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Tag: Iraq

Glossolalia: Aramaic lessons

Friday, 20 May, 2016 0 Comments

This is the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things semantic, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We started on Monday with Singlish, followed up on Tuesday with decacorns, moved on to Euro English on Wednesday and met Parsey McParseface yesterday. To end this mini-series, it’s time to consider whether past language can tell us anything about present and future language.

First, the present: A new study from the Gallant Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley has major implications for how we understand language structuring in the brain. Published in Nature on 28 April, “Natural Speech Reveals the Semantic Maps That Tile Human Cerebral Cortex” reveals that we use our entire brain — and not just the temporal lobe, as once believed — to group words by meaning. Every “brain dictionary” appears to be unique, but they share some surprising similarities.

Now, the past: Aramaic was once the lingua franca of empires, but today it’s reduced to about half a million speakers, who call it Assyrian, Chaldean, Mandaic and Syriac, to name but four varieties. According to the Bible, the Aramaeans were named after Noah’s grandson Aram and they started out a small nomadic group. By the 11th century BC, however, they ruled large tracts of Mesopotamia, covering parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq, including the fabled city of Babylon. Modern Aramaic Aramaic was the English of its day and unified a large number of peoples across an enormous region. It was a sign of sophistication; it was the key to experiencing life beyond the parish, and it was the language Jesus spoke.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic — English is apparently easy to learn, while Aramaic is not — but that had little effect on English’s emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic’s rise and fall argues John McWhorter in “Where Do Languages Go to Die? The tale of Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East and now faces extinction.” Snippet:

“At this point, I am supposed to write that English’s preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic’s. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even — arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.”

As John McWhorter notes, literacy and media are driving the dominance of English. Those Gallant Laboratory finding about the brain’s semantic maps were published in English in Nature, the world’s most cited scientific journal. Empire is playing a role as well. The Gallant Laboratory is located in California, not in China. If the Chinese rule the world someday, “I suspect they will do it in English,” says McWhorter. Maybe. But Beijing has imperial ambitions, too, and the language of the Ghost Fleet masters and commanders will not be English. More about that another day, however.


Foreign

Sunday, 8 November, 2015 0 Comments

Egypt’s five million Copts, the last remaining major Christian sect in the Middle East, are fearful for their future in a hostile home. Yemen is now the biggest source of refugees in Africa, and at some 25 million it is as populous as Afghanistan. Talking of Afghanistan, what if the Taliban continue to expand their territorial writ, causing even more people to flee? And what if Islamic State terrorists extend their barbaric rule across Iraq and Syria? A Gallup Poll, based on data compiled from more than 450,000 interviews in 151 countries from 2009 to 2011, found that in Nigeria, which has double the population of Germany, 40 percent of the people would leave if they could. And the lesson of 2015 — for them and millions more — is that they can.

When they cross the Mediterranean or the Rio Grande, many migrants find life in the “West” comes with a price tag, and Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, looks at this side of the displaced experience in Foreign. As a professional user of language herself, Duffy asks us to consider the lot of migrants who are marginalized because of their lack of linguistic proficiency. The stress of thinking in one language and having to translate into another renders people inarticulate. The “local dialect” in the foreigner’s head is associated with the memory of a mother singing, while “writing home” is a desperate attempt to keep in touch with a lost world. Imagine that.

Foreign

Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years.
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
recites the letter in a local dialect; behind that
is the sound of your mother singing to you,
all that time ago, and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what’s the word for this.

You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one night
you saw a name for yourself sprayed in red
against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood.
It is snowing on the streets, under the neon lights,
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.

And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
in your palm will not translate. Inarticulate,
because this is not home, you point at fruit. Imagine
that one of you says Me not know what these people mean.
It like they only go to bed and dream
. Imagine that.

Carol Ann Duffy


The plight of the Assyrians and the Yezidi

Monday, 1 December, 2014 0 Comments

“We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for two thousand years. Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes. It even seems that the value of human life has been lost, that the human person no longer matters and may be sacrificed to other interests. And, tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many.”

So spoke Pope Francis I and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul yesterday.

Born in Syria and living in Los Angeles, Sargon Saadi made The Last Plight to combat the world’s indifference to the suffering of the Assyrian and Yezidi people living under the barbaric rule of ISIS. We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians.


