Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Title of This Blog

“Cranberry Relish” may sound like a more fitting title for a food blog than a language blog (or perhaps an advice column by the Pioneer Woman), but there is punny linguistic explanation behind it.

First I have to explain a couple of technical terms: morpheme, and more specifically, cranberry morpheme.

In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest unit that has meaning.  A morpheme can be a whole word, like cat or run, or it can be part of a word, like the -ing in writing or the un- in unclear.  The word unhurriedly is made up of four morphemes: un-hurry-ed-ly.  Each affix adds meaning to the root morpheme hurry, but we also understand their meanings independent of the word they’re attached to: un- means “not” or “contrary to”; -ed indicates past tense; and -ly means roughly “in this manner” or “like this.”

A cranberry morpheme is a special type of morpheme that looks like it should have an independent meaning, but that meaning has been lost to time.  The term is derived from the cran in cranberry.  The meanings of morphemes in other berry names are fairly straightforward: a blueberry is a blue berry; a blackberry is a black berry; a straw berry is a berry that grows on the ground (in the straw).  The cran in cranberry looks as though it should follow a similar pattern, but what is a cran?

The English word cranberry comes from the German word Kranbeere, literally “crane-berry.”  It may be a reference to the shape of the flower, which resembles the head and neck of a crane.  The pronunciation difference in English between cran and crane led to the dissociation of cranberries from cranes, and the morpheme cran lost its independent meaning.

The were in werewolf is another fun one.  The werewolf myth has existed in western culture for hundreds of years, and in Old English, wer simply meant “man”—a werewolf was a “man-wolf.”  The word wer has been lost in English, so the morpheme were is now a cranberry morpheme; it no longer has an independent meaning.  Interestingly, though, fantasy writers have reappropriated it to refer to any person who can shapeshift into an animal.  Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery series (adapted into the TV series True Blood) features weretigers, werepanthers, and werefoxes, as well as werewolves.  In this way, the cranberry morpheme were has acquired a new meaning.

One more of my favorites: the cob in cobweb.  As a child, I thought that spider webs and cobwebs were two different things—that spider webs were made by spiders, but cobwebs were made of dust.  It’s an understandable mistake, since the word cobweb doesn’t seem to have anything to do with spiders.  Cob is another cranberry morpheme, its original meaning buried in our language’s long and complicated history.  It comes from the Old English word for spider: attercoppe, literally “poison head.”  Say “coppeweb” a few times fast and it quickly turns into “cobweb.”

The second half of the title Cranberry Relish is a play on the double meaning of relish: a condiment usually made of chopped ingredients, but also enjoyment of or delight in something.  This blog is meant to, among other things, convey my delight in all things linguistic, cranberry morphemes included.

I shopped this title among a few friends before I created the blog.  I got consistently negative feedback, but by then I was too attached to it to consider anything else, so it stuck.

Still to come: Nectarine Mustard, Chokecherry Gravy, and Kumquat Tapenade.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Advertising Infidelity

When you live in a small city, you come to recognize the vehicles around you like you come to recognize faces.  I’ve seen some version of this bumper sticker on vehicles at two places I frequent: my workplace and my gym.  The sticker features the outline of a rifle and the word “infidel” in both English and (somewhat stylized) Arabic.  Each time I see it, I can’t help but speculate on the message it’s intended to convey and the audience it’s intended for.  In this post I want to voice some of that speculation.

I was hesitant about writing this because I don’t want to presume to speak for the people who put this sticker on their trucks, or to put words in their mouths, or to assume that I can accurately read their intentions without speaking to them.  But at the same time, this is public speech; it’s a message pasted to the exterior of a vehicle that moves in public spaces, and it’s clearly meant to convey a message to any who might read it, including strangers.  To put a cryptic sticker on your car is to invite people to assign a meaning to it.  We teach rhetorical analysis—the interpretation of a public message and its purpose—in my Comp classes as a skill.  With that in mind, and acknowledging that I may be completely misinterpreting the intentions of the vehicle owners, here is my speculation.

