Monday, November 23, 2015

Relative Equality

One of Orwell’s most quoted lines, from Animal Farm, refers to the fact that while everybody is created equal, some are more equal than others. The context of this criticism was so-called egalitarian societies, i.e. the Soviet Union but, unfortunately, this relative equality applies in all its ugliness to Western perception of modern events.

To demonstrate, Wikipedia (,_2015) presents a long list of terrorist attacks that have occurred this year.  Some of them have truly been horrendous and barbaric.  The attacks in Kenya and Mali can only be described as barbaric. Yet, in terms of world coverage, the attacks in Paris received more press lines than all the others combined.  Ideally, every human life is equally precious. In practice, a European (or French or Australian, et al) life is much more highly prized in terms of its loss. In simple terms, 3rd world people can die like flies. Yet, the fight against barbarism, Islamic style, is a universal fight with any victim, regardless of their country of residence, regretted. May all their memories be blessed.

Likewise, the US Anthropological Association just overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on the academic boycott of Israel.  As an Israeli, I would be the last to claim that Palestinians have equal footing to Jews in Israel.  In fact, I would have no problem understanding such a motion if said association also decided to boycott Jordan, which refuses to give Palestinians any citizenship rights and has massacred them in the past, Lebanon, which keeps them in refugee camps, Egypt, which has closed its border with Gaza and flooded the tunnels with sea water, and Syria, which merely kills them. In fact, the only country where Palestinians have some legal rights and political autonomy, not to mention economic stability, is Israel. So, if an organization feels that human rights are the highest priority, such a policy should be applied equally.  Otherwise, an observer might believe that the decision was not based on high principles but instead on low-level anti-Antisemitism.

Applying  the Serenity Prayer, the one about the courage to change, serenity to accept and wisdom to know which situation applies, the question arises regarding what a person that is less equal needs, courage or serenity. Personally, I would like the knowledge of how to change so we can have a world where everybody is created equal, period.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Only your brother (sister) can beat you up, linguistically

One of the great cultural complexities of language use is the knowledge of when you can use a term. It is not only a matter of meaning and register (formal or familiar) but also of status. For example, in English, every idea has at least two different words to express it, if not more. Sometimes, the choice of word depends on your relation to the person to whom the idea is addressed.

It may be depend on your gender.  For example, if a woman tries on a dress that may have fit her when she got married but that was many years ago,  a man asked his opinion of the dress in front of the salesperson and feeling obliged to tell the truth would have a hard time phrasing his answer in a respectable manner.  He might say “It’s a bit small on the top.” A woman, especially a friend, can get away with being direct: “Your tits are hanging out.” Brave is the man that tries that line. While men can use the word “tits” behind a woman’s back or in a certain context at home, woe is he that uses it in front of her in public.

Likewise, ethnic labels are sometimes reserved to the member of that ethnic group only. The classic is that outdated racist term “nigger.” The fastest way for a white person to get abused, verbally and/or physically, is to use that term directly to an African-American, correctly so as the expression is insulting.  However and most peculiarly, black comedians can and often use the word when referring to their “brothers”. This reflects street use by some African Americans among themselves, when it is not intended as an insult but instead of a social comment. As Richard Pryor once said, there are no niggers in Africa (but there are in Detroit).

Finally, there are some terms that we use in private, only to be spoken directly to ourselves when nobody else is around.  Countless people get up the morning, look at the mirror and say out loud “you are fat, ugly, dumb and lazy,” or at least some of those terms.  If anybody else made that comment to us, we would find it quite rude.  Yet, rules of etiquette don’t apply to conversations with private conversations.  Terms such as portly, big boned, learning challenged, and a bit slow, to name a few have no place in our private world nor should they. As Detective Friday used to say, say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

So, knowing the right word to use is often much than a matter of linguistic knowledge. Cultural knowledge is often also required.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sisterly Complex

I just recently participated in the wedding of my wife’s daughter.  To clarify, both I and my wife have a daughter from a previous marriage. I had the honor of escorting the bride, for which I am grateful and appreciative.  In the “Family Room” before the ceremony, I noticed how complex modern families are.  Aside from the bride, groom and their respective parents, there was the daughter of her biological father’s second marriage, my daughter and the two sisters of the groom.  Each “sister” is different in some essential way.

In English, the bride invited her half-sister, step-sister and sisters-in-law, respectively. English, being a very precise language, distinguishes between the actual blood connection of one parent and trappings of marriage with no blood connection. Also, the in-law additive specifically defines the connection of those sisters to the bride.  It should be noted that the need to describe these relations is not actually modern since the death rate of mothers historically was very high, necessitating many second marriages and their incumbent variations.

In French, the distinction is less clear, not surprisingly. The term demi-soeur applies to both sisters acquired through remarriages, not distinguishing the presence or lack of blood connection.  Also, the French term for sister-in-law, belle soeur, is strange to a non-French speaker since belle means beautiful. Woe to the husband or wife that fails to say the spouse’s sister is pretty, especially if she isn’t. So, it is not 100% clear whether the sister attained her title before or after the wedding.

Russian also does not make a distinction in blood. The term сводная сестра [svodbodnaya sestra] can be literally translated as an “associated sister”, which makes sense without going into too many details.  On the other hand, the last sister in this case are accurately described as the сестра мужа [sestra muja], literally “the sister of the husband” There is no confusion there.

For our sisters of longer term, Hebrew follows the English lead. A half sister is a  אחות מחצה  [ahot le mahaza] while a step sister is אחות חורגת [ahot choreget]. It should be noted by exchanging the first letter in second word to a heh, a softer h sound, the step become killing, which would really be quite unfortunate but occasionally justified. As for the sister-in-law, typical for Semitic languages, Hebrew has a distinct word without any hint of a sister, גיסה [gisah].  In this region, apparently, a spouse’s family is far too important a matter to make it a half thought.

To avoid any misconception, the wedding was quite successful. The food was tasty or so people told me as neither the bride and groom nor the parents ever really get much of a chance to eat. People stayed late. The music was only loud, instead of intolerably loud. The weather was beautiful. Finally, the bride, of course, was beautiful.  A good time was had by all, even all those sisters.