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Friday, November 30, 2012

Palestine, Middle-Eastern Orphan or Belligerent Child?

The Palestinian Authority has emerged triumphant and, as Campbell Clark from The Globe and Mail reports in todays news, it has "won a lopsided victory in its bid for “non-member observer state” status at the UN, 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions. Canada was one of the nine that voted against." (Nov. 30, 2012 art. Canada 'disqualified' itself from Palestinian peace talks after UN vote, negotiator says ) Alongside the U.S. and Israel, Canada was one of the few countries who opposed the upgrade of the UN status for the Palestinians.

My goal here is not to take sides, but rather only to explore some of the roots of the problems faced by the Middle-Eastern countries surrounding the issue of Palestine, and this simply in order to provide readers with an informed perspective in order to better understand what is currently being reported in the news.

Let's go back to the beginning... In his concise history of the Middle East, Goldschmidt (2002) provides us with a historical bird’s eye view that greatly helps in understanding the first the emergence of spiritual and political Zionism in Europe - a movement which was spawned mostly by anti-Semitism, and eventually culminated with the birth of Israel in 1948. Incidentally, this was the direct result of a UN General Assembly vote that took place in faraway New York in the previous year - on November 29, 1947 - a vote recommending a partition of Palestine that would finally lead to the creation of the State of Israel the following year, declared by David Ben-Gurion in May, 1948, he who would become the main founder and the first Prime Minister of Israel.

What becomes quite clear when taking a look at the recent historical events that led up to the creation of Israel - which describes itself as being both a Jewish and a democratic State - is that, in essence, it is European anti-Semitism that would finally lead up to the British provision of supporting a Jewish state in Palestine (with the advent of the Balfour declaration). The birth of Zionism and the creation of Israel was primarily achieved with Western support. This much is obvious, as the Western Powers of the post-war era were scrambling to sign declarations to divide the spoils of war - Palestine was under Turkish rule as a part of the Ottoman Empire until they were defeated by the British during the First World War. As a British-mandated Palestine was receiving an influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Europe, at the very same time the neighbouring Arab states - Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan - were are all dealing with an influx of Palestinian refugees; creating each country/kingdom adjustments that lead to internal strife and clearly impacts national identity. Goldschmidt (2002) manages to give us a fleeting impression of these great political changes that occurred in the Middle Eastern countries in these post-colonial times, specially with the Arab-Israeli conflict having affected all of these forms of Arab nationalism one way or another.

Lebanon -  situated at Israel’s northern border - was particularly affected by all this upheaval, and Hirst (2010) even goes so far as describing the country as having become an ideal “guerilla state-within-a-state” because of the presence of Palestinian insurgents having positioned themselves there. Hence, Lebanon’s role in all this mess, for since the creation of Israel it has become a natural strategic battleground for the entire Middle East - specially by playing host to Hezbollah, a gift from Iran. Lebanon as a nation-state is seemingly still trying to recover from this influx of Palestinians into its countryside... that which so many handshakes at the 1947 UN Assembly in New York had perhaps not foreseen. Hence, the die have been cast and Lebanon seems bound to be caught in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict until the Palestinian refugees are appeased.

All of these multifarious issues that culminate in the geopolitical Arab-Israeli conflict also seem to have a spiritual and/or cultural dimension that is represented in the form of a religious cause - being of course the Islamic fundamentalist cause for the lesser and greater jihads. It is this religious aspect of Muslim Arab culture that seems to be provoked by the insecurity caused by the crushing of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War (Kepel 2002). The direct result of this is a radical conservatism in the form of jihadist groups attempting to establish Islamic regimes all throughout the Middle East. Kepel describes particularly well the fall of the PLO and Arafat’s “disastrous tactical mistake” (p. 324) in supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime. Kepel also makes a good point in mentioning that the fall of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority in Gaza contributed directly to disenchanted Hamas’ newfound embraced ideology of seeing itself as an Islamic jihadist group ready to rid the Palestinians from under Israeli control. The shift in popularity - from the PLO to Hamas - as the Palestinians’ national voice, is aptly chronicled by Kepel (2002). Henceforth, with this religious dimension thrown into the mix, it is from this point onwards that it seems that suicide attacks are the preferred mode of combat for Hamas, and a rash wave of these bombings first became prevalent in the 1990s. As a direct consequence to this, out of desperation, this lead the Israelis to elect “hard liner” Netanyahu in 1996. According to Kepel (2002), Netanyahu’s “hard line” attitude against the Hamas leaders would do nothing but worsen Israel’s relationship with Palestinians and any real effort of a peace accord. All this paved the way for Arafat’s second intifada, as Kepel puts it, a means to rally the Palestinian population behind the PA’s leadership.

