We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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Two takes on the decline of foreign languages in British schools

“Brexit ‘hitting foreign languages in schools'” says the BBC, quoting its kindred spirits in the British Council – which for those that don’t know is the Muggle Wizengamot a worthy body formed in the 1930s, a decade after the BBC, in order to promote British culture and the teaching of the English language abroad and of foreign languages in the UK.

Brexit is causing poorer children to fall further behind in learning foreign languages, says the British Council.

Parents in disadvantaged areas are telling teachers languages will be less useful after Brexit, it says.

The graph that comes with BBC story gives no support whatsoever to the claim that Brexit is hitting foreign languages in schools.

It is true that the number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish pupils taking a foreign language at GCSE level is in apparently inexorable decline. Why? Because of the rise of English as a world language. However the inexorable decline is, er…, exored at two points.

The first break in the downward slope of the graph comes about half a year after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010. Despite its name the Bacc is not an educational qualification. It is a performance measure that the government imposed on schools. The aim is to stop schools gaming the system by putting the pupils in for lots of easy exams. To this end schools, not pupils, are marked on how many pupils get decent grades in proper subjects, including foreign languages. “That which is measured, improves”, as the saying goes – and that explains the uptick after 2010. But by 2013 or so (the unmarked horizontal axis of that graph is an abomination) the downward trend returns.

The second, lesser pause in the decline happens about six months after Brexit. The line flattens. Allowing for the same time lag as followed the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, Brexit if anything seems to have stemmed the decline in numbers of British pupils studying foreign languages. Perhaps some kids calculate that if there will be fewer native speakers of those languages around to compete with after Brexit, then any linguistic skills they might obtain will be more in demand.

OK, OK, correlation is not causation. But at least that hypothesis actually has some correlation to wave a hand hopefully at, unlike the preferred hypothesis of the BBC and the British Council:

The British Council report also describes a shift in attitude, with some parents saying languages are “little use” as the UK is due to leave the European Union.

Teresa Tinsley, the report author, says secondary schools in poorer areas are reporting a very definite Brexit effect, which could lead to an even sharper decline in language learning.

Brexit has superpowers: it could do almost anything.

Scattered at random among the single-paragraph sentences of this BBC report there are two that point to a more likely possible culprit than Brexit-bourne viral xenophobia:

It warns that GCSEs and A-level languages in England are seen as being hard subjects in which to get a good grade.

and

It warns of growing concern that GCSEs and A-levels in modern foreign languages are seen as harder than other subjects.

That, unlike Brexit, is something they really do talk about at the school gates.

But why are the grade boundaries in language exams getting harsher? That is the point that the Times has chosen to focus on in its piece on the same British Council report: “Bilingual pupils distort results in language exams”

Schools are enabling pupils to take foreign language exams in their native tongue, making it harder for everyone else to get the top grades, a report has found.

The British Council’s annual Language Trend Survey found that more than 80 per cent of schools now arrange for pupils to take exams for the language they speak at home, with the most common being Polish and Portuguese. Often pupils need only a few lessons in exam technique rather than any formal lessons in the language itself.

In the report teachers expressed disquiet at this growing trend. “In some languages, for example Italian, the number of native speakers taking the GCSE and A-level exams are skewing the grade boundaries hugely — why is this allowed?” said one.

The finding comes alongside a warning by the British Council that the newly reformed and tougher GCSE and A levels were putting pupils off languages, with many believing they stand a far better chance of gaining top grades in almost any other subject.

I do not see any easy way round this. Any attempt to make separate exams for native and non-native speakers will be bedevilled by edge cases. And there is a harsh logic to the idea that if you hold an examination to measure how well someone speaks Italian, for example, then if it shows Italians speaking Italian better than all but a few non-Italians it probably means that the examination is functioning correctly. I certainly do not propose that the government shove its oar in.

I was merely interested to see what very different structures the BBC and the Times built upon the same foundation of that British Council report.

