Monthly Archives: June 2015

Linguistic identity in Vanikoro

In sum, the three languages of Vanikoro can be characterised by two contradictory properties. On the one hand, their fundamental genetic relatedness is blurred by a high degree of dissimilarity in the phonological forms of words, whether in the lexicon or in the morphology. But on the other hand, their grammatical categories and semantic structures show no equivalent to this formal diversity: instead, the three languages reveal perfect isomorphism, in each and every corner of their system. To paraphrase a formula by Sasse (see fn.19 below), they could ultimately be described as “a single language with different vocabularies”.

The question arises of what historical scenario would best explain this paradox, where divergence goes along with convergence. A simple explanation that comes to mind when accounting for the lexical diversification of cognate languages, might focus on the physical separation between language communities. The absence, still today, of any land path relating villages across Vanikoro island, and the stories of ongoing fierce territorial fights between its three tribes, would then be understood as genuine evidence for geographical or social isolation, and thus as a possible key for the high degree of formal divergence between Teanu, Lovono and Tanema. However, several facts seem to contradict this diagnostic. First, the relatively small size of the island is at odds with the notion of a neat separation between the three tribes. And more crucially, their extreme degree of structural isomorphism is likely to reflect not only cases of shared retentions from a common ancestor, but also later linguistic convergence induced by language contact. In other words, the explanation resorting to the mere physical separation between communities does not tell the whole story.

The solution to the puzzle will probably have to be found not in the factual features of geography, but in the more subtle dimension of sociolinguistic behaviour. Indeed, a conspicuous characteristic of cultures in certain parts of Melanesia – in comparison, for example, with the Polynesian world (see Pawley 1981) – seems to be a social preference for small-scale social communities with no marked hierarchy between them, as well as a strong emphasis put on whichever anthropological or linguistic features may differ from one community to the other. Heterogeneity between villages or village groups tends to be socially valued as a way to construct a world of diversity, where each community is endowed with its own identity. In this framework, a local innovation in cultural and linguistic forms will tend to be perceived, and eventually retained, as emblematic of a specific group. Over time, this behaviour favours the emergence of cultural and linguistic divergence between erstwhile homogeneous communities. Interestingly, some language groups can be said to have only gone down this track to the point when the languages began to lose mutual intelligibility; but what is conspicuous in the case of Vanikoro languages, is that they seem to have pushed the process of differentiation far beyond that point, as though they were to keep diverging for ever.

In order to account for similar facts in other parts of Papua New Guinea, Thurston (1989), and later Ross (1996; 2001:155), have used the term “ESOTEROGENY”:

Esoterogeny is a process that adds structural complexity to a language and makes it more efficient as a medium of communication among people of the same social group, while making it more difficult for outsiders to learn to speak well. (Thurston 1989)

Esoterogeny arises through a group’s desire for exclusiveness. (Ross 1996:184)

If the members of a community have few ties with other communities and their emblematic lect is not usually known to outsiders, then they may use it as an ‘in-group’ code, an ‘esoteric’ lect from which outsiders are consciously excluded. Innovations leading to increased complexity and to differences from neighbouring lects will be favoured. (Ross 1997:239)

One could probably discuss the degree to which such sociolinguistic processes are “conscious”, and also how they interfere with motivations of various kinds (semantic, structural, pragmatic) in bringing about change. This being said, one can probably accept the general idea behind Thurston’s concept, that language differentiation in Melanesia, far from being just an accident of geographical isolation, is largely influenced by a certain social attitude whereby each group tends to produce – whether consciously or not – its own distinctive speech tradition.

Now, while this hypothesis may help explain the high amount of lexical innovation and formal divergence that took place between Vanikoro languages, it seems at odds with the remarkable stability that we’ve observed among their structures. I would suggest this mismatch can be explained by the different nature of the linguistic components involved here. For one thing, the phonological form of the words (Saussure’s “signifiant”, Grace’s “lexification”), whether lexical or grammatical, is the component most salient and conspicuous to the speakers’ conscience, and therefore most likely to be preempted by motivations based on social emblematicity. Conversely, the structural and semantic dimension of language (Saussure’s “signifié”, Grace’s “content form”) would fall out of reach of the speakers’ immediate linguistic awareness, in a way that would make it exempt of the sociolinguistic force of esoterogeny. Instead, structures tend to obey a totally contrary force, typical of language-contact situations, that leads them to diffuse and converge: this is when multilingual speakers feel the “pressure towards word-for-word translatable codes” (Gumperz 1971). The structural isomorphism that can be observed today among Vanikoro languages has the considerable advantage, for the bilingual speaker, of reducing any translation loss, thereby increasing the efficiency of cross-linguistic communication, and facilitating the cognitive processing of speech. …

The comparison of Teanu, Lovono and Tanema reveals the intricacies of the island’s local history. The strong isomorphism found between the structures of these languages betrays their remote common ancestry, as much as it points to a history of intense language contact which the three tribes, nolens volens, have lived through over the centuries. On the other hand, the actual word forms found in their vocabularies and morphology have tended to follow a powerful tendency towards diversification, in accordance with the speakers’ tacit perceptions that the three communities, often caught in conflict and territorial hostilities, should sound and feel to be distinct social groups.

Overall, the paradox observed among the three modern languages of Vanikoro – dissimilar forms, similar structures – results from the interplay between these two contradictory forces: a socially driven push to increase language differences vs a functionally grounded tendency to minimise them.



The Trade Union Unity League

Four weeks after our return from Seattle, Gene wrote in the national Daily Worker of the 90,000 jobless in our city. From official statistics he noted that the majority of Mexican workers in the country were unemployed. He concluded, “with ninety percent of the working class outside the organized labor movement, our burning need is to organize the unorganized, militant industrial trade unionism and class struggle versus class collaborationism.”

Gene was now Southern California head of the Trade Union Unity League, a militant Left center organized first in 1922 as a rank and file movement inside the craft union, almost lily-white A.F.L. Now it was shifting, as was the Party, to greater emphasis on independent organization of the unorganized and the formation of new industrial unions outside the A.F.L.

A citywide general strike in the needle trades was Gene’s first initiation into his new work. The strike symbolized graphically the multi-aims of T.U.U.L., for it contained four fronts of struggle: the action against the employers; rank and file opposition to the old A.F.L. and Socialist Party leadership within the union; conflicts between the skilled, mainly male, dominantly Jewish craftsmen who were oldtime unionists and the young, unskilled, Mexican women workers new to the union and in their first strike; and the building of the T.U.U.L.’s Needle Trades Industrial Union.

—Autobiography of an American Communist, Peggy Dennis.

Dennis doesn’t see fit to mention it in her book, but the T.U.U.L. was part of the CPUSA. She doesn’t avoid the topic of the CPUSA in generalhow could she, when she was married to Eugene Dennis, who became the General Secretary of that party after Moscow removed Earl Browder? I suppose I’ll find out soon whether she bothers to mention the favor she and her husband must have had in the eyes of the Soviets. Anyway, here’s her obituary in the New York Times.

One page later, in March 1929, Dennis gets pregnant:

Basking in Gene’s excited pleasure, I nervously prepared to break the news to Mama, but made Gene promise to support my claim that it was an “accident.” With abortion completely out of our awareness at the time, the act was irrevocable. All I had to contend with was Mama’s displeasure. I carefully chose the moment as we rode the Brooklyn Avenue streetcar, so she could not make the scene I expected.

Mama was an intense feminist. She was more the protagonist for woman’s unshackled spirit than a sign-toting activist for equal rights. She believed the two to be inseparable, that individually women could live the first while fighting for the second. Frustrated by ill-health and transplanted to a foreign land and alien culture she refused to adapt to, Mama did not personally act on her beliefs, but she was determined that her two modern daughters would.

My sister and I were willing pupils, and we early absorbed Mama’s special pride in being female, destined for greater things than merely being some man’s wife. We acquired the conviction that personal love was not a sufficient singular purpose in life; that for women, no less thaan for men, there must be much more to an enriched life. Conventional marriage was the deadly trap and motherhood was the snaplock to that trap door.

Mama scorned housekeeping and cooking; they were unavoidable chores to be disposed of with minimum effort. She knitted, crocheted, and sewed beautifully, but she refused to teach us, saying we had more important things to do with our time and abilities—like studying, writing stories, making speeches, attending meetings, planning the revolution.

Papa had been a quiet supportive influence in all this. Slight of build and height, he was gentle and sensitive and there seemed to be no female/male roleplaying in our family. He often buffered with good humor and with dance and song Mama’s tense moodiness. He washed supprt dishes and scrubbed kitchen floors, urging us to go to the library or write the composition due at school. …

When Bill began staying overnight in my bed, Mama kept the fact secret from his parents, for his sake. When we were legally married to mollify his mother, Mama was furious. In joining Gene, a year later, I was exercising my courage to go my own way, as they had taught me. Now I was pregnant and I had betrayed twenty years of revolutionary and feminist conditioning.

I could not define to Mama or to myself the changes in me. I was torn with the contradictions between my emotions and my theory. With Gene I had become the classic handmaiden to love, a role blatantly contrary to what I believed in, and yet I was revelling in it.

Nothing ever changes: Comstockery for communists

Boston had a very different reputation before the ’60s:

Boston was founded by the censorious Puritans in the early 17th century. Boston’s second major wave of immigrants, Irish Catholics, began arriving in the 1820s and also held conservative moral beliefs, particularly regarding sex.[2] The phrase “banned in Boston”, however, originated in the late 19th century at a time when American“moral crusader” Anthony Comstock began a campaign to suppress vice.[3] He found widespread support in Boston, particularly among socially-prominent and influential officials.[2][3] Comstock was also known as the proponent of the Comstock Act, which prevented “obscene” materials from being delivered by the U.S. mail.[4]

Following Comstock’s lead, Boston’s city officials took it upon themselves to ban anything that they found to be salacious, inappropriate, or offensive. Aiding them in their efforts was a group of private citizens, the Boston Watch and Ward Society.[2] Theatrical shows were run out of town, books were confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown; sometimes movies were stopped mid-showing, after an official had “seen enough”. In 1935, for example, during the opening performance of Clifford Odets‘ play Waiting for Lefty four cast members were placed under arrest.[2]

And what did the international community think? When George Bernard Shaw was asked what he thought of his books being removed from library shelves in New York, the next city down on the Corridor from Boston, here’s how he replied:

Nobody outside of America is likely to be in the least surprised; Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.

Personally I do not take the matter so lightly. American civilization is enormously interesting and important to me, if only as a colossal social experiment, and I shall make no pretense of treating a public and official insult from the American people with indifference.

It is true I shall not suffer either in reputation or pocket. Everybody knows I know better than your public library officials what is proper for people to read whether they are young or old. Everybody also knows that if I had the misfortune to be a citizen of the United States I should probably have my property confiscated by some postal official and be myself imprisoned as a writer of ‘obscene’ literature.

But as I live in a comparatively free country and my word goes further than that of mere officialdom, these things do not matter. What does matter is that this incident is only a symptom of what is really a moral horror both in America and elsewhere, and that is the secret and intense resolve of the petty domesticity of the world to tolerate no criticism and suffer no invasion.


Because I have been striving all my public life to awaken public conscience to this, while Comstock has been examining and destroying ninety-three tons of  indecent postcards, it is concluded that I am a corrupt blackguard and Comstock’s mind is in such a condition of crystal purity that any American who reads, sees, writes, or says anything of which he disapproves or which he is ‘doggoned if he understands’ must be put in prison.

Well, far be it from me to question the right of American to manage its affairs its own way. Every country has the Government it deserves, and I presume Comstock couldn’t govern America without America’s consent. He will not lack supporters.

I cannot fight Comstock with the American Nation at his back and the New York police in his van. Neither can Daly. I have advised Daly to run no risks.When this news reached me I had already cabled both Daly and my agent, Miss Marbury, to countermand the performance, because I think New York has had enough of me for one season. Now I am bound to leave Daly free to accept the challenge and throw himself on the good-sense of people who want to have the traffic in women stopped instead of driven underground for its better protection.

He is young and bold; I am elderly and thoroughly intimidated by my knowledge of the appalling weight of stupidity and prejudice, of the unavowed money interest, direct or indirect, in the exploitation of womanhood, which lies behind his opponent. I cannot save Daly. If these forces are too strong for his supporters, I am afraid he will be uncomfortable in prison. But I also have a presentment that Comstock will not be quite comfortable out of it.

When a man begins to value himself, not on the number of decent postcards he puts in circulation, but on the number of indecent ones he throws out of it, he is on the high road to a condition of mania in which he is apt to seize every postcard he sees and declare it indecent. An Indian who counts the scalps he has torn from his enemies is under heavy temptation to get up quarrels with his friends in order to have an excuse for scalping them.

Comstock’s reputation grows with every blackguard he imprisons. A man in that position generally ends by seizing respectable citizens by the collar, raising the cry of blackguardism against them, and throwing them into prison.

For Comstock’s part, here’s what he thought of Shaw:

“Shaw?” said Mr Comstock reflectively, “I never heard of him in my life. Never saw one of his books, so he can’t be much.” The reporter had in his pocket a copy of The New York Times in which appeared the letter written by Mr Shaw, the author and playwright, after he had learned that his books had been removed from the ‘open shelves’ in the New York Free Libraries. This order of removal Mr Shaw characterized as a piece of “American Comstockery.” The reporter submitted the letter, and Mr Comstock read it carefully.

“Everybody knows,” wrote Mr Shaw, “that I know better than your public library officials what is proper for people to read, whether they are young or old.” When Mr Comstock read that, he literally grew pale with indignation. “Did you ever see such egotism?” he commented angrily. “I had nothing to do with removing this Irish smut dealer’s books from the public library shelves, but I will take a hand in the matter now.” …

“This very morning,” said Mr Comstock, “I confiscated for destruction 23,600 pictures and had the man convicted in the Special Sessions. Last week I confiscated 100,000 such pictures from a German in Brooklyn. For a third of a century I have battled in the ranks of the society with which I have the honor to be affiliated — battled for the morality of the young people of this country. I have done work in Canada, in Paris, in London, and in most of the civilized countries of the world. The society has made over 23,000 arrests; it has destroyed 98 tons of unfit matter.

It matters little if the literary style is of a high order if the subject matter is bad. I had a man convicted who was printing and selling pictures of paintings hung in the Paris Salon and in the art hall at our Centennial Exposition. The only question is, Can this book or picture or play hurt any one morally, even the weak? All else is of minor consequence.”

The Comstocks of our day are, like Mr. Hundred Thousand Pictures himself, interested in choking off a new platform for the dissemination of information — all for the good of the weak, of course — but that’s not all they want. The communist slogan is not “no platform for fascism”, but “no platform for fascists”. Not only should Shaw’s books be banned — so should Shaw himself. #指鹿為馬

This Comstock heads his blog with a quote from Emma Goldman:

Not so very long ago I attended a meeting addressed by Anthony Comstock, who has for forty years been the guardian of American morals. A more incoherent, ignorant ramble I have never heard from any platform.

The question that presented itself to me, listening to the commonplace, bigoted talk of the man, was, how could anyone so limited and unintelligent wield the power of censor and dictator over a supposedly democratic nation? True, Comstock has the law to back him. Forty years ago, when Puritanism was even more rampant than to-day, completely shutting out the light of reason and progress, Comstock succeeded, through shady machination and political wire pulling, to introduce a bill which gave him complete control over the Post Office Department — a control which has proved disastrous to the freedom of the press, as well as the right of privacy of the American citizen.

Since then, Comstock has broken into the private chambers of people, has confiscated personal correspondence, as well as works of art, and has established a system of espionage and graft which would put Russia to shame. Yet the law does not explain the power of Anthony Comstock. There is something else, more terrible than the law. It is the narrow puritanic spirit, as represented in the sterile minds of the Young-Men-and-Old-Maid’s Christian Union, Temperance Union, Sabbath Union, Purity League, etc. A spirit which is absolutely blind to the simplest manifestations of life; hence stands for stagnation and decay. As in anti-bellum days, these old fossils lament the terrible immorality of our time. Science, art, literature, the drama, are at the mercy of bigoted censorship and legal procedure, with the result that America, with all her boastful claims to progress and liberty is still steeped in the densest provincialism.

The smallest dominion in Europe can boast of an art free from the fetters of morality, an art that has the courage to portray the great social problems of our time. With the sharp edge of critical analysis, it cuts into every social ulcer, every wrong, demanding fundamental changes and the transvaluation of accepted values. Satire, wit, humor, as well as the most intensely serious modes of expression, are being employed to lay bare our conventional social and moral lies. In America we would seek in vain for such a medium, since even the attempt at it is made impossible by the rigid régime, by the moral dictator and his clique.

Your fave is problematic, Klabnik. And Urbit is banned in Boston^WSt. Louis.

This movement had several consequences. One was that Boston, a cultural center since its founding, was perceived as less sophisticated than many cities without stringent censorship practices.[2] Another was that the phrase “banned in Boston” became associated, in the popular mind, with something lurid, sexy, and naughty. Commercial distributors were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston—it gave them more appeal elsewhere.[2]