The sticker, as I noted, has both English and Arabic text.  The Arabic text in particular is odd if one takes it at face value.  The Arabic-speaking population in this area is microscopic; the number of Arabic speakers who do not also read English is even smaller.  The Muslim population in the Black Hills isn’t even large enough to support one mosque.  The likelihood that a Muslim person who reads Arabic but not English will see this vehicle and its sticker is tiny.  So while on its face the intended audience appears to be Arabic-speaking Muslims, in reality, this is unlikely.

Let’s take a moment to consider this point.  Pretending that your message is intended for one audience when it is actually intended for someone else is a kind of message in itself.  Imagine someone at a party, loudly commenting on some piece of gossip to a group of listeners while secretly hoping some different group will overhear.  This is essentially what is happening here.  The sticker owner purports to be saying, “I’m not a Muslim—in fact, I’m violently opposed to Islam [assuming that’s the intended message behind the image of the rifle]—and I want to make sure every Muslim in these here parts knows it.”  The sticker owner is actually saying, “I want my majority white English-speaking non-Muslim neighbors to think that I would tell any Muslim I meet that I’m violently opposed to Islam.”  The context changes the message in every way that matters.  The same sticker on a vehicle in New York or London would carry completely different meanings.

Consider also the image of the rifle.  It reminds me of similar stickers with text like “I’d don’t dial 911” and “Keep honking, I’m reloading.”  It indicates that the owner is not only prepared to defend himself with violence, but eager to do so—that he actually hopes for the opportunity and justification to shoot someone.

Is it true?  Does the owner truly hope for a home invasion or an assault so they have a reason to kill the offender?  Or is it simply a fine example of alpha male-style posturing?  In some cases it’s probably the former, and in some cases the latter.

The combination of the rifle and the text on this particular sticker seems to boast that the owner hopes to be attacked—indeed, invites an attack—by an offended Muslim on the basis of the owner’s infidelity so the owner then has an excuse to kill that Muslim.  One can imagine the owner daydreaming about just such a situation.

Why is this worth speculating about?  We know there’s plenty of anti-Muslim bigotry and good old-fashioned male aggression in our ether, so who is concerned about this particular sticker?

It concerns me because it expresses an eagerness for confrontation that I sometimes see in myself.

Sometimes I imagine being confronted by some hypothetical individual over some opinion I’ve expressed or contentious statement I’ve made.  In my mind, I rehearse how I would respond—the arguments and facts I’d muster; the sources I’d reference.  I even experience the physiological response when I’m imagining this: my jaw clenches, my face tightens, the acid of anxiety fills my stomach.

I worry that when I see the eagerness for confrontation that’s demonstrated in that sticker, it enables me to justify it in myself.  It excuses it.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sam Harris’s work lately, and it’s gotten me thinking about cognitive resources.  The brain is like a rechargeable battery: you can replenish its power reserves through things like sleep, meditation, and other things that relax you, but generally speaking, from day to day you only have so much mental energy to expend.  Do you want to spend it on anger?  On anxiety?  On preparing for conflicts that will probably never happen, planning for disasters that are spectacularly unlikely?

I’d rather spend it thinking about my creative work, mulling over interesting things I’ve read or listened to lately, and remembering the people, animals, and things that bring me joy.  I think we should be careful that we don’t allow the behavior or mentality of others to influence us disproportionately; that we don’t become the anger and the confrontation that we condemn in others.

When I see that sticker again, I will remind myself that I’m not obligated to spend any cognitive resources worrying about who its owner is or what they’re trying to say.

