Category Archives: History Repeats…

Considering Paula Deen

Paula Deen is the latest celebrity to be caught by the N-word bomb and she is paying a price although many argue that she shouldn’t be penalized for a single use over 30 years ago. But she may be paying a price for some unsavory thoughts much beyond any usage of a derogatory

I’ve written my opinion about N-word controversies with Dr Laura and John Mayer, but Paula Deen’s situation is different in some interesting respects.

Should the One Use Be Penalized?

During a 2013 deposition, Deen admitted to using the N-word once over 30 years ago (ca 1983) right after a criminal encounter with someone who happened to be African-American. Some people have argued that a single use decades ago should be pardoned. (BTW, the lawsuit filed by employee Lisa Jackson alleges that Deen used the N-word again (see below), but since Deen has denied this it’s somewhat of a he said/she said situation.))

Based on her testimony and multiple apologies, Deen clearly does know how offensive the word, and the scenario is one in which she was in extreme emotional distress. Although I would not use the N-word in that situation (I truly know that) and wouldn’t recommend it, I can see how that situation would bring out the worst thoughts in Deen. I believe even the most racially tolerant amongst us would have been calling the criminal nasty names.

And to be honest, I believe that all of us have thought or said things in a politically incorrect direction. For instance, when I hear a rural white American saying something blatantly racist, I can’t help it that the word “red neck” comes into my head. Do we want to be judged for every thought or action we did? I think that can lead into dangerous areas of “thought policing” which is not always fair or even helpful for true understanding of diverse points of view (Anne Rice agrees).

I’ll also say that I have used phrases in the past that I don’t now because I have rethought the context. One I still hear a lot is “he went off the reservation.” But if you think about it, it is probably referring to the forced relocation and control of Native Americans – kind of a sore subject. I’m trying not to use it and this might also be considered pretty bad form some day…but not this day.

And yet, the Paula Deen situation is not that simple

Uncle Ben Gone Bad

One of the topics of the deposition is an overheard discussion in which Deen speaks fondly of a restaurant in which the wait staff were all African-American men. She then expressed a desire for her brother to have an authentic “southern plantation wedding” with exactly this type of wait staff. This is where she lost me and perhaps a few of her corporate sponsors.

The whole entire wait staff was [made up of] middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie.
I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.


The lawsuit alleges that Deen uses the N-word to refer to the waiters, but she denies it because she admired their professionalism. I personally wonder if the word “Negro” was used (which was once the proper word for African-American not so long ago).

But that’s aside the point. The entire line of thought is just addled. Some might say flaky, but I say it’s unconsciously racist. She can’t see that 1) an African-American might not want a white woman to have THIS kind of plantation wedding or 2) you really shouldn’t try to mix and match employees anymore based on skin tone and that 3) it would be breaking all sorts of non-discrimination laws. Imagine if her dream wedding staff were all white!

I think it’s important to respect Southern tradition (and the tourist dollars it can bring), and equally important that African-Americans be able to have the opportunity to find a decent-paying job such as working in a high-end restaurant (yes, that kind of job can pay well).

But there is that fine line between participating in a fuzzy plantation fantasy and making it so literal that we also bring in references to slavery. I’d like to think that persons of all backgrounds are capable of filling the “Uncle Ben” fantasy or at least serving a really good mint julep. Oy. This does remind me of the a friend’s mother who purportedly didn’t see anything wrong with those statues of the little black boy holding a lantern. Ahhhh!

Is Deen a racist? This is not easy to answer. It’s clear that she is sensitive to the topic, and at least one of her African American colleagues, Aaron McCargo Jr, came to her defense saying how supportive she was of his cooking career. I’ve also seen her on shows interacting very respectfully with African-American guests of all sorts. She knows good cooking when she sees it.

