Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Friday, January 16, 2004

We need more reviews of books about Communist propagandists. Really. Even if they appear in conservative English magazines.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft also has an interesting Spectator article about a 40-year-old magazine article and the slow decline of the Tories.


How does music affect the brain? The Miami Herald reports. (via ArtsJournal)


In Slate, David Greenberg explains why conservatives are wrong to declare John F. Kennedy the patron saint of supply-side economics.


The Library of Congress website now features a series of recordings of former slaves discussing their lives, according to this Washington Post article. An excerpt:

It is an eerie feeling as you sit in the gray glow of your computer and hear Charlie Smith, reported to be well over 100 years old when he was interviewed, tell of other slaves wanting to throw him off a ship as he sailed from Africa to America. "I was a child, a boy," he says.

His tone is rhythmic, slow. He talks on and on and his voice is crackling, yet resolute, like a rusted gate hinge.

He was tricked onto the slave ship, he tells the interviewer, by promises of pancakes.

At one point during the crossing, he says matter-of-factly, folks were yelling: " 'Throw him overboard!' I was in cuffs. 'Throw him overboard, let the damn whale swallow him like he done Jonah.' "

Smith was interviewed in Florida by historian Elmer Sparks. The other 15 interviewers include notable writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax.

John Lomax, you learn from listening, could be an abrasive interrogator. At one point he snaps at Ledbetter, "Louder. Sing it louder." Ledbetter, with a meek, dulcet air, complies.

Random observation:the second page of this article is more interesting than the first. I sometimes wonder just how accurate these slaves' accounts of their lives are, but the recordings sound fascinating nonetheless.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

It's often weirdly fascinating to look at the sometimes arbitrary, occasionally bizarre workings of area studies fields--at least, it's often weirdly fascinating if (like me) you're an eccentric history grad student. It's also weirdly fascinating to read about university politics, even if it's taking place a continent away. I was therefore intrigued by this Guardian article on the University of London's decision to combine its centers for the study of Latin America and the United States.

Another Guardian article suggests that Oxford is a charming place:

Archaeologists have uncovered a mass grave which may throw lights on one of the strangest and most gruesome events of the Elizabethan age: the curse of Roland Jenks.

More than 60 skeletons have been discovered between Oxford's former prison and its old castle. It is thought that many of them could be related to the fate of Jenks, a 'foul-mouthed and saucy' bookbinder who was convicted in 1577 of supporting the Pope. For his temerity he was sentenced to be nailed by his ears to the local pillory and responded by laying a curse on the courtroom and city.

'It appears to have been a very effective curse,' said archaeologist Dan Poore of Oxford Archaeology, which carried out the dig.

If the history thing doesn't work out, perhaps I'll become a foul-mouthed and saucy book-binder someday.


A Financial Times article notes that Russians have returned to Russia "with a vengeance: as tourists, businessmen and, of all things, belly dancers." The article also suggests a useful strategy for Russian-speaking travellers--a strategy which, unfortunately, wasn't as effective as usual on the author's trip to Egypt:

Having lived as a correspondent in Moscow under the Soviets, I was used to using Russian abroad primarily to dumbfound.

A quick burst of Russian used to be a perfect defensive shield against the street market hassle that still marks the Middle Eastern shopping experience.

Faced with the endless badgering of "where you from?" and "look please, very nice", the reply "Moskva" and "Ya nye ponimayu po-angleesky" used to bring a stunned silence.

Not any more. In Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's great, ancient, warren-like market quarter, my accustomed put-down patter is now met with: "nu smotri, smotri, ochen prekrasno" - you guessed it: "look, please, very nice".

There were, perhaps, advantages. I am convinced my Russian act won us a better price when entering negotiations for my teenage son - "he speak leetle Eenglish" - to buy a hubble-bubble pipe. (The wisdom of buying it all, of course, is quite another matter.)

I might try this out, except that the countries I'm most likely to visit are countries where Russian is a familiar language... Oh, well.


The magazine Granta's new issue features a roundtable on "how America sees the world." Here's part of what Gary Shteyngart had to say:

When I leave America, people try to kill me.

In Baku, Azerbaijan, two police officers in the metro throw me to the ground, mistaking me for an Iranian terrorist. "I'm just a dark-looking Soviet-born Jew,? I explain, showing them my stuffed wallet by way of explanation. "Jew," they whisper in awe, thumbing through my money.

In Berlin, a group of angry young pub-meisters mistake me for an Indian computer programmer. They follow me around the bar shouting "Kinder statt Inder," ("Children instead of Indians,") as if I were an immigrant from the subcontinent out to scam the generous German welfare system. Perhaps I should take out my Jewish wallet to placate them.

In a small Czech town, at a disco named, appropriately enough, "The White Rose", I am mistaken for an "Arabian" by a gang of local skinheads who casually prepare to disembowel me until I take out my American Express card, proving that I am indeed American and not some kind of mega-Turk.

Wherever I go outside the United States, people see me as a repository for their greatest fears, and soon enough they try to inflict bodily harm upon me. I have olive skin which fluctuates in its oliveness depending on the time of year, an anger-inspiring goatee as black as the night sky above Montana (or the Serengeti), and dark, suspicious eyes that flit about inquisitively. In many northern parts of the world, I am too swarthy; south of Sicily, I am not nearly swarthy enough.

Adam Hochschild's essay was also interesting. "This, to me, is the paradox," he concluded. "[T]hat what is, at home, perhaps the most vibrant civil society on earth is, abroad, a trigger-happy superpower of terrifying arrogance. If there is a single hope I have for my country it is that the great promise of the one can begin to rescue us from the great dangers of the other." His essay was a little black-and-white for my tastes, but it was interesting.

I'm not terribly wowed by the idea behind the issue, though. Too many of the essays in the roundtable seemed like slightly more sophisticated versions of college application essays, or like overly straightforward left-wing political statements. I wonder whether it's possible to write a really good essay on a subject like this... The magazine could have done better, I think, but the issue is worth browsing through nonetheless.


America is now witnessing a revival of the glass armonica--a musical instrument that was Benjamin Franklin's favorite among his inventions.


Russia, it seems, is reexaming its history textbooks:

The Russian president has written to the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences demanding an inquiry into the history textbooks used across Russia by February 1. The pretext for the letter, dated last month, is a response to complaints about Russian history books, particularly from world war two veterans. Yet privately, Kremlin officials are thought to be furious about one particular textbook, National History: the 20th Century, which addresses the former KGB officer's authoritarian administration.

Those of you interested in Russia may also enjoy Michele Berdy's column on the vocabulary of sleep.


The Village Voice describes the sorry end of the magazine Lingua Franca: several years after it quit publishing, its trustees are suing freelancers to return payments they were given just before the magazine closed down.

Also in The Village Voice, Rick Perlstein describes the Bush administration's apparent plan of abandoning Iraq to win re-election--a decision reminiscent of Nixon policy at the end of the Vietnam war.


This book review (found via AL Daily) discusses John Dean's new Warren Harding biography and asks whether Harding was our worst president.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

What's the purpose of a book review? I ask that question just after reading the section on "new and noteworthy" books in this month's Atlantic--a section that, in this issue, features both a lengthy rumination on how Benjamin Schwarcz, the Atlantic Monthly literary editor, decides which books the magazine will review and two brief reviews of recent books.

The section as a whole is worth reading if you're interested in questions like these. The writing is often charming and expresses sentiments with which I strongly concur--whether Schwarcz is declaring that "a very high proportion" of books on current affairs are "just godawful" or praising Orwell-style "semi-sociological literary criticism." The basic argument of the section's opening meditation is that discrimination is good, that The Atlantic Monthly doesn't need to review everything, and that the magazine's editors "want to tell [readers] which titles shouldn't be missed, which are unjustly neglected, and which we think should be ignored, though they may be widely praised elsewhere."

In principle, I agreed with most everything Schwarcz laid out in his manifesto, but his opening statement sometimes took on an irritating tone. (Restated, its basic message is that The Atlantic knows which books you should read and which you should ignore, and that it isn't shy about telling you.) I got a big kick out of the first of the two reviews that followed (an opinionated take on a biography of the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann), but my sense of irritation returned when I read the final review in the section.

If I want an authoritative review of a work of academic history, the first place I'll turn isn't The Atlantic Monthly. Schwarcz, however, seems to believe that he's the final word on what constitutes good history-writing: in the review's opening sentences, he hails two books on Nazi Germany as "lasting" contributions to the field (even though they were published just three years ago) and declares Ian Kershaw's two-volume series on Hitler "a masterpiece of academic biography, which perhaps will never be superseded." He then goes on to describe Richard Evans's new book The Coming of the Third Reich as both "intellectually lazy" and as "an always reliable, often magisterial synthesis of a vast body of scholarship." His strategy toward the book seems to be to toss around as many forceful adjectives as he can--without even touching on the basic historiographical issues whose treatment will determine whether, in the review's words, the completed series becomes "one of the major historical works of our time."

I'm a big fan of Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography, but I don't think that Schwarcz's over-the-top praise for it is justified. (I doubt that Kershaw would either, for that matter.) I've read other books by Richard Evans in the past, and I also enjoyed them. So my criticism isn't of Schwarcz's conclusions, but of his critical methodology. As far as I know, Schrwarcz isn't qualified to comment on these books' academic merits (I'm not either, for that matter), and he doesn't seem to be clear on whether he's reviewing them for the layman or describing their overall importance as history books. To me, the fact that he doesn't even seem clear about his audience decreases his credibility as a reviewer--and the fact that he states his judgments in such starkly categorical terms calls into question his ability to decide "which titles shouldn't be missed, which are unjustly neglected, and which we think should be ignored, though they may be widely praised elsewhere."

Nevertheless, I still tend to enjoy reading The Atlantic's book section, which brings to mind another possible goal for a book review: to present readers with an entertaining and opinionated take on recent literature. This month's first short review certainly met that criterion, and was worth reading; the second, however, fell short of being either authoritative or entertaining. It's fun to read an essay by someone with a strong opinion if his opinions make the writing livelier or more interesting. If you know that you tend to agree with a writer's opinions, it can be useful to read his reviews, and it can be fun to read the ravings of an argumentative writer you think is wrong. But if an opinionated review merely states strong opinions, rather than interesting or nuanced opinions, then it's fallen short. Schwarcz's opening essay would have been more effective if I felt that he had fully absorbed this lesson.


A short, intriguing article in the current Atlantic Monthly looks at an under-studied gender gap:

In the late 1970s more girls than boys began to enroll in college, and the disparity has since increased. Today women make up approximately 56 percent of all undergraduates, outnumbering men by about 1.7 million. In addition, about 300,000 more women than men enter graduate school each year. (The gap does not particularly affect professional school; almost as many women as men attend.) In short, equal opportunity brought an unequal result.

...

But boys' educational stagnation has long-term economic implications. Not even half the boys in the country are taking advantage of the opportunity to go to college, which has become almost a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle. And languishing academic attainment among a large portion of our population spells trouble for the prospects of continued economic growth. Unless more boys begin attending college, the nation may face a shortage of highly skilled workers in the coming decades.

The trouble with boys is not confined to the United States; boys are being outperformed by girls throughout the developed world. The United Kingdom and Australia are currently testing programs aimed at making education more boy-friendly. Single-sex schools, single-sex classes, and gender-specific curricula are all being tried. Here the United States lags: there are several local initiatives aimed at boys, but nothing on the national level—perhaps owing to a residual anxiety over the idea of helping boys in a society where men for so long enjoyed special advantages.

Whatever you think of Marshall Poe's argument (and I seem to recall a more shallow and polemical article on a related topic in The Atlantic several years ago), I think that this is an issue that will become increasingly prominent in the years ahead.


"Indonesia Jones:" were the Indonesians the Vikings of Africa?

That's what Robert Dick-Read thinks:

Centuries before Europeans, mariners from Indonesia raided and traded across the continent, filling their vessels with gold and silver for the princes of Java and Sumatra.

In return they gave Africa the secrets of iron and bronze, exotic plants such as banana and yams, and a new culture enriched with music, architecture and spirituality.

And then the seafarers vanished. Some died, some returned home, others inter-married with the locals. So absorbed was the Asian influence that by the time the white man came he never noticed it.

So says a controversial new theory about Africa's development more than 2,000 years ago which could revive a racially tinged debate about whether outsiders fathered certain advances in technology, agriculture and art.

Dick-Read, like Gavin Menzies, has no academic training in history--in fact, he never even graduated from college. This seems like another example of how an amateur historian can capture attention with a controversial theory...


Bad news: the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg is broke. (via ArtsJournal)


The Washington Post discusses the current atmosphere facing Middle Eastern Studies in the academy.


In The New York Times, A.O. Scott discusses films and "the dangerous quagmire of historical analogy." An excerpt:

One lesson in "The Fog of War" is, Empathize with your enemy, and one of the most astonishing things about "The Battle of Algiers" is how thoroughly it lives up to that maxim. Colonel Mathieu is quick to express his respect for the political commitment and tactical aplomb of his adversaries, and the film itself -- one of whose stars and producers was Saadi Yacef, a prominent guerrilla (now a member of the Algerian Senate) -- responds in kind. It registers the cruelty of both sides, with scenes of torture and close-ups of ordinary French Algerians, including a toddler with an ice cream cone, moments before they are blown up by a bomb hidden in a woman's handbag.

It also suggests that both sides were defeated, and both victorious. The film's main dramatic arc concludes with Colonel Mathieu successfully crushing the Front in Algiers. The ultimate departure of the French, after an apparently spontaneous eruption of civil disobedience nearly two years later, almost seems like an epilogue.

And this is perhaps the film's most valuable lesson: that history keeps moving, often in treacherous and unpredictable ways, turning victory into defeat and vindication into catastrophe. French military power ultimately proved powerless to contain the Algerian drive for self-determination, and the French citizenry was ultimately unwilling to countenance the brutality committed in the name of their republic.

I'm not sure just how "valuable" a lesson that is, but I still look forward to seeing each of these movies sometime.

Monday, January 12, 2004

In The Threepenny Review, David Mamet comments on the power of "secret names." A couple of passages struck me as interesting:

The assignment of nicknames, the application of jargon is an understood tool for the manipulation of behavior. We know the quote "charismatic" boss who is making up "cute" and idiosyncratic names for his or her employees. "I alone know and I alone will assign you your name." This is a powerful (and impolite) tool. It is an arrogation of power and a useful diagnostic. For those who grin and tilt their heads to have their ears rubbed at the new name have surrendered their personality to the oppressor; they have given up their soul.

What president of the United States does this sound like to you? Whenever I hear analysts describe George W. Bush's tendency to nickname everyone as a charming personality trait, I want to strangle them.

Another paragraph of interest:

Similarly, homeland security is a concept close to all of our hearts. We live in a wonderful country, which has for years enjoyed a blessed freedom from attack. The phrase "Homeland Security," however, is confected and rings false, for America has many nicknames. The Vietnam servicemen referred to it as The World; we might call it, lovingly, the U. S. of A. Many of us have thrilled to the immigration officer who stamps our passports and says, "Welcome home," a true act of graciousness. But none of us has ever referred to our country as The Homeland. It is a European construction, as Die Heimat, or The Motherland, or Das Vaterland. There is nothing wrong with the phrase; I merely state that it is confected, it is not a naturally occurring American phrase, and it rings false. And as it rings false, we, correctly or not, will question the motives of those who created it for our benefit. As we do the "coalition of the willing."

I've always thought that the administration made a silly mistake when it named its new cabinet department the department of homeland security. I think the problem with the phrase "coalition of the willing" is a little different--it's so obviously a propaganda term--but both are rather unfortunate.

Mamet's piece was a little too cute and a little too pleased with itself for my tastes. He still made some nice points, though.


The Globe and Mail reviews the latest volume of Harold Macmillan's diaries, covering the years from 1950-1957 (when the member of the famous publishing family became British prime minister.) It's an interesting read, especially since I knew next to nothing about Macmillan before looking at it.

One particular passage got me thinking:

His experience and his reading -- used, he says, as a kind of "drug" -- was certainly wider than that of most British parliamentarians. Generally, he consumed about 50 titles a year, re-reading the classic English novelists -- Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope, his favourite -- as well as diaries, memoirs and biographies. Voltaire, Flaubert and Hugo he read in French. Another standby, appropriate for one of his calling, was Pasquale Villari's Life and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli.