Added later: The Guardian’s treatment of the same story, “Brexit ‘putting pupils off modern foreign languages'” , displays the same oddities in its structure and choice of headline as did the BBC article. It briefly mentions that far more of the teachers surveyed cited the difficulty of the exams as the cause of the reduced interest from pupils in taking GCSEs in foreign languages than had cited Brexit. Then it goes on at length about Brexit.

While more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed by the British Council said the difficulty of the exams was causing concern, one in four said Brexit had “cast a pall” over pupils learning any foreign languages, with some parents actively discouraging their children.

Teachers told researchers that they have seen a shift in attitudes since the Brexit referendum, with one reporting: “We have had parents mention that they do not believe their son or daughter should be studying a language as it is little to no use to them now that we are leaving the European Union.”

Another teacher noted comments from pupils, “obviously heard at home, such as now we’ve left/are leaving the EU you won’t need this any more”.

Corbynization

THE CORBYNIZATION OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CONTINUES APACE: New York Times international edition prints anti-Semitic cartoon of Trump, Netanyahu.

I found the term used in this Instapundit article as interesting as the short article itself. Corbynization: now in use outside the UK to describe the mainstreaming of institutional anti-Semitism.

Spanish practices

Taxi drivers in Madrid are on strike over “unfair competition” from online ride-sharing services such as Uber and Cabify, reports El Pais. In English. On the internet.

Discuss.

Death to English!

As part of my homework for this, I read, and have carried on reading since, a book by David Crystal entitled English as a Global Language. I’m enjoying it, and I especially enjoyed this (on page 90 of my paperback edition):

International politics operates at several levels and in many different ways, but the presence of English is usually not far away. A political protest may surface in the form of an official question to a government minister, a peaceful lobby outside an embassy, a street riot, or a bomb. When the television cameras present the event to a world audience, it is notable how often a message in English can be seen on a banner or placard as part of the occasion. Whatever the mother tongue of the protesters, they know that their cause will gain maximum impact if it is expressed through the medium of English. A famous instance of this occurred a few years ago in India, where a march supporting Hindi and opposing English was seen on world television: most of the banners were in Hindi, but one astute marcher carried a prominent sign which read ‘Death to English’ – thereby enabling the voice of his group to reach much further around the world than would otherwise have been possible.

Crystal dates the rise of English, from a merely big language among other big languages to its current status as the clear front-runner for global linguistic hegemony, from the immediate post World War 2 period. I recall noticing the phenomenon some time in the 1960s, when, in Youth Hostels in continental Europe, I observed conversations between groups of Europeans (not all of them Scandinavians, by the way) in their teens and twenties, not one of whom (I have a pretty good ear for accents) was speaking English as his or her first language. Interesting, I thought. And having become interested in where English seemed to be going, I became interested also in where it had come from.

The global English story is more complicated than just the matter of educated non-Anglos communicating by means of standard English, and Crystal seems to me to tell it very well, with lots of maps and historical details of how English spread in this or that particular place.

Crystal himself is anything but an English linguistic triumphalist. He lives and works in Holyhead, in North Wales, North Wales being the part of Wales where the Welsh language is strongest. Although Crystal is a major figure in linguistics and in English teaching, I have been unable to discover how fluent he is in Welsh. But as an academic whose basic tool is the English language, he entirely gets why English has gone global. It’s just so useful, for communicating with other people.

Melvyn Bragg on England’s verbal twins

Whenever I learn of a book about the history of the English language, then provided the price is not too steep, I tend to buy it. Only this month, I bought another such book. Although short, as promised, this one looks like being very good.

You may recall learning about how some Normans conquered the English speaking rulers of England in the eleventh century. 1066 and all that. You may even know something of the bit of the story of English that most fascinates me, which is when, in the late fourteenth century, English, in England, conquered Norman French as the language of those ruling England.

That I like wallowing in this story is why, when I was today looking for something to read while answering nature’s call, I noticed in and picked out from my large and disorganised book collection The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, to rediscover what he had said about this particular moment in the history of English.

