In my continuing quest to understand how culture and language affect thought, I picked up Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language, by Seth Lerer. To be honest, I’m not sure it fulfilled purpose as stated in the subtitle except in the broadest sense, but was still a worthwhile read.
The book, while arranged in chronological order, is really a series of essays on different periods in the history of the English language. It begins with the earliest Saxon and Old English roots, giving copious examples, and notes how different regional dialects affected pronunciation and grammar. He shows how French, introduced by the Norman invaders, had a strong influence on the development of English, how Chaucer brought in a lot of new words, as did Shakespeare, and from there he continues on into the development of American English, from the dialects around the country and their combination, especially during wartime, to Black culture to Mark Twain and idioms.
The main problem I had is that the narrative never really seemed to flow smoothly, and in a lot of places, it seems like he had a reader in mind who was more knowledgeable about linguistics.
That said, I learned a lot. For example, the chapter on black culture exposed me to a lot of authors I might not have encountered otherwise, such as Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Walker and of course, Toni Morrison. He mentions black preachers, and quotes at length from Martin Luther King’s incredible “I Have a Dream” speech. There is a description of Mark Twain’s use of the word “Dude” and how it changed meanings. Some of the most beautiful poetry in the book is quoted in the chapters on Old English and it was fascinating to see parts of Beowulf and Chaucer in the original languages.
It’s a deep book and I don’t really think it’s for the general reader. But if you’re interested in how the English langauge has changed over time and incorporated words from other languages this book is a good read for you.
As for me, I’ll be checking out Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way coming up soon!
I recently finished reading Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor. What does that have to do with International Security or Strategic Foresight, you ask? Well, consider this:
* 184 species of mammals, 182 species of birds, 162 species of fish, and 1,276 species of plants are critically endangered.
* Between 1990 and 2000, 3 million hectares of forests were cleared in Africa, Latin America, and the Carribean.
(Source: Contemporary Security Studies, 2nd edn, by Alan Collins, Oxford University Press, NY, NY, 2010)
Dr. Mayor is a Cuban-American whose mother escaped from Castro’s Cuba. With that kind of a pedigree, it’s no surprise that she grew up to become an explorer. But she never forgot her feminine side either – frilly dresses and time as a cheerleader for Miami (the Dolphins – Egad. We all have skeletons in our closet, eh?). But even as a child she loved to explore the outdoors, from crabs on beaches to bugs under the bed.
Mireya went on her first expedition to Guyana with a Hello Kitty backpack and pink boots. And a little black dress in her backpack…”just in case.” Her next trip was to Madagascar, where she investigated lemurs. As time went on, she ended up working for National Geographic, discovered a previously unknown primate, and earned a Ph. D. In one of the best chapters in the book, she describes what it was like to deal with three strong-willed men on a Jon Burnett (of Survivor fame) production (Expedition: Africa) that required her and the men to retrace Stanley’s footsteps across Africa to the place he found Dr. Livingstone. She was instrumental in the trip, and wasn’t just along to provide scenery but instead was a key member of the team.
And that is the best thing about the book. She talks about how hard it is to be taken seriously as a pretty face in the science field. She never slides into the trap of hiding her womanhood. She works hard and forces people to accept her for her skills and knowledge. She pushes through adversity and shows true grit. But she also still packs that little black dress…just in case. So in addition to the travelogue and the scientific thrills, she records the human side of her life, which helps you to see the real person she is.
In the last chapter of the book, Mireya talks about marriage and parenting. I was torn on this one. She has two daughters she doesn’t see for months at a time. She notes that she wouldn’t be a whole person if she had to give up exploring and that her daughters wouldn’t get her best if she wasn’t a whole person. Maybe. Although, their father is with them, so it’s not like they’re alone. But what is important is that they’ll learn how important it is to do something you love, how hard work can help to get you there, and finally, how important it is to be yourself. They may even learn an intriguing use for the stuffing in a tampon!
Nowadays, Dr. Mayor is active in conservation efforts. I hear a lot of rhetoric on both sides about this issue. But as I noted above, environmental security will be an issue in the Twenty-First Century, as China and India gear up their industrial production, as everyone continues the race for resources, and as third world countries try to raise their standards of living. Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure that our children will still have wild places to see – and maybe, occasionally, a new species to discover!
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s an easy read, and never boring. Since budget limitations precluded maps in the book, I would suggest having an atlas nearby, especially for the locations on Madagascar (and if you don’t know where THAT is, you REALLY need the atlas!). I also hope Dr. Mayor will write other books in the future, such as on the primates of that island, or maybe on conservation efforts around the globe.