The write stuff

September 28, 2008

For more than 5000 years human beings have been putting marks, symbols, drawings and signs on to rock, clay, papyrus, parchment paper and now on the computer screen in order to communicate with one another. Writing is one of our greatest inventions. To share knowledge we need to be able to store information and pass it on to future generations. This used to be done with memory – Homer’s poems were originally transmitted in this way. In oral cultures people require prodigious memories; this is something we have lost in our society. I don’t think I could recite a single poem. But although we may lament the loss of this oral culture, the invention of writing has revolutionised the way knowledge is transmitted and has proved to be immensely more powerful.

5,000 years may seem a long time but writing appeared relatively late in human history but this was long after humans had begun speaking, which according to some experts was as long as 150,000 years ago. Of the 6000 world languages some two-thirds are not written down. While speaking is something that we humans do naturally writing is in reality what John McWhorter has described as an “artificial add-on.”

Few societies have invented a writing system for themselves – most have been borrowed and adapted through cultural diffusion. Writing was limited mainly to the Middle East Asia and Europe. It all began in ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) but it also emerged independently in China, Mexico and Egypt.

Hunter-gatherers never invented such a system because it wasn’t really necessary and there was no way that somebody could dedicate themselves exclusively to writing. It was agricultural surpluses that enabled people to specialise: and it was also valuable as a means of recording who owned these production surpluses. Who could possibly imagine that something used to record the number of sheep or bales of hay somebody owned, would later be used to create works of literature or to explain the mysteries of the universe?

Until Islam started expanding and Europe’s colonisers set out on their travels many parts of the world did not have writing. Writing was an essential tool for European colonisers. Knowledge is power and writing gave them a lot of it. Their objectives were written down. They sailed in boats using maps and instructions from earlier voyages of exploration. They could read about the exploits of their predecessors and so would have some idea what to expect in the new world. Writing also played a fundamental role in the development of the major religions, law and the economy. The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, gave another enormous boost to the written word and indeed provoked many revolutions. Culture spread through society in a way inconceivable before. And now in the twenty-first century we have the Internet, chatrooms, email, messaging and of course blogs

            There is a huge variety in the way we write things down. We write from left-to-right, right-to-left (Arabic) and top-to-bottom (Japanese). There are three typical ways of writing used throughout the world. They are not mutually exclusive and languages will use more than of these strategies for writing. The first type are known as logograms. The oldest type of lograms are pictograms, which are simplified drawings of a particular object. As time went by many pictograms were gradually simplified until there was almost no connection with the original symbol. These symbols are called characters or ideograms because each one represents an idea. The big disadvantage was the enormous difficulty in learning all these characters. On the other hand, this way of writing enables people from many Chinese regions, who speak different languages to understand a written text. This has its uses in an enormous country like China. We also use logograms in English – we are all familiar with $ or %.

            The second way is a syllabic system where each grapheme corresponds to a spoken syllable usually a vocal-consonant pair such as ka and do. The Japanese have their Kana, which they use for foreign words, texts for the blind and bank statements. Other languages that use syllabic writing include the Linear B script for Mycenaean Greek and Cherokee. The number of graphemes in ia syllabury can be anything from fifty to several hundred.

Finally the most widespread system is the alphabet, where each symbol represents a sound. For example English has 40 sounds but only 26 letters in the alphabet. The degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another. Greek is often considered to be the first alphabet. The largest alphabet is Khmer with seventy-four letters; the smallest is apparently Rokotas, used in the Solomon Islands with a mere eleven letters

Writing has been subject to both praise and criticism. Socrates was famous for not wanting to write anything down. We only know about his thoughts through his disciple Plato. The problem is then to disentangle the thoughts of Socrates from those of Plato. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates attacked the development of writing. He felt that people would use the written word as a substitute for real knowledge. It would be bad for our memories. Some of what Socrates feared was undoubtedly true but he failed to see the benefits for spreading information knowledge and ideas all over the world. Writing is not only important because of the permanence it provides. The type of theorising that Plato engaged in would only be possible in a culture where thoughts can be written down.