→ Continue reading: Melvyn Bragg on England’s verbal twins

Two discussion points inspired by Stephen Wolfram

The first one is straightforward. The internet threw me a talk by the computer scientist and businessman Stephen Wolfram today. It lasts three minutes 21 seconds and is called “How humans can communicate with aliens”.The subject is one that has so often been used as the basis for fiction that we sometimes forget that when you look up at night, what you see is real. There is a whole universe out there. It might have intelligences in it. Mr Wolfram contends that we might have been seeing evidence of intelligences all the time without realising it.

Do you think he is right? And assuming we can talk to them, should we?

Alien contact sounds wonderful at first but then becomes terrifying as you think more deeply. The second topic for discussion I want to put forward sounds terrifying at first but then becomes –

Well, you tell me what it becomes. There is a very strange final paragraph to Mr Wolfram’s Wikipedia page:

Personal analytics

The significance data has on the products Wolfram creates transfers into his own life. He has an extensive log of personal analytics, including emails received and sent, keystrokes made, meetings and events attended, phone calls, even physical movement dating back to the 1980s. He has stated “[personal analytics] can give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives”.

One of my recurring nightmares is that as spy devices get smaller and the computational power available to analyse what they learn gets bigger someone – or lots of someones – will be able to analyse my life in that sort of detail, down to every keystroke I make. It had never occurred to me to think of it as something I might like to do to myself.

Does anyone reading this do anything similar? Would you like to?

Let’s save time and outlaw humour entirely

This video clip (which has English subtitles once you eliminate the advertisement at the bottom) shows the left wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon behaving unpleasantly.

I know. The jokes write themselves. But I was a little surprised to see a man often called “The French Jeremy Corbyn” display such un-PC (and to be fair to Mr Corbyn, un-JC) contempt for a journalist, particularly a female journalist, merely for speaking with a less prestigious regional accent. Reuters has an account of the exchange here, and this is a slightly longer version of the video with some French subtitles that shows the build up to Mélenchon losing his temper with Veronique Gaurel, the journalist in question. His claim that he does not understand her question does not convince. It looks a lot more like he understood it all too well and was desperately casting around for any excuse not to answer it.

Did you catch how he imitated her? Mr Mélenchon has shown a haughtiness that pokes a hole in his claim to represent the ordinary people of France against the elite. There has been an outpouring of support for Ms Gaurel, with many saying that his outburst was a reaction to her doing her job well and asking him a pointed question that remains unanswered. He will lose votes. That should be punishment enough.

But it never is enough for some people. France 24 reports,

French MP seeks ban on ‘glottophobia’ after Mélanchon mocks journalist’s accent

A French member of parliament has proposed that mockery of accents be outlawed, after an irate politician derided a journalist’s southwestern pronunciation before asking if anyone had a question in “understandable French”.

Laetitia Avia of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party said she was proposing a bill that would classify such mockery with other forms of prohibited discrimination such as on grounds of sex or race.

At this point we in the Anglosphere might be tempted to laugh in a smug way and say those Frenchies might submit to the abolition of a tradition of laughing at other people’s funny accents that goes back millennia, but we will never say goodbye to our ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Don’t count on it. How often have you laughed about the latest daft PC proposal from an obscure intellectual, a student union, or a minor politician, home-grown or foreign like Laetitia Avia – only to find five years later that it is a law you must obey?

“A student at the preschool I work at is only being taught a fictional language”

That was the title of a request for legal advice submitted to Reddit by someone with the user name “HelpfulButterscotch2”. Here is the whole post:

[CA] A student at the preschool I work at is only being taught a fictional language

I’m twenty, and I work part-time as an assistant at a small daycare in California.

There is a four year old who speaks very very little and poor English. Knows the most basic of words but is at the level of maybe a two year old English-wise compared to the other kids, including several who are both native Spanish/English speakers. Basically knows “yes”, “no”, “juice”, etc.

He’s only been here for less than a month and I’ve seen his incredibly limited vocab double in that time. I’m embarrassed to say it but I’m very uneducated about this type of thing and I thought he was speaking Portuguese or something similar up until last week. The kids are split into small groups by age and I’m usually not in charge of his group unless it’s at the end of the day, in my defense.

