Thursday, October 27, 2011

Visiting History: The Battleship North Carolina

by Conroy

USS North Carolina
My dad and I, ever the enthusiasts of the historically interesting, were driving from Baltimore to Wilmington, North Carolina, on a quick sojourn to see the USS North Carolina [1], a World War II era battleship. It was early March, and our destination was more than a little motivated by my desire to take a short trip somewhere south (we were only just emerging from an unusually cold Maryland winter). Visiting the ship would allow us to interact with an actual historical artifact, not a battlefield or a monument, but a real object, something that had been "there," something we could see, and touch, and walk through.

In late afternoon, and after nine hours on the road, we arrived in Wilmington, which is located in the far southeast [2] of the state, along the Cape Fear River and just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The city's population has nearly doubled in the last two decades, but even by a generous assessment it remains mid-size. On first view it makes little impression, there's no distinctive skyline -- in fact no skyline -- on the approach to town. There's little sense that you've actually arrived anywhere, just the flat coastal greenery broken up by the standard low-rise, low-density development characteristic of American suburbia. However, we found our way by twists and turns to the center of the city, which included a quaint downtown with an abundance of antebellum architecture situated on the east bank of the river. And from that vantage point we spied the impressive silhouette of the North Carolina, cozily berthed in a narrow cove on the river's west bank. It was getting late, the ship was dark against the fading sun, but at least we knew where we were going the next day.

Central Wilmington
Wilmington is an interesting location for the ship, now a National Historic Landmark. As North Carolina's only real seaport, it makes sense for the ship to be docked there, but Wilmington is a provincial city, out of the way -- you have to want to go to Wilmington to end up there. In a way that's a fitting place for the North Carolina, a fair analogue to the role it played in history.


USS North Carolina
The next day, Saturday, was exquisite. The sun was what meteorologists like to term, brilliant; the sky a clear cerulean. The air held the first hints of vernal warmth. In late morning, we crossed the river just downstream of the ship, but we didn't get a good view until we pulled into the parking lot. We were among the first there. Looking from up close, it's hard not to be impressed with the North Carolina. Our first perspective was of the ship's profile. The hull sweeps in a majestic arc, parallel to the water at the stern and rising to its exaggerated wave-splitting bow. The busy but balanced superstructure rises from the center of the hull and is guarded closely by three massive gun turrets, two fore and one aft of the superstructure. The ship is painted with a fresh dazzle scheme of alternating gunmetal gray and bluish white, which was meant as a form of camouflage...though I doubt the North Carolina could be missed. The ship is more than two football fields long and its radar tower rises to 200 feet above the waterline. Large enough that you have to turn your head to see it all even from a hundred paces away.

One must pass through a visitor's center [3] (and gift shop) to board the ship. There's a gangway from the visitor's center to the stern-half port-side deck (the ship faces west). The cove where the North Carolina is moored looks like it was made to fit the ship (and it probably was dredged for this purpose). Indeed, the water is so still and likely has received so much sedimentation since the North Carolina was towed into position fifty years ago, that the massive hull probably rests on the bottom. My dad labeled it, "a mud hole," [4] and it does seem incongruously narrow and shallow and confining for the mass of the ship. The deck surface isn't steel, but teak [5], a wood durable enough to stand up to the corrosive effects of seawater and that doesn't get slippery when wet. It's a pleasant sandy brown color, which complements the gray and white of the rest of the ship. Once on board, everything looks even bigger than from the shore. It looks like what it was designed to be, an engine of war.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Unilingual World - A Counterpoint

I have personally struggled with the issue that Conroy discusses in his most recent post, trying to decide whether to make the tremendous (for me) effort to learn Spanish as a second language. Most of the people in my office speak Spanish (I work in South Florida); for some of them, it is their first language. We have had clients who speak only Spanish, and I've had to have a translator help me communicate with them. Clearly, I would be better off bilingual. But I'm not bilingual, and learning a second language at my age (I'm in my 30s) is no easy task. Plus, the time I spend learning basic Spanish skills is time I could spend learning more about the law, which includes a rich specialized vocabulary all of its own. I have also found that most of my bilingual colleagues come to me for advice about the English language, and they don't care that I don't speak Spanish (or even attempt to). They are much more eager to learn my language rather than teach me theirs.