            There are those who see writing as somehow superior to the spoken word. Writing is seen as the source of linguistic excellence and authority. This is a mistake in my opinion as they serve different functions. Writing is a kind of linguistic arthritis – it has standardised grammar, organisation and vocabulary and is more resistant to change. Without writing the differences between British and American English would be much more pronounced. Thus writing serves to slow down change. Although it may be taxing for us we can listen to Shakespeare and have good grasp of what is being said. But it would have been much more difficult for the Bard to understand an Old English speaker.

Writing is permanent and has consequently influenced the way that people speak; many regional dialects and words have disappeared from use. But speaking can also influence writing; most new words enter a language through speaking. Some of them do not live long. It is when these words begin to appear in written texts that they can be said to come of age, they become real words. They need the recognition and permanence that being written down provides. So really writing and speaking are complementary. Speaking has that spontaneous quality that makes language such a vibrant living thing. Writing enables language and the ideas it transmits to be expressed with great precision and to inform, educate and delight future generations.


Writing rules

September 28, 2008

You may have seen them before but here are some humorous rules to help you improve your writing in English.

  1. Always avoid all awkward and affected alliteration.
  2. When dangling, watch your participles.
  3. Verbs has to agree with their antecedents.
  4. Use delightful but irrelevant extra adjectives and adverbs with sparing and parsimonious infrequency, for they unnecessarily bloat your otherwise perfect sentence.
  5. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  6. Avoid the use of dyed-in-the-wool cliches like the plague; they are old hat.
  7. Beware of and eschew pompous prolixity, and avoid the utilization of enlarged words when shortened ones will suffice.
  8. Bee careful two use the write homonym.
  9. Beware of malapropisms. They are a communist submersive plot.
  10. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.
  11. Correct speling is esential.
  12. Don’t use no double negatives.
  13. Don’t verb nouns.
  14. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
  15. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  16. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  17. It is incumbent on us to eschew archaisms.
  18. In letters compositions reports and things like that use commas to keep a string of items apart.
  19. If a dependent clause precedes an independent clause put a comma after the dependent clause.
  20. Avoid colloquial stuff, and trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  21. Note: People just can’t stomach too much use of the colon.
  22. No sentence fragments.
  23. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
  24. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  25. Avoid commas, that are not necessary, and don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
  26. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
  27. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
  28. The dash – a sometimes useful punctuation mark – can often be overused – even though it’s a helpful tool some of the time.
  29. The de facto use of foreign phrases vis-a-vis plain English in your written tete-a-tetes is not apropros.
  30. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  31. Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.
  32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  33. Avoidification of neologisms strengthenifies your prosification.

My media week 28/09/08

September 28, 2008

The Independent has an article on “The facts of life: the sex industry


The Onion has an article About Sarah Palin’s attempts to gain foreign policy experience – Kissinger Instructs Palin On Finer Points Of Clandestine Carpet Bombing


Podularity, a website about books has an audio interview with philosopher Julian Baggini. They are talking about his new book The Duck that Won the Lottery, which deals with the use of dodgy arguments by politicians, the media and in society in general.


On You Tube you can see a video featuring Sarah Palin with preacher Thomas Muthee, who specialises in witches. With Joe McCarthy we had the witch hunt for commies, now we can have a real one. American forces could have a new world role.





My favourite links #17

September 28, 2008

If you like short stories, I can recommend the New Yorker magazine. They have a monthly section of short story podcasts. They are beautifully read and have a discussion included afterwards. You can then go to the magazine archive and find the written version. All of this is absolutely free. This month the author Tobias Wolff reads Stephanie Vaughn’s short story Dog Heaven and discusses it with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Here is the page and this is the written version of the story. I saw this page in a completely unrelated article in this Thursday’s Guardian. I immediately went to Google and in a split second I was there. This is something I often do. I have found so many interesting links and websites this way – often they are more interesting than the original article or website.