Although, at present time, the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to have begun a new chapter... Or has it?

Certainly, radical groups - such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, both supported by Iran - have had a hand to play in the current situation. The Palestinian Islamist group is supported by the Iranian government and all of the recent air-strikes on Tel Aviv were launched with the aid of Iranian-made Fajr rockets, as reported in the media (Yeganeh Torbati, Iran denies supplying rockets to Gaza militants, Nov. 20, 2012, Toronto Sun). Gaza militants had fired rockets at the city of Tel Aviv earlier this month (Nov., 2012), an air-strike which had quickly prompted an Israeli air-strike retaliation and, then which in turn, a retaliation which Hamas in turn returned with by sending hundreds of rockets into southern Israel within a 24 hr period. CTV News reports that "Israeli military officials estimate that Gaza militants have as many as 12,000 rockets, [and the Israeli authorities] said some 220 rockets struck the Jewish state and another 130 were intercepted by the country's dome missile defence system, the Iron Dome." (Rockets fired at Tel Aviv as Gaza conflict worsens CTV News Staff, Nov. 15, 2012). Not too surprisingly, Israel defended itself by sending in ground-troops into Gaza in order to defend itself.
In the wake of all these attacks, following five days of Gaza bombings, hundreds of pro-Palestinian protestors took to the streets of Montreal in order to protest against the Israeli invasion into Gaza (Hundreds of Montrealers protest Gaza bombings, CBC News, Nov. 18, 2012). One cannot help but wonder why no one was taking to the streets when Hamas was firing rockets at Tel Aviv...
Image Source:

The strange culminating point to all this is the Palestinian Authority's UN status upgrade? One can certainly understand Canada's reticence on the matter of any discussions pertaining to Palestinian statehood. Canada's Foreign Affairs minister, John Baird, was vehemently opposed to the Palestinian bid, but the irony is not lost on the fact that Canada has reportedly given some $300 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority since December 2007, as reported by Kathryn Blaze Carlson in today's National Post (Ottawa to recall Palestinian aid after Birds strong rebuke of statehood vote, Nov. 30, 2012). Any skeptical mind cannot help but wonder if any of our Canadian dollars ever made it into Iranian hands in exchange for Fajr rockets to launch at Tel Aviv...

Sometimes, it is hard to tell where it all begins and, most importantly, where it all ends...

A vivid image comes to mind, though. It is one that I once saw on an al-Qaeda website somewhere in cyberspace. The image showed some jihadi fighters with some highly stylized Arabic calligraphy written on it, and which strangely enough its author had artistically inserted - as a tactic - the prototypical image of a revolutionary, that of Cuban Che Guevara posted in front of a backdrop saying “Palestine… The homeland of the revolution.” Now, to the best of my knowledge, in the course of his lifetime Che never had anything to do with any jihad rhetoric nor Palestine, yet somehow there he was... with a checkered-scarf. 

Referenced Works And Further Readings: 
A. Goldschmidt Jr. 2002. A Concise History of the Middle East, Westview. 
David Hirst, 2010. Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, New York: Nation Books. 
G. Kepel. 2002. Jihad : The Trail of Political Islam, Cambridge: Harvard Press. 
R. Israeli. 2008. Islamic Radicalism and Political Violence, Portland: Vallentine Mitchell.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cultural Diversity and Nationalism: The EU and Canada

While in the European Union, in recent years, there have been attempts made by Indo-European revivalists to revive a common lingua franca in order to both simplify life for Europeans in a borderless European Union; to the contrary, here in Canada, we have the English-French schism. Since the beginning of the 17th century, both France and Britain established colonies in North America, two nations that basically vied for continental dominance for nearly a century and a half after their implantation here. To make a long story short, the current state of cultural affairs in Canada is as Martin Marger (Race and Ethnic Relations, 2009) describes it: "Although other ethnic groups would subsequently contribute to Canada's population, the confrontation of English and French groups consumed the affairs of state from the outset of Canada's history and continues to play the preeminent role in intergroup relations... The historical and contemporary relations between French and English Canadians form the major focus of ethnic conflict in Canada." (p. 430) In short, Levi-Strauss' structural approach to anthropology applies, meaning that it seems that Canadian society, somehow, has organized itself into a sort of binary cultural opposition, with the Anglos opposing the Francos - or vice-versa.

While in Europe, the situation if evidently quite different with so many "national" languages and cultures thrown in the mix of cultural politics. Instead of having any main specific "national" contenders dominating any other of the "nation" members of the EU and subsequently potentially creating any division in the "united" European identity with all of its cultural diversity, there is more of a focus that is placed on its common cultural heritage. For instance, Cris Shore (Building Europe, 2000) discusses this point in question, in regards to the cultural politics of European integration, "if national diversity is to be celebrated, "it is always within a context that emphasises the way these national specifics fit into the overall picture." (p. 54) As an example of this, a recent EU pamphlet serves as a clear example how Europe is rewriting its history as one that possesses some collective sense of a "European civilization"; the idyllic pamphlet in question reads "the city of Venice, the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Beethoven or the plays of Shakespeare are an integral part of a common cultural heritage and are regarded as common property by the citizens of Europe" (Shore 2000: 54).

This particular rewriting of European history by the EU seems quite over simplistic - if not a bit over the top - specially when viewed from a considerable distance here in North America, where those victims who fled a divided Europe during World War II still bear a living testament to the horrors of the anywhere from 50 to 70 million fatalities that occurred there. Yet, interestingly, despite the mass death of civilians in what is supposedly the deadliest conflict in human history - in spite of all this, the EU are still trying to convince its newly "united" EU citizens that they all somehow share a common cultural heritage. Rewriting history, nonetheless, is not as easy as it appears... European "culturalists" are going beyond national languages in order to find commonly shared cultural values in the EU, such as looking at their heritage in terms of classicism, humanism, the Renaissance, and importantly, the role that Christianity has played in each individual historically-culturally shaped national identity. Hence, to bring out these common elements to the forefront of the EU citizens in order for them to take a good look at themselves and somehow realize that these elements were indeed always there, is no small task.

Canada's English-French schism - by far! - does not compare to the age-old cultural divisions that exist in Europe. The double-jagged sword of the two separate Canadian English and Canadian French brands of "nationalism" that exist together in the land of the maple leaf, if anything, is a young feud that has nothing to compare with what divides Europeans. Another irony in Canada's bilingual and bicultural schism is that the two parties involved are on one side, French - the most Germanic of the Latin-derived languages, while the other is English - the most Latinised of the Germanic languages... The two languages and cultures were mutually engaging in cross-cultural exchanges and warfare for centuries before cohabitating next door to each other in Canada. You would think they would be the two ideal candidates for marriage after such a long courtship.

Ah well, the marriage did happen to a certain extent in at least one part of the country, where in Chiac - a highly anglicized French Acadian dialect - and my own native language, we have a perfect expression we often use, "Worry pas ta brayne..." (quite literally: "Do not worry your brain"). It seems appropriate to use it here...

The federal government has spent many millions of dollars over the years providing language training to workers whose jobs require them to speak both languages. To live in Ottawa is to know stories about government workers who spent months, even years, seconded to French language training only to return to a job in which the only language ever spoken is English. Or, in some cases, to quickly retire. But it is unusual to hear of an employee receiving full-time one-on-one training.
It only makes sense that a worker with a learning disability receive full-time one-on-one French language training if we agree that such a broad array of government job descriptions actually requires workers to be bilingual. The evidence is not convincing.
In a bilingual country, all government services must be available in both official languages, of course, and Canadians should have an equal opportunity to work for the federal government no matter which official language they speak. But current policies, under which all managers above a certain level must be bilingual, for example, go well beyond that, denying opportunities to many otherwise qualified Canadians.
Extreme individual cases, such as the Public Safety worker requiring expensive one-on-one training and the fine against Air Canada because a passenger was unable to order 7Up in French, also call for a realignment of language laws.
The embrace of bilingualism by many in Ottawa underscores that there is much to be gained from knowing both languages. But laws that push a concept to illogical extremes erode public support for bilingualism and need to be rethought.

Read more:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Schlegel, Languages and Classification Systems...

In my previous blogpost, the StatsCan results were discussed in terms of exploring language diversity in Canada. Although, the classification system of languages in general, it was mentioned (although often taken for granted) is in itself a recent "innovation" - if we can even truly call it that. The majority of us, meaning somewhat literate and functional human beings that have learned over the course of our short lives to function in a social democratic system with beaucoup of administrative and bureaucratic red tape - always forms to fill out at every level of our existence, whether it be governmental at the municipal, provincial, or federal levels, or just plain forms at the doctor's office for a check-up. In short, we are used to checking off any great number of options to get what we want on any officialized piece of paper in order to get what we want - be it a driver's permit, hunter's permit, wedding license, or whatever else. It is simply the way things "run", and quite frankly, at times - even with all of the well-structured administrative tools at our disposal to supposedly make life easier - I am aghast at the chaos underlying it all. Evidently, this cog in the machine is the human element... but this one cannot be fixed, for our nature is in itself flawed - and we have a popular adage to describe it when someone presents us with a personalised version of chaos - meaning when someone screws up - which we usually just shrug and write off by saying, "Nobody's perfect." 

That organizational principle that we see in our daily lives, meaning the one that is so apparent in the simplest of actions (i.e. watching our favourite TV show, paying by debit for our store purchase, logging into our email to check our messages) consists of various "strings" of reality that make such things possible. For the most part, we take most of these things for granted - and thank goodness we do. Otherwise, if we were to try and comprehend all of the technological science poured into the apparatus currently in front of us - my laptop or your iphone - we would not be able to function. The same goes for TV. Even in trying to understand how it is that as primates, us humans - the cousins of the great apes - managed to create such technological marvels as satellites rotating around our planet and that somehow the television in my living room is intricately linked to it, dependant on it really... In short, all of it is quite overwhelming to think about as we flick through channels to find something to watch.          

At this point, maybe you are wondering where it is that I am going with all this? Well, all this to say that there is yet another technology that is just as marvelous and as intricately complex. Simply put, it is "language", and it can be explained by either of the following definitions as given by the American Heritage Science Dictionary (2002, Houghton Mifflin):
  1. A system of objects or symbols, such as sounds or character sequences, that can be combined in various ways following a set of rules, especially to communicate thoughts, feelings, or instructions.
  2. The set of patterns or structures produced by such a system. 
If you are not yet convinced on the complexity of language, then simply think of the alphabet: It is used to encode language in sounds in written form, and it is astounding to consider that the same set of 26 Roman letters used in the English language today, when combined in so many alternate arrangements - in words, forming phrases, compounded into paragraphs and subdivided into chapters of a book - essentially, these same 26 letters can be used to express or write all of the books in the world today without repeating a single one. The ideas and intricacies of language are not entirely dissimilar to its written counterpart. Simply put, the spoken and written word are used in tandem to express language, the only main difference is that one relies mostly on speech and hearing, and the other the eyes and speech to convey ideas encoded on a piece of paper - or screen. Humans are even preoccupied with this system of codification that is "language", for we have replicated machine language and programming language to make our contraptions "communicate" with both ourselves and each other, and this mostly in attempting to gain some kind of control over them, hence computer systems rely on internal or external "commands". 

All this evidently relates to our understanding of "natural" languages - meaning the languages that exist in nature (as opposed to our artificially created programming languages). Language, to give it a more comprehensive definition, can be described as "any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another" or better yet, it is also defined as "any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc.: the language of mathematics; sign language" (see def. 4 & 5 in "Language" art., Thus, the structure of society - or its meta-structure which we could call "civilization" - connects me personally as some sort of organ through my computer to some guy on the other side of the world (most likely somewhere in China) that is working on implanting chips or souldering some techno-bits to a motherboard (or whatever it is that makes my antiquated laptop run) in order to earn a living. And, I, similarly depend on my computer to make my living, for through the Internet - which apparently runs through outerspace - from satellite to satellite not unlike magic sends my words to your own techno-gadget - be it an iphone, Blackberry, or Mac device. In essence, all these gizmos speak the same language, for the technology has evolved to be compatible for all of these things to be able to commonly interact - through a technological web of "artificial" languages. The spoken languages of the world, on the contrary, are "natural" languages, but through the long course of their evolution many of them have co-existed together and bonded humanity in so many bumbling masses scattered throughout the globe - albeit some more isolated than others. Comparable to human DNA, the family tree of language families reflect the spread of human cultures over all of the continents - and just like changes in our DNA that reflect some of these changes, either through adaptive processes or others, in a process not too dissimilar to this - languages, too, change and evolve over time.     