I invite your commentary on this topic.  If you have something to add, or think I’ve drastically misinterpreted this message, please comment below.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: Creation by Gore Vidal (1981)

Though “epic” may be the technically correct term (in that it is Homeric in its scope), the word does not do justice to Gore Vidal’s spectacular and monumental novel Creation.  Set primarily in ancient Persia during the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, Creation combines the scale and vision of Homer’s Odyssey with the intimacy of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  The narrative is presented as the autobiography of Cyrus Spitama, half-Persian, half-Greek, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and bosom friend of the Crown Prince and future Great King, Xerxes.  It spans his long life, from his birth in a Zoroastrian cult, through his entry into the Persian court, his ambassadorships to India, China, and Greece, and finally his death at seventy-five.

Classical literature often has a distinctly foreign feel, but Vidal makes the ancient world seem real and near as few authors have done.  He writes not as a modern man looking at this 2500-year-old culture through a modern lens, but as a Persian noble for whom this setting was modern.  Cyrus is unburdened by the baggage of Western cultural norms and Vidal’s knowledge of future history, giving the reader the distinct and rare sensation of exploring the ancient world as a native, rather than a tourist.

During his travels, Cyrus meets figures such as the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and Socrates (he doesn’t find the latter particularly impressive); he visits the hanging gardens of Babylon, where he watches the teenaged Xerxes seduce an adolescent temple priestess; he is married to a 12-year-old Indian princess; and he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in China.  His journey spans nearly the entirety of the known world, and he reflects on each adventure with a mix of dry humor, the detachment that comes with the passing of decades, and the nostalgia of old age.

Creation is no light undertaking (my paperback copy is nearly 600 pages of seemingly microscopic font), yet as I neared its end, I found myself dreading the inevitable farewell to Cyrus and his devoted stenographer Democritus.  Like the end of a long and full vacation in a foreign country, I wished I had time to see just one more sight, meet just one more character.  Barring that, I plan to dive deeper into Vidal’s body of work; if his other novels are half as engaging as Creation, it will be time well spent.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson (2014)

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World tells the stories behind technological developments that impacted the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in ways so unforeseeable that, in hindsight, they’re almost shocking.  The flash bulb, for example—originally invented to enable photography inside lightless Egyptian tombs—finally gave journalist Jacob Riis the tool he needed to bring the horrifying conditions of New York City’s tenement slums into the public eye in a way that words and line drawings could never do, resulting in sweeping legislative reforms and, according to Johnson, “ignit[ing] a new tradition of muckraking that would ultimately improve the working conditions of factory floors too… chang[ing] the map of urban centers around the world.”

In a similar vein, Johnson shows, the invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy in the western world brought to light (somewhat literally) a surprising new problem: the prevalence of near-sightedness.  This led to a sudden demand for corrective lenses, which in turn prompted a surge in glass- and lens-making technology, which then rapidly gave rise to both telescopes and microscopes.  During the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, these developments had a profound effect on scientific discovery, leading to such momentous events as the discovery of germs and the widespread acceptance of a heliocentric solar system.  Gutenberg would never have seen it coming.

Johnson calls these processes the “hummingbird effect,” noting that when examining the evolution of pollen, almost no one would predict that it would eventually result in the development of the hummingbird’s wing, which rotates differently from any other bird’s, allowing it to hover in mid-air while it feeds on flower nectar.

The stories that Johnson tells in his six densely-packed chapters are fascinating, well-sourced (the bibliography is stacked with both primary and secondary sources), and relevant; any modern reader can easily draw connections between the innovations Johnson explores and their own life.  Fans of historical nonfiction or good science writing will find the book both interesting and informative.

I offer two minor critiques here—one of style, and one of substance.

Regarding style, though Johnson’s tone is both erudite and readable, he waxes rather pedantic from time to time.  Rather than allowing the reader to speculate on their own about the implications of a particular point, Johnson prefers to spell it out for them, occasionally drifting into aphorism.  “Ideas trickle out of science, into the flow of commerce, where they drift into the less predictable eddies of art and philosophy,” he writes.  This sentence is vague enough that it could be cut and pasted onto practically any page of the book; it happens to appear in the chapter “Light.”  He also tends to repeat his main idea more often than necessary—the theme of the book is innovations that led to far-reaching and unpredictable consequences, and he is determined that you won’t forget it.  Also in the chapter “Light,” he writes, “Here again we see the strange leaps of the hummingbird’s wing at play in social history, new inventions leading to consequences their creators never dreamed of.”  “Light,” incidentally, is the final chapter; it would be reasonable for Johnson to assume that the reader has gotten his point by now.