Sketches #1 Simon Bikindi

September 21, 2008

This is the first of an occasional series profiling historical figures singers, thinkers etc. 


The genocidal wedding singer

At this moment Simon Bikindi, a former wedding singer is locked up in a United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) in Arusha, Tanzania awaiting a sentence that could see him spend the rest of his life behind bars. The accusations are very serious – writing songs to incite genocide and participating himself in murder. How could an entertainer be accused of such terrible crimes? Hassan Bubacar Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda said Mr Bikindi, 52, had “used his renowned talent for use in a criminal enterprise”. Who then is this Simon Bikindi and how did he end up in Arusha?

Simon Bikindi was born on 28 September 1954 in a little village called Akanyirabagoyi in Rwanda’s mountainous Gisenyi Province. He was a child prodigy on the inanga, a musical instrument similar to a zither. He went on to become Rwanda’s most popular singer, compared to both Michael Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron. He set powerful rap lyrics in English, French and Kinyarwandan (the language of both Hutus and Tutsis) to traditional tunes. He would also supplement his income by working at weddings for the wealthy. But as Rwanda degenerated into chaos in the 1990’s Bikindi’s career would take a sinister turn.

I need to take a detour here and look at the historical background and how the hatred between Hutus and Tutsis emerged. The stereotype has been (for many Rwandans too) tall, slender Tutsi and shorter, squat Hutu. But with intermarriage it is often very difficult to tell. This was illustrated during the massacres when the Hutu murderers often had to look at identification cards before deciding who they should kill.

Colonialism has undoubtedly played an important role in this conflict. Rwanda was carved up by European colonialist powers in the late nineteenth century. Originally it went to Germany but after WWI it became a Belgian possession. Both the Germans and the Belgians favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus. This was a time of racial pseudoscience and the Tutsis were seen by the Europeans as a superior race -“Caucasians of a lesser breed” as one African writer put it. Belgian rule solidified this racial divide. The Belgian colonisers were utterly obsessed with the differences between Hutu and Tutsi. Scientists arrived to measure skull size. Tutsi’s skulls were bigger, they were taller, and their skin was lighter. The Belgians even went around measuring noses. If all this wasn’t enough they came up with the brilliant idea of issuing each citizen issued with a racial identification card, defining everyone as legally either Hutu or Tutsi. Tutsis began to believe the myth of their racial superiority, and exploited their power over the Hutu majority who thus began to resent them.

It was in 1994 that things came to a head. In April, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, was shot down. Blaming the Tutsi for his murder, Hutu extremists seized power and launched their own African “final solution” and indeed it was the biggest genocide the world has seen since the Jewish Holocaust – a well-prepared and coordinated plan for the elimination of the Tutsi population as well as Hutu moderates. Many operations were carried out by the army but the Interahamwe, the Hutu militias, were also responsible eliminating the “cockroaches,” the dehumanising term they used for the Tutsi. The genocide ended after 800,000 deaths in 100 days with an invasion in July 1994 by Tutsi-led RPF exiles.

Now we can get back to Bikindi’s role. In the months leading up to the genocide, Bikindi allegedly consulted with the Rwandan government and military authorities about song lyrics that were to be played on the Hutu radio station RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) It is important to understand the significance of radio in Rwanda; almost no one reads newspapers or owns a television, so radio is the thing. The government even gave away free radios as part of its propaganda drive. RTLM was to play a very dark role in Rwanda’s genocide, coordinating the mass killings. As an article from the New York Times put it the radio station “gave death tolls like weather reports and exhorted murder squads to hurry to villages where the work’ wasn’t going fast enough” It was Bikindi’s music that was blaring out during the hundred days of murder and mayhem. Although Bikindi himself was actually out of the country at the beginning of the massacre.