It would be very nice, I think, to be led by a man who appreciates Trollope, but this excerpt got me thinking in other ways. Is it possible for a present-day world leader to read this voraciously? (I'm assuming that widespread claims about the growth of jobs like U.S. president and British prime minister are true...) Have any recent American political figures read at a pace remotely resembling this? (Maybe Daniel Patrick Moynahan?) Is voracious reading a good trait, a bad trait, or a neutral trait in a leader? What do a leader's reading habits (in terms of quantity, quality, variety, and type of books read) say about him or her? Finally, which is worse--a leader who doesn't much like books but pretends to or a leader who just doesn't care?

I suspect that none of these questions have terribly meaningful answers, but I'm kind of intrigued by them. (I always wonder, say, whether John F. Kennedy was as interested in books as he liked people to think...) I'm strongly inclined to think that George W. Bush's complete lack of interest in things intellectual is closely connected to many of his weaknesses as president, but I'm not prepared to argue that the ideal president would be particularly intellectual.


Did the Chinese "discover" America 71 years before Columbus? That's the argument of Gavin Menzies, a former submarine commander in the British Royal Navy and the author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Menzies's argument has proven controversial, to put it mildly, and was debated at the AHA this weekend. An excerpt from The Washington Post:

John E. Wills Jr. of the University of Southern California said he usually found books like Menzies' "1421: The Year China Discovered America" "entertaining and generally harmless." But, he said, since the author's "notorious" 2002 lecture before the Royal Geographic Society in London and its subsequent dissemination by the BBC, Menzies has been trumpeting more and more purported evidence for his argument with little apparent regard for its reliability or its context.

Chinese chickens in South America, Chinese stone anchors off Los Angeles and thirdhand reports of ancient "yellow" visitors in Mexico have all been put forward by Menzies as proof that he knows what he's talking about. "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," Wills told the audience, and Menzies' links of evidence "are amazingly varied in quality."

Yet the author's dismayingly unscholarly methodology does not necessarily mean that he's wrong, Wills said. Professional historians should welcome the questions raised by the "obsessed amateur," such as Menzies, he said, because they help focus public attention on debates that might otherwise remain arcane disputes in academia.

If nothing else, it's cool that Menzies has brought more attention to Admiral Zheng He (a seafaring eunuch) in the West.


The Age discusses the art of the title and the effects of a title on sales. (via ArtsJournal)


Yesterday's Washington Post featured a fascinating article on Iraqis of African descent and the early Middle Eastern slave trade. It's worth a read. (via Brian Ulrich)


In a New Yorker "talk of the town" piece, Roger Angell discusses the Errol Morris film The Fog of War.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The British Medical Journal has published a study of the long-term effects on mortality of starvation during Germany's siege of Leningrad during World War II.


This A-Z review of The A-Z Guide to Modern British History entertained me. Some excerpts:

Alphabetical order: Not perhaps the best way to organize entries in a guide to modern British history, especially one which claims to present a "consistent" as well as a "controversial" interpretation across hundreds of varied entries. Thematic organization – politics, popular culture, social trends, “celebrities”, etc – might have conveyed the central messages better, with a comprehensive index providing access to specific topics.

Best of the entries: Thematic organization might have proved particularly successful in the case of this guide, because coverage across the breadth and depth of British history since 1945 is unusually thorough. Mark Garnett and Richard Weight offer much more than the usual gallery of tired politicians and "landmark" bills and deeds. Popular culture is one strength: Carry On, Catherine Cookson, DIY, drugs, fashion, folk music, gambling, miscegenation, Mods, pubs, porn, punk, sitcoms and soaps are all nicely covered, with wider implications teased out. But so are animals, Jews, Keynes, Kipling, General Montgomery, nationalization, police and transport

...

Harangues: Nearly as many as fulminations. Attentive readers of this handbook will be reluctant ever again to pick up a television remote control, having been told that they have wasted far too much time hunting for it when it is lost and that it prevents them from using their minds (not to mention the fact that there's nothing worth watching when they do find it, unless BBC2 is offering repeats of Fawlty Towers).

Intellectuals are doubleplusgood, but under-appreciated by their fellow citizens. The "capacity for independent thought" is held to be "the last remaining enemy of the profit motive".

Jokes are in short supply, but witticisms and epigrams are strong suits. The authors make sure to conclude the longer and prosier entries with some smart sign-off (see, for instance, a particularly gnomic epigram at the end of "Crime"). Not all of these make sense.

Not exactly the sort of book I'd expect to find reviewed in the TLS, perhaps.


John Gardner (the author of the book Grendel, which retold Beowulf from the monster's point of view) sounds like a charming man:

"He was an Olympic gin drinker," one old pal comments. "He was always backed up against the sink, and there was always a crowd around him. I asked him once why he was always in the kitchen, and he said, 'That's where the ice is.' "

...

Silesky cites the story of how Gardner once wrote an overdue CliffsNotes to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., equipped only with two pitchers of martinis. Toward the end of his career, a noted medieval scholar raised questions of possible plagiarism in Gardner's Chaucer scholarship. Newsweek picked up the controversy, and Gardner's own shaky knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Old English (he'd actually gotten his Ph.D. for a dissertation-novel) became known. His image as a polymathic philosophical novelist took a hit.

Yet Silesky also properly reminds us that in addition to his own novels, several of which deserve to endure, Gardner mentored many fine young fiction writers, such as Raymond Carver and Charles Johnson, and inspired others during his years as a grand poobah of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

It would have been nice if this article (and perhaps the book it was based on) had discussed Gardner's actual writing in more detail. Biographies, after all, should be more than compilations of charming anecdotes.


I'm scared. In the London stage version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Timothy Dalton plays Lord Asrael. The Guardian has posted a gallery of pictures from the play.

Also in The Guardian:

Fun stuff!


Do we need to understand television better in order to understand the history of the Cold War? That's the argument of Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis professor who's the subject of a Boston Globe interview about his latest book. The biggest misconception people have about the relationship between TV and the Cold War, Doherty says, is "[t]hat TV is this . . . utterly reactionary force marching hand in hand with forces of McCarthyism. . . . TV is a much more enlightened medium and progressive, even though it does give McCarthy a forum and it's complicit in the blacklist."

Do people really see 1950s TV as such a reactionary force, and Joseph McCarthy as a man who "ruled the air waves of the Cold War era with an iron gavel"? This feels like an overstatement of the case, but the book may still be interesting. I'm more intrigued by the author's claim that civil rights and Southern integration were more apparent on 1950s television than is realized today (far more so than, say, in newspapers or movies.)

Today's Globe also features an interview with Harvard's Nancy Cotts on the history of marriage in America and a profile of Friedrich Hayek by Virginia Postrel. An excerpt from the latter:

Hayek's 1952 book, "The Sensory Order," often considered his most difficult work, foreshadowed theories of cognitive science developed decades later. "Hayek posited spontaneous order in the brain arising out of distributed networks of simple units (neurons) exchanging local signals," says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. "Hayek was way ahead of his time in pushing this idea. It became popular in cognitive science, beginning in the mid-1980s, under the names `connectionism' and `parallel distributed processing.' Remarkably, Hayek is never cited."

Hayek's work, it seems, went beyond free-market economics, though I would have enjoyed more detail on his theories of cognitive psychology and fewer gushy sentences about how "Hayek turned out to be ahead of his time, not behind it." Oh, well.


To what extent does the language you speak affect the way you think? The Economist discusses work by a German linguist that touches on both Chomskyan deep grammar and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Languages, this linguist suggests, may sometimes be more different from each other than people think:

IT IS hard to conceive of a language without nouns or verbs. But that is just what Riau Indonesian is, according to David Gil, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig. Dr Gil has been studying Riau for the past 12 years. Initially, he says, he struggled with the language, despite being fluent in standard Indonesian. However, a breakthrough came when he realised that what he had been thinking of as different parts of speech were, in fact, grammatically the same. For example, the phrase "the chicken is eating" translates into colloquial Riau as "ayam makan". Literally, this is "chicken eat". But the same pair of words also have meanings as diverse as "the chicken is making somebody eat", or "somebody is eating where the chicken is". There are, he says, no modifiers that distinguish the tenses of verbs. Nor are there modifiers for nouns that distinguish the definite from the indefinite ("the", as opposed to "a"). Indeed, there are no features in Riau Indonesian that distinguish nouns from verbs. These categories, he says, are imposed because the languages that western linguists are familiar with have them.

(Via ArtsJournal)