The hosts of the daycare are very into nerd culture and some of the daycare is very decorated with (child friendly) sci-fi and fantasy stuff. I’m not too into it myself but I like listening to them and I (usually) like their passion.

One day I was curious what language the child was speaking so I looked up what Portuguese actually sounded like and realized it wasn’t that. Looked up a lot of languages and for the life of me could not identify it. The single dad who picked him up looked like a nice dude and one day he was one of the last people to pick up that day so I asked him what language his kid spoke.

The bosses of the daycare were there too when I asked and they all suddenly got big smiles on their faces and explained to me in depth that the guy was a linguistics hobbyist who was trying to recreate an experiment where he raises his kid to speak a language from the tv show Star Trek (klingon.)

He explained how at home he only has spoken Klingon (which is apparently a real full language) to the kid and that’s all he knows. My bosses LOVE that he is doing this and he does too, he told me to look up the experiment and read about it. My bosses even learned a small bit of the language themselves so that when they talk to the kid they don’t say it.

It sounded kinda cool at the time but I didn’t really think about it too much. When I looked it up I found out that the guy who did it taught his kid Klingon AND English at the same time. I assumed that this guy was doing the same and I just misunderstood but when I clarified next time he confirmed that the kid was ONLY being taught Klingon on purpose and he was going to try and continue the “experiment” for as long as possible.

He also told me about his blog and I checked it out where he describes this all and he basically states in it that he is fully aware that this will make it “slightly” hard for the kid to speak english later but that the experience is worth it. He even has limited the kids intake of media very severely so far to avoid shows with a lot of speaking/words.

The kid is fairly isolated and generally acts a bit socially “off”, if I can say that without being mean. Not like misbehaving but he clearly has small issues interacting with kids his age who all talk a lot already.

I’ve brought it up casually with my bosses but they basically love this dude and what he is doing and don’t see a problem with it. I feel terrible but I feel like I should report this? Is this child abuse? This guy basically is mispurposely not teaching his kid to how to interact with other people for the level of “it’s just a social experiment bro”, it’s nuts to me.

If I’m wrong and this isn’t dangerous I apologize. It feels awful to me though. I like my job otherwise but if I had to lose it for this i could find another one, have some savings, i feel too bad for this kid.

That is eerily similar to the scenario I imagined a couple of years ago in a post called “The morality of not teaching your child English”. I started by asking whether it would be wrong to raise your child to speak only Welsh. No, I answered. “Welsh has over half a million speakers and a magnificent corpus of poetry, literature and song. Speaking Welsh alone does not remotely count as linguistic imprisonment”. Then I asked the question again for languages with smaller and smaller numbers of speakers. 50,000? 5,000? 500? That last figure is about the number of Cornish speakers. I wrote:

Very recently the Cornish language has been revived. 557 speakers claim it as their main language, 20 young children are native speakers. Let me stress that in real life all of these children are being brought up to be bilingual in Cornish and English. But when you get down to a group of that size and imagine its children being brought up monolingually, the mental walls do begin to close in.

How small would the village be before it became a prison?

The specific example of Klingon was brought up in comments by William H Stoddard. He cited the fairly well-known case (also mentioned by “HelpfulButterscotch2”) of another child who was taught Klingon from babyhood by his father back in the 1990s, but – and this is a crucial distinction – that child’s mother spoke to him in English. As I said,

…when the child began to notice that the people he met outside didn’t speak this language he began to stop talking in it (a common way for attempts to raise bilingual children to break down, as I’m sure you know), and the father did not persist and risk damaging his relationship with the child. It was getting to be a pain for the father too, as Klingon doesn’t have equivalents for a lot of the everyday English words that the boy was meeting as his world expanded. Given that the child also learned English, the only ethical issue, and a much smaller one, was whether one should make one’s child mildly famous as an experiment.

