Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1, edited by Chase F. Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This book covers the period from before Islam's rise to the 11th century. It begins with a substantial overview of the early Byzantine and late Sasanian empires, which became the arenas of Arab expansion soon after the start of the Muslim era.

A lot more is known about the Byzantine Empire than about the Sasanian one. The ancient Greek historical tradition, which went back to Herodotus and his predecessors, survived until the 7th century. Sasanian historical writings are much more meagre. Also, more archeological work has been done in the Mediterranean than in Iran.

It seems that the demographic, economic and cultural decline which affected Western Europe during the Dark Ages was felt in the Eastern Roman Empire as well, though to a lesser extent.

Instead of disappearing, most eastern cities shrank. Inside them fora, major thoroughfares and other public spaces were built over with private houses. Rubbish was dumped in buildings that fell out of use. Theaters, gymnasia, water supply systems and public baths were abandoned, while churches proliferated. In the countryside the area under cultivation decreased. The volume of trade went down, as did its range. Economies became more local. Anatolia and the Balkans suffered worse than other parts of the Eastern Empire.

Climate change may have been partly to blame:

"By about 500 CE the climatic situation was changing, with colder and wetter conditions persisting up to the mid ninth century."

You have to realize though that the complexity of elite Greek culture peaked in the 3rd century BC and then declined for many, many centuries afterwards. I'm willing to believe however that the coldness and wetness of the Dark Ages exacerbated pre-existing downward trends.

There's less data on Iran, but according to this book, "...the Sasanian world in general appears to have experienced a slow demographic downturn from the later third century onwards, as settlement surveys and sherd distribution analysis would seem to suggest..."

The Sasanian dynasty replaced the Parthian one in Iran in the 3rd century AD. It was more hostile to Rome than its predecessor, eventually killing three Roman emperors in war. Until the 7th century the Sasanians didn't try to occupy Roman territory though, raiding for booty and captives instead. They abducted tens of thousands of Roman citizens, many of them skilled craftsmen, in order to settle them in their realm.

"Roman prisoners of war built many of the roughly twenty Sasanian bridges and dams that are still to be seen today."

According to this book, the fiscal and military reforms of Diocletian and his successors were meant to make Rome more capable of dealing with the Sasanian threat. From what I understand, they were also attempts to bring internal order to the Roman Empire after the crisis of the 3rd century.

By the way, the estimates of late Roman taxation levels that are cited here range from 5%-7% to 25%. This reminded me that there are economists who assign numbers to the Roman GDP. The idiocy of these people is profound. Forget tax rates, there's a lively debate among historians on whether the city of Rome had 1,500,000 or 150,000 people at its imperial peak.

Both the Roman and Sasanian empires had multiethnic populations, but only the latter was politically ethno-nationalist. The ethnically non-Iranian parts of the Sasanian realm were called Aneran (un-Iran), and "ideologically, the people of Aneran remained second class inhabitants of the empire."

The Zoroastrian religion was much less universalist than Christianity, much more concerned with a specific country and people - Iran and Iranians.

The Sasanian shahs portrayed themselves as the heirs of an enormously long line of past Iranian rulers, although the names of individual Achaemenid kings were already forgotten by then. They did have a legend of the evil conqueror "Alexander of Rum" though, and another one that reinterpreted Alexander as a Persian prince.

Projecting modern ideological biases onto the past in a similarly closed-minded way, the authors of this book called the "distinct, quasi-‘nationalistic’ Sasanian Iranism" "a big drawback".

During the Byzantine-Sasanian wars Arab tribes were recruited as allies by both sides.

"...thanks to Roman-Persian rivalry Arab tribal society had become much more militarised than it had been in the past, and, just as important, much more conscious of the possibility of gaining access to the wealth of the settled Near East."

In the Persian-Byzantine war of 602-628 the Sasanians captured Egypt, the Levant and much of Anatolia. But then the Byzantine emperor Heraclius concluded an alliance with Turkic nomads, who rode in from the north to save him from total defeat. He was then able to recapture old Byzantine provinces right before losing them again to the Arabs.

"Muslim success may owe something to Roman war weariness, but that is a rather nebulous concept, possibly more appealing to scholars at their desks than to the sort of young men who actually filled the ranks of the Roman army. More important may have been the lack of ready cash. Heraclius had had to fight Persia without the revenues of Egypt and the Levant."