The silence of the imams

Tuesday, 10 September, 2013 1 Comment

Students of contemporary barbarism should take note of what happened to customers at the Village restaurant in Mogadishu on Saturday. Here’s the BBC report: “The Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab has said it bombed a popular restaurant in the capital Mogadishu, killing 15 people… Run by Somali businessman Ahmed Jama, who returned to the country from the UK in 2008, it was targeted by two suicide bombers last September in attacks that killed 14 people.”

As word of this appalling crime seeped out, Pope Francis was holding a “Syria peace vigil” in Rome attended by 100,000 people. “May the noise of weapons cease!” he said. “War always marks the failure of peace — it is always a defeat for humanity.” He didn’t mention the murdered Mogadishu diners directly, but he cannot be faulted for this because no imam did, either. These authority figures in the Islamic world are usually vociferous when it comes to condemning the decadence and crimes of the “West”, but they tend to be very shy about the horrific crimes being committed in the name of their own faith. And the body count from those faith killings is shocking.

In Iraq, some 4,000 people have been killed by rival Sunni and Shi’a gangs so far this year. The pot of sectarian hatred is being stirred by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is also heavily involved in the savage Syrian civil war. It has invested heavily in the notion of an embattled Alawite regime led by Assad battling a radicalized Sunni opposition of al-Qaida terrorists because this legitimizes Teheran’s interference. Meanwhile, Turkey’s government is adding fuel to the sectarian fire, as rumors circulate that Ankara is pressing for a Sunni majority Syrian government if Assad falls. One does not need a vivid imagination to picture the butchery that would follow, should this ever be the case.

Forgotten in this gruesomeness is that fact that the Taliban have killed more than 1,300 men, women and children so far this year with car bombs, improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. As if that wasn’t enough, Muslims are also murdering Muslims in Pakistan, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and the silence of the imams and mullahs regarding this carnage is deafening. Finally, there’s Yemen: “Kuwaitis have called for stringent action against a family in Yemen after their eight-year-old daughter died of internal injuries on the first night of her arranged marriage to a man more than five times her age.”

A mosque


The Unknown Known

Saturday, 7 September, 2013 0 Comments

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary Of Defense, speaking at a press briefing in February 2002 about weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and Iraq.

The great American documentary film maker, Errol Morris, picked Donald Rumsfeld as the subject for his latest work, The Unknown Known. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Morris revealed how the film came to be made.

The Daily Beast: How the hell did you get Rumsfeld to agree to do this? Were you chasing him down?

Errol Morris: No, not at all. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a copy of The Fog of War, heard back from him very quickly, went to Washington, and spent a good part of the day with him. We started it under the premise that he would do two days of interviews, I would edit it, and if he liked it, we’d sign a contract and continue. If he didn’t, I’d put the footage in a closet and it would never see the light of day.


It’s time to take sides says Tony Blair

Tuesday, 27 August, 2013 3 Comments

Writing in the Times today, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that we have reached a crossroads and he wants to know which direction the West will take. Is it going to be talk or action? Blair demands action. Snippet:

Tony Blair In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy. I detest the implicit notion behind so much of our commentary — that the Arabs or even worse, the people of Islam are unable to understand what a free society looks like, that they can’t be trusted with something so modern as a polity where religion is in its proper place. It isn’t true. What is true is that there is a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.

Blair is right. We cannot be neutral in this clash of civilizations. Which side are you on?


Geography vs. Globalism

Wednesday, 3 October, 2012
Geography vs. Globalism

In the war of ideas, the recent thinking in some quarters has been that globalism will defeat geography. Not so says Robert D. Kaplan. Best known to many as as the long-standing foreign correspondent for The Atlantic, he is also the Chief Geopolitical Analyst for the the private global intelligence firm Stratfor. He makes his […]

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Niall Fergsuon responds to the liberal blogosphere

Wednesday, 22 August, 2012

Historian Niall Ferguson did the unthinkable at the weekend. He challenged those ideologically loyal to the Obama White House in a Newsweek cover story titled, “Hit the road Barack: Why we need a new president “. The firestorm that followed scorched all in its path. Did Ferguson run for cover? Far from it, he came […]

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