The Last Lingua Franca
English Until The Return of Babel
by Nicholas Ostler
p. 2010 Walker & Company
You might consider Ostler a popularizer of the field of Socio-Linguistics. His new book, published in the US on November 23rd, is an extended essay on the role of English as a Lingua Franca in the modern World. Having recently read the author's earlier book Empires of the Word, I recognized both the theme and some of the details from the earlier book, which covers much of the same territory as the Last Lingua Franca, but in a more general manner.
Specifically, in The Last Lingua Franca looks to historical examples of other Lingua Francas, and how they failed, and asks questions about whether or not English, the current Lingua Franca, might suffer the same fate. I very much place this book along the same continuum where you find pop intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell or, shudder, Jared Diamond. This group of writers familarizes itself with specific social science disciplines, distills the knowledge into modern magazine quality prose, and attempts to generate a hook that will interest readers who normally wouldn't give an eff about the field of "socio-linguistics."
As such, I would be inclined to think that Ostler has the right angle, since the "decline" of English is a subject that obsesses both liberal members of the education establishment and political right wingers who sponsor "English Only" bills in the legislatures of the southern states.
Most of Ostler's focus in this book is extended examples of different Lingua Francas, how they functioned, and how they collapsed. The reader is treated to chapters on the role of Latin, Persian & Sanskrit in their respective societies, followed by his take on the rise of English, and what "the future holds" for English or any other would-be Lingua Franca. Ostler's ultimate conclusion is spelled out in the title of the book itself, "The LAST Lingua Franca." Ostler takes the position that the rise of Machine Translation and non-English speaking countries like Brazil, Russia, China & India make English's survival as a the language of the world far from secure. However he also acknowledges that it is difficult to imagine ANY language replacing English.
Lingua Franca is a worth while read for a reader with a passing interest in linguistics and a college education, but it's hardly intellectual heavy lifting.
Dedicated to classics and hits.
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
Tearing Down The Wall Of Sound
The Rise And Fall Of Phil Spector
by Mick Brown
Phil Spector, currently doing a life sentence, is a personal hero of mine. I don't think there is any one person who is more emblematic of the story of popular music in the 20th century then Spector. Spector was born in NYC, moved to LA as a kid, had a hit record before he was out of high school, gave up on a career as a performer before he was 20, hung out with the Brill Building Gang in NYC in the early days of rock n roll, invented the Wall Of Sound in a Los Angeles studio- recording in Mono, ran his own record label and publishing firm, made a Beatles record, made a John Lennon record, made a Ramones record, became an alcoholic, lived as a recluse for twenty years and killed a woman after a lifetime of drinking and playing with guns.
It is clear from Tearing Down the Wall of Sound that Spector had mental illness running strong in his family (his father was a suicide and his older sister spent her life in and out of mental institutions.) Independent of any issues regarding mental illness, he also had a lifetime inferiority complex that led him to isolate himself from humanity and led to the disintegration of almost human relationship he every formed.
Spector's main contribution to the history of popular music was his creation of the rock producer as star. That was his goal from the very beginning- he wanted to be 'bigger than the music.' He created the Wall of Sound by jamming dozens of musicians together in the same room and having them play the same note at the same time. The fact that he accomplished this...in Mono, is perhaps the most impressive part of the Spector legacy. He called his approach "writing little symphonies for the kids" and was the first person to take the art of rock and roll seriously. He understood that pop music for teenagers could be art before anyone else.
How this book has avoided becoming a movie is beyond me- Spector even had his lead actor picked out (Al Pacino.) I'd love to see a movie about Phil Spector. When can that happen?
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Princes, Priests & Peasants
by Joseph W. Whitecotton
University of Oklahoma Press
Civilization of the American Indian Series
Crazy people like to make a big deal out of ancient pyramids, and about how, you know, aliens came down from space to inspire them in different places around the world, but if you stop and think about it... a pyramid is a pretty useful way to get closer to the sky. Furthermore, any group of people that moves beyond hunt and gather style live is going to be obsessed with the sky and rain... because they are practicing agriculture. When you are farming you are reliant on sunlight and rain- that shit is important. What better way to get closer to whatever God you've dreamt up then to make something to get you closer.
The Zapotecs are a people of Southern Mexico. Their civilization was centered around what is presently Oaxaca. Oaxaca is in a valley south of Mexico City. It has two main branches, and between them is Monte Alban- Monte Alban is considered the culture center of your classic era Zapotec civilization. Afterwards, the Zapotecs were invaded (or something) by the Mixtecs- a different culture that moved in as conquerers and ended up living side by side with the Zapotecs, often in different neighborhoods in the same village. Both groups were subjugated by the Aztecs prior to Spanish arrival, but it was a paying tribute kind of domination.
The Zapotecs remain in the state of Oaxaca, they also spread to the south into the Isthmus of Mexico and west to the coast. Their cultural situation is complex- Zapotecs never considered themselves a nation, and their tradition of governance maintains identity to the individual community of which they are members- similar to the situation in Italy in the Renaissance.
What is significant about the Zapotecs is that their language comes from a different linguistic family then that of the Aztecs. The Aztecs speak a variety of Uto-Aztecan, while Zapotec is part of the Oto-Manguean family. Zapotec and Mixtec are the most successful of the Oto Manguean languages, and linguists generally agree that some form of this language has been present in Mexico since 4000 B.C, giving the Oto Manguean's a prior claim to Mexico.
If you look at a map, it seems likely that the Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples moved south, pushing the Oto Manguean peoples south in the process. It's not like the Zapotecs were inferior- they may have introduced writing into Classic Era Mexico. It's hard to know, since the Spanish did such a great job of eradicating and co-opting the pre-Contact Zapotec culture, but it's useful to know that pre-Contact Mexico was more then just the Aztecs.
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