Unlike the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian state was entirely destroyed by the Arabs.

"The reasons for the priority for the conquest of Iran rather than the rump of the Roman empire might be the following: (a) it was Iran that had posed a steadily growing threat to the H.ijaz throughout the Prophet’s lifetime; (b) Islam acknowledged its affinity with Christianity, but could not but set itself against Zoroastrian dualism; (c) Iraq was much more exposed to counter attack across the Zagros than was Palestine, shielded as it was by Syria to the north. The issue of priority is crucial. For it is plain that Byzantium was ripe for the taking by the early 650s, and that it was ultimately saved by the outbreak of civil strife within the caliphate in 656. Then, and only then, were the Byzantines able to revive their spirits and reactivate the ideology of a Christian, Roman, world-shaping power." [...]

"In contrast to the large-scale, resource-intensive and protracted campaigns that were so typical of Byzantine-Sasanian warfare of the sixth and early seventh centuries, and which in at least some places resulted in widespread violence and social dislocation, the Islamic conquests of the mid seventh century read like a series of relatively short engagements (the great battle of al Qadisiyya is said to have lasted three days), which were made by relatively small and hit-and-run armies that rarely laid sieges of any length or produced casualties in large numbers. In many and perhaps most cases in the Byzantine provinces, local elites cut deals that avoided large scale violence."

The figures given by the Islamic sources for the numbers of Arab combatants are "often in the hundreds or low thousands; even a large army, such as the one that fought at al Qadisiyya, probably numbered no more than 10,000 or 12,000 men."

Wild nomads had been periodically conquering the centers of civilization since pre-historic times. They were more macho and used to war than settled peoples. A larger share of their male population had been in the saddle since childhood. Most settled folks were farmers instead. So really, the only unusual thing about the Arab conquest was its later religious impact.

This book repeatedly stresses that almost everything we know about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam was written two to three centuries after the fact, and not in marginally-literate Arabia, but in the old centers of Near Eastern civilization, in Syria and Iraq, by people who strove to justify their views of the politics of their own times.

Christian and Jewish sources confirm that there really was a man named Muhammad who made prophetic claims and who created a state in the early 7th century, but very little else can be said about him with certainty. By the way, it's mentioned here that the word Muhammad ("the praised one") was probably an epithet applied to him after the start of his religious career.

Western historians started questioning the official Christian views of the beginnings of Christianity back in the Enlightenment era. Since Islam was far less relevant to Western politics until recently, the same sort of academic skepticism wasn't applied to it until the last decades of the 20th century.

After the Byzantine and Sasanian armies were defeated, most of the civilian populations of the conquered areas accepted Arab rule without a fight. The new power's financial demands were modest. Life in the Christian communities of the Middle East went on as usual. Until the end of the 7th century the old Greek- and Persian-speaking bureaucracies continued to function without much interference from the Arab authorities.

"In sum, the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia was rather like a summer thunderstorm"..."terrifying while it lasted, but soon past and the damage promptly repaired."

For several decades after the conquest the Arabs did not try to convert the subject peoples to "Islam", whatever that meant at that point. When non-Arabs first started joining, they had to be incorporated into Arab tribal lineages by Arab patrons. The universality of Islam took some time to develop.

"Early Islam, outside the Hijaz, was the elite religion of a tribally-organised military. During the period of conquest the Islamic religion possessed only a rudimentary theology, which was probably even more basic among military units. Contemporary Byzantium might have perceived the conquest as a menacing rebellion and if they had noticed the religious dimension at all - an Arab heresy of Judaeo-Christian origin." [...]

"As for Islam, sophisticated Christian observers initially regarded it as little more than the inchoate cult of a few thousand barbarians; it could hardly threaten so deep-rooted and richly-elaborated a faith as Christianity."

While reading this book, it was fascinating for me to watch the various features of what we now understand as Islam emerge for the first time in the documentary record.

A papyrus receipt from Egypt dated with the year 22 (643 AD) is the first known use of the new Muslim calendar. Starting in 651 AD the phrase "bism allah", which some will remember from the Bohemian Rhapsody and which means "in the name of God", appears on some coins. But the word "allah" was used by pagan Arabs before Islam and continues to be used by Christian Arabs today.

For some years after the conquest Iranian coins continued to be struck with the images of Zoroastrian fire temples on one side and the names of old, dead shahs on the other. Starting about 661 AD the names of the shahs were replaced by those of the Arab-appointed governors, but the fire temples remained! Contemporary coins in the formerly Byzantine territories retained the Christian cross.

Caliph Muawiyah (661 - 680 AD) issued coins proclaiming him "the commander of the faithful", but with no other religious messages. A Christian source mentions him restoring a church in Edessa after it was damaged by an earthquake in 679.

In 680, after Muawiyah's death, there was a struggle for power, which led to a civil war among the Arabs. One of the claimants to the caliphal title, ibn Al Zubayr, wanted to emphasize his close ties to Muhammad's family and to the latter's real (or imagined) ideas, and through these to the origins of Arab rule in most of the Middle East.

Between 685 AD and 688 AD ibn al Zubayr issued coins in Iran that said "Muhammad is the messenger of God". But the portrait of the old shah and the fire temple still remained. Around 689 AD Zubayrid authorities created a coin which marks the first known appearance of "the shahada", the central Muslim message that "there is no God but God". In 691 they finally removed the Zoroastrian fire temple from these coins.

Ibn al Zubayr was defeated and killed soon after this, but his numismatic innovations were picked up by the winners. From that point on the symbols of the Arab state always conformed to what we now recognize as Islam.

If the religious ideas of the Arab conquerors were hazy at first, why did they later coalesce into something much more definite, and something so different from and opposed to Christianity and Judaism? This isn't really explored in this book, but I would point to the obvious fact that the Arab empire was a rival of Byzantium. So while monotheism was definitely the trend of the time, the Arab version of it was under no compulsion to follow the Byzantine model.

Also, the old cities of the Fertile Crescent which the Arabs conquered contained lots of intellectuals who were more than willing to engage in doctrinal debates which eventually defined, refined, and extended the new state's ideology. And to increase legitimacy, they would have tended to project their ideas back onto Muhammad, the state's founder.

As time went on, the non-Arab majority of the empire began to convert to the new, rapidly-evolving religion because it was the ideology of power. It's estimated here that Iran, for example, became majority Muslim around the middle of the 9th century AD. Egypt is thought to have become majority Muslim in the 9th century as well.

Simultaneously the descendants of the conquerors intermarried with the locals. There was a change of dynasty in 750 AD, which involved troops from Iran, probably of mixed Arab/Persian character, replacing Syrian Arab troops as the basis of the caliphal army. This new dynasty, the Abbasids, downplayed the Arab identity of the empire in favor of the Muslim one, which was by then already understood by many to be universalist.

As people of Arab descent became a minority among Muslims, Muslim armies and Islam's governing elite, the beduins reverted to their old poverty and obscurity. In a few centuries their alienation form the structures created by their ancestors became so strong that they started to rob the caravans of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, and occasionally even plundered the Kaaba.

Various Iranian Muslim groups rose to power at different times. Then, in the 9th century, Muslims started raiding the Central Asian steppe, capturing Turkic slaves in order to employ them as professional soldiers. Steppe nomads were always good at war, so it's not surprising that in time they ended up dominating the military profession in most of the Islamic world. The enslavement of these nomads seems only to have been OK if they were pagans. Spaniards had a similar attitude to slavery in the Americas in later centuries.

One of the most interesting episodes of this period was the revolt of the Zanj:

"This Arabic word denotes blacks originating from the East African coast. Large numbers of East African slaves had, in the later first/seventh century [Glossy: Muslim/Christian calendar], been brought to work in southern Iraq under harsh conditions. In the third/ninth century we find gangs of Zanj kept in conditions of acute hardship and misery and working in the marshlands (al bat.apih.) of lower Iraq, removing the nitrous topsoil (sibakh) to reclaim the land for cultivation."

The Zanj revolt was led by an Arab who promised them "revenge against their oppressors, riches and slaves of their own" and who "made good on these promises to a remarkable extent" in the next few years.

"The local and caliphal authorities were unable to defend against the Zanj, who moved swiftly on interior lines, hidden by the swamps. They seized the main cities of lower Iraq and neighbouring Khuzistan, including Basra, Wasit, Abbadan and Ahwaz. They slaughtered many inhabitants, but did not occupy these cities permanently: all the Abbasid forces could do was to enter these ruined centres of early Islamic civilisation and survey the devastation."

This revolt was only suppressed with great difficulty. While rebellions were numerous, almost all of them were ideologically Islamic. The only exceptions were the Muslim-Christian conflict in Spain and the unsuccessful attempt by a man named Mardavij to revive a Zoroastrian state in Iran in the early 930s AD.

In the later 9th century the caliphate, which was never very centralized, began to definitely break up into a patchwork of virtually-independent states.

This book's editor dealt with that by devoting separate chapters to various Islamic regions. However, the authors of these chapters did not coordinate among themselves, so they often recounted events that affected more than one region separately, needlessly repeating things.

I was struck by this description of the Ibadi imamate in Oman:

"In its structure and ideas the Imamate differed considerably from the Caliphate. There was no ruling family and no hereditary succession. It was a tribal community in which the leader was elected by a group of elders (namely, religious scholars), took his decisions by consultation, had no privileged position, and had only limited authority to compel military service."

This is very unusual for the Middle East, whose politics, like daily life, normally revolves around extended families instead.

The chapter on Syria mentions the survival of a pagan, astral religion in Harran, near the modern Syrian-Turkish border, into Islamic times. We normally think of late remnants of paganism as hiding in remote, inaccessible areas like the Caucasus, Afghanistan or the Kurdish mountains, but Harran was a substantial town in a well-settled region.

The chapter on Egypt explained to me for the first time how Nile irrigation worked:

"Out of the flood had emerged the system of ‘basin’ irrigation, under which the floodwater was formed into artificial lakes by long earthen banks to allow it to soak into the soil. A collective effort was required to build the banks, and to open and close the entrances each year."

Of course I knew about the Nile floods, but when I saw the word "irrigation" in reference to Egypt, I always imagined canals, not this.

There seems to have been more immigration and settlement of Arabs in Egypt than in the other parts of the empire. They took local wives in the Spaniards-in-America fashion, and the authors attribute the gradual decline of Egyptian Christianity and the Coptic language to that more than to conversion.

The area where Arabs encountered most resistance early on was the Berber Maghreb. And this makes sense: who would be a match for desert nomads if not other desert nomads?

"In contrast, the narrative of the conquest of Hispania in 92/711 recalls a similar pattern to the invasions in Byzantine and Sasanian territories: after one pitched battle and the defeat of the king’s army the Visigothic administration crumbled, clearing the way for an Arab rule which consolidated with remarkable ease and no serious challenges."

After the death of a Visigothic king of Spain named Witiza his sons fought against an usurper named Roderic. It seems that they were the ones who invited the Arabs and their Berber allies to the country. The Muslims defeated Roderic and, having taken power, confirmed the extensive land holdings of the sons of Witiza. Their descendants through a female line became the leading Muslim families in Seville in later centuries. The intermarriage of the Visigothic elite with the commanders of the conquerors seems to have been common.

Coins struck in Spain by the victors in 711 AD featured the shahada in Latin: "Non Deus Nisi Deus Non Deus Alius."

The survival of the Persian language in Iran is made particularly remarkable by the fact that Latin was dying in Muslim Spain:

"In a celebrated text a Cordoban Mozarab called Alvarus complained that in his time only one among a thousand Christians was able to write a letter in Latin." [...]

" the fourth/tenth century Christian sacred books were being translated into Arabic in significant numbers, which bears witness that even among Christian populations that language was more widespread than Latin."

Of course some Spanish Christians fought Muslims in the north, but there were cases of extraordinary defiance in the south as well:

"The voluntary martyrs thus presented themselves to the judge of Cordoba, hurling blasphemy and abuse against the Prophet and Islam in the full knowledge that this left the official no choice but to condemn them to death in application of the law. As a result almost fifty Christians were executed in Cordoba between 850 and 859."

One of this volume's final chapters reviews the history of the Western study of Islam. It says that a lot of progress was made during the Cold War, when Western governments needed specialists who could help them influence Muslim countries. They increased the funding of the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and that eventually trickled down to historic research in the same way that the funding of military technology during the same era indirectly led to scientific advances.

This implies that the area of Islamic studies may produce remarkable results in the next couple of decades, as some of the smarter members of the enormous horde of failed spooks bred by Western governments after 9/11 slowly grope their way out towards the light of historic scholarship.     ř

Monday, February 20, 2017


Via Vox Day I saw this Daily Mail article on 1970s British PM Edward Heath.

"The police chief investigating claims that Sir Edward Heath was a paedophile is convinced the allegations are ‘120 per cent’ genuine, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
More than 30 people have come forward with claims of sexual abuse by the former Conservative Prime Minister, according to well-placed sources. 
And they are said to have given ‘strikingly similar’ accounts of incidents to Wiltshire Police – even though the individuals are not known to each other.
The Mail on Sunday has been told that Wiltshire Chief Constable Mike Veale regards the allegations as ‘totally convincing’, and plans to publish a report in June."
Astonishingly, Mr Veale is also understood to support claims that Sir Edward’s alleged crimes were reported to police years ago but covered up by the Establishment."
There's a theory that this sort of thing is more common among the Brit elite than in the general population because a lot of the Brit elite grew up at single-sex boarding schools, and not at home. This idea assumes that the imprinting theory of sexuality is correct.
According to Heath's Wiki article, he did go to a single-sex school, but it was so close to his birthplace, that he almost certainly lived at home then. Still, I got curious enough to look through the first few pages of one of his biographies on Amazon.
"Inevitably he was prominent among the school prefects."[...]
"But though he was allowed to use a gym-shoe to beat recalcitrant schoolboys, he rarely availed himself of the opportunity."
"Rarely" is more than once. What exactly is meant here? Wiki explains:
"In the United Kingdom, especially in England and Wales, the slipper was a common implement for administering corporal punishment in schools for students of both genders and all ages.[...]
"Slipper" is a misnomer, as the usual item of footwear used was the plimsoll, or gymshoe or tennis shoe, with a fabric upper and a heavy rubber or synthetic sole.[...]
A typical gym shoe, which was actually used in a school in Lincolnshire, is shown on the left.[...]
Boys aged between 11 and 16 were required to bend over and received up to 12 hard whacks on the seat of the trousers."
I knew that there was corporal punishment in British schools until recently, but I didn't know that they used shoes for that or that some of it was administered by students to other students.
It reminded me of Rousseau saying in his Confessions that his life-long desire to be pushed around by powerful women, as well as to be whipped by them, was born when a 30-year-old woman whipped him for some misdemeanor when he was 8. He boarded with her and her husband then. I don't think they were related to him.
This is all very anecdotal of course. I have feeling that the imprinting theory explains at least some of the variation in human sexuality, however. And I'm not alone in this. Back to the Daily Mail article:
"Some of those who said Sir Edward abused them are believed to have told police they went on to commit sexual abuse crimes themselves as a result."
The most astonishing thing here, though, is that this was kept under wraps during Heath's life. There were rumors, but he ascended the peak of British politics anyway.
You'd think that a rival politician could have exploited this. People do a lot to gain power. Some think that Churchill's father went insane because his bid for Prime Ministership failed. I remember watching an American documentary where someone said, completely seriously, that there are people who would kill to become a US senator.
Why couldn't a rival get some journos to interview some of Heath's victims? Because all of the newspapers were owned by people who were satisfied with Heath? Why not get some foreign newspaper to do this then, an American one for example? Or a French one. The news would have gotten back home, and he probably wouldn't have been reelected in his constituency.
Also, Heath had a long career. The people in charge of the police in Britain must have changed a few times during it. And all of them wanted to protect him until ten years after his death?
If things that are only important to a few people (Heath and, likely, a few dozen victims) could be hushed up so thoroughly for such a long time by the political system, with nothing but rumors escaping, what about bigger, more important things like secret government policies? The reality of politics could be weirder than we imagine.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

YouTube Links

First, Rigamaroo by a band called Sleepy Sun. I love the album cover in the video, but not as much as the song.

I first heard this song in a supermarket a month or two ago. Googled its lyrics, noted its name and then found it on YouTube at home. I doubt the younger generation understands how elusive music was before the Internet. If you heard something amazing on the radio, you might never hear it again. The announcers didn't always name the titles and the bands, and record stores carried a tiny fraction of what you can now see online.

When lyrics first became searchable I found a long list of songs I dreamed of hearing for ages. Not everything though. For example, there was this incredible song by a young English woman whose name I forgot. I remember the style and exactly how it made me feel, but unfortunately none of the lyrics, so it just can't be found.

Back to the Decembrists, here's a live version of Down by the Water from NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. It's not as good as the album track, but look at the fiddler. A very attractive woman. This, with her, her brother and a pianist, is also good.

I love the Tiny Desk Concerts in general. I've never found anything wrong with the SWPL aesthetics or sensibilities, just with the politics.

This is great for example. But the best Fountains of Wayne song I know of is Sink to the Bottom. Even though the singer speaks with an American accent, he was born in Britain, which is where the humor in the lyrics obviously comes from.

Here's Suzanne Vega's Tiny Desk Concert. The song I Never Wear White was new to me. It's like Left of Center with colors, but she's an amazing lyricist, probably the best female one I know of, so she can make simple ideas like that work great. The best Suzanne Vega songs I'm aware of are the original a capella Tom's Diner (of course), Marlena on the Wall, St. ClareThe Queen and the Soldier, A Small Blue Thing, and Knight Moves.

The last time I did a post like this I mentioned the Canadian band Metric. I love this song of theirs.

Years ago someone correlated people's musical preferences, as revealed on their Facebook pages, with the average SAT scores of the colleges they attended to produce a list of the smartest and dumbest musicians. Number two, behind Beethoven, was a guy named Sufjan Stevens. This whole post has gone in a very SWPLy direction for some reason, and there's really not much more SWPLy in life than this song of his. But it's also good. And he does sound smart.

The Cranberries aren't SWPL, which may have something to do with the fact that their Tiny Desk concert isn't representative of how awesome they are. My favorite Cranberries songs are Disappointment, Twenty-one, Pretty (these two have a similar mood; I wish there was a third song like that in the Universe), Not SorryEmpty, No Need to Argue, Dreaming My Dreams, I Still Do, How, Waltzing Back, Ridiculous Thoughts, Sunday, Yeat's Grave, Linger (which was the first one I heard of theirs), Ode to My Family (which was the one that made me buy a cassette tape of theirs in 1994 or 1995), I Can't Be With You and So Cold in Ireland. The quality went down after the second album, but there are some good things in this song and in this solo single too.

By the way, if for some reason your taste in music is similar to mine, you might enjoy this other post of mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Language History

I recently wrote here about the Cambridge Histories. I ended up choosing to read the New Cambridge History of Islam first. I'm now about 58% through its first volume, and will post a review here once I get to the end. It's fascinating.

Since I wrote that post I became aware of the existence of a 6-volume Cambridge History of the English Language. I love linguistics and will likely read that whole thing eventually. That made me want to look at histories of other languages.

It turned out that the largest history of French contains 26 volumes which appeared between 1905 and 2000. However, the great majority of these were published before 1938. They were republished between 1966 and 1979, but I'm under the impression that only the bibliographies were updated then, not the main text. A lot of research must have gone on since then, so much of this stuff is probably obsolete.

The biggest modern history of French seems to be the 2-volume effort by Alain Rey. I bought its first volume through iBooks and browsed it a bit. It's much more pop-sci than the Cambridge History of English. So I don't know what I'll do with French yet.

I also looked for histories of Russian. I haven't found anything huge and thorough yet, but while searching I came upon this great video of professor Andrey Zaliznyak talking about the history of Russian for an hour. I already knew a lot of this, but it was fascinating to watch one of the biggest minds in that field express these things in his own words in real time. And some of what he said I didn't know until now.


During the middle ages the two main forms of Russian were the Novgorodian dialect and "all the rest". The differences between the speech of Vladimir, Moscow, Tver', Kiev, Chernigov, Polotsk etc. were minor, even though this huge area is now divided between three official state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. But the difference between the language of this huge area on the one hand, and the Novgorodian dialect on the other, were considerable. The latter covered all of northeastern Russia, the area where original-Slavs mixed with Estonian-like Finnic speakers.

Zaliznyak implied that the Novgorodian dialect was the most divergent member of the Slavic branch in general and that it must have split from the original Slavic core very early, perhaps before all the others. He said that in the earliest available birch bark letters, ones written in the 11th century, the differences between the Novgorodian dialect and the rest of Russian were largest, and that during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries Novgorodian speech gradually moved towards the dialect of the rest of Rus'. The dialect of Pskov, situated at the north-western edge of both medieval Rus' and modern Russia, was even more divergent than the Novgorodian one.

Zaliznyak said that this last bit of info - the greater divergence of the Novgorodian dialect at the start of Russian history than in the later Middle Ages - was only established in the last 25 years through the study of birch bark letters.

He also said that up through the 13th century the Novgorodians did not apply the word Rus' to themselves. In the 9th and 10th centuries this word only described Varangians, in the early 11th century it began to describe all of the people in the area around Kiev, including Preyaslavl and Chernigov. Then the definition widened to all of the Rurikid principalities except for Novgorod. And by the 14th century even Novgorodians started calling themselves Rus'. But there are birch bark letters from the 13th century where Novgorodians talk about Rus' as some other land that one could visit. By the way, in this interview Zaliznyak cautiously supported the theory that the original source of the word Rus' is the Norse word meaning "rowers".

Why did Zaliznyak talk so much about the Novgorodian dialect? First because he's the chief authority on birch bark letters, most of which were unearthed in Novgorod. Second, because the medieval Novgorodian dialect ended up greatly affecting modern standard Russian in which this interview was conducted.

In the late 15th century Novgorod lost an epic power struggle with Moscow. It's plausible to me that this might have had something to do with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The agricultural productivity and population size of the far north would have probably gone down then. But this wasn't discussed in this interview because it was about language instead.

In the aftermath of Moscow's victory Ivan III ordered a series of population transfers. A lot of Novgorodians were resettled in the Muscovite heartland. The Novgorodian merchant elite was settled in the city of Moscow. And a lot of peasants from central Russia were settled in Novgorodian lands. I guess the logic was "if we disperse them, mixing them with others, they're not going to revolt." The Assyrian Empire did this in antiquity, as did many other states throughout the ages.

How large was the Novgorodian contribution to the later Muscovite language? Zaliznyak kind of implied that it was about half. I was surprised by that. And he gave some examples.

By the way, in the discussion that I linked to in this post someone theorized that Novgorodian influence is the reason why Russian is the most archaic modern Slavic language. The Novgorodian dialect split from the Slavic core early on and then moved towards the edge of the earth, touching on the Arctic Ocean. So for a while (we're talking 7th through 10th centuries) it was probably insulated from general Slavic trends, preserving some archaic features.

Anyway, this was all very interesting for me to listen to. If you got this far in this post, you might be a language nerd.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A New Quatrain

I wrote another quatrain for my big Credo poem last Sunday:

We cannot explain tradition
Any better than a spleen
Can expound upon its mission
Of maintaining our blood clean.

At first I thought "maybe I worded this too strongly". But no, what we have is, surely, a mixture of correct and incorrect explanations of individual parts of traditional systems of morality. But every part interacts with every other, and the system only works as a whole. How would progress in the understanding of the whole look like? The changes that we introduce would lead to better outcomes.

There was a moment in the history of medicine when knowledge about individual parts accumulated to such an extent that life expectancy started to rise, indicating that medicine as a whole started doing more good than harm. I don't think such a change has happened yet in the arena of rational thinking about politics and morals. So I would say that our current explanations of tradition as a whole aren't any more useful, aren't any better, than a complete lack of explanations would have been.


Now a bit on how poetry works:

Everyone understands rhyme, but few understand meter, which is at least as important. It's possible to read and enjoy lots of poetry and song lyrics that contain meter, and yet be unaware of it.

Meter is essentially rhythm. If you're rhyming two lines, they will sound better if you make them conform to the same rhythmic pattern.

By rhythmic pattern I mean the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the word "pattern" contains two syllables: "pa", which is stressed and "ttern", which is unstressed. If we represent stressed syllables by slashes and unstressed ones by dashes, "pattern" will look like this:


Here is the rhythmic pattern of the first line of my quatrain above:


In this poem I rhyme alternate lines within each quatrain, so the first line rhymes with the third one. And they have the same rhythmic pattern.

There's one complication here though. In other quatrains in this same poem the first line is  /-/-/-/- while the third one is --/-/-/- or vice versa. Yet that sounds OK. Why? I guess at some level the brain interprets --/-/-/- as a variation on the simpler, more regular /-/-/-/-. So /-/-/-/- becomes the expectation. By the way, the fancy term for /-/-/-/-  is trochaic tetrameter. It seems to be OK to put an unstressed syllable where a stressed one is expected, but not vice versa. At least that's been my experience. If you put a stressed syllable where the reader has come to expect an unstressed one, the effect is often unpleasant.

People like both repetition and variety. There is a happy middle somewhere between these two things which a good poet, musician or writer can find, and which the bad ones miss. Of course, the smarter the audience, the less repetition it likes.

One way to insert some variety into a poem is to alternate lines that end in a stressed syllable with lines that end in a unstressed one. I like this effect a lot, so I'm using it in this poem. It makes the writing process harder though because in English the number of two-syllable rhymes (like tradition/mission above) is more limited than the number of one-syllable rhymes like spleen/clean.

Why do people enjoy listening to rhyme and meter? I don't know. Maybe a liking for rhythm prevented our hunter-gatherer ancestors from getting bored on long walks, allowing them to walk further. Think of soldiers' marching songs: they're all heavy on rhythm and have a meter.

But that's a guess. As I was trying to say in my above quatrain, our ability to understand why we are the way we are is limited. The evolutionary and cultural forces that made us were much too complex for us to understand them fully.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Listening to French News

According to my hobby time spreadsheet, last year I spent almost 53 hours listening to French news, mostly to France2's 8 PM newscast. I think it's France's main TV news show. Some impressions:

They do cover the terrorist incidents thoroughly. And they always say the perps' names, all of which are Muslim. Radicalization and "Daech" are mentioned frequently. For every successful attack there are several failed ones, and they cover those as well.

A long time ago I used to watch British prime minister's question time on C-SPAN, and it became clear to me then that British politicians are much smarter on average than American or Russian ones. It's not because there aren't any super smart people in Russia or America. But in both of those countries there seems to be a popular understanding that leaders shouldn't be very different from regular guys. For some reason that kind of a feeling is weaker in Britain.

Well, watching French news made me think that maybe the French are closer to the Brits on that than to Russians or Americans. I don't think that makes France and Britain better-governed though.

Among the politicians I've seen interviewed on France2's set was Marine Le Pen. The anchor treated her like an insane person who required a lot of benevolent patience.

One thing I didn't expect was France2's heavy focus on French industry. They do a lot of positive segments about French companies trying to conquer the global market. The viewer is supposed to root for them in a citizenist-patriotic way.

By the way, they call those segments "Made in France". How many English terms do they use in general? Fewer than modern Russians, more than late-Soviet-era Russians. It's funny to see them borrow words that they themselves lent to English long ago. For example, the French election system has primaries now, and they call them "primaires".

The first time I hear a segment I probably understand about half of it. I think by the 5th or 6th time I'm close to 99%. Then I obsessively replay the words that I missed, trying to figure them out. It becomes a challenge. It's common to misinterpret where the word boundaries are, so I mentally cut up the obscure utterance in various ways, looking for sense. Sometimes there's a "eureka!" moment. More often there's a "you dumbass!" moment after I finally give up and turn on the subtitles. Then I replay the trouble-causing segment a couple more times, trying to see how I could have missed it.

When I learned to understand spoken English and Spanish in the early 1990s I didn't have the luxury of replay. Well, I guess I could have made VHS tapes. But I didn't. I let obscure words wizz by me and listened on.

This replay system fits my nerdy personality much better. I like to be thorough.

By the way, all of the above concerns what I hear from France2's anchors and correspondents or from politicians. When they interview flood victims in shelters or the proverbial man on the street, I understand much less. This must be partly because newsmen and pols speak more clearly. But I suspect that it's also a question of regional and class-based accents. I'm really looking forward to figuring them out. Each dialect and accent of a language is a unique attitude.

I have exactly zero experience speaking French. My plan is to sign up with Italki once I improve my ability to understand it when it's spoken. As for visiting, no desire at all. I hate being a tourist, and you can see all the sights online.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Peeling Funny?

A horse's neigh is equivocal,
While on the sunny coasts of Spain
Provincial nuthouses are local.
They'll treat a mare that's gone insane.