 This is where I get to talk about Schlegel and the Indo-Europeanists... (By the way, my wife thinks I should have lost most of my audience in direct consequence of this, but for those of you who remain - please do read on.) 

In my last blog surrounding StatsCan findings, I mentioned the fact that the census-takers' questionnaires present us with boxes to check off in order to indicate languages spoken, whereas in earlier versions of the Census, it would be sufficient to ask for a country of origin in order to determine a person's language. It was noted that this indeed reflects the fact that language does not always correspond to the dominant cultural or linguistic entity associated with that particular country. The fact that we can actually "split up" languages in various categories into an organized typological classification - broken us in various language families (i.e. Semitic, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Algic...) and further subdivided into branches which are comprised of individual languages and /or dialects, are in essence a testament to the science of the times - our own contemporary times. The birth of historical linguistics, which was first born out of assessing languages types, first occurred in the course of the late 18th and early 19th century. During this time, people like Friedrich Schlegel, the German Romantic, in his Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808), was the first to produce a work about India's languages - of which he argues that Sanskrit, the holy language of the Hindus and literary language of the Buddhists and Jains, was the mother-tongue of all the Indo-European language family. Schlegel basically worked out the various relationships, and interrelationships, of all of the related groups of languages that belong to the Indo-European (IE) language family - and placed Sanskrit at the very top of the family tree as the mother-tongue of them all. William Jones, the 18th century British scholar, had also come to many of the same conclusions as Schlegel, however, he was in disagreement that Sanskrit qualified as a progenitor (also called Proto-Indo-European, or simply PIE by linguists) to the IE language family. Below for you benefit is one of the more popular textbook charts illustrating the genetic affiliation of the IE language family.

In the study of Indo-European languages and their cultures, and how each of them interrelate to each other; it is basically through this process that historical linguistics first emerged, the direct precursor to our science of linguistics. Moreover though, it is this same process of typological classification of languages that would further be applied to other language families through an investigation and study of their structure and vocabulary. Not too long thereafter, cultures, religions and thought processes such as reason and philosophy would also be classified according to these types of language schemes. Basically, language and culture had become indicative of not only culture, but religion - since the latter derives from it. And, as Stefan Arvidsson (Aryan Idols, 2006) puts it, "... historical linguistic research could be viewed as a method of examining the mental capacities of poeples, as the example of Schlegel shows" (ibid. 30) In addition, "[s]ince language is the most basic expression of the soul of the people and is the foundation for philosophical discussions, societal laws, and artistic reflection, language affiliation also becomes an indication of religious character: language sets the framework for religious thought." (ibid. 30). Hence, one can plainly see the link that exists between language families and ethnic or cultural groups. Perhaps this is where my leariness or suspicion of Census check-lists for "mother tongues" comes from...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Canada Speaks

In case you missed it, a couple of weeks ago, Statistics Canada published their analytical finds relating to Canada's linguistic diversity, information obtained from the 2011 Census (see StatsCan document "Linguistic Characteristics of Canadians" ). In these finds, what is the least surprising is the usual national obsession of surveying the two official languages, English and French, and to explore in great detail the linguistic duality in Canadian society with all the statistical breakdowns respectively given for each province and "census metropolitan area" (CMA). Very interesting, however, what seems to have captured the interest of most people is that outside the usual discussions that pertain to English and French as they are spoken - or not - in the mouths of Canadians; it is rather the use of what StatsCan terms as the "top immigrant languages" that have garnished the most attention.

At home, here in the National Capital Region, in the Ottawa - Gatineau CMA ("census metropolitan area"), it is Arabic and Spanish that revealed themselves to be the most frequently reported immigrant home languages. Among the nearly 141,000 persons in Ottawa -Gatineau that StatsCan reported speaking an immigrant language often at home, the vast majority of this population (87%) lives on the Ontario side of the CMA and with the remaining 13% living on the Quebec side. Arabic came out first as the number one immigrant language spoken in Ottawa and Gatineau, while trailing in second and third places in Ottawa were Chinese and Spanish; while on the Quebec side Arabic was followed by Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. In a nutshell, these were the stats reported for our hometown.

Elsewhere in Canada, however, the picture painted by the StatsCan finds was indeed quite different. Moreover, it seems that - quite interestingly - the finds were somewhat headline grabbers and in many ways contributed to the ongoing re-evaluation process and cultural re-appraisal of what it means to be Canadian - and what languages that as Canadians we speak. For the most part, perhaps for those older Canadians who who were around when the terms "francophone" and "anglophone" were first introduced by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism back in the 1960s; maybe for these individuals, the Tagalog and Punjabi languages are not as familiar by name as some others. Although, clearly for the Greater Vancouver area, this is clearly not the case, for Punjabi speakers - along with Chinese languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, or any other unspecified Chinese language) - according to StatsCan, are the "top immigrant languages" spoken at home (see CBC article "Punjabi and Chinese top immigrant languages in Vancouver" Oct. 24, 2012). See figure below for the statistical breakdown.

The 2011 Stats Canada Census found about 712,000 Vancouver residents reported speaking a language at home most often that was not English or French. (CBC)

Back in the 1960s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism introduced two new words into Canadians’ vocabularies: anglophone and francophone. As a direct consequence of this growing change in the linguistic and cultural makeup that is now apparent in Canadian society, the Montreal Gazette's Marian Scott reports that - because of this new reality - Quebec's Conseil superieur de la langue francaise has introduced some new terms, "francotrope" in order "to describe immigrants whose language is closer to French", and "anglotrope" in relation to those "who tend toward English" (M. Scott  "Census 2011: StatsCan does away with ‘francophone,’ ‘anglophone’ and ‘allophone’ " Oct. 26, 2012). One might feel tempted to snicker upon first hearing these new terms, but alas, let us be reminded that the neologisms "francophone" and "anglophone" were likely just as silly-sounding to those people who first heard back in the 1960s when they first appeared. So, I guess we'll have to wait and see if "francotrope" and "anglotrope" will also eventually catch on, and somehow roll off our tongues just as naturally in our daily conversations as do "francophone" and "anglophone", and they might even occupy a space somewhere on government forms - as two more optional boxes to check off.

The main reason for this article is not simply to discuss the StatsCan finds, but rather it is also more specifically intended to explore how it is that these types of language classifications shape our reality, or our social fabric. For instance, as Marion Scott discusses in her article, if we look back to the 19th century, we can see that census-takers didn't even ask questions about language (M. Scott "Census 2011: StatsCan does away with ‘francophone,’ ‘anglophone’ and ‘allophone’ " Oct. 26, 2012). "At that time," Scott writes, "Canadians were listed in the Census by national origins, such as Irish, English, Scottish or French-Canadian." Simply put, this was sufficient information in telling you what language a person spoke - which was assumed to be the dominant language of the place of origin, even if it was not always the case. 

Certainly, Canadian society has grown steadily more and more diverse since the days where census-takers would basically find it sufficient to ask for the country of origin in making their assumptions. Although, in addition to this, more importantly is the fact that since the 19th century, there has been another drastically important change that has occurred: The typological classification of languages, or if you prefer, the birth of historical linguistics. This first occurred in the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, when brilliant scholars such as the Schlegel brothers, German Romantics, first developed a classification system in regards to Indo-European languages. And, later on, in the early part of the 20th century, there was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose scholarship contributed in laying down the very foundations of modern linguistics, and in consequence, to drastically change not only our understanding of languages, but even our perception of the world. In many ways, without a proper classification system, in the past one could simply have called "Indian" (or Hindi) whatever language that might have hailed from India, despite the fact that it could have been Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi, or Kannada.  
“They have come to shape the way we see reality,” said Jean-Pierre Corbeil, chief specialist of language statistics at Statistics Canada.
But if you looked back to the 19th century, you would see that census-takers didn’t even ask questions about language. At that time, Canadians were listed in the Census by national origins, such as Irish, English, Scottish or French-Canadian. In those days, that information was considered sufficient to tell you what language a person spoke.
But as society has become increasingly diverse, the vocabulary has evolved.

Read more:

Seemingly, we cannot unlearn what scholars such as these have taught us. In many ways, it is taken for granted that we acknowledge that languages are often attached to specific cultural or religious groups (i.e. Arabic with Muslims, Hebrew with Jews, Punjabi with Sikhs, Hindi with Hindus), and that each ultimately comes from a specific geo-cultural location - a place or origin. But, this very basic understanding of languages and cultural groups, though - as reflected in StatsCan questionnaires - make the all-important distinction that spoken languages are not always synonymous with a "national" identity or country of origin. This social consciousness of the complexity of human societies is inherently present in the questions asked by contemporary census-takers, and this system of classification - and the choices presented therein - as it is imposed on Canadians to check off in so many boxes in Census questionnaires, could be said to be a direct outcome of the classification system for languages that were developed by early linguists. The questions that therefore beg to be answered are the following: Is the current classification system in the Census forcing us to personally identify or chose a cultural/religious identity that is not really our own, but merely the closest one to chose from on the "check list"? In a multicultural society such as Canada, why and how could an individual identify one language over another when several "mother tongues" are spoken? Can one individual living in a multicultural and pluralistic society possess several "mother tongues"?

These questions are the few that come to mind, but evidently there are many others. The one that most preoccupies me is the "pigeonholing" effect - for lack of a better metaphor - of classification systems altogether. Is the main purpose of the Census to serve as a governmental tool used to "curb" culture, meaning to sway it and gear it to better assimilate and integrate those cultural/linguistic elements deemed as foreign into mainstream society?  The media - and oftentimes it appears that Canadians in general - seemingly like to pick on Quebec in terms of language policing, but one could certainly wonder what purposes the language data of the Census serves in other Canadian provinces, even if there are no language watchdogs policing the city signs for letter sizes, translations and spelling.  

(Heads up, cause next blog I can already foresee a discussion about Schlegel and the Indo-Europeanists coming. A la prochaine! )


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Inquestia's Mission Statement: Offering A Unique Insight Into The World We Live In

The English term inquest comes from the Old French enqueste "inquiry", which in turn finds its origin in the Latin inquaestia (from the verb inquirere). Etymologically, the Latin roots of the work can be deconstructed in two composite words, in "into" + quaerere "seek, question, ask". Quest, query, question and inquisition are but a few of the related terms English has inherited from the Roman cultural sphere, for the most part a living testament of the British Isles' long period of interaction with the mainland French and their language, an  offshoot of Latin. What better title then, to have Inquestia as a banner-heading to hang over this blog in order to try to describe it.

As the blog's interests shall assuredly reflect the blogger's (or the author's) own interests and preoccupations, consequently, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that most of the posts featured in the Inquestia Times shall be dedicated to explore the world we live in, the oddities contained in it, why it is the way it is and, more importantly, why we are who we are. Pretty heavy stuff for a blog, but let's throw in some other descriptive terms in the bucket: an exploration of culture, values, an examination of historical perspectives that shape our worldviews... These will be some of the things that will be explored in the Inquestia, for basically it is an "inquest" into our reality, or if anything at all, at the very least it will be an attempt to "question" what we perceive as real. 

As a mission statement or raison-d'etre for the blog, the above description is sufficient. Now, all that is left is to start posting. The sincere hope is that the blog articles I make available for you, dear readers, are not merely entertaining, but that they somehow help add to your personal culture and knowledge. Like all other readers, I personally take great satisfaction in expanding my own knowledge, therefore I do not doubt in the least that there must be something in the Inquestia that might also arouse your intellect.

I will send out notifications when each new blog is published, however, I am as of yet unsure if I should do this via Facebook, Twitter, or other methods. I'll see, but in the meantime I take no offense whatsoever if you do not want to read any of my blogs and simply want these notifications to cease. Please just inform me and I shall stop sending you blog notifications.

With these introductory words, welcome to the Inquestia Times and let's see how this experiment (on my part) works out, and to see if I can manage to get a decent posting a week out there.