Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gunning for it

Guns are worldwide and universal.  Their meaning is not.  When people see a person with a gun, its impact often depends on its national context.
For example, guns of all kinds are quietly omnipresent in Israel.  Armed soldiers, male and female, are highly visible in all public areas generally because they are on their way to somewhere else.  To Israelis, this is banal while to foreigners, this is exotic.  People of all ages involved in security services freely circulate at all times, including at celebrations.  My father was rather shocked to see my father-in-law’s colleagues walking around with pistols at my wedding.  I did not even notice it.  Since guns are linked with military service and security duty, gun safety is taken seriously.  There are relatively few shooting accidents in Israel.  The truth is that after having to carrying around an M-16, even shortened, or a local made assault rifle for 3 or more years, very few people actually want to walk around armed and loaded.  
In France, gun control is strict.  Gun possession is mainly limited to police officers, soldiers, and hunters.  Therefore, seeing a gun makes an impression.  In the Jewish quarter of Paris near the synagogues, elite soldiers patrol the area.  Aside from wearing black uniforms and looking very serious (like they know how to actually aim the weapon), they carry submachine guns or machine pistols.  Their purpose is to intimidate potential terrorists. In the context of France, it works.
By contrast, in the United States, owning a gun is a protected, historical tradition.  The love of guns has been around for at least 400 years in the United States.  Many people in the United States in both urban and rural areas love to collect, shoot, and talk about guns.  It is a popular hobby.  Hunting is the main reason for existence for millions of Americans.  That means being around guns from a young age.  So, unlike Israel, guns are more entrenched part of everyday American life, for better or worse.  Therefore, the reaction of many people to guns is not shock, but curious as to what kind it is and how far it can shoot.
In summary, while guns are the same everywhere, people’s reactions differ from country to country.  I would be interested in hearing what reaction the sight of gun causes in your country.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


In root-poor languages, such as Hebrew, all roots are used to their maximum in terms of producing noun, verb, and adjective forms.  For example, in French, the root grand comes out grandir, grandeur, and grand in the verb, noun, and adjective forms, respectively.  Likewise, in Hebrew, the root גדל [gimel, dalet, lamed] produces גדול, גודל ,לגדול [legdol, godel, and gadol].  Therefore, a learner can quickly ascertain the pattern and make educated guesses as to the relevant form of a word.  This clearly makes learning to speak a language much easier.
Alas, English is extremely rich in roots, deriving them from a multitude of different languages and developing them at different times in history.  All this renders it very difficult to “guess” the verb form.  In countless cases, there is no verb while in others the change is unpredictable.  An example of the latter is the relation between effect and affect, advice and advise, and satisfaction and satisfy.
The following are a few patterns that allow a reader to guess the meaning of a verb:
a.      Ize  / (UK)  ise – Modern English tends to add this suffix to a noun or adjective to create an easily understandable verb.  Examples include capitalize, modernize, standardize, and that old law school classic, shepardize.
b.      En- or –en – Following old German grammar, adding an en at the beginning or end of some words transforms them into verbs, often adding the meaning to give: encourage and empower as compared to widen and threaten.
c.       ception -> ceive – All nouns that end in ception become ceive in the verb: reception – receive, conception – conceive, deception – deceive, perception – perceive.
d.      Drop the tion – By droping the tion in the noun form, many verbs are formed: relation – relate, construction – construct, investigation – investigate.
As mentioned, it is unfortunately quite difficult to verbalize all of the strategies for making verbs.  The best way to know the form is to listen and read English, learning intuitively.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Religion and Identity – (Middle) East and West

As an American who has lived some 23 years in Israel, I have learned to appreciate a certain reality which escapes people who have never been here, some of which who have to make vital policy decisions.
Religion in the West, meaning the United States and Europe, is a biographical fact.   Being born Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or anything else influences your values, your way of dressing, your ideal mate as far as your parents are concerned, and possibly your political view.  To be clear, I am not referring to actually practicing the religion or attending a house of worship.  The mere fact of having parents of a certain religion creates a part of your culture (with a small c).  In terms of understanding people, it is easier to relate to someone with same culture.  That being said, the parents’ background does not determine the children’s future in the United States. Since these countries view religion as a private matter separate from public identity, children can change or adapt their religion while still maintaining their status as an American, Italian, or Brit.  Thus, in the West, I am who I am and also have a religious culture.
By contrast, in the Middle East, religion is an identity, private and official, affecting all aspects of life.  ID cards list the religion of the carrier.  In Israel, a person’s faith, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze, determines that person’s social circle and public status in society.  In the Arab world, the situation is no different.  The Ottomans recognized and used this to administer the Middle East, letting each community run its own affairs as long as it paid taxes of course. Outside your faith, it is hard to be part of a community.
This understanding is vital for average citizens and decision makers.  Attempts to westernize the Middle East and make it religious in the Western way are doomed to fail.  People hold on strongly to their faith, even more today.  The zealots here may be crazy, but most honestly believe that they are right.   (See that ancient book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler for a potential explanation.)  More importantly, leaders and people in the street in the Middle East do not think like their counterparts in the West.  There is a wonderful story about John Dulles, the US Foreign Minister during the 1956 Middle Eastern crisis, who complained to reporters that he was shocked that Nasser lied to him.  This demonstrates the critical lack of understanding then and maybe now of Middle Eastern thinking.  Ignoring the power of religion just feeds that misinterpretation
The next time you hear about some “irrational act” in the Middle East or by someone from here, keep in mind that faith here defines both identity and ethics.

Monday, June 4, 2012

House and Home

As is well known, English has an unusually large and varied vocabulary for almost all matters, including the important issue of housing.  After all, shelter is one of the most basic needs.  Opening up the Thesaurus to the word home – noun brings up an impressive list of related words, each with a bit of a different context.
A home is a general word for a permanent place to sleep as compared to lodgings where a hotel guest may stay or quarters or a billet where soldiers spend their nights.  Of course, the home implies some emotional attachments unlike a house, which is merely four walls with some rooms in it. 
On a smaller note, a British flat becomes an apartment, if it is for rent, or a condo, if it is for sale and a bit fancy, on the other side of the Atlantic.  A studio is a fancy word for a small, one room place.  A penthouse has very high class pretentions that do not meet reality in Israel at least. 
The upper part of scale is a mansion, which assumes some staff to maintain all the rooms or possible a residence if it is official, as in the Prime Minister’s Residence, which is really a rather large flat.  Royalty did once live in palaces, but today the term is rather relative, to misquote Einstein, as in moving into a cottage of 240 meters after years in that quaint studio.  It does give the feeling of “making it.”  As that term cottage, it once meant a small country house, a bit like a Russian dacha.  Today, it is used indiscriminately any house with a yard, big or small.
The flip side of the equation is a tenement, a small crowded flat in a poor area.   Some people would call that a dump, but that is being negative.  On the other hand, if you are young, poor, and in love in Paris, you would call the 9th floor studio with no elevator a loft or even a pied-è-terre, even if it is far from the ground. 
So, as you walk in big cities and see homeless, reconsider your dwelling and remember that home is where the hearth is, no matter how small or big it is.