At the time I had reservations about naming the child, but without need. The story of how d’Armond Speers tried to raise his son to be bilingual in Klingon and English is all over the internet. Stephen Fry interviewed him. The son is grown up now, speaks English normally, and has forgotten his Klingon.

But the child described by “HelpfulButterscotch2” has not been raised to speak a conlang alongside English. He has only been exposed to the artificial language and, if the post is to be believed, has been prevented from learning English. Though to be fair that isolation from English has now ceased, given that he now goes to a normal US preschool.

In principle it should make no difference whether the language the child is being raised in is a conlang or a natural language. Esperanto is a constructed language, but it has had quite a few native speakers, usually the children of parents from different countries who met at Esperanto conferences. Apparently Esperanto was the mother tongue of the financier George Soros. It does not seem to have held him back. However one problem with Klingon that d’Armond Speers mentioned in his interview with Stephen Fry is that, compared to Esperanto which has been going for well over a century and has several million speakers, Klingon is the work of one man and has a limited vocabulary. That point was made even by the conlanging enthusiasts who discussed this story when it was cross-posted to the subreddit dealing with constructed languages, /r/conlangs. The general reaction there was disquiet. The top comment is by “chrevs” and reads,

It’d be different if he was being raised as bilingual, but he’s stunting the kid’s ability to to get on where he lives. Not to mention that if things were to be going horribly wrong at home, like his father decides he also needs to be practicing the kind of ritual combat the Klingon do, the kid can’t express that he’s in danger to teachers or other trusted adults. It’s not okay

Another commenter called “Esosorum” says,

I worry that, from a biological perspective, this child’s brain isn’t experiencing language-acquisition the way it was meant to. I just don’t think conlangs have as much to offer as natural languages. I don’t disagree that conlangs can be wonderfully expressive and complex, but natural language is rooted in culture in a way that a conlang can’t be.

It could be that the post by HelpfulButterscotch2 is not to be believed. It was submitted under a pseudonym and the author joined Reddit one day before submitting it. That means that we are not in a position to get a feel for their sincerity (and sanity) by looking at their comment history. I find it curious that there is no link provided to the blog where the father of the boy is claimed to describe what he is doing. Some people do take an odd pleasure in passing off bizarre fictions as truth just for the buzz. On the other hand having joined Reddit one day ago is not inconsistent with a person not knowing who else to turn to for advice about a situation that worries them deeply. Equally, HelpfulButterscotch2 may be sincere but have misunderstood the situation. I hope so.

But assuming that this is really happening as described, it does raise some sharp questions for Libertarians. When do we get on the phone and send the state sweeping in to “save” a child from their parents?

Brexit Britain fails to play the game

But not quite in the sense that the Telegraph‘s Brussels Correspondent, James Crisp, thinks.

He has written a piece entitled “Terrible translations of Brexit White Paper make Britain a laughing stock in Brussels”

British officials botched the translation of Theresa May’s discredited White Paper into European languages, part of a UK strategy to win concessions from Brussels, and failed to translate the document into Irish, despite being locked in fraught Brexit talks over Ireland’s border.

The paper’s executive summary, which Britain hopes to use to help solve the vexed border issue, has been translated, poorly, into 22 languages. The full 100-page document has only been translated into one other language, Welsh, which, unlike Irish, is not an official EU language.

After The Telegraph contacted the British Government, an Irish version was published on Thursday afternoon, two days after the other translations but the damage was already done. A DexEU spokeswoman said the translations were being published as they were finished.

Basic errors and amateurish negligence has not only wasted an opportunity to win hearts and minds on the Continent but will confirm Brussels’ worst suspicions about the government. It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.

When Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, travelled to Dublin he made a point of addressing reporters in Irish. The gesture was appreciated in Dublin and left some in tears. The EU-27 governments have made it clear they will back Ireland to the hilt with senior figures insisting “we are all Irish”.

In contrast the tin-eared Brits considered the common courtesy of an Irish translation an afterthought.