But her comments on the plantation wedding represent the kind of addled cultural baggage that can be carried around. And it’s a problem that can’t be fixed with a simple change in vocabulary. I hope Americans can find room in their hearts again for Deen, but I think Deen and everyone else really needs to realize that avoiding racism goes beyond avoiding the N-word.

Postscript 1: Who Should Use the N-Word? No One!

Fox News had one of those recurring discussions about whether an African-American using the N-word is different than a white person using it (YES!!!). Gloria Allred argued that an African American using it was different from a non-African American using it, but her co-panelist Ted Williams (an African American) disagreed! He felt that NO ONE should use it, not even African Americans. This word is really a long way from getting reformed.

Rethinking IE Settlement in India

An ongoing issue in historical linguistics, particularly in terms of the dispersal of Indo-European languages, is how to model the spread of an Indo-European language. The traditional 19th century Victorian view is the “Invasion Hypothesis” which is that a group of Indo-European language speakers overcome the local population with military might and impose their language and culture.

Since then, there have been alternative hypotheses (e.g. spread via agriculture or other cultural contact), but a recent study reported in the National Geographic makes me think they the Victorians probably got it right. What the study says is that:

Most modern Indians descended from South Asians, not invading Central Asian steppe dwellers, a new genetic study reports. The Indian subcontinent may have acquired agricultural techniques and languages–but it absorbed few genes–from the west, said Vijendra Kashyap, director of India’s National Institute of Biologicals in Noida.

The article goes on to say that “The finding disputes a long-held theory that a large invasion of central Asians, traveling through a northwest Indian corridor, shaped the language, culture, and gene pool of many modern Indians within the past 10,000 years.”

A Small Invading Group?

But not so fast. You can still have an “invasion” (i.e. a group imposing their cultural supremacy over another) without a large genetic contribution to the original population. A very extreme model of this is post-colonial Africa where governments and education tend to be in English or French, yet the percentage of Europeans is relatively small. The vast majority of people in Africa are still descended from Africans.

The general discouragement of intermarriage between groups means that what European genes are present are concentrated in a smaller group, but that this group is often in the elite (more on that later). The same could be true in India as well, although intermixing does gradually happen in the long run.

How Language Change Happens

The unasked question is how did English and French come to be dominant in Africa? Colonization of course! It may be that English/French were convenient to learn over large polyglot territories, but the fact is that it was European military might which backed up the ability of a language with a small group of native speakers to become dominant. Before the colonial era, it was clear that groups in Africa were able to co-exist in a multilingual environment. Political domination was a necessary ingredient for English and French to become official languages of Africa.

If the speakers of pre Sanskrit were truly a small population, I would expect that adoption among other speakers would happen via political or cultural domination of some sort. I would also expect that if the Indo-European speakers had become dominant, they would also be in the elite…and that is what happens in India, particularly Northern India. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the group preserving the Sanskrit texts we do have are in the highest caste, and I don’t think the Victorians did either.

The process of changing language in a family or group is complicated, but it’s rarely an easy decision. Economics plays a factor in many cases (i.e. switching to the politically dominant language), but many groups are so reluctant to switch that governments often implement horribly coercive methods to “make it happen” (more political domination).

This history of documented language change is why I am skeptical that an indigenous population would switch to a “foreign” Indo-European language WITHOUT that language exerting being in some sort of dominant position, usually augmented by military force. The fact that most Indians have indigenous DNA confirms that Indo-European spread via some sort of “invasion” process where a relatively small group imposed some of their culture, including the language, on a local population.

BTW – If being a large group of speakers were enough to to enact language change without political dominance, white South Africans would be speaking Zulu, white Hawaiians would be learning Japanese and my Pennsylvania ancestors would have probably adopted German at some point. But that’s not what happens…

Considering Class and Language Dispersal

Believe it or not, I want to be as egalitarian as the next linguist, but unfortunately, I do think we do have to consider social class when doing genetic assessments of a population. I am an English speaker, but genetically speaking, my ancestry is NOT English, and even those ancestors who did come from the U.K. came not from East Anglia but Scotland, Cornwall and Wales. You would never want to tap my DNA to figure out where the original English speakers came from.

