12 February 2008

TRUDGILL, Peter - Sociolinguistics

Penguin 1983

Re-read December 2007

The aim of this book, as its title suggests, is to place language in its social context. While Chomsky is undoubtedly correct in arguing that humans have an in-built ‘Language Acquisition Device’, which is hard wired to structure in any language (thus displacing B. F. Skinner’s behaviouralism), it is nonetheless true that that language is tied to social context in several ways.

Trudgill has written a clear and very readable book on his subject, which retains one’s interest in the same way as a novel. The book does not shun technical vocabulary, but nonetheless is written for the layman.

The type of language we speak is tied to the social groups of which we are members; be it our social class, our region, our ethnic group or our sex. Though language may change according to these categories, and different language use may be awarded a higher or lower status, it does not mean that any language is less intricate or less able to express reality and ideas than any other. This point is especially relevant for rejecting the view prominent in the US that Black American English is merely a corrupted and less sophisticated form of Standard English.

While language and language use reflect the social environment, it does not mean than any particular language leads to any particular behaviour pattern. In other words, Romanians, for instance, don’t behave like Spaniards because they both speak a Latin language. The view that there is any connection other than socialisation between an ethnic group and a language is also shown to be false.

While literary languages are distinct, the boundaries between two colloquial languages may not be. For instance in places on the border between the Netherlands and Germany the language spoken either side of the border may resemble each other more than either do to literary Dutch or German. Any number of situations may exist with bi- or multilingualism in countries and with different literary languages functioning as state languages.

Trudgill also considers pidgins, a language created when a lingua franca (e.g. English, French or Portuguese), used by slaves or primitive people, has moved so far from the literary language that it is no longer comprehensible to native speakers. Pidgins become creoles when they acquire native speakers.

This book is beautifully and interestingly written, and Trudgill, with no axe to grind, gives a interesting introduction to his subject.

LeBOR, Adam - City of Oranges

Bloombury 2006

Read December 2007

LeBor has chosen to write about the sharpest issues of international politics, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. To do so he has chosen a precise focus, namely the family history of several Jewish and Arab families from the town of Jaffa. Interlaced with the personal histories is an outline of the key historical moments and facts. Throughout the book is well written and gripping.

What makes LeBor’s topic heart rendering are the issues thrown up by the Middle East’s most entrenched conflict. On the one side is a mostly Western people subject to historical discrimination and genocide who established an ethnic-supremacist state, Israel, largely by means of land appropriation. On the other stands expropriated Palestinians living either as second class citizens in Israel itself or as part of a displaced diaspora. Yet it is true, although perhaps irrelevant, that Israel has done nothing to its Arab minority which the surrounding Arab states (themselves dictatorial nightmares compared with Israel) have not done to their Jewish minorities.

LeBor wisely tells his story though personal lives and in addition to historical narrative paints a picture of Israeli society in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Clearly LeBor himself stands at the liberal end of the political debate, and his views are very much of ‘if only’ type; i.e. if only Israel were itself more liberal and accommodating, and if only the Palestinians were better led, more realistic and more moderate…

Taking everything together, though, LeBor has written an excellent book which is well worth reading.

GESSEN, Masha - Two Babushkas

Bloomsbury 2005

Read October 2007

This book focusing on the lives of the author’s two Jewish grandmothers is a clever and intriguing choice of topic. Both grandmothers spent the majority of their lives in the Soviet Union and encounter first hand the twists and turns of the twentieth century. Gessen, herself, was born in the Soviet Union, but emigrated with her immediate family to the United States in the 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she retuned to Moscow to live and now works there as a journalist.

The book is well written and has a novel-like appeal. Yet however gripping it is, it nonetheless suffers from all the weakness of second-hand testimony. There appears to be one domiant source for nearly all that is said, i.e. what her grandmothers told her, and Gessen's attempt to present the book as a third person account written by her cannot hide the single source of information. At times her background research appears weak, for instance when referring to Hungarian uprising of 1956 she says that its leaders were immediately executed. In fact Nagy was only executed for political reasons some two years later. A small mistake it may be, but it led me to wonder whether the rest of the book contained similar errors.

The book also provides another first hand account of anti-Semitism in interwar Poland and in the Soviet Union itself.

The book is well written and provides and fascinating documentation of two lives which stretch backwards into the key moments of the twentieth century.

Miliband and Benn

Memories are like photo snaps, not film sequences. From twenty-nine years ago in 1979 I can remember a warm spring day and the gate post at the end of our garden path. I recall that I had just returned after spending my newspaper round money on Ralph Miliband’s ‘The State in Capitalist Society.’ Today, Miliband’s book still has a prominent position on my bookshelf.

Perhaps I remember the incident because Professor Miliband was such a good writer and therefore a good teacher of politics and of Marxism. I admired him up until his early death in 1994. The first time I heard him speak – in the most articulate English with the strongest of French accents – was in 1987 at the Chesterfield Conference. Even now I remember what he said with the utmost clarify.

The star of the 1987 Chesterfield Conference, the then MP for Chesterfield, the neighbour and friend of Ralph Miliband was Tony Benn. Benn’s campaign inside the Labour party for what amounted to left-wing social democracy in answer to the debacle of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government fired my imagination. It seemed to be the politics of the possible in the first half decade of Thatcherism.

So Tony Benn and Ralph Miliband formed my intellectual and political coordinates and held out a flag of hope for the next generation of which I was part. But any such hope was cruelly misplaced. Today Miliband’s son, David, is British foreign secretary and sits in the cabinet with Benn’s son Hilary. Together they have travelled along the New Labour road, embracing Bush, the Iraq War, further capitalist inequality in Britain and the attack on civil rights.

I can never hear the names of either of these two New Labour ministers without unfavourably comparing them with what their fathers achieved.

6 February 2008

Caroline Flit & Public Housing in Britain

Caroline Flint, Labour Member of Parliament for the Don Valley and Housing Minister, is certainly pretty, but her right-wing New Labour politics are not. What she now proposes is that the residents of Britain’s dwindling public housing ghettos sign ‘contracts’ agreeing that they will look for work before getting the keys to their hovel; the implied threat being that if they fail, she will make them homeless. Like all good propaganda there is an element of common sense: of course the residents of junk estates should not remain impoverished and idle. The action of government, though, should be to take measures to secure the jobs, not farm out work to bailiffs and thereby add to the stock of human misery.