Friday, December 30, 2011

Debunking the Debunkers

Snopes.com has made its name debunking (and presumably occasionally bunking) urban myths and Internet circulars, those emails your friends (real and faux) send to you while you are trying to work.

One Snopes post from six years ago debunks a piece that has been in circulation for much longer. The Snopes bit www.snopes.com/politics/religion/monument.asp includes a more or less full copy of the circular email upon which it comments.

The circular tends to interpret the appearance of religious symbols surrounding the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital as showing the religious nature of our country and of the Founding Fathers, George Washington in particular. The Snopes commentary tends to undermine the circulator’s religious interpretation by showing, for example, that while there is a Bible in the cornerstone of the monument, there is also a long list of other books and objects, most of which have no religious significance. Or that one of the monument’s many engraved stepping stones, which the circulator claims was put there by Chinese Christians was actually put there by Chinese citizens who did not leave any kind of Christian message at all. Or that the circulator’s claim that the placement of the monument in combination with the Capitol and other monuments forms a cross which was part of “the original plan of the designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant” is belied by the fact that the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were built long after L’Enfant, were built in their present locations only after debate as well as adjustment to material conditions (the soil of the original location chosen for the Washington Monument was unsuitable for building), and only “impose a cross upon the landscape” by accident. (Ah, but the National Park Service admits that the prominent placement of the monuments and the Capitol do form a “great cross” along north-south and east-west axes originally found in the plans of L’Enfant; if the religious want to believe that this was “ultimately” no accident, there is no way to prove them wrong.)

Another quibble with Snopes: They argue that an alleged prayer by Washington was not actually a prayer but part of a letter to all of the governors of the “thirteen states,” that it was not written by Washington and that it has been altered to seem more like a prayer. (Snopes notes that the quotation was turned into a prayer not by the email writer but by someone who made a bronze tablet for St. Paul’s Church in New York where Washington was a parishioner during his presidency.) On each of these points we might quibble. Certainly the email circulator did not realize that the tablet was an alteration of the original text, but even granting that objection it is not entirely accurate to say that the quotation is not in any sense a prayer. The original paragraph begins, “Now I make it my earnest prayer….” Thus while the author of the letter is not at the moment praying, he does report his prayer.

As to whether General Washington wrote the letter himself, or it was rather the creation of his aide, Col. David Cobb, I can add something further to consider. In the 1990s, I saw a televised conference of Washington scholars meeting at Mount Vernon. One of them presented his discovery that President Washington characteristically wrote all correspondence himself and then had a secretary rewrite each letter so that it appeared in another’s hand; Washington would then sign the letter and have it mailed, thereby deliberately creating the impression that he was not micromanaging everything that went on in his administration when in fact he was doing just that. It is hardly improbable that Washington established this practice by the end of the Revolution when the letter in question was written. BTW, I put “thirteen states” in quotation marks because there were fourteen states by the end of the Revolution, Vermont having been carved out of New York State by then. (Of course, perhaps Washington snubbed Vermont for some unknown reason.)

The email circular ends with a declaration that “Washington’s America” was “established under the guidance, direction and banner of Almighty God, to whom was given all praise, honor and worship by the great men who formed and fashioned her pivotal foundations.” Snopes slaps this down by pointing out that the Washington Monument was a nineteenth-century project and that its religious messages (whose significance Snopes could undermine but not deny altogether) reflected the later century rather than the sentiments of the eighteenth.

Not so fast. The circulated email might be inaccurate on many points, but this one is debatable. The Founders, by and large, were, indeed, religious men. Snopes reports that it is difficult to find references to Jesus, by name, in Washington’s writings, but references to “Providence”—by which all of the Founders who used that word meant “Almighty God”—are plentiful in Washington’s pronouncements. Many of the Founders—including Washington—clearly saw the creation and development of the United States as a sacred venture.