I also don’t want to discount the complexity of the relationships among language and cultural groups in India. Almost all modern national histories include one outsider group imposing its political domination over another. But a strange miracle does happen where the two groups can merge to create a new culture (even if the blending retains many rough patches). The fact that a group of speakers emigrated to India many millennia ago does not make their descendants less Indian or the contributions less worthwhile.

What’s important to me is that we understand our history honestly, both the positive and the negative, or else we will truly never be able to heal any wounds inflicted in the past.

P.S. Mixing Genes Along the Way

A second model can also be also be considered – any Indo-European population reaching India may have been intermixing with people along the way. It is very possible that people speaking the Indo-European Indic languages did not have the same genetic makeup as those in the Indo-European “homeland” (wherever that was). However, the language can still be said to have been Indo-European, even if the culture and DNA had already been changing. It’s actually rare for language/DNA/culture to spread in one package.

Weird Bronze Age Bull Dancing Moment

If you’ve ever had a Greek archaeology or Bronze Age Mediterranean archaeology course, then you’ve probably seen the bull leapers in ancient frescoes from Crete.

Bull with three men - one somersaulting off back, one at horns and one preparing to leap
Photo courtesy of Dimitris Agelakis. Licensed under Creative Commons.

I’ve heard some comparisons to this Cretan bull leaping to Spanish bull fighting, but clearly flipping over a bull is not the same as waving a cape and stabbing it…or is it?

It turns out that there is a type of bull sport from the Gascony region of France called course landaise which includes sauteurs (literally “leapers”) who do, in fact, flip elegantly over a bull (or technically a horned female cow). It’s quite elegant and rarely injures the bovine (although leapers can get banged up). This kind of a bull sport I can get into.

In terms of the overall origin of Iberian/Southern French bullfighting, a connection is made to the Roman gladiatorial games, and it does make sense considering that some forms of bullfighting involve combat. Still the bull dancing is tantalizing, because the dancing version is also said to exist in Southern Spain. Prehistoric Iberia and Crete are two places which have lots of archaeology, few written records, but lots of cross-cultural contacts (esp Iberia).

Even if no direct connection exists, the course landaise shows what the Cretan version may have been like and why it was worth preserving in a fresco in ancient Knossos.

Good List of King Arthur Movies

Since I actually did Celtic linguistics for my degree, I am always interested in good Celitc (or Norse/Old English/medieval) resources. Here’s a good list of King Arthur movies from Dr. Dev that skips to the true classics – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Army of Darkness, and of course, Camelot (the musical).

Alas, the list is still a little skimpy, so while I’m on the subject, I’m asking myself to why it is so hard to film a good adaptation of medieval and ancient stories. I think we’ve all sat through some very expensive, very unwatchable movies. My personal unfavorites include Oliver Stone’s Alexander (which not even Angelina Jolie could save), a 1990s TV miniseries of Cleopatra (too bored to look this up) and well First Knight (sorry it was King Arthur by the book to me).

I suspect that the problem is finding that balance between authenticity and cheesy entertainment. Although we may now find these pre-modern interesting in terms of universal themes vs the original culture, it should be remembered that many were actually meant to popular entertainment much like Gossip Girl, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and 24. In other words, larger than life and full of drama/comedy or both (and if social criticism comes into the mix… so be it).

For me the best adaptations include authentic touches (costumes, locations, events), but don’t forget the include the swagger of the original. In fact, I’ve been very happy with adaptations that stray from the original…as long as the original themes have been kept. For instance, Excalibur is the only King Arthur movie to include an ancient Celtic language spell (just the wrong one though). And although Excalibur is neither purely medieval or purely post-Roman, it doesn’t really matter because neither was the original. What they did keep was the theme of kingship, the mix of Christian religious purity and Druid magic and kingdom-rocking sex scandals. What else do you need?

So here’s a partial list of my favorite adaptations:

Medieval Movies

Skimpy, but oh well

  • Beowulf (2007) – Believe it or not, the cheesy 3D works to showcase both the pre-migration Germanic royal hall and the terror of Grendel. Plus, Beowulf comes off as a pretentious braggart who really needs to make a legitimate kill.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail – No there are no socialism jokes in King Arthur, but there really was an obnoxious gate keeper in the Welsh Arthurian saga Culhwch ac Olwen. I can tell that someone read the Middle Welsh literature, because the same kinds of jokes and parody appear here.
  • Charlemagne (1993) – Don’t sweat the French title; it’s available in English. It may not be entirely accurate, but it gives you the idea of what the secular/Papal politics of the day were. Plus, it has a fabulous Roman bath set which Charlemagne uses a lot. And it has the go-to scene of a candlelit ceremony (the coronation of the Charlemagne, The Pope and 100 candles). The candle-lit ceremony may have been pioneered in King Arthur’s wedding in Camelot, but I can’t verify that.
  • El Cid (1967) – If you want a trip to medieval Spain, I can recommend this forgotten classic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as his wife whose heart El Cid has to win again. Good costumes, lots of intrigue and a few lessons in honor and Christian/Islamic tolerance.
  • Lion in Winter (1968) – When only one family runs the kingdom, every little squabble turns into a politico-military crisis. Great costumes combined with medieval barges and frozen bath basin water add period detail, but it’s the evilly manipulative dialogue from all the cast that makes it a true winner. For film buffs, this includes a very early Anthony Hopkins as the slightly war mad Richard and Timothy Dalton as the not-so-foppish King of France. The remake with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close disappointed me, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does an excellent King Phillip.

Ancient Movies

  • The Trojan Women (1971) – If you want 100% pure Greek drama, this will do the trick. This is a very faithful adaptation of the Eurpides play with Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache and Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra. But I confess that Irene Papas as Helen steals the show. Although not classically beautiful, one look from her sultry eyes and Menelaus is ready to forgive 10 years of hellish combat (oh well). Alas, the rest of the women face the more common fate of women from the losing side as slaves and concubines.
  • Troy (2004) – Yes it diverges from the “novel” (i.e. The Iliad) quite a bit in ditching both the gods as well as Cassandra and Iphigenia. However it preserves the themes quite well. Agamemnon is still an arrogant ass, Helen is still a lonely wife, Paris the spoiled youth, the Trojans still overly confident in their military might and Hector still the noble but doomed hero. I think Brad Pitt does well in conveying Achilles’ heroic swagger with the ironic awareness that this will lead to an early death (but with everlasting fame). I also think Eric Bana’s Hector does a fabulous job of being both the patriotic warrior and the only one in Troy with enough sense to see what is going to actually happen, just like Cassandra would have. Good archaic Greek sets too – no Ionic pillars here.
  • Cleopatra (1963) – The one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This movie gets a bad rap for being overbudget and for the one where Elizabeth cheats on Eddie Fisher. However the budget is really put to good use (especially in the sequence where Cleopatra brings all of Egypt to march through Rome). Also, I think Taylor makes the most convincing Cleopatra yet. Alluring yes, but also well-educated and motivated with making Egypt a political power independent (or dominating) Rome. Like the actress herself, most of the men failed to take her seriously…but she got her way in the end.
  • Rome (HBO Miniseries) – This is the no-holds barred re-telling of the last days of the Republic. There’s a certain amount of silliness (Cleopatra as a tasteless slut?), but it really picks up steam as it moves along. There’s discussion in the Latinteach list about which scenes are safe to show in middle school, but this is one in which the R-rated material really, really makes the whole thing work. Polly Walker as Octavian’s mother is a blast, but James Purefoy as her sometime lover Marc Anthony has more than a few original antics on display.
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) – This TV miniseries hearkens back to the Sword and Sandals days, but it’s quite entertaining nonetheless. You can tell it’s a 19th century novel because it’s primarily the Christian converts who survive, but the individual storylines crossing all socioeconomic sectors of Pompeii are very appealing, and yes the sets are fabulous. When this genre works, it really is a lot of fun.
  • Spartacus (1960 and 2004) – The 1960 version with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier is a fine Hollywood classic, but I like the 2004 miniseries with Goran Visnijc quite a bit. Visnijc brings a humbler sensibility as a man who just suffered one too many indignity and rose up to kill his oppressor. He may not have meant to lead the revolution, but he lead it well and with honor…and scared the living daylights out of his masters.

