- - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

English limits

“Yet one could be forgiven for entertaining the thought that massive media saturation — in radio, television, movies, pop music, and above all the Internet — has brought English to a point of no return. Of course, this way of thinking has its own technological fallacy: It implies that English has achieved the linguistic apotheosis denied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit or Persian, by virtue of faster electronic communications.

“The major insight of [Nicholas] Ostler’s book [‘The Last Ligua Franca’] is that technological innovations can have unexpected consequences. In the last 10 years, the fastest growing languages online were Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and French, in that order. ‘The main story of growth in the Internet,’ he reminds us, ‘is of linguistic diversity, not concentration.’ And there is a startling parallel with Latin and the print revolution. At first, it looked as though printing would ensure Latin’s pre-eminence, making standardized textbooks widely available. In practice, the new technology mostly benefited the vernaculars, feeding a demand for novels and pamphlets among the expanding middle classes.”

Laura Marsh, writing on “Tongues Twisted” on Nov. 17 at the New Republic blog The Book

Finding Shakespeare

“In ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ [James] Baldwin rejected Shakespeare and Chartres Cathedral as symbols of a culture in which he had no part. In ‘Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,’ originally published in the London Observer in 1964 and reprinted in ‘The Cross of Redemption,’ he said he’d been young and missed the point entirely, because of a ‘loveless education.’ He no longer considered Shakespeare one of the architects of his oppression. ‘I was resenting, of course, the assault on my simplicity.’ If the English language was not his, then, he said, maybe he hadn’t learned how to use it.

“He finally heard Shakespeare in what he called the ‘shock’ of Julius Caesar. Then, too, Shakespeare’s ‘bawdiness’ mattered to him once he realized that bawdiness, which signified ‘respect for the body,’ was also an element of the jazz he’d been listening to and hoping to ‘translate’ into his work. ‘The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love.’ …

“One can feel his period — the Method — in his remarks on theater and in his wanting to jazz up Shakespeare, to vouch for him as a hep cat attuned to what was happening in his Elizabethan streets. Everyone finds in Shakespeare the Shakespeare he or she needs, but it is a surprise how uninteresting on him Baldwin lets himself be, calling him “the last bawdy writer in the English language.”

Darryl Pinckney, writing on “Jimmy Baldwin: Stirring the Waters” in the Nov. 25 issue of the New York Review of Books

Money men

“[Alasdair] MacIntyre begins his Cambridge talk by asserting that the 2008 economic crisis was not due to a failure of business ethics. The opener is not a red herring. Ever since he published his key text ‘After Virtue’ in 1981, he has argued that moral behavior begins with the good practice of a profession, trade, or art: playing the violin, cutting hair, brick-laying, teaching philosophy. Through these everyday social practices, he maintains, people develop the appropriate virtues. …

“When it comes to the money men, MacIntyre applies his metaphysical approach with unrelenting rigor. There are skills, he argues, like being a good burglar, that are inimical to the virtues. Those engaged in finance — particularly money trading — are, in MacIntyre’s view, like good burglars. Teaching ethics to traders is as pointless as reading Aristotle to your dog. The better the trader, the more morally despicable.”

John Cornwell, writing on “MacIntyre on money” on Oct. 20 at Prospect