Regarding substance, Johnson acknowledges in his introduction that he is focusing exclusively on innovations from North America and Europe, because, he says, “certain critical experiences—the rise of the scientific method, industrialization—happened in Europe first, and have now spread across the world.”  But this brand of western exceptionalism is disingenuous.  Johnson chose to examine technologies that were first developed in Europe; to ignore technologies developed in other cultures and pretend that Europe’s innovations alone were somehow more far-reaching or significant is myopic and inaccurate.  The flash bulb illuminated New York’s slums and led to worldwide social reform, but the gunpowder which made the first flash bulb possible was invented in China nearly a thousand years earlier, and one could just as easily trace those social reforms back to it, rather than stopping at the flash bulb.

Likewise, BBC writer Tim Harford points out that the revolution brought on by Gutenberg’s press would have been impossible without another Chinese invention: paper.  And one could trace these innovations even further back to the development of written language itself, which was probably invented independently by more than one culture, including ancient Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C.E.  Johnson chooses to focus solely on western inventions—that’s his prerogative as a writer.  But to imply that western culture is somehow special or ahead of the curve when it comes to technological innovations that shaped modern life is misleading.

That said, Johnson endows his narratives with detail, robustness, and occasionally humor, making How We Got to Now an engaging, informative, and fun read.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Implicit Bias and the Usual RAVs

This is Daniel Brühl.  If you are an American movie-goer, you might know him from his role as the villain Zemo in Captain America: Civil War (2016), or as the charming but dangerous Nazi officer in The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), or as the charming but dangerous Nazi soldier in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

On the other hand, if you are a German movie-goer, you probably know Brühl as the sweet and devoted son in Good Bye Lenin! (2003), or as the ambitious journalist in the absurdist comedy/drama Me and Kaminski (2015).

Brühl was born in Spain and grew up in Germany, and though he speaks six languages fluently, he speaks them all with a German accent.  Heroes with German accents are about as common in American film as unicorns are on the streets of Kansas City—that is to say, they don’t exist.  Brühl might be handsome, funny, likeable, and talented, but he’s a native speaker of German, and though his English is flawless, his accent is unmistakable.  As a result, he is and probably always will be the villain in American culture.  (This, of course, despite the fact that Germany is currently one of the U.S.’s strongest allies.)

In a similar vein, Rob Lowe’s character in Thank You For Smoking (2005) comments that in modern American movies, the only people who smoke are “the usual RAVs... Russians, Arabs, and villains.”  This comment is a bit redundant, however, since Russians and Arabs nearly always are villains in these films.  Lowe’s character should have said “RAGs”—Russians, Arabs, and Germans—knowing the audience would automatically associate these groups with movie villains anyway.

The reasons that these groups are still consistently depicted as evil in American film are myriad and too complex to delve into here.  Instead, I want to discuss the potential effects of these depictions.

Many, perhaps most, modern movie fans would agree that it is important for both children and adults to see women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in leadership and hero roles.  Wonder Woman (2017) has been acclaimed partly for this reason.  Seeing women exclusively in secondary or submissive roles; seeing Black men exclusively in predatory or other stereotypical roles; seeing women of color not represented on the screen at all—these patterns reinforce implicit biases already instilled in us by our culture.

The researchers at Project Implicit at Harvard University write that “Implicit preferences for majority groups (e.g., White people) are likely common because of strong negative associations with Black people in American society.  There is a long history of racial discrimination in the United States, and Black people are often portrayed negatively in culture and mass media.”