We saw so many palaces and temples during our visit to Japan that they have merged in my mind. But in one of them, probably the former Imperial Palace at Kyoto, there was a fine recreation of a great daimyo awaiting an audience with the emperor. Etiquette (the sort enforced with swords) forbade him to stroll in and say, “Your Majesty, we need to talk” – even if the emperor needed and wanted to hear what he had to say. No, he had to wait for hours on his knees in a beautiful but austere anteroom, contemplating the painted screens. I thought of that daimyo with his knees aching under his perfectly arranged silk robe when I read Mr Crisp’s line, “It exposes, once again, how poorly the Department for Exiting the European Union understands Brussels, its priorities and its culture.” The priorities and culture of Tokugawa-period Kyoto required that the emperor’s symbolic importance be reinforced by making everyone wait for hours before business could be done. None of the usual reasons or excuses for being kept waiting applied. The wait was the point.

The priorities and culture of European Union-period Brussels require that every document be translated into a couple of dozen languages. I will focus on Irish in particular because for that language the divorce from the usual point of translation, to enable communication, is complete. Not one Irish parliamentarian or official actually needed the White Paper translated into Irish in order to understand it. Probably no more than a handful of them are even capable of reading it in Irish. Like the deference to the emperor in Kyoto when real power lay with the Shogun in Edo, the laborious process of translation into Irish before business can be done is all just a symbolic obeisance, a court ritual, a game.

The UK was never very good at this languages game and will drop it with relief once out of the EU. In contrast Ireland is firmly in the EU and plays the game better than anyone. (Though as I will argue later, this may not be to the advantage of the long term survival of Irish.) Although Irish has been an official language of the EU since 2007, it was only in 2015 that the the decision was taken to upgrade the language to a full working language of the European institutions. By 2022 it is hoped that the “derogation phase” during which the EU was let off the obligation to provide full translation or interpretation services for every document to and from Irish will be over.

The way things are going, the apotheosis of Irish as a full EU working language will coincide neatly with its death as a native language.

Many of the English – and even some of the Irish – shrug their shoulders at the prospect, and talk of “efficiency”. From what I have written so far you might think I was one of them. You would be wrong. I see language death as a tragedy. Quite apart from the loss of beauty, I fear a world unified under one language for the same reasons I fear a world unified under one government. If that last culture falls under the sway of a tyranny, there is nowhere else to flee, no one else to keep the flame alive.

For many reasons I would love to see the apparently inexorable slide towards extinction of more than half the languages spoken on Earth reversed. Alas, that shows no sign of happening. Naturally those who love their threatened language are moved when they hear a visiting foreigner make the effort to speak it. (Really, though, there was no need to burst into tears just because Donald Tusk memorised a few phrases. It was a nice gesture, but if that’s all it takes to get the Irish political class to fall at one’s feet, Theresa May ought to reinstate Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and get him to do one of his linguistic party pieces.)

Naturally, too, those who love their threatened language want to see it enshrined in an official position of parity with the other languages of Europe. But “enshrined” is the word. Shrines are not raised to the living. The question comes unbidden: who actually reads the endless streams of EU documents translated so dutifully into Irish? I have a horrible suspicion that the answer is no one, no one at all. Lurking on forums discussing the future of the Irish language I have read well-argued claims that the exodus to Brussels of so many of the best-educated native Irish speakers is one of the factors causing the Gaeltachts, the Irish-speaking areas, to decline. It cements the perception – and helps make the perception fact – that for a young person with talent and ambition there is no life to be had in the Gaeltacht. What a strange life these exiles must have. They grow up in one of the few remaining parts of Ireland where the ancient tongue is still spoken in the streets. Presumably inspired by a wish to preserve that inheritance they study for many years to reach the high standards required to be a professional translator or interpreter, and their voices are no longer heard in those streets. Off to Brussels they go (plus a monthly trip to Strasbourg), where they speak beautiful Irish into headphones tuned into another channel and write less beautiful Irish about Section 6, sub-section 13, paragraph 1(a)(iv) of the Directive on This, That and The Other that not one human soul will ever read.

Ça ira toujours

Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Les aristocrates à la lanterne!