What were these lyrics that have been blamed for inciting genocide? The two songs cited in Bikindi’s indictment for inciting genocide are ”Bene Sebahinzi” (”Sons of the Father of the Farmers”) and ”Nanga Abahutu” (”I Hate Hutus”). The latter song has a curious title. Nowhere in the song are Tutsis mentioned by name. In the song the Bikindi sings about the kind of Hutus he hates – the ones who break ranks with other Hutus.

I hate these Hutus, these de-Hutuized Hutus, who have renounced their identity, dear comrades.

I hate these Hutus, these Hutus who march blindly, like imbeciles.

This species of naïve Hutus who join a war without knowing its cause.

I hate these Hutus who can be brought to kill and who, I swear to you, kill Hutus, dear comrades.

And if I hate them, so much the better.

            These songs need to be interpreted. When Bikindi sings about Hutus renouncing their identities he is referring to marrying a Tutsi. And naïve Tutsi are those who supported the invasion. But although Tutsi are not mentioned by name, it is clear that his Hutu audience knew what he was referring to. Eyewitness accounts say that many of the killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked or beat to death hundreds of thousands of Tutsis with their government-issued machetes and homemade clubs.

Bikindi and his lawyers have denied the charges and have used a number of different defence strategies. They say that charges violate his right to freedom of speech. This brings up the whole question of how societies that proclaim free speech deal with those who use that freedom to propagate hatred. The second argument is one that is chillingly familiar to any student of twentieth century history: It was the government that was responsible. Bikindi had to follow the rules – the classic “I was only obeying orders” defence. He sang at government rallies but he was a mere entertainer. It was not his fault that people went around killing each other. He claims that the song ‘Nanga Abahutu’ and the others were in reality a plea to stop the senseless killing. A former mistress, a Tutsi said that he was not the monster that he is being portrayed as. He had actually defended Tutsi neighbours who were being attacked by Hutu thugs. She feels he was just being opportunistic. He actually said: “If I hear the R.P.F. is coming to Kigali next month, I’ll write a song for them.” (The RPF is the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.) There is another irony here. Although he is also accused of taking part in some killings himself after he returned to Rwanda toward the end of the 100 days, Mr. Bikindi is on trial primarily for his lyrics. If he had “only” killed he may well not have been dragged before the International Criminal Tribunal.  It is his songs that converted him in a defendant. Soon we shall find out if he is to spend the rest of his life in prison for those lyrics.





Odd book titles

September 21, 2008

The Bookseller magazine has an award called Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. It has been going since 1978 and here are some of my favourite titles:


Bombproof Your Horse J A Allen

Developments in Dairy Cow Breeding: New Opportunities to Widen the Use of Straw Gareth Williams

Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers Edited by Derek Willan

Highlights in the History of Concrete C.C. Stanley

How Green Were The Nazis?  By Franz-Josef Bruggemeier, Mark Cioc and Thomas Zeller

Last Chance at Love  Terminal Romances Various authors

Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality Glenn C. Ellenbogen

People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It Gary Leon Hill

People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood  Dee Gordon

Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice Various authors

The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan

The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today Anne Wilson

The Joy of Chickens Dennis Nolan

The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution Barbara Sherman Heyl

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification Julian Montague


I would of course be delighted to receive any of these books for my birthday in November.



My media week 21/09/08

September 21, 2008

The Onion has a couple of things on the U.S. election:


Palin Unveils 9/11 Firefighter Cousin, Reformed Lesbian Niece, Naturalized Mexican Half Brother. Satirising  the opportunism of Sarah Palin. Click here.


And a video on Obama’s protectionism. Click here.


Crunch time. Now that capitalism as we know it is about to instantaneously self-destruct The Guardian got in a few old leftie dinosaurs to come up with their ideas. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Ken Loach, George Monbiot and Tony Benn. I’m sure we can all sleep more soundly now. Click here.


Five myths about the Wall Street crisis. Spiked has its usual contrarian take. Click here.


Taxpayers will fund another run on the casino. John Kay sees limits to what banking regulation and supervision can achieve. Click here.


BBC Radio 4 has a major new series about American history . Click here