If negative portrayals of Black people in the media contribute to implicit biases, then it stands to reason that consistently negative portrayals of people with specific non-English accents would have a similar effect.  For example, if a large portion of Americans hear German, Russian, and Arabic accents only or primarily in the movie theater or in fictional TV series, and those accents belong almost exclusively to villains, an implicit association is likely to be created and/or reinforced.

Of course, German and Russian people do not typically experience serious discrimination or marginalization within American society (though refugees and other immigrants of Arabic and Middle Eastern descent most certainly do), so why is this a problem?

Here’s one reason: News outlets and other media typically use words such as “Russia” and “Germany” as metonyms; for example, “Russia invaded Crimea.”  In this headline, “Russia” means the Russian military, or might even refer to Putin’s order to invade; it does not imply that the entire country of Russia moved wholesale into the Crimean peninsula.

Yet news outlets on all sides—left-leaning, right-leaning, and centrist—frequently conflate the will of a group of citizens with the actions of its government, overlooking the obvious fact that not all citizens (often, not even a majority) agree with those actions.  In both mainstream and non-mainstream media, “Russia” should not be equated with “the Russian people” or even “the majority of the Russian people,” and yet it consistently is.

The current rhetoric regarding North Korea provides an even more poignant example.  Americans are certainly justified in their fears of a nuclear attack, yet commentators across the board ignore the point that a war between the two countries would have a far more devastating effect on the citizens of North Korea, who by and large are pawns and victims of their leader’s sociopathic decision making.  When news outlets discuss “North Korea,” they mean Kim Jong Un and his government; they largely ignore the millions of powerless citizens who are subject to his whims.

Hollywood encourages American audiences to view other nations as monoliths—all Germans are Nazis; all Middle Eastern people are terrorists; all French people are hypersexualized; all Brits are humorless and polite.  These stereotypes may not have the same kinds of immediate, at-home effects as stereotypes about American people of color and women, but they are two sides of the same coin.  They are tired, outdated tropes that discourage critical thinking and promote prejudice, discrimination, nationalism, and myopia.  If it is healthy to see American women and people of color in hero and leadership roles, then we should demand the same of actors with commonly stereotyped nationalities and foreign accents, including the talented Mr. Brühl.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Book Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire (2015)

Image result for after alice maguireAfter my last review, in which I recommended that you opt for anything written by Gregory Maguire rather than Daniel Levine’s Hyde, I feel a bit hypocritical, because I found After Alice to be surprisingly mediocre.  In his previous works, such as the Wicked series and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (his retelling of the Cinderella tale), Maguire uses well-known stories as scaffolds, as frameworks, and around them he builds rich and fantastical worlds with new characters, details, and perspectives that both fit within and enhance the original narratives.  After Alice, on the other hand, is less an expansion of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass and more a rehashing of them.  In it, a second child, Ada Boyce, follows Alice down the rabbit hole and traces her path through Wonderland, meeting the same characters and, in some cases, having nearly the same conversations.  Maguire is successful in imitating Carroll’s absurdist style of dialogue, but there’s very little that’s original in this portion of the story.
In parallel to Ada’s adventures, we follow the story of Alice’s older sister, Lydia, as she navigates the separate worlds in and around her household.  While her father entertains a meeting of intellectuals, including Charles Darwin, Lydia is mostly banished to the kitchen so as not to disturb the guests.  There she quarrels with the servants and attempts to avoid Ada’s tiresome governess (who is distraught at having lost track of Ada), while searching for excuses to speak to one of her father’s guests, a handsome young American.  Lydia’s story is rather more interesting than Ada’s, primarily because it is more original, and fans of Maguire’s own dense yet poetic style will enjoy this part of the tale.

Generally speaking, After Alice is a short and easy read, more homage than reimagining.  Serious Maguire or Carroll fans will likely be disappointed, but those looking for an undemanding fantasy that can be finished in a summer weekend will find something in it to enjoy.

The Title of This Blog

“Cranberry Relish” may sound like a more fitting title for a food blog than a language blog (or perhaps an advice column by the Pioneer ...