That is the famous song sung by the female revolutionaries storming the gates of Versailles in this clip from a 1953 film called “Si Versailles M’Etait Conté” (If Versailles Told me its Story).

Neither the voice of Edith Piaf at the head of the mob nor the glorious technicolor in the film can suppress the thought that “Les aristocrates à la lanterne!” (The aristocrats to the lamp-posts!) is a murderous sentiment. If that was the song of the Revolution, it is hardly surprising that it soon became the Terror.

Only those were not the words sung at the time of the Revolution. The film is peddling a myth. Today I learned, first that the words “ça ira, ça ira” do not mean “Thus it will go, thus it will go” as I had thought but “It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine”, secondly that they were originally said by Benjamin Franklin to express his confidence that the American Revolution would work out OK, and thirdly that the original words of the song are revolutionary but not murderous.

Here are a couple of extracts:

According to the precepts of the Gospel
Of the lawmaker everything shall be accomplished
The one who puts on airs shall be brought down
The one who is humble shall be elevated
The true catechism shall instruct us
And the awful fanaticism shall be snuffed out.

and

The aristocrat says, “Mea culpa!”
The clergy regrets its wealth,
The state, with justice, will get it.
Thanks to the careful Lafayette,
Everyone will calm down.

Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
By the torches of the august assembly,
Ah ! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
An armed people will always take care of themselves.
We’ll know right from wrong,
The citizen will support the Good.

Those were the words as first written by a former soldier turned street singer by the name of Ladré. It was not so much the song of the Revolution as the song of the Fête de la Fédération that took place a year later. This event was meant to be a symbol of national reconciliation. Wikipedia says:

At this relatively calm stage of the Revolution, many people considered the country’s period of political struggle to be over. This thinking was encouraged by counter-revolutionary monarchiens, and the first fête was designed with a role for King Louis XVI that would respect and maintain his royal status. The occasion passed peacefully and provided a powerful, but illusory, image of celebrating national unity after the divisive events of 1789–1790.

As we all know, that did not last. Unlike their American counterparts, the French revolutionaries had no intention of stopping just because they had achieved their ostensible aim. Ladré’s optimistic words about everyone calming down and the state “with justice” taking the wealth from repentant aristocrats and clergy were replaced by a new version of the “Ça ira” propagated by the sans-culottes:

Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
aristocrats to the lamp-post
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
the aristocrats, we’ll hang them!
If we don’t hang them
We’ll break them
If we don’t break them
We’ll burn them
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
aristocrats to the lamp-post
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
the aristocrats, we’ll hang them!
We shall have no more nobles nor priests
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
Equality will reign everywhere

The hangings, the breakings and the burnings all came to pass, as they always do when Equality reigns. Thus it did go, but it was not fine.

“All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory”

Writing in the Kashmir Monitor, Alia P. Ahmed describes an aspect of Pakistan’s history whose effects still reverberate today:

When “Khuda” became “Allah”

In 1985 a curious thing happened: a prominent Pakistani talk-show host bid her audience farewell with the words Allah Hafiz. It was an awkward substitution. The Urdu word for goodbye was actually Khuda Hafiz (meaning God be with you), using the Persian word for God, Khuda, not the Arabic one, Allah. The new term was pushed on the populace in the midst of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization campaign of the late 1970s and 1980s, the extremes of which Pakistani society had never before witnessed. Zia overhauled large swathes of the Pakistan Penal Code to resemble Saudi-style justice, leaving human rights activists and religious minorities aghast. Even the national language, revered for its poetry, would not be spared. And yet, though bars and cabarets shut down overnight and women were told to cover up, it would take two decades for the stubborn Khuda to decisively die off, and let Allah reign.

She continues,

Today, Pakistan’s crisis of identity is chronic. A legacy of top-down cultural strangulation has left the national psyche utterly bewildered and deeply scarred. It has also given Pakistanis an inferiority complex – because we are South Asians and not Arabs, we are lesser Muslims. We must compensate. We must try our hardest to become Bakistanis.