Banks and Benchs – A Complicated Linguistic Transaction

One for the “You learn something new everyday” file is the origin(s) of the word bank. There are at least two etymologies for the modern word, depending on the meaning (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

The first is Middle English banke from Old Norse banki meaning ‘ridge’. This is the meaning found in embankment, usually a man made earthen mound, and perhaps the bank on the side of a river. This Old Norse word comes from Germanic *bankon which is probably related to Germanic *banki-z ‘bench’.

The second etymology is also Germanic but actually came in to English via Late Latin *bancus, via Norman French baunk. In this case, “bank” means “bench”, but because the bench is where the money handlers sat in the market, “bank” also came to mean the house of financial transactions in French, Spanish (banco) and Italian.

The bench meaning can be seen in French banquette and uses such as a “bank of oars” (where the rowers sat). Although the French/Spanish roots came from Late Latin *bancus, it seems likely that the Romans borrowed from a Germanic speaking group (i.e. *banki-z) … which is the ‘bench’ root.

As for bench – this is the *bank-iz ‘bench’ root becoming *benkr (an umlauted form), then going some of Anglo-Saxon phonology, specifically the palatalization process where Germanic /k/ becomes /č/ in some contexts. This is similar to the palatalization which resulted in church” (English) versus kirk (Scots).

What we have is not just a “doublet”, but a “triplet” where we have one route, *banki-z going through three routes to end up in modern English – the native route, via Latin and via a sister Germanic language (Old Norse).

Besides the trivia factor, there are some lessons to be learned here when reconstructing other languages. One is that roots can bounce back and forth between neighbors, not just between “unrelated” languages like Latin & English, but closer relatives like Old Norse and English. Fortunately, we have the written records and modern language to trace some of these elements, but…

The other lesson is that the native root (bench) is the one which the most sound changes have occurred and now looks the least like the original root. When checking a new group of languages, similar looking words could lead to a common root, but it can just lead to a root which has been borrowed a lot.

Documenting sound changes can help track when roots entered a language, and sometimes the “oldest” words are the ones that sound or look the oddest.

The Three Paths to a Bench or Bank

Tree diagram of Germanic banki-z going through Latin, Old Norse and Saxon (bench)

Modelling Language Survival?

I was recently asked evaluate a mathematical model of language death as language competition from an Ask-A-Linguist panel. The paper referred to was Modelling the Dynamics of Language Death (Nature, 2003). It’s an interesting idea…in theory, but does it work and does it tell anything new?

This particular paper (actually a “Brief Communication”) proposes an equation to model decline in speaker population for Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Quechua. I will presume that the equation they derived closely matches observed data found in their census figures.

What I’m not entirely certain is how certain variables, such as “Status” were derived. As they note, status is an important factor apart from sheer number of speakers. Without understanding how a status index is determined it’s hard to evaluate how this model would predict decline in the future.

Which Factors?

In fact I would say that “Status” can be tricky to define. Sometimes status can be equated to political power, but not always. There are cases where a language of the political elite ends up dying in a region because the rulers switch to the language of the populace. English survived Norman French (several centuries worth) and Greek survived the Latin speakers of the Roman Empire although it succumbed to Ottoman Turkish (except in Greece).

The authors mention another factor of “mixing”, but it does not appear to be factored in as an official parameter that I could determine. One factor which allowed Welsh to survive under a non-Welsh government was those most people in Wales were monolingual, meaning that relatively fewer people felt the need to be bilingual in English and Welsh. Today urbanization and mass media in a relatively small number of languages changes that. If you want to watch a televised soap opera, your language options are still limited.

Similarly, speakers or voluntarily emigrate to new communities may often have children who speak languages, although sometimes new community nuclei (e.g. Chinatowns) can emerge, at least for a few generations. Because this model only studies the effects of populations in situ, it can’t take the effects of a literal population move (or disapora) into account and determine if they are relevant factors.

Another very important factor not mentioned is whether there is an ongoing language elimination campaign. It is possible for minority communities in the same location to remain bilingual…if they are tolerated by the local government. For instance, Pennsylvania German, the language of the Amish is not only living, but expanding in the U.S. (Page, personal communication). But we know from North America, Australia and the U.K. that a lot of languages lost speakers when the children were forced to be educated in English only (or French only in the Breton). Similarly, outlawing publications or official communication in a minority language will cause the “status” of the dominant language to artificially rise. Forced deportations and separations have similar effects.

Other Cases

Finally, I would say that there are mysteries of language life and death that any model of language death and survival must answer. One is why Norman French was eliminated in favor of the less prestigious (but more numerous) English. Compare with Peru where Quechua has not yet overtaken Spanish in any realistic way, although there are still many speakers remaining. Another is predicting the spread of Arabic through Egypt (dominating Coptic), Iraq and North Africa (wiping out Latin), but NOT further east. What combination factors are important? Is religious belief a factor after all? Is intermarriage a factor?

I do think that it’s possible to mathematically model this, but I think it’s important that the linguistics be taken as seriously as the math. I applaud the efforts of the authors, two fine applied mathemeticians, but I don’t believe that census figures and a simple “status” index alone can tell the entire story. I would want to know more about the specific factors.

A Final Warning

I would end this discussion by pointing out that no language can really be considered “permanently” safe. Egyptian was the language of a power for several millennia before they were ultimately conquered by the Romans. Even then, late Egyptian survived long enough to become the basis of the Coptic church, but eventually Arabic came to dominate in Egypt. Coptic now survives as mostly a liturgical language, but Egyptian was spoken a lot longer (3000+ years) than it has been “dead” (ca 1000-500) years.

According to this Web history, Coptic too was a subject of a deliberate language elimination campaign…just like Welsh and Breton.

Yes, the Samurai Can Laugh

I’m cleaning my desk and ran into an alumni magazine with the provocative headline Did the Samurai Have a Sense of Humor? Gee – I wonder if the answer is “Yes!”. Oh look the subtitle is The Phenomenon of 18th-Century Japanese Comic Books – and we all know how silly they are. Hey if you don’t believe me, ask Harvard 18th century Japanese expert Adam Kern

The article goes on at great length to explain that not only was there 18th century satirical manga in Japan, but that it was a criticism of modern political and social events. But let’s just cut to some compelling dialogue from 1785’s Playboy, Roasted à la Edo

Plot: The semi-attractive mercantile son Enjiro asks friends and geisha for advice on obtaining the love of many women proclaiming: “For a lifetime of memories, I’d kill myself.”

Best Advice: When placing tattoos representing fake women on your arm, don’t forget to remove some later to show that you have “discarded” them.

Kinosuke: (experienced playboy) It’ll look suspicious if some tattoos aren’t erased, so we’ll burn them off later with moxa

Enjiro: (aspiring playboy) Who’d’ve thought becoming a playboy would hurt so much?

Now that you’re done giggling, I do have a point which is that it’s still a shock when we discover that an ancient/foreign culture is capable of “sophisticated” humor or irony. Somehow we expect people far outside our culture to either be so serious or so “different” that they could not really understand Western humor or “abstract” concepts like social satire.

For instance, Vikings, Celts and Saxons are portrayed as fierce warriors whose idea of a good idea was binge drinking in the mead hall and that their comedic range was restricted to maybe bad Three Stooges pratfalls with helmets. Yet one of the best “parodies” of the fantasy quest is from the Middle Welsh Mabinogi. When the hero Pwyll, who spends a year chasing the beautiful Rhiannon on horseback, finally catches up with her, she asks him why he didn’t just yell out to her to stop in the first place. And you thought Princess Leia’s spunk was a modern invention.

So watch the Discovery Channel carefully the next time a Caucasian adventurer wants to experience a more primitive life and see if you don’t spot an “indigenous” citizen barely containing snickers at the complete idiocy that only a city slicker can display.

Urban Founding Date Time Lag or What do Founding Dates Mean?

Many cities have “official” founding dates like 1797 for Baltimore, 1237 for Berlin, 332 BC for Alexandria Egypt and 753 BC for Rome (some sources give April 21, 753 BC as the date). Yet archaeologists keep finding evidence of human settlements before these dates (sometimes well before these dates).

Today it was Berlin (see Berlin dig finds city older than thought), earlier it was Rome (see Tomb dating from 10th century B.C. found in Caesar’s Forum) and even Alexandria (Ancient Alexandria Older than We Thought?).

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to see a pattern. Clearly the founding dates aren’t initial settlement, but dates when it gets founded as a political entity (or gets rededicated as a capital). For instance, 1797 is the date when Baltimore incorporated itself as a city – there had actually been multiple settlements at the head of the Patapsco River almost a century before that (which is how Baltimore got to host the Continental Congress in the Revolutionary War even though it didn’t exist yet).

I’m glad that archaeologists are figuring out that founding dates don’t mean initial settlement, but I’m intrigued that we continue to be “shocked” by this. The older cities are merely following a pattern found even in North American cities. If you do live in the U.S. and Canada, look up the founding date of your local municipality some time – chances are there were European settlers in the area at least a few years before an actual incorporation date. Apparently the founding date time lag is a time-honored tradition.

In case you were wondering, the Pilgrims were not the first people from England to visit New England. The native tribes had been contact with English traders before 1620, which is how Squanto (or Tisquantum) was able to learn enough English to communicate with the settlers. He actually sailed with John Smith of Pocahontas legend  (OK I really didn’t know that before today).

Learning History: Dates or Trends?

The old conventional wisdom was that dates were important, hence an “educated” person is supposed to know that 1776 was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War lasted from 1860-1865 and that William the Conquerer successfully invaded England in 1066. So generations of school children memorized lists of dates and events in hopes of passing their final exam…and often forgot them 15 minutes later.
But are the dates important or is it the trend that matters? After all what’s the point of knowing that the Civil War took place in the 1860s if you don’t understand that it was a major conflict over racial equality vs. states rights and the impact of both on Western expansion of American territory (more or less). So the modern trend in historical instruction has often been to focus on the the trends behind the dates and not worry so much about dates. Memorizing trends instead of dates is now the new conventional wisdom.
Makes sense right? Actually I’ve found there is a teeny problem. It’s often the case that if you completely skip dates you lose some nuance that really could help you understand history at a deep level. If you’re not careful history can become a weird melange of events of that happened sometime between WWI and the Moon landing.
And if you wish to ANALYZE history instead of just reading about it – you have to deal with dates. Using dates to sequence events is critical to constructing a “narrative”. Without an accurate chronology, your analysis will not just be wrong but usually wrong in a howlingly inaccurate way that will have the date dweebs on floor screaming, laughing or crying.
Picture, if you will, a confused child of the 22nd century who can’t quite distinguish the two president Bushes claiming that we invaded Kuwait to avenge the the loss of of the World Trade Center and the simultaneous Oklahoma City bombing. Of course this is someone who has merged the 1st Persian Golf war in Kuwait with two separate events.
It sounds funny, but it’s also a little dangerous. As an adult, the same person could wonder why we’ve invested so much in Kuwait when they’re our mortal enemies and underestimate the dangers of domestic terrorists who are the ones who actually set off the bomb in Oklahoma City.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t explore deeper issues such as “Why is Al Qaeda attacking us?” but that knowing details such as dates and locations really help form a fuller picture of what’s really going on. I have to say, a lot of modern Middle Eastern politics did confuse me until I learned more about the Ottoman Empire in Turkey and how some of it was divvied up after WWI into French and British territories for a while. Suddenly…a few more things made sense and I really understood some of what Al Qaeda was mad about (it’s not really just the US by the way).
So if we are serious about students learning higher-order thinking … I really do think we have to teach students how to memorize and use dates (and locations) in their thinking as well as social trends like “nationalism” and “colonialism”.

When did “Human Rights” Begin?

It’s true that “full human rights” is a relatively new concept. That is – the concept that any competent adult has the right to vote and the same basic legal protection as the richest people in the land is relatively recent.
After all, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that adult women were considered competent enough to vote. Even the U.S. Founding Fathers really only trusted the state legislators to appoint the U.S. Senator (the direct vote was only fully implemented in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified).
But how did this evolution begin? The British Library starts the process in 1215 with the Magna Carta. This is pretty much what I was taught in my high school civics class as well (although it’s crushing to realize the Magna Carta is really guaranteeing the rights of a bunch of angry barons and really says nothing about the general populace).
Does this mean that there was no concept of human rights before 1215? Although our popular notions may date human rights to 1215, the issue has been present for large portions of Western history. Peasant revolts were quite common in the Roman Empire, so the lower classes certainly felt they were owed something more. In fact the Roman government created the office of tribune specifically to mediate disputes between the plebes and the patricians (the aristocracy). The basis of Athenian democracy (and the Roman Senate of the Republic) was to allow “eligible citizens” full participation. Both the Ancient Athenians and the Roman Republic rejected the notion of an absolute monarchy – this is the concept echoed in the Magna Carta. On a side note, Athenian democracy was innovative in allowing any adult non-slave male to vote in the city assembly. In Rome, only designated patricians could participate in the Senate.
In the British Isles, the concept of civil rights was also found in both Anglo-Saxon England and Celtic Wales and Ireland. Before the Norman invasion of 1066, the selection of the next Saxon king had to be ratified by the witengemot Assembly Similar elections were held for Welsh and Irish kings – although the candidate pool was usually pretty limited.
Finally in Irish law, the aristocracy were legally obligated to provide certain provisions to the peoples within their territories including feasts (some with ale, some without). Non-slaves were also guaranteed certain rights in terms of seeking redress, even from the ruling class.
So I would have to say that civil rights were a concept that had been around for a while. The interesting question is – why do we choose the Magna Carta as a starting point? It’s pretty much an Anglo-centric quirk. England generally dates the start of English history to the Norman Invasion of 1066. Not only did this bring in a new dynasty from France, but a brand new aristocracy as well. The native Saxon male nobles were pretty much displaced and replaced with French imports, and all the major government institutions replaced.
Events before 1066 are “prehistory” (even if we have documents). The events of 1215 (less than 150 years after the Norman Conquest) is one the first events in the NORMAN ERA where civil rights were successfully asserted. Before that Norman king had much more power, even over his nobility.
Although I begin this blog with a complaint that the Magna Carta wasn’t the beginning for Civil Rights, I realize that it actually is a milestone for the English aristocracy. The native Saxons, on the other, hand still had a fair bit to travel…although they did get there eventually. It is a little disconcerting to realize how much history can be written by the winners, even ones from nearly 1000 years ago.