Does Snopes.com betray a liberal bias as some complain? At least it would seem that Snopes follows the liberal party line on the issues brought up in this case. Liberals generally have an animus against religious belief, especially a traditional, personal, passionate one that is based on traditional values. Liberals butress their bias by maintaining that history shows the Founders to have been deists whose faith was cool and intellectual and did not play up traditional Christian faith in Jesus Christ. This view is not entirely justified by historical fact. Some of the Founders had their doubts about questions of traditional religious faith, and they were often liberal in their ecumenical acceptance of other sects of Christianity and even of Judaism, but most of them were church-goers and possessed a palpable degree of passion in their trust of what they so often called Providence. This was no small or unimportant thing to them; many of them often expressed the feeling that they were embarked on a dangerous adventure that could only be successfully navigated under divine protection and guidance. It was just this kind of concern that led Benjamin Franklin—not a man whose religious views were entirely conventional—to complain about the absence of any reference to God in the proposed Constitution of 1787.

I am reminded of Bernard Goldberg’s observation in his book, “Bias,” that liberals do not think they are being liberal, just reasonable. The “knowledge” one has received at the temples of American liberalism—originally the universities but now almost every public school—and kept up with by reading the daily press, seems reasonable. But too often this “knowledge” is fully wrapped in a coating of shiny ideological bias, so familiar that its consumers cannot recognize it for what it is.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"All Men are Born Free and Equal"

Some politically-minded thinkers have suggested that the founding generation of the United States did not mean to include African Americans when they declared, in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal phrase, that “all men are created equal.” That they saw no contradiction between uttering these words and owning slaves.

It is difficult to believe that any thoughtful person can think this, especially if they know the actual history. How do they explain the fact that within five years of Jefferson’s declaration, two states ended slavery and other states soon followed until the northern states had either abolished it or set slavery on the road to abolition? (Even South Carolina’s legislature was forced to vote on a bill that would have abolished slavery, but, of course, it did not pass.) Jefferson himself had mixed feelings about the institution, saying, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free.” Because of Jefferson’s qualms about slavery, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederates States of America, later declared that no Southern gentleman should read Jefferson.

Benjamin Franklin was remarkable for being one of the most forward-thinking Founders despite being one of the oldest. At age 40, he owned a couple of slaves; at age 80, he not only no longer owned slaves but had become president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. On behalf of this society, Franklin submitted a petition to the First Congress of the United States asking that the government come up with a way of legally ridding the nation of slavery, “removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People.”

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the burgeoning awareness of an “Inconsistency” between liberty and slave ownership than the case of Massachusetts where a new state constitution in 1780 was broadcast and made citizens of the commonwealth fully aware that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.”

The conventional wisdom in some quarters is that the thought occurred to no one at the time that these high-sounding words had anything to do with the rights of those held in slavery in the newly-minted states. But the thought did occur to a slave woman known as Bett who was held by John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Mass., when she heard the new constitution read in public. Further, she shared this thought with an attorney named Theodore Sedgwick*, who was convinced that Bett was onto something. He argued the case for Bett and another slave named Brom in county court in August 1781, and a jury declared that the Ashleys had no right to hold Brom and Bett in bondage under Massachusetts’s new constitution.

After a subsequent anti-slavery case, Walker vs. Jennison, was decided by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court in the slave’s favor (citing the Brom and Bett case as a precedent), slave owners in Massachusetts were on notice that their so-called property rights over their fellow human beings would no longer be upheld by the courts. They were forced to prepare to free their slaves or, at least, upgrade their status to that of indentured servant, which, while not an immediately improved condition, offered the promise that their status could not be enforced perpetually or be forced upon an indentured servant’s children. By 1790, there were virtually no slaves left in Massachusetts. Notably, the commonwealth never officially abolished slavery, but the constitutional argument was used to undermine the institution and force its rapid demise.

All of the most northern states took various steps to eliminate slavery by 1800. This did not mean that the end of slavery in all of these states actually coincided with the end of the eighteenth century. Some states dragged their feet by prohibiting or making difficult the acquisition of new slaves. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, there were still a couple of elderly slaves living in New Jersey (according to the 1860 census). Delaware and Maryland, not being culturally really northern states, continued to hold slaves until the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, after the Civil War had ended. (There are records of Union officers from states such as Delaware marching off to battle with their slaves in tow.)

* * *

Bett, upon gaining her freedom, changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and became a wage-earning servant for the family of her former attorney. She is buried beside her close friend, Judge Sedgwick’s daughter, Catharine, and is, I believe, the only African American buried in the Sedgwick family plot in Stockbridge, Mass.

Catharine Sedgwick recorded Elizabeth Freeman’s memoirs. (Freeman herself was illiterate.) Occasionally, Sedgwick appears to have tried capturing the flavor of Freeman’s speech:

“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God's airth a free woman— I would.”

As an amateur linguist, I am struck by what I presume is Sedgwick’s transcription of “earth” as “airth.” It could very well say as much about the speech of Sedgwick as it does about that of Freeman. It is my understanding that “airth” is considered to be an ancient, possible alternative spelling of the more standard spelling of “earth” but that no one is certain of this. By 1780, the modern spelling of the word was standardized, and as a highly educated woman from a highly educated family, Sedgwick would have known this. Apparently, she spelled the word “airth” in order to suggest her friend’s pronunciation. If this is so, then it implies that Freeman’s pronunciation was different from Sedgwick’s. Perhaps Sedgwick’s pronunciation of the word was very close to our modern pronunciation.

In Old and Middle English—the languages of “Beowulf” and “The Canterbury Tales,” respectively— “airth” would probably be, to our modern eyes and ears, a close approximation of how “earth” was pronounced. While the pronunciation of courtiers and other educated classes gradually grew to resemble the pronunciation of more modern, educated speakers, regional dialects tended to hold on to such pronunciations as “airth” for “earth.” If I am correct, then, Catharine Sedgwick is unwittingly telling us that she herself said “erth” while Elizabeth Freeman said “airth.” The stratification of American language along class lines—but often based on region of origin in the Old World—would continue throughout the history of the United States. Of course, while some African American’s speech probably bore some African influences, especially if they had actually been born in Africa, the kind of English that African Americans learned from lower-class Englishmen often constituted an even heavier influence. That appears to be what happened in the formation of Elizabeth Freeman’s dialect.

* Trivia: Theodore Sedgwick is the great-great-great-great grandfather of actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of one of my favorite TV series, “The Closer.”


Dec. 19 - Actress Meryl Streep told the story of Elizabeth Freeman last night on CBS's "60 Minutes." She thought, as many do, that Freeman was defending her sister when she was struck with a hot metal object and suffered serious burns at the hands of her mistress, Hannah Ashley. Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that Freeman was protecting her sister, but more solid evidence suggests that it was her daughter she was defending. Further, there is no evidence outside the anecdote there Freeman even had a sister.

Streep wants to help found a national women's museum, and it would undoubtedly include an exhibit on Freeman.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Words Spelled the Same but Pronounced Differently; Other Notes on English

Read (to read; pronounced like "reed") – A present tense verb involving the recognition of the meaning of written words or the act of translating written words into spoken ones (reading out loud). Sometimes used as a noun, as in, “The mystery novel was a good read.”

Read – The past tense of “to read.” To add to the confusion, it is pronounced identically to the color “red.”

Wind (the vowel is pronounced similarly to that in the word "win") – Noun meaning the movement of air, especially meteorologically, but its meaning also extends to the breath or even flatus.

Wind (to wind; the vowel is pronounced similarly to that in the word "wine")  – Present tense verb meaning to twist or turn something, as a watch stem or string or thread around a spool. By extension, something can be said to turn or twist over the terrain, such as “The Long and Winding Road,” the title of one of Paul McCartney’s songs.

Wound (pronounced similarly to the interjection "wow") – The past tense of the above verb “to wind.” Verbs that form other tenses by going through changes in their vowels are technically called “strong verbs” because they are ancient and resist the more modern simplification of using the same form as the present tense but adding “-ed” to the end to make the past tense.