Author Mohamed Hanif, in his celebrated debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says it best: “…All God’s names were slowly deleted from the national memory as if a wind had swept the land and blown them away. Innocuous, intimate names: Persian Khuda which had always been handy for ghazal poets as it rhymed with most of the operative verbs; Rab, which poor people invoked in their hour of distress; Maula, which Sufis shouted in their hashish sessions. Allah had given Himself ninety-nine names. His people had improvised many more. But all these names slowly started to disappear: from official stationary, from Friday sermons, from newspaper editorials, from mothers’ prayers, from greeting cards, from official memos, from the lips of television quiz show hosts, from children’s storybooks, from lovers’ songs, from court orders, from habeas corpus applications, from inter-school debating competitions, from road inauguration speeches, from memorial services, from cricket players’ curses; even from beggars’ begging pleas.”

(Emphasis added – NS.)

Armed neutrality in the gender-neutral pronoun wars

There has been much huffing and puffing recently about gender neutral pronouns. In principle, I rather like the idea. The fact that I dislike some of the other people who like the idea ought not to affect that. Not, I hasten to add, that I feel any animus against anyone purely on the grounds that they prefer to be referred to by one sound rather than another, or that their gender is difficult to specify externally, or that they feel that neither “he” nor “she” describes them, or that they advocate for lexical change. While it is true that the set of people currently talking loudest about gender-neutral pronouns would, if displayed on a Venn diagram, have considerable overlap with the set of people who wish to get others arrested for using the wrong word, that is a symptom of the addiction of our society to the use of force rather than persuasion, not a logical necessity.

The cause of the gender-neutral pronoun is ill-served by many of its current advocates. But in itself, it would be handy. That’s “it” as in “having a third person singular pronoun available to use to describe human beings without specifying gender”, not “it” as in “it”. It (as in the situation, not a person) tends to get an itty-bit hairy when one person refers to another (by which I mean another person, not another situation) as “it”. Thus, if I may reiterate, using “it” (as in “‘it'”) as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person would put the user in a bad situation, even if they (here used in the singular) were not a singularly bad person. Wouldn’t it?

OK, I got drunk on words there. Sobering up, I am not seeking perfect “representation” for every one of Facebook’s 71 gender options. They can represent themselves. I just think it would be nice to have one more option, and to settle on one. That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.

I do think that the traditional use of “he” and “man” to include the female is a little, y’know, presumptuous. I am not one to go through old documents cutting out every offending “he-including-she” with a razor, but I would just as soon have some more inclusive style in new documents. It is tedious have to write “he or she” every time.

Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. At this point someone usually pipes up to say that Shakespeare used it in their plays. Only they don’t say their plays, they say his plays, unless they (gender unspecified here: no problem) are making some sort of claim that Shakespeare was a collective, a Borg or a woman.

The distinction between singular and plural third person is useful. We feel its lack in the second person. The singular/plural distinction keeps trying to creep back in with “youse” and “y’all”. In some dialects spoken in Northern England, “thou” never went away, merely faded a little into “tha”. If making no difference between singular and plural is sometimes confusing when talking to people, it is a swamp when talking about people. Imagine an action scene in a novel where all the characters including the protagonist were referred to as “they”.

This link takes you to a piece called “The Need for a Gender-neutral Pronoun” which lists some of the leading contenders for a new pronoun. By clicking on the suggested pronoun itself (or the title of the set in the case of the Spivak pronouns named after their creator), you can read an extract from Alice in Wonderland using that set of pronouns. The author also rates the proposed words by ease of pronunciation, distinctiveness, and how truly neutral they are. The author prefers the set of pronouns based on “ne” in the nominative case. If you agree that a gender neutral pronoun would be desirable, which option would you like to take hold in the language? If you object to the whole idea, what would you like to see become dominant – strict use of “he” (or “she”), or “they”, or “s/he” and variants?

The thing is, I will not be the first in my circle of acquaintance to start writing “xe” or “ne” in any other context but science fiction for the same reason that I will not be first in my circle to start taking a daily stroll in the nude.

I would if you would, but I know and you know, neither of us will.