So even though I agree with Conroy that it would be great to know a second a language (or a third, or fourth), I've decided to maintain focus on my primary occupation for now. Of course, things might change. My wife speaks some Spanish and is thinking about learning more after she finishes her MBA. If she decides to study Spanish, that may tip the scale for me. It would be considerably more fun and less stressful to learn another language together with a partner. That's how I've addressed the question for myself. But I would also encourage others to focus on improving their English skills as opposed to studying a foreign language. For one thing, I believe we should strive for a universal language, and learning multiple languages does not promote that end. Don't get me wrong. I am in favor of diversity in language. But as we can see from English, or any other particular language examined closely, one language alone can be incredibly rich and diverse.

In fact, one of the main reasons English is so rich and diverse is that it has assimilated so many other languages. I'm strongly in favor of that. So spice up your writing with a foreign phrase now and then. Take what is best from other languages—the most vivid, the most useful words and expressions. There is plenty to learn. This past weekend, for instance, I learned that Kurt Gödel was known as Herr Warum ("Mr. Why") because of his unquenchable curiosity. Today, I learned that Justice Brandeis used to refer to FDR's policies as Kunststucke ("clever tricks"). I also learned that the term "shyster," often falsely attributed to the character Shylock from Shakespeare, actually has its origins in the German word scheisse (look it up), a word worth knowing. (Read Michael Lewis's recent article, "It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!" for a strange, scatological analysis of this and other German words.) 

These are all great foreign words, and I'm happy to have learned them. But learning individual words or phrases is far different from learning an entire language. It is much easier, and more fun, and, I would argue, more beneficial to the English language. And it gives you a broader sampling of all the interesting languages out there. So go out there and take the most interesting words from German, take them from Spanish, from French, and Yiddish, and Russian, and even Mandarin (if that's possible). Don't spend your time trying to gain fluency. Instead, mine these languages for their most vivid words and phrases—and steal them!—enrich the English language with them! Just as you, Conroy, have enriched this blog by teaching us the French phrase mot juste.

As for teaching children foreign languages, I think there's an argument for that. It's debatable, though. Being bilingual has certain advantages. But it may also have disadvantages; you can't be an expert in everything. This problem is even more pronounced with adults. Why spend precious time grappling with a foreign language, only to gain a halting grasp of it, when you could be using that time improving your English? The fact is most adults simply will not be able to gain fluency in a foreign language no matter how hard they try. However, they probably can make small but important improvements to their English, which will be more likely to help them with their careers—these days it pays to know English as well as you can know it—and in doing so they will help keep the English language strong.

That said, Conroy, if you still want to study a foreign language, I'm supportive of that. If anyone has the willpower to become a polyglot as an adult, it's you. An interesting and neglected book on the subject that you might find interesting is called "Language Made Plain" by Anthony Burgess. It's chock full of interesting ideas, including techniques on how to learn a foreign language. He also wrote a follow-up book called "A Mouthful of Air," which I haven't read and can't vouch for, but I'm sure it's worth looking into. And if any of our readers have other suggestions for learning a language, particularly books on the subject, please let us know.

A Multilingual World

by Conroy

Language map of the world
There are nearly 7,000 languages spoken in our world. Eighty-five languages have more than 10 million native speakers. At least ten, but probably twelve languages are spoken as a first language by more than 100 million people (see list below). What remarkable linguistic diversity. What a shame that I can communicate in only one.

English as a Global Language
Of course if I'm limited to one language, I guess it's good that it's English. Over the last few hundred years English has grown from a provincial language spoken by a few million people in England, Wales, and lowland Scotland to a de facto global tongue. Today English is the most widely spoken language in the world; it is estimated that over one-quarter of the world's population can communicate in the language to at least a rudimentary level (>1.5 billion people).

English is the official language for aviation and seafaring, an official language of the United Nations, European Union, and the International Olympic Committee, and predominant in diplomacy and international communications, science, computing and the internet, business, and entertainment. The rise of English can be traced to the preeminent international role in economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military affairs played by English speaking nations--Great Britain from the late eighteenth century and the United States since World War II. Review a list of the most popular movies of all time, or the most popular musicians, all are were produced or performed in English. How many of The 2011 Time 100, Time Magazine's list of most influential people in the world (an imperfect measure for sure), are native English speakers or fluent in the language? All but a handful.

The most popular band of all time wrote (almost) entirely in English
In fact, English has been adopted in so many parts of the world for so many purposes that the nature of the language might be changing. There are arguments that English could be in the process of being co-opted from the anglophone world, and is morphing into something considerably different, World English. The end result of this process would leave Modern English as nothing more than a dialect of a larger global language. We'll see, Latin was once thought to be a global language and now it's all but dead. And in an increasingly connected world will English really bifurcate and evolve as substantially as theorized?

