Sunday, October 26, 2014

A country in a picture

Looking at an advertisement for a French language learning program, I realized the exclusive club to which France belongs: countries that have a picture of a building that is identified with that country worldwide.  That list includes the following:

The United States – the Statue of Liberty
England – Big Ben
France – the Eiffel Tower
Russian – the Kremlin
Egypt – the Pyramids
Israel – the Western Wall
Greece – the Acropolis

It should be noted that many important and/or ancient countries lack any true internationally recognized symbol, including Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Ethiopia, Japan, and Austria, to name just a few.

This exclusivity brings up the question of the requirements of a dominant national construction symbol.

Clearly, the edifice must be large, but not too large for the eye to frame.  As any visitor to Paris knows, it is possible to take a quite presentable picture of the Eiffel Tower from half of Paris.  Thus, that steel monstrosity is large enough to appreciate without requiring a helicopter to do so.  By contrast, the Great Wall of China is only distinguishable from countless other defense walls by its sheer length, best distinguished from space, not practical for the average tourist.

In addition, the building itself must be unique in purpose, not just a finer version of a relatively common building.  The Statue of Liberty is completely unique as are the Pyramids. By contrast, the Reichstag building in Berlin, the Sydney opera, or the Canadian CNN tower, clearly distinguishable from their lesser peers, are still not unique enough to make a universally clear link to its country.

Finally, the building must have some national, as compared to local, symbolic meaning.  The Western Wall represents for Israelis and Jews a reminder and a call. The Kremlin symbolizes Russian power and independence.   Contrast those meanings with a Venetian gondolier on his boat.  The image is clearly linked with Venice, which in turn is clearly linked with Italy.  Yet, it would be hard to say that this boat scene represents Italy.

A universally recognized national building is a major undertaking, taking its toll in blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention a huge amount of money.  Still, in this case, a picture is worth more than a thousand words.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The H-Bomb

Certain sounds serve as a shibboleth, a test, of a native speaker.   The “r” and “th” can vary or even be missing depending on the language.  Another interesting example is the sometimes non-sound “h”.  This back of the mouth sound with no teeth is pronounced with significant differences, depending on the language.

In English, the “h” is clearly but softly enounced: I am happy that the bag wasn’t too heavy.  The standard English “h” is not a throaty sound but nevertheless hearable.  That said, many English dialects either eliminate the sounds, as in my friend ‘arry, or involve the throat, as in go to [ch]ell. So, the differences in the English “h” are mainly due to dialects.

By contrast, French has two formal different pronunciations of “h”: silent and enounced.  In most French words, the h is completely silent: quelle heure est-il [quelur etil].  However, in a few words, mostly foreign, the h is aspirated and kept separate from the previous sound: la honte.  The latter is pronounced [la hont], not [lont]. It is the dubious pleasure of every learner of French to try to remember which h’s are aspirated.

Russian is extremely xenophobic about its h, which looks like the English x.  It sounds is a bit more throaty than the standard English h, but is not frequently used in words with Russian roots.  One use is onomatopoeia, such as the Russian word хахатать [hahatatz], to laugh.  In foreign words, it has been traditional to replace the foreign “h” with a Russian “g”.  An example of this Gollywood, the capital of the American film industry.

Hebrew is truly challenging.  There is the Hebrew ה [heh], which is the soft English h of hello. The ח [het] is released farther back in the throat, creating a sound like the Russian word above, often written in English as ch.  The Yiddish/Hebrew/English word that exemplifies that is chutzpah. Finally, the Hebrew כ [chof] is pronounced like the ch in Loch Ness and may be written with a kh.  Of course, these distinctions are more formal and in practice based on ethnic group.  Oriental Jews (from the Arab countries) traditionally have pronounced them more distinctly, presumably because they lived in Arab speaking populations with similar sounds.  In informal or quick speech, even many a native Israeli fudges the issue.

If speech is silver and silence is gold, the h, hidden, aspirated, or sent from the throat, is a real treasure for linguists.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Supreme legal joy

The pinnacle of any legal career is being appointed a judge at the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land.  In most cases, it is lifetime job with no fear of being fired. Still, the responsibility placed on these judges is by definition heavy since they only rule on the most important cases.  However, significant differences exist in different countries between the legal procedures for high court cases.

For example, in the United States, the US Supreme Court may, but is not required to, rule on circuit court (first level of Federal appeals) rulings.  The key word is may since the court itself decides, by a decision of four of the nine judges, to take on a case in a given year.  The criteria for “the ideal case” are as mysterious and discussed as the elections of a new pope.  For instance, just recently, the Supreme Court announced the 50 cases it would hear in the coming year.  Most of the public discussion was on the omission, i.e. it would not hear any of the pending appeals regarding circuit court decisions to effectively allow single sex marriages.  Two reasons for this choice to ignore this controversial issue have been proposed: all of the circuit courts have reached the same conclusion, meaning that there is no need for the Supreme Court to intervene; alternatively or concurrently, the four judges against single-sex marriage are not sure of the support of the other conservative judge to reach a majority and therefore choose to wait for a more propitious moment. On the other hand, the Court, in its wisdom, did choose to hear a fascinating case, at least in my eyes.  Some crooked captain of a fishing trawler, caught with undersized fish at sea and instructed to hand over said fish to the police upon return to the port, ordered the crew to replace the small fish with larger ones.  Applying a section of law aimed at organized crime forbidding destruction of evidence during an investigation, the district attorney wants to give that crooked captain 20 years in prison instead of a fine that he otherwise would have gotten.  That is an issue that amuses more than divides (albeit not that captain).  Thus, US Supreme Court judges have this wonderful privilege of ignoring what is not convenient, for whatever reason.

In Israel, the high court hears two kinds of cases.  One is appeals of rulings of the appeal courts, like in the US.  In practice, the Court finds countless procedural reasons for not discussing appeals, quite often justifiably.  Its other role is the High Court of Justice, in Hebrew “Bagatz”, which gets it into quite a bit of trouble.  Any person, including a foreigner or illegal alien, that believes that his/her fundamental rights are being breached may petition for a hearing.  More often than not, these petitions involve minority rights and controversial issues.  For this reason, many voters, including the religious sector, want the Knesset to legislate a limit to the Court’s power while their opponents love the fact that the Court can do what the Knesset is scared to do.  However, for the judges themselves, this center stage position in the societal conflicts is both hard work and sometimes uncomfortable.  I would imagine that they envy their US colleagues, who can hide behind the shadows.

So, to paraphrase Orwell, the life of all Supreme Court judges is not created equal, even if the US Constitution says that we are.

N.S. My late great uncle, Simon Rifkind served as a Federal District Judge and took on a special assignment for the Supreme Court to rule on water distribution of the Colorado River.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Necessity is the step-mother of (language) invention

In his blog on tennis players and language proficiency,,