Wound (pronounced like the old word for courtship "woo") – An injury such as a cut, puncture or other damage to the flesh. It can be extended to include psychological hurt.

Close (pronounced with a real "s" sound) – An adjective that describes one object that is near another.

Close (the "s" is pronounced more like a "z") – The present tense of a verb meaning to shut, stop or suspend something. “Please close the book.” “Close the swimming pool for the rest of the year.” It can also be a noun: the end of something such as an event. “At the close of the festive evening, everyone went home.”

Present (pronounced PREzent) – Adjective describing the condition of being here, now. Noun: The time experienced right now. The same pronunciation is used for the noun describing an object given to someone. “Thank you for the Christmas present.”

Present (preZent) – Verb: to show or introduce something or someone to another person. “Your Highness, may I present the Count of Monte Cristo.” To introduce or make something known. “He presented his symphony to the public for the first time on May 7, 1824.”

Record (REcord) – A written document or vinyl disk for playing music. Adjective describing a noteworthy event. “The temperature will reach a record low.”

Record (reCORD) – The act of making a written document or registering sound or events by a device such as a tape recorder or seismograph. Notice that in the cases of “present” and “record” we mark each as a noun or adjective on the one hand and as a verb on the other by emphasizing the first syllable for noun/adjective and the second syllable for the verb. So “reCORD” is what we do in order to make a “REcord.”

These words are pronounced differently for different reasons although it mostly boils down to sound change over the history of the language. In Old English, the accent was always put on the root syllable. French does not follow such a rule, so the introduction of French words into English changed that expectation. Indeed, “present” and “record” were derived from French. So, although we spell many words the same way, we now change the accent to change their meaning thanks to the influence on English of continental languages such as French and Latin.

Have you ever noticed the words in English that change their sounds when the word changes its function (technically called “inflection”). For example, take the verb “to go.” Today I go. Yesterday I went. “Went”? Its not the same word; “went” doesn’t even have a single letter or sound in common with “go.” This is an example of a strong verb. But wait, what happens when I have gone? “Gone”? Why is it pronounced “gawn”? After all, the way we spell, it should rhyme with “bone,” but it doesn’t. How come?

Partly it has to do with the influence on the vowel of the sound of the “n” after it. The “n” sound keeps the “o” from being a long sound. Originally, the “o” in “go” was pronounced the same as the higher and shorter “o” in “gone,” but as the sound of “o” changed in most of the words in English (part of what is called the Great Vowel Shift), it changed more in “go” than in “gone.”

The Great Vowel Shift occurred throughout the period of Middle English (spoken roughly from the eleventh or twelfth century until the late fifteenth). Middle English had five dialects, each of which pronounced words quite differently (or even possessed completely different words for the same concept). While in part of southern Middle England the word “go” was pronounced more or less the way “gone” is now, the northern Middle English speakers still pronounced it the way they had in Old English, which was more like “gah” than “gaw.” They also pronounced “bone” as if it were “bahn.” (Like someone from Boston pronouncing “barn.”)

These regionalisms – both of words and their pronunciation – led to confusion as England became united as a single country and more or less unified as a culture. Either one dialect had to be raised as the standard or features of several dialects needed to be blended together. English spelling and vocabulary might have been more regular if the first course had been followed, but it was pursuit of the second one that gave us the hodgepodge that is English today. For example, in the southwestern dialect of Middle English, people said “vox” instead of “fox,” and their word for a female fox also began with a “v” sound: “vixen.” Standard English now has “fox” but we also use “vixen.”

Many common English words, such as “their” and “horse,” come from the northern Middle English dialect. The thing that really becomes confusing is that each dialect was written so that it had its own spelling system. When the dialects were blended to create one English language, more or less near the end of the fifteenth century, we kept the various dialectal spellings of the words without striving for uniformity. In some cases, words had to be repurposed or a new distinction had to be made. For example, “shirt” is southern English and “skirt” is northern. Originally, they meant the same thing, but since both came into the standardized English language together, each was given a different specific meaning, even though they both still mean an article of clothing.