Today, the language is the Mother Tongue of a rather short list of nations: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Belize, Guyana, and several Caribbean countries. However, it's an official language spoken widely in many nations that used to be part of the British Empire (or former  American colonies), e.g., South Africa, Nigeria, and India. An English speaker could travel to most places in the world confident of finding locals with a passable understanding of his or her language. Many English speakers may be tempted to think all other languages secondary, and a working fluency in other languages unnecessary. Perhaps Americans, like the present writer, are most guilty of this linguistic chauvinism.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Poor English

by Conroy

I was just reading an old essay from the late David Foster Wallace about tennis and Roger Federer (what else). In part of the essay he was recounting some commentary regarding racket technology and its affect on the modern game, which was written on plaques hung on the hallowed halls of Wimbledon's Millennium Building. There was one sentence in particular that drew his attention:
"Nowadays it is the powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin."
He goes on to masterfully analyze and correct the underlying premise, but what made me laugh was this footnote:
"(...assuming, that is, that the sign's 'with heavy topspin' is modifying 'dominate' rather than 'powerful hitters,' which actually it might or might not--British grammar is a bit dodgy.)
Wallace was an acclaimed novelist, critic, essayist, and expert grammarian (not to mention a tennis fan). I like his cheekiness to challenge "British" grammar, sure to rankle our cousins across the pond. Of course my smile was quickly tempered when I thought about what Foster's critical eye would have made of this blog, and my myriad grammatical errors, word missteps, and sometimes careless proofreading.

The truth is that writing is hard. I think I write alright, but English (American or British or any other variation) is so complex, with so many grammar rules -- many of them debated -- and so many words that it can be hard, and might be impossible, to write without mistakes. Consider a few of these challenges:

Writing the Right Word

The Man and I have both written about using the exact right word, the mot juste, to convey the meaning and context of a subject (see here and here). Well our language's seemingly endless vocabulary makes that both possible and daunting, but there is another challenge, more mundane and maybe more important. That's avoiding (accidentally) using the wrong word, a pitfall that even good writers can stumble over. English is full of homonyms and words with similar structures and related, but not synonymous, meanings. This can lead to trouble. A (very) small sampling:

[and I'm sure a close reading of this blog will reveal the occasional incorrect usage (hopefully just occasional) along these lines]

  • accept versus except - I'll gladly accept any explanation you offer, except those that are obvious lies.
  • accurate versus precise - It's accurate to write that Pi is about 3.14, but listing just two decimals isn't very precise.
  • affect versus effect - The extreme cold weather had affected the crops , the net effect was a shortage of grain.
  • alternately versus alternatively - Day alternates with night. I had many transportation alternatives when I was in new York.
  • altogether versus all together - Altogether, I'm glad the riot is over. The crowd was all together when things turned violent.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Music of 1991

by Conroy

Loveless - among the great albums of 1991
There's a new documentary out, Pearl Jam Twenty, that chronicles the eponymous band's two decade history. A history that started with a bang with the release of the hugely acclaimed, popular, and influential album, Ten in late 1991. Ten became a central document of the Seattle music scene, on the leading edge of the wave of grunge, a genre that seemed to change the course of rock music. The legacy of Ten is secure, but what is remarkable is that when taking a broader look back at the music of 1991, Ten appears to be just one - and not the best one - of many landmark albums from what must certainly be one of the great years in music history.

The Music of 1991
Readers of this blog know of my strong feelings about judging art. Only with time can we come to value all art, including music. Well, the passage of twenty years is surely time enough (I would think) to put the music of 1991 in proper perspective. The familiar narrative of that time holds that a band from Seattle changed the course of music history with the release of a monumental, epoch-defining album. This band wasn't Pearl Jam, but Nirvana, and the album the amazing Nevermind, which was spearheaded by the exceptional single "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It's been frequently noted that Nevermind became so popular that it knocked Michael Jackson's album Dangerous from the top of the album charts. A symbolic change that seemed to close out the music of the 1980s, including hair metal of bands like Warrant, Motley Crue, Cinderella and others. Nirvana was joined by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and other grunge bands to remake rock, under the greater label of "alternative rock", having an indelible influence on music for the rest of the decade.

That's the traditional story anyway, but like all history, it's a simplification that ignores what actually happened in 1991. It was a great year in music, but there was a lot more to it than the grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest.