Esteemed thinker: Noah Webster

Eskimo

If you have ever been stymied by the loss of a word, unable to describe an object or a feeling, you are not alone. In English, as in many languages, we institute an adjective, a metaphor, or a simile to help us along. For example, let us think about snow. If it is a flurry we may call it a light snow and if it is coming down like a blizzard we may say it a heavy snow. However, in the land of snow and ice where the weather is hostile to most who inhabit the earth, there are people who communicate with snow; and within their language are lexemes (vocabulary) to describe the variety of conditions relating to snow. The Inuit/Eskimo language is credited for having over 100 of these terms however, linguistics claim the distinction is more like 50. But, regardless of the number, I believe we may all agree that it is quite eloquent a notion that one can find snow so expressive when the rest of us spend much of the winter discrediting it to nothing more than a nuisance.

Today’s blog brings to you the man who brought to us words in a compact manner, the dictionary. Allow me to introduce the esteemed thinker: Noah Webster (1758-1843). Best known for his noteworthy accomplishment as the American lexicographer, he was also a Founding Father. Born in Connecticut he grew up during the colonial days, becoming a Federalist who supported the efforts of creating a new nation. A leading statesman, who was a confidant of both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Webster was in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention writing influential essays on behalf of the nation’s founding document. Noah Webster

In 1783, he published the American Spelling Book; a text that was so popular it outsold every book in the 19th century except the Bible. He founded the first daily newspaper in New York City, American Minerva, as well as helping to establish Amherst College. However, it was in 1828’s publication of the two volumes American Dictionary of the English Language that we best remember him for. Webster was a change agent, known as the “father of copyright,” he remained active throughout his life promoting and legislating copyright protection.

I now bring you a snippet from a letter he penned to Senator Daniel Webster in 1826.

“When I was in England in 1825 I learned that the British Parliament had, a few years before, enacted a new law on copyrights, by which the rights of authors were much extended. This led me to attempt to procure a new law in the United States, giving a like extension to the rights of authors. My first attempt appears in the following letter [to the Hon. Daniel Webster, dated September 30, 1826]:—

‘Since the celebrated decision, respecting copyright, by the highest British tribunal, it seems to have been generally admitted that an author has not a permanent and exclusive right to the publication of his original works at common law; and that he must depend wholly on statutes for his enjoyment of that right. As I firmly believe this decision to be contrary to all our best established principles of right and property, and as I have reason to think such a decision would not now be sanctioned by the authorities of this country, I sincerely desire that while you are a member of the House of Representatives in Congress your talents may be exerted in placing this species of property on the same footing as all property, as to exclusive right and permanence of possession…’”

First image: On the way to sea @1900

Esteemed thinker: David Hume

mic With each generation there comes change and with each generation there are those who look back at their elders as being rather antiquated. Changes within the generations are often parallel with technological advancements, relegating the elders into the unintentional but often considered outdated group. As change has ambushed the populations of the world so have many of the once heralded skills that have now been relegated as something one either does not partake in or “picks up” as they go along…such is the art of “eloquence”. Ahhh, a term that presently has been modified to mean something other than its original connotation, “a skillful way with words.”

There was once a time when the fine art of speaking, oration, was eloquence; when writing was eloquence, and those who attributed their time and learning to “eloquence” were looked upon with great regard. Yet rarely do we hear speakers of such finesse that we would call he or she an orator, and rarely in our day’s occurrences do we read anything which could be identified with such a title as eloquence, for with its meaning too has its execution been diminished.

So, for those who yearn for eloquence they will have to look back in time for certainly in the sound bites of today’s world, your “eloquent writing” would be snipped before you even got started …for after all… 140 characters is all you are allocated in a “tweet”!

David Hume Today’s blog takes us into the 1700s with the esteemed thinker: David Hume (1711-1776)born in Edinburgh, he was a Scottish philosopher , historian, economist, and recognized by contemporary philosophers as precursor to cognitive science. He was considered a skeptic regarding philosophy and relentless critic of religion and metaphysics. Although best known for his Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and six volumes on The History of England (1754 -1762), Hume made two other major lasting contributions to economics. One is his idea that economic freedom is necessary condition for political freedom. The second is his assertion that “you cannot deduce ought from is”—that is, value judgments cannot be made purely on the basis of facts.

I now bring you the words of Mr. Hume who will expound further about “eloquence” and which was eloquently snipped from his essay, so aptly titled “Eloquence” (1742).

“…in many respects, of an opposite character to the ancient; and that, if we be superior in philosophy, we are still, notwithstanding all our refinements, much inferior in eloquence…In enumerating the great men, who have done honour to our country, we exult in our poets and philosophers; but what orators are ever mentioned? Or where are the monuments of their genius to be met with? There are found, indeed, in our histories, the names of several, who directed the resolutions of our parliament: But neither themselves nor others have taken the pains to preserve their speeches; and the authority, which they possessed, seems to have been owing to their experience, wisdom, or power, more than to their talents for oratory. At present, there are above half a dozen speakers in the two houses, who, in the judgment of the public, have reached very near the same pitch of eloquence; and no man pretends to give any one the preference above the rest. This seems to me a certain proof, that none of them have attained much beyond a mediocrity in their art, and that the species of eloquence, which they aspire to, gives no exercise to the sublimer faculties of the mind, but may be reached by ordinary talents and a slight application….

One is somewhat at a loss to what cause we may ascribe so sensible a decline of eloquence in later ages. The genius of mankind, at all times, is, perhaps, equal: The moderns have applied themselves, with great industry and success, to all the other arts and sciences: And a learned nation possesses a popular government; a circumstance which seems requisite for the full display of these noble talents: But notwithstanding all these advantages, our progress in eloquence is very inconsiderable, in comparison of the advances, which we have made in all other parts of learning…”

Second image: Oil portrait of Hume by David Ramsay (1776)

Esteemed thinker: George Santayana

telephone operator The utterance of sound comes in forms that are pleasing to the ear or displeasing to the psyche. We may be aroused by the mellow song of a lark coming through the window or may shudder when awakened out of a sound sleep by the ringing of a renegade alarm clock. The sounds we hear when we rise from bed may set our mood happily, such as the coffee pot starting its every day routine, or it may propel us into gloom such as by way of the newscaster giving us our daily dose of troubles.

Most all creatures in the world use their voice to convey sounds that may produce harmony or disharmony.
The dog barks in a threatening growl to warn or in a series of light snips to greet. The cat hisses when you accidentally step on its tail, (a most unpleasant cry and experience for both the stepper and steppe), or it may meow in a truly affectionate manner hoping that you will give it your attention.

But as for humans, we have been granted sounds that go beyond the ordinary; we have the gift of speech, the ability to communicate in staccato, such as with an imperative sentence… “Watch out!” or those laced in metaphor as in poetry. The sounds that flow from our lips are a powerful tool and can leave an impression deeper than one’s footprint stuck in mud. The first time a baby learns to say ‘mama’ or ‘dada’, we are elated, for this sense of recognition is now a bond that goes beyond mere sounds.

And so, as we journey through the day and into the night the sounds we make, may it be a sigh, a groan, or dinner conversation, can play a most significant role. For with each utterance that we generate, there is some individual or creature that receives it… we can make music to the ears or not… but with certainty and limited effort, it is quite an extraordinary feat to create… this thing we call sound…

George_Santayana For today’s post I present to you the esteemed thinker: George Santayana (1863- 1952). Born in Madrid, Spain, he was a philosopher, critic, essayist, novelist, poet and known for being a naturalist before it became a popular subject. Rivaling Emerson in literary accomplishments, he made relationships between literature, art, religion and philosophy prominent themes throughout his writings. Santayana received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1889 and was a faculty member at Harvard University from 1889 to 1912, eventually earning a place now called Classical American Philosophy. He is notably remembered for his quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

From his book Reason in Art, I have extracted for you a small portion from the chapter titled “Speech and Signification”. Take time to ponder the words of Mr. Santayana for his thoughts and concepts are most provocative.

“Music rationalises sound, but a more momentous rationalising of sound is seen in language. Language is one of the most useful of things, yet the greater part of it still remains (what it must all have been in the beginning) useless and without ulterior significance. The musical side of language is its primary and elementary side. Man is endowed with vocal organs so plastic as to emit a great variety of delicately varied sounds; and by good fortune his ear has a parallel sensibility, so that much vocal expression can be registered and confronted by auditory feeling. It has been said that man’s pre-eminence in nature is due to his possessing hands; his modest participation in the ideal world may similarly be due to his possessing tongue and ear. For when he finds shouting and vague moaning after a while fatiguing, he can draw a new pleasure from uttering all sorts of labial, dental, and gutteral sounds. Their rhythms and oppositions can entertain him, and he can begin to use his lingual gamut to designate the whole range of his perceptions and passions…

Language had originally no obligation to subserve an end which we may sometimes measure it by now, and depute to be its proper function, namely, to stand for things and adapt itself perfectly to their structure. In language as in every other existence idealism precedes realism, since it must be a part of nature living its own life before it can become a symbol for the rest and bend to external control. The vocal and musical medium is, and must always remain, alien, to the spatial… Yet when sounds were attached to an event or emotion, the sounds became symbols for that disparate fact…”

First image: Title: TELEPHONE OPERATORS, Creator(s): Harris & Ewing, photographer, Date created/Published: [between 1914 and 1917]

Walt Whitman and our changing language

walt whitman 2 The more we know the more we don’t know…in other words, as we amass awareness of our world, through whatever means you choose, it becomes evidently clear that there is so much more than meets the eye; and as our interests grow, then too do we realize that we understand only a fraction of what is available… or what is not available to the intellect.

And as this vast amount of knowledge continues to expand like a field of weeds in the summer, so too does the terminology and acronyms that accompany such information. There are professions that appear to thrive on such abbreviated phrases making outsiders feel less than adequate… for example: JSON – JavaScript Object Notation, or PCI-X Peripheral Component Interconnect Extended … (and I thought java was coffee; and when did an X stand for the word extended! ) As our knowledge base flourishes; interestingly, our conversational vernacular seems to be decreasing as well as becoming more abridged….until we whittle away a complete thought in a modified text…Not that this is bad; just… shall we say…it is like taking one bite out of the cake..by-passing the lemon filling that the baker so intended for you to savor.

Authors that were once widely read by the literate public can be a daunting task in the 21st century. But one would have to wonder why… after all, with all our technology and availability to access information, we would assume that discovering Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce, Flaubert, and even Poe would be less of a challenge today. However, in defense of present day readers, we can also take into account that our language has changed; whereby words and their placement within the sentence have been modified since the days of yore.

And then too there is that pesky nuance that seems to plague us…attention span… many folks do not appear to find that they enjoy having to decipher material that takes time. For many “time” is precious and therefore immediacy is gratifying…hence abbreviations have become the norm.

On the other hand, language can be simple and at the same time complex in idea; it can evoke questions, push to the limits ideals, but with these abstractions comes “think time.” Whereby I would encourage the reader to dip into the workings of literary geniuses as one would take a walk in a forest rather than running like a deer into the thickets, for we would not like all things to change in response to our impatient world… (I imagine that those who like their spirits “aged” would wince at the idea of stepping up the process… I rest my case!)

walt whitman 3 And so I bring to you our esteemed thinker: Walt Whitman, a man who changed the face of poetry during his lifetime; believing that the everyday language of his fellow American was and should be celebrated. He glorified people in all walks of life, nature, and the landscape we know as the United States. His direct and matter of fact ways, his connection with manual labor and heart transformed the poetic ideals of the 19th century… a most radical innovation at the time of publication.

Here is Mr. Whitman speaking on behalf of the more “playful , vivid, and sometimes taboo jargon” we are all quite familiar with… from his prose essay, let us take a moment to ponder a bit from “Slang in America” (1892).

“ View’d freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession—the language they talk and write—from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakspere’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallize…

Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect…