The Special Case of Conversation

I found myself laughing quite loudly, and re-reading this passage to my wife to help her share in my enjoyment. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I will share with you all nonetheless.

The subject is conversation, and in the specific passage, the authors are beginning to illuminate the “presupposition pool”. Even more specifically, the idea that speakers naturally exclude or include content based on these shared concepts.

…Any speaker will necessarily make certain assumptions about his listeners and will fashion what he has to say accordingly. For example, he will not unnecessarily explain such technical terms as he may use unless he is fairly sure that explanation is required; the gratuitous supply of an unnecessary explanation may become part of the communication and may be perceived as patronizing. On the other hand failure to provide a necessary explanation may be perceived as deliberate one-upmanship, as exhibitionism, as (Chapter 3) sesquipedalian. Under these circumstances the listener may determine not to ask for clarification of the new word and so allow the communication to fail. In either case misunderstanding of the actual contents of the presupposition pool is likely to lead to an undeniable alteration in the character of the conversation.

Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, p. 258

Yes, I had to look up “sesquipedalian” (Yes, they did in fact define it in Chapter 3, right near the beginning, and yes, that knowledge went “in one ear and out the other”, so to speak). Yes, you should look it up, too. These are my kind of people.

Ethnic America

So, for about a week I have been working through Ethnic America, by Thomas Sowell. The book covers the numerous waves of immigrants and how their culture, context, and interrelationships affected each group’s trajectory to establish themselves as Americans. I’m about halfway through, which means I’ve covered European and Asian immigration.

European immigration covered first the Irish, then the Germans, Jews and finally the Italians. Asian immigration covered the Chinese and Japanese. This leaves some notable ethnic groups in our current context outside of observation. Immigration from the Middle East, Korea and India all stand out in my mind. This is largely due to the fact that the book was published in 1981. While it provides coverage of multiple centuries for each group, it does leave a gap between its writing and modern day.

Nevertheless, loving history, there is still much of value. Sowell does a great job of providing details as well as impact. Whether he is describing relationships between the Irish and Blacks in the slums of big cities, or detailing the way in which Japanese or Jewish first-wave immigration was markedly different than the next, he brings to bear a large array of data related to education, intelligence testing, job numbers, age, political involvement, statistics on activism and migration patterns within this country.

One of my favorite features so far is his establishing the history within the United States in the context of the history in the countries of origin. This means going further back than might have otherwise has been required, but it gives much more clarity once dealing with why some immigrant communities were quicker to establish their place in this county, and the tools and manner by which they did so.

So, with that all out of the way, here are some quotes that stood out. I don’t mean to suggest they cover all the detail or give even a sufficient summary of the line of thought. They are just quotes that stand out to me. Based on the intricate weaving of statistics, history and such, there aren’t a whole bunch of one-liners that have stood out. Rather, I find entire paragraphs or pages illuminating the past in new ways.

One of the major things that stands out here is the way the people of the United States have changed. We are uber-conscious of the deep cultural divide between white and black today. But that dichotomy can cause us to neglect to truly grasp how much richer, more complicated and intertwined the history is, how much more riddled with failure, but also unimaginable successes and growth. Thus, the first quote, from the Introduction:

American pluralism was not an ideal with which people started, but an accommodation to which they were eventually driven by the destructive toll of mutual intolerance in a country too large and diverse for effective dominance by any one segment of the population.

p. 10

So, I will start with the Irish, following Sowell. He details much about how their history had prepared them to take on and excel at dominating the urban political machines, even when they were not in the majority, population-wise. I found the following interesting:

The Irish were by no means the originators of corrupt politics. They were simply more successful at it, and performed with a warmer human touch. No small part of their success was due to the insensitivity of their political opponents to the desires and fears of the immigrant masses in the cities. Political “reform” movements were typically in the hands of upper-income, more educated people with values, goals, and styles very different from those of the working class-voters. Reform politicians typically had neither personal nor organizational roots in the low-income communities, so that even when they acted on behalf of the poor, it was with little mutual understanding and much unintended harm. The poor usually ended up preferring corrupt politicians, who understood them, to distant theorists, who did not.

p. 33

There is a lot there that could probably be unpacked and related to our current setting, but let’s not go there right now. Moving on to the Germans, the history is long, starting before there was even a self-governing nation. Speaking of the mid-eighteenth century and the practice of indentured service, Sowell provides the following:

After a vessel docked in an American port, potential buyers of the passengers’ indenture contracts came aboard. The indentured servants were brought out of their quarters, walked up and down to let the buyers see them, and sometimes feel their muscles and talk to them to form some opinion of their intelligence and submissiveness. Sometimes a middleman called a “soul driver” would buy a group of servants and then walk them through the countryside, selling their contracts here and there as opportunity allowed. The society of the time attached no moral stigma to this trade in human beings, and it was openly engaged in by individuals of the highest rank and renown. George Washington purchased the contracts of indentured servants to work at Mt. Vernon, just as he owned slaves. As late as 1792, the new American government devised a plan to import indentured German labor to help construct the city of Washington.

pp. 48-49

This quoted section, as well as all the content before and after, is littered with citations – the back of the book has an extensive list of references.

Moving on to Jewish immigration, the contrast between the different sources plays a huge role. Moving from Sephardic Jews from the Iberian peninsula, to German Jews, before heading to eastern European Jews, the history is enlightening. Reflecting all this:

In short, the eastern European Jews were an acute embarrassment to the German Jews in America. Their numbers, ways, and concentration made them highly visible, alarming other Americans and threatening an anti-Semitic reaction that would harm the German Jews, who had quietly gained acceptance before. The Jewish press, controlled by German Jews, was openly critical of the new immigrants, whom they described as representing “Oriental antiquity,” speaking a “piggish jargon,” and “slovenly in dress, loud in manners, and vulgar in discourse.” Their religion was referred to as “medieval Orthodoxy.” The vicissitudes of the eastern European Jews were seen by the German Jews as filling the newspapers with “daily records of misdemeanors, marital miseries, and petty quarrels.” It was the German Jews who coined the epithet “kike” to apply to eastern European Jews.

pp. 80-81

Let me be clear that I am not trying to condone anything, socially, linguistically or otherwise. I just found these quotes interesting, illustrative of general trends or contrasts between ethnic groups. And with that, let’s end this post with one more quote for the Italians, which should finish out the European sources of immigrants to this developing nation.

Italian Americans did not merely work; they also saved. Among the early immigrants – mostly men preparing to bring families over or to return to Italy with money to establish themselves – saving over half their income was not uncommon. A de-emphasis on conspicuous consumption remained a trait of later generations. So did self-reliance, which took many forms, including refusal to take government benefits to which they were legally entitled, maintaining good credit ratings even when on low incomes, and taking little interest in politics or elective endeavors.

Against this background, it may be possible to understand the paradoxical change in relations between Italians and blacks over the generations. Whereas the immigrant generation of Italians evidenced less hostility to blacks than did other whites (especially in the South), currently Italian-American opinion is more unfavorable to blacks than is that among other whites. The paths to group advancement emphasized by black leaders have been precisely those paths rejected by Italian Americans as inconsistent with the latter’s values – government aid and special treatment. The life-styles of the two groups also clash. Words and body language are often taken as calculated insults by each side, when in fact they have entirely different meanings in the two very different cultures. These conflicts are exacerbated by the fact that Italian Americans have been reluctant to abandon their neighborhoods, in the familiar pattern of white flight (there is still an Italian-American community in Harlem), and so have more contacts and opportunities for conflict with blacks than do many other groups.

p. 127

He continues that compare and contrast seeing that the relationship is similar between Italian Americans and Puerto Ricans, but entirely different when looking at Italian and Chinese American relationships. All very interesting, and to Sowell’s point, challenging the notion that “racism” is the sum total of what is going on.

Okay, with that, I think I am going to end this post. Will follow up soon enough with some quotes from the next section on Asian immigrant communities.

In The Mail: Social Sciences, Mathematics and Fiction

So, this is likely the last of the new books for a while, considering the holidays are over, and I don’t know of any more on the way. These came before the weekend, but I’ve been fairly busy…

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Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis: Groundwork

At this point, I am about to start Chapter 6. It’s a good breaking point to look back and review. Chapter 1 was a simple, crisp introduction, a nice chilled soup starter. Chapters 2 through 5 are more substantial, a meaty sort of entrée1. It remains to be seen if the remaining chapters are a full on main course, an entrée in the American sense, a matched course, with substance following gracefully on what has come before, or a round of dessert, potentially fruity, cake-y, dense, decadent or sugary sweet. Or maybe it will be some mixture of all of them!

Now that the saliva is going, back to the course in review. Chapter 2 is a well-paced introduction to the basics of language – phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax. It is replete with great explanations, interesting examples that pull in both Hebrew and Greek as they suit the topic, and the right mix of brevity. I have probably had enough of an introduction to these topics, having studied many of them in applied settings (language learning cross-linguistically), having dabbled in quite a bit of formal systems, computer languages, and a fair bit of cognitive linguistics. It felt like a carefree stroll down memory lane, a nice little jaunt through things I had a decent handle on.

But that is not to say it was a loss, or even that I was frustrated or disappointed by the introductory nature of the chapter. In fact, a number of points especially caught my attention. One instance is the discussion of ellipsis, which was incredibly lucid. While I was not unaware of ellipsis, I had never before taken the time to think about how poetry, and especially our reading of Hebrew poetry, might be affected.

Chapter 3 is a brisk introduction to linguistics and language as they are used: the purpose of language, pragmatics, speech-act theory, socio-linguistics. Chapter 4 continues briefly with details on the ground floor of generative grammar: universal grammar, typology and an invigorating discussion of markedness and both its promise and pitfalls. I had to fight to stay in the text, as I imagined my past attempts to work with semantic and phonetic features in SIL’s Language Explorer.

Chapter 5 halts the tango for a moderately-paced waltz through the fields of recent history. It ranges from the birth of linguistics in structuralism, through functionalism and the estranged siblings, generative grammar and cognitive linguistics. All along, brief notes are offered on the affects each of these linguistic trains of thought has had on our understanding of biblical languages. These succeed in illuminating the topic without de-railing progress.

What Chapter’s 2 through 5 did for me was easy to explain. I have read quite a bit on linguistics, on the different camps, on issues and problems affecting different theories and approaches. But I have often struggled to put individual authors in context. This part of the book is an excellent introduction to the sweep and scope of linguistics, and provides a good framework from which to start one’s studies. It more-than-adequately provides the structure, the framing, so as to speed grasp of the numerous tendrils that make up the study of linguistics.

And with that, onward!


  1. From Merriam-Webster:

The culinary sense of entrée can be traced back to 18th-century Britain. In those days a formal dinner could include not only the principal courses of soup, fish, meat, and dessert, but also an impressive array of side dishes. Between the fish and meat courses would come a small side dish, and because this secondary dish came immediately before the centerpiece of the meal, it was called the entrée, being, in effect, the entrance to the really important part of the meal. As dining habits have changed, meals have become simpler, and fewer courses are served. However, in the US, the course following the appetizer continued to be called the entrée, perhaps because it is a French word, and anything French always sounds elegant.

Merriam-Webster, entrée

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Mises Institute

I was introduced to mises.org last night. It looks to be an interesting site, with tons of information. The subject matter is the Austrian School of Economics. Can’t believe I wasn’t already aware of this site’s existence. Okay, I can. But I was still a bit surprised.

They have a wonderful collection of books in many formats (purchase, pdf, epub, etc), and a ton are good if you are on a budget (they are free). For language learners, there is quite a bit of non-English material here, too. I grabbed a couple books in German, but also saw some in Spanish.

Quotable Common Sense

This is the first of the quotes I intend to share after having completed Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence…

Common Sense (AmazonClassics Edition, p.3) – Thomas Paine

He is articulate, if not quite pithy, here. Government, and the resultant loss of control/property, is the “lesser of two evils”1. It is a state of affairs necessitated by humanity’s demonstrated tendency to moral failure. And a bad government is worsened by knowing that one has contributed to it!

He ends this particular thought with what could almost be boiled down to an equation. Since government is always an encumbrance, whatever little bit appears to ensure security, at least expense and greatest benefit, should be the form promulgated. Experience says it is a tricky curve to plot. Personally, I’d like to see more people articulating real security at least expense, with greatest benefit.

Paine really cuts to the heart of the matter. Government is a tool, and not the ultimate end. It leads me to focus on his lead-in, this “society” he speaks of which “in every state is a blessing”. What can we do to cultivate that?

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  1. His quote is actually, “…advises him out of two evils to choose the least.”

Common Sense

Common SenseCommon Sense by Thomas Paine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I read portions of this in high school, and certainly, elements of it permeate much political discussion in the USA. But it was quite illuminating to get the whole at one stretch. Not all the arguments are well reasoned (and I say that in full recognition that I am not the final arbiter of good logic), but the overall thrust is powerful. I felt that his argument against remaining on the sideline, of remaining at status quo, was especially powerful, hitting one in the gut.

I think his biblical argument against hereditary monarchy ignored the Davidic kingdom and covenant, to a loss for his full argument. Then again, it is just as well as it would be, and have been, unwise to try to equate Davidic throne and continental polity. Could both subjects have been handled to his ends? Yes, but at loss of brevity.

This is certainly not dull, unless you have reduced governance to “what is in it for me”. It is of course headier than much of what is in the news today, much more idealistic than our modern sentiments tolerate.

Interesting quotes were numerous, especially in the beginning. The whole was compelling, but there were more pithy elements at outset than bulk or culmination. No fault, simply recognition of the weightiness and inability to cut pieces away without incorporating context.

I had the Audible kindle version, and the speaker was delightful to listen to.

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