Notes from Underground
A place for one random individual to rant about everything under the sun.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Thursday, May 06, 2004
Language and South-African Literatures
Andrew Black has a very interesting post up on Southern Cross, in which he outlines his own list of definitive works of South African literature, and also comments on the ways in which apartheid worked to warp the contributions of different groups in literary terms.
I don't think Andrew's point about the stifling effects of the Afrikaners' identification with the goals of apartheid can seriously be disputed; a state of contentment with the way things are is hardly the most conducive mindset to the creation of work that spans both time and place. Apart from André Brink and Breyton Breytonbach, I can't think of any major literary figures who've chosen to write in Afrikaans as their preferred medium. Athole Fugard is at least half-Afrikaner, but despite his heritage, English has been his preferred medium; J.M. Coetzee, though of thoroughly Afrikaner antecedents, and in spite of his fluency in the Afrikaner taal, cannot plausibly be described as anything other than an English writer. All that said, it remains to be seen whether the new and (for Afrikaners at least) more interesting* era of black majority rule will act as a spur to an outburst of literary creativity amongst a people suddenly shorn of what seemed their God-ordained place at the top of the South-African heirarchy. Is Marlene van Niekerk's Triomf a harbinger of greater things to come?
Black South African hostility to Afrikaans as a language is also something that is very noticeable even today, and it's a feeling I can certainly empathize with. I know that I wouldn't be too eager to learn a language myself if it were as closely identified with the oppression of my people as Afrikaans is in the minds of South Africa's black citizens. As a factual matter, one consequence of reading William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a teenager was that I developed a strong aversion to learning German which took many years to overcome. In a way, this proved to be a good thing, as I would probably never have bothered to study Japanese had I been interested in learning German earlier on, but I've come to believe that such an attitude is very much mistaken, whatever its appeal on an emotional level. Even if one continues to despise a people for wrongs its members have done to one (as will likely be the case to some extent for most human beings), the bottom line is that, barring genocide, said group is unlikely to go away, and so it pays to learn what one can about their language, even if only to better understand what the "enemy" is thinking. For example, despite being surrounded on three sides by millions of hostile Arabic-speakers, Israelis would be foolish indeed to neglect the study of Arabic simply because it is the language of the other side, so foolish, in fact, that the "despite" I used near the beginning of this sentence really ought to have been a "because." (And what does it say about the Arab world that so few Arabs residing outside Israel's borders display the slightest interest in learning Hebrew, or anything about Israel other than what little can be gleaned from Al-Jazeera's inflammatory broadcasts?)
White Afrikaans-speakers aren't about to disappear from the South African scene in our lifetimes, and if anything they're less likely to emigrate than those of their compatriots who are primarily English-speakers. What is more, if the example of other formerly officially privileged minorities elsewhere in the world is anything to go by, the Afrikaners' influence over South Africa's economic life will likely continue to be far out of proportion to their raw numbers for the forseeable future, whatever Thabo Mbeki may dream about black "empowerment" through aggressive affirmative-action and government-mandated firesales. As much as I identified with the black South African cause during the 1980s, I didn't actually live under apartheid myself, so I'm not in much of a position to preach emotional detachment on such an issue to those who did; even so, I'd still urge against a blanket refusal to learn anything about Afrikaans. It likely will prove a useful language to know for the foreseeable future, not just because of its usage by the majority of white South Africans, but also because it is the primary language of the "Coloured" population, amongst whom the ability to get along in English cannot be so cavalierly presumed as with white users of Afrikaans.
One thing that Afrikaans does have going for it is that it really isn't a difficult language to learn if one already knows English. As with English, and unlike all of the continental West-Germanic languages, nouns in Afrikaans have no gender; pronouns make no distinctions between case, nor do nouns have number distinctions; and in general, the grammar is a lot more regular than that of Dutch or (horror of horrors) German. Another good thing to be said for Afrikaans, and which also happens to be true of German, is that things are usually pronounced as they are spelled, which isn't all that true of Dutch, and far too often untrue of ye** olde Englishe language.
*In the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, that is.
**Actually, English never used "ye" for "the"; confusion arose on this issue only because "the" used to be written as "ðe", where "ð" is the archaic symbol for "edh", and is pronounced, as would be expected, just like the "th" sound in "the" and "weather." With the appearance of the printing press in Europe, typesetters lacking the "ð" symbol often press-ganged the letter "y" into service as a substitute, and the pseudo-archaisms to be seen on many a shop's signpost are just one more symptom of how badly English-language spelling has strayed from any correspondence with the manner in which words are pronounced.
Thursday, January 01, 2004
Testing the Amazon Referrer Button
I just wanted to see how this would look on my weblog without actually doing any damage to the main one.
Monday, April 07, 2003
We've never had it so good - and it's all thanks to science
Matt Ridley has a nice article in the Guardian about the benefits of scientific discovery, and the negative consequences of kneejerk European and environmentalist opposition to new technologies like genetically modified organisms.
It's been, what, 8 months since I last updated this blog? Let's just say that I've had a lot more free time on my hands lately than I used to ...
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Why SETI is a Waste of Time - Part II
I have a question for those gullible enough to believe in "little green men" of the sort seen in Fox's Alien Autopsy - why would any reasonable person expect aliens to look like hairless, bipedal primates? This strains credibility, given that were it possible to run through the history of life on earth once more, the chances of creatures like ourselves arising would be essentially none. We almost certainly wouldn't be here were it not the Permian and Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinctions, neither of which were in any way destined to occur.
Beyond the odds stacked against creatures like the primates appearing on planets other than our own, it would still strain credibility to think it likely that some of these creatures would develop the precision grip that has made possible our ability to make sophisticated tools (and I use the term "sophisticated" for a good reason - other great apes can make simple tools by, for instance, stripping branches of their leaves and then using them to fish for ants, but as they all lack a precision grip, none of them are even physiologically - much less mentally - equipped to make stone tools of even the simple Oldowan variety).
We have to face the fact that if life does exist on other planets, it is unlikely to be intelligent in anything like the same sense in which we understand the term. Even if it is intelligent, it is unlikely to share quite the same yearning we have to explore the reaches of space for other life-forms (a yearning, that, if one is being honest, is probably felt by no more than a marginal percentage of the earth's populace).
Saturday, August 03, 2002
The entry for monoamine oxidase a in the OMIM database seems to indicate a strong link between variation in this X-linked gene and violent behavior, and the recent news that a New Zealand study links a deficient form of the MOA-A gene to an increased risk of adult antisocial behavior in maltreated boys seems in accord with this information. Of course, one must be careful that this isn't a case of researchers finding precisely what they had set out expecting to find.
Sunday, July 07, 2002
On Hume and the Problem of Induction
We take it for granted that the sun will always rise and set with the same regularity that we have known all our lives, but there is no logical reason why this assumption should always hold. What if one day the sun were to suddenly go out like a light turned off at a switch, or, (worse yet?) exploded in a supernova, taking all of the planets with it? We say to ourselves "the laws of physics do not permit such a thing to occur," yet this statement relies on the constancy of the laws of physics from moment to moment, a state of affairs which may have held throughout the past (and we cannot be certain that the laws of physics have always been what they are at present), but for which we have no reason to believe must hold in the future.
Contemplating the logical possibility of the sudden and unexpected death of our solar system puts a peculiar perspective on the significance of life on our planet. What would it mean if all life on our planet were suddenly to be snuffed out? What possible significance would there be to a universe without life within it? I hear you say "Wait! Who says that ours is the only planet bearing life?" I grant that you have a point, but I am not one of those who imagine that the existence of life elsewhere is so probable as to be a certainty. Besides which, there is a conceit behind such thinking that I wish to expose, a conceit that also lies behind my own line of reasoning, and it is namely this - there must be a meaning, a purpose embedded in the existence of our universe, and this purpose can only be to facilitate the existence of life. But why must this be so?
Indeed, it no more need be so than that the sun should continue to exist for another billion years. It is logically possible to imagine a universe without life, a vast and complex universe, coming into being, evolving and eventually perishing, either by collapsing in upon itself or subsiding into heat death, without the epiphenomenon called life having any part to play into it. To assume otherwise would be to imagine the universe to be a show somehow put on for our or someone else's entertainment, a spectacle which would be rendered pointless without spectators.