprison him for suspected violations of (or conspiracy to violate) these book control laws?
What if government agents planted noncompliant books in people's homes, shot their owners, or burned their houses down around them?
You may think this comparison is crazy, but like it or not, millions of intelligent, rational people think of guns in exactly the same way as books.
* * * *

I could add one more, based on what has actually happened to the author of this book:
What if the author of a book could be called into court based solely on the actions of someone who owned one of his books?

An officially licensed government employee taught me how to read a book.
An officially licensed government employee taught me how to use a handgun.

The government's subsequent involvement in how I have since put those skills to use has been similar in both cases, and I expect it to stay that way.