Category Archives: language

Tribe vs. Tribe in the Northern Plains

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 475-495:

The most powerful newcomers before the whites spilled onto the plains were the Sioux, formerly a woodlands people of the present-day upper Midwest. As it shifted west, the Sioux nation separated into three divisions: the Dakotas, a semisedentary people who clung to the Minnesota River; the Nakotas, who settled east of the Missouri River; and the Lakotas, who wrestled their way onto the northern plains. The Lakotas were the true horse-and-buffalo Sioux of popular imagination, and they constituted nearly half the Sioux nation. The Lakotas in turn divided into seven tribes: the Oglalas, Brulés, Miniconjous, Two Kettles, Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs, of which the Oglalas and the Brulés were the largest. In fact, these two tribes alone outnumbered all the non-Lakota Indians on the northern plains.

In their westward march across present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas during the early nineteenth century, the Lakotas gradually allied themselves with the Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who had been pushed onto the northern plains in advance of the Lakotas and had already forged an enduring bond, albeit an odd coupling. Their languages were mutually unintelligible, an impediment they overcame with a sophisticated sign language, and their characters could not have been more dissimilar. The Arapahos tended to be a kindly and accommodating people, whereas the Cheyennes evolved into fearsome warriors. The first contact between the Lakotas and the Cheyenne-Arapaho combination was hostile, because they competed for the game-rich Black Hills country. “Peace would be made,” a Cheyenne chief recounted. “They would hold out the pipe to us and say, ‘Let us be good friends,’ but time and again treacherously broke their promises.” Not until the 1840s did the Lakotas keep their word. By then, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, fed up with the duplicity of the Lakotas and lured by white traders, had migrated south, forming the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes and leaving the Lakotas the undisputed suzerains of the northern plains.

The Lakotas and the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained on the northern plains had the same tribal enemies—the badly outnumbered but hard-fighting Crows of present-day central Montana and northern Wyoming and the semi-agricultural Pawnees who dwelled along the Platte River in Nebraska. The basis of the rivalry was both a relentless drive by the Lakota–Northern Cheyenne–Northern Arapaho alliance to expand their hunting lands and the warrior culture common to all Plains tribes. Geographically separated from each other, the Crows and the Pawnees never formed an alliance, but being badly in need of friends—or enemies of their enemies conceived of as friends—both tribes instead eventually cast their fate with the whites.

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Wordcatcher Tales: 活伊勢海老

2016-12-31-12-00-55The local branch of Nijiya (‘rainbow shop’) Japanese supermarket in my neighborhood advertised live lobsters from Christmas Island on New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure which Christmas Island they were from (probably the one spelled Kiritimati in Kiribati, where /ti/ is pronounced [si]). The kanji string 活伊勢海老 on the poster gave me some trouble. The character 活 katsu means ‘living’, and the lobsters were indeed still alive. The characters 伊勢 ise presumably refer to Ise Bay off Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture south of Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture). And the last characters 海老 (which look like they could be read kairou ‘sea-old’) spell ebi (usually spelled in katakana エビ) ‘shrimp, prawn, lobster’, a general name for members of the order Decapoda. The more common name for 伊勢海老 Ise ebi is ロブスター robusutaa ‘lobster’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: getihu, baochan daohu

I learned a few new Chinese terms from reading Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014).

个体户 (traditional 個體戶) getihu (‘individual-body-enterprise’) – Even during the heyday of collectivization, Communist China allowed very limited small-scale entrepreneurship. The term for such businesses translates literally as ‘individual’ (个 ge, used as a counter for individual items) + ‘body’ (体 ti, also ‘form, style; system’) + ‘door’ (户 hu, also ‘household, family; [bank] account; type of professional’).

包产到户 (traditional 包産到戸) baochan daohu (‘assure-production reach-household’) – The method used to abolish China’s disastrously underperforming collective farms was to reassign production quotas down to the level of individual households. The term for production quota is baochan, composed of 包 ‘wrap; envelope; include; take full responsibility for; assure, guarantee’ + 产 ‘give birth to; produce’ (or ‘product[ion]’). The reassignment of responsibility to households was conveyed by adding the modifier 到户 daohu, from 到 dao ‘arrive, reach’ + 户 hu ‘door; household, family’.

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Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 997-1035:

Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.

Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)

The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.

If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.

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Hessian Impressions of Creek Sachems

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4585-4623:

[Hessian Chaplain] Philipp [Waldeck] had read about the Indian warriors of the southern frontier but he had never seen them in person, and when the proposed meeting took place he was certain to involve himself. He was by no means a thrill seeker, but such a rare and uniquely American experience as a native council was something he could never experience in Germany. He and a few of the officers looked on the delegation from a distance, taking note of their dress and weapons, and he was struck by just how familiar they all looked. From the German viewpoint the American Indian was the proverbial “savage,” and the chaplain used this term throughout his journal to describe the men he observed. He did not use it disrespectfully, in fact he wrote candidly of his admiration for them. These warriors were not the ravenous, cannibalistic caricatures that he had read about as a child in Waldeck, in fact they were quite European. They carried muskets that had clearly been manufactured in England bearing the bold “GR” insignia of King George, for George Rex, and they wore some European garments. Their outward appearance retained a wild quality, but they had more similarities to than differences with some of the more distant American frontiersmen. For chaplain Philipp Waldeck the events of this day would be nothing short of transformative.

The council began soon after the arrival of the Indian elders, or sachems, but General Campbell made it clear that he was not interested in taking part. Instead he ordered his subordinate and direct commander of the 3rd Waldeck Regiment Colonel von Hanxleden to sit in his place. By the time that Philipp finished his sacred duties the proceedings had already begun and he rushed to take part. The meeting itself was held in one of the large open halls of the city, and as the tardy chaplain entered the room a member of the Creek delegate was already speaking. In a moment of embarrassment the native speaker stood silent as though acknowledging Philipp’s lateness, and sensing the tension the chaplain quickly was seated next to his comrades. The scene before him occurred countless times in the annals of America’s colonial past and was an integral part of native power and politics. As the Creek sachem spoke he did so in short bursts so that a translator could relay the message to the other party; Philipp noted that this particular translator was very talented.

The agenda of the day seemed mundane, which was why General Campbell chose to occupy himself elsewhere, but for Philipp the spectacle was enthralling. The unnamed Creek delegate came to Pensacola to demand food from the British commander stationed there, and his justification was legitimate. Unlike the European settlers who were regularly supplied with goods from overseas, the great Indian nations of the South still depended on their own ingenuity to feed their families. While there were small pockets of subsistence agriculture in the colonies, most still relied on hunting. Since the outset of the American rebellion, though, the British had placed a great emphasis on wooing the natives to their side with offers of gifts in exchange for alliance; as the warriors were now operating in accord with the Crown they had very little time to attend to their own needs.

Philipp largely tuned out the proceedings and directed all of his attention to recording the visual details all around him. He wrote that most of the chieftains present were elders of the tribe and they all sat on the floor, he also noted that they each smoked a ceremonial tobacco pipe throughout the negotiations. The speaking was done by one person, and the man did so while waving a large red feather in his hand. All the while the sachem spoke he did not look at the German officer but only the interpreter so as to ensure that his exact meaning was expressed.

While the faces of these men were stern, they were also terribly scarred. To become an elder, a great sacrifice earlier in life was expected. That tally was only collected by proving oneself in battle, and Philipp saw that many of the men present carried tremendous battle scars across their bodies. As he studied their mannerisms and reactions the chaplain soon noticed one of the sachems was different than the others . . . he was white. Although the mysterious stranger dressed as a Creek headman and decorated his body similarly, he was certainly not of Indian blood. After asking around, Philipp discovered to his amazement that the man was a fellow German, formerly named Johann Konrad Brandenstein. Years earlier the forty-nine-year-old Brandenstein migrated from Germany to the New World and married a Creek woman. After his adoption into the community the expatriate proved to be a valuable asset to his communal brethren and there he sat in 1779 not as a German but a full member of the Creek Nation. While they sat in council Philipp was astounded by the fact that even though he was surrounded by his countrymen, Brandenstein never behaved as anything but a member of the Creek delegation.

The chaplain wrote that the sachems and warriors before him were physically strong and well built, and although they had varying interests they were fully behind King George. In reality the proceedings he witnessed were much more nuanced and the result of months of negotiations.

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North and South Korea: ‘No Longer the Same People’

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3255-3272, 3308-3316:

My nightmares had stopped, but curiously, it was here, in this haven, that many defectors’ ordeals caught up with them, and tormented them in dreams. Some suffered breakdowns, or panic attacks at the thought of the super-competitive job market they were about to enter. Psychologists were on hand to talk to them, and medics too, to tend to chronic, long-neglected ailments.

Many arrivals found it hard to shake off old mentalities. Paranoia, a vital survival tool when neighbours and co-workers were informing on them, prevented them from trusting anyone. Constructive criticism, which everyone needs when learning a new skill, was hard for them to take without feeling accused.

I attended classes on democracy, our rights, the law and the media. We were taught how to open bank accounts, and how to navigate the subway. We were warned to be careful of conmen. Guest lecturers visited. One was a North Korean woman who’d set up a successful bakery in the South. Her self-belief inspired me. Another was a priest who introduced us to the Catholic faith (many defectors embrace Christianity in the South), but his justification for the celibacy of priests and nuns caused much mirth among the women. Another speaker was a kindly policeman called Mr Park who told us what to do in case of emergencies, such as needing an ambulance or reporting a crime.

We also attended some extraordinary history classes – for many at Hanawon, their first dogma-free window onto the world. Most defectors’ knowledge of history consisted of little more than shining legends from the lives of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This was when they were told that it was an unprovoked attack from the North, not from the South, that began the Korean War on 25 June 1950. Many rejected this loudly, and outright. They could not accept that our country’s main article of faith – believed by most North Koreans – was a deliberate lie. Even those who knew that North Korea was rotten to the core found the truth about the war very hard to accept. It meant that everything else they had learned was a lie. It meant that the tears they’d cried every 25 June, their decade of military service, all the ‘high-speed battles’ for production they had fought, had no meaning. They had been made part of the lie. It was the undoing of their lives.

Ok-hee was very relieved to see me. After we’d embraced and congratulated ourselves on achieving our dream, we sat on the floor and ate instant noodles. Her own experiences since arriving in Seoul made a sobering story. Despite living for years in Shanghai, as I had, Ok-hee was not finding life here easy. She told me of an experience she’d just had after a job interview. The interviewer told her that he would call her to let her know the company’s decision. After days without hearing, she phoned the company and was told that they hadn’t called because it was impolite to reject someone directly.

North Koreans pride themselves on their directness of speech, an attitude that had been encouraged by Kim Jong-il himself. Foreigners are often taken aback by the bluntness of North Korean diplomats. Ok-hee’s experience was the first hint I got that the two Koreas had diverged into quite separate cultures. Worse was to come. After more than sixty years of division, and near-zero exchange, I would find that the language and values I thought North and South shared had evolved in very different directions. We were no longer the same people.

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Wordcatcher Tales: lych gate, barley-sugar chimney, bloater

Here are some more English words new to me that I found in Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013).

Kindle Loc. 2975:

Designed by a happy lucky-dip [grab bag] of architectural elements taken from all periods – a bit of Queen Anne, some Tudor beams, a stained-glass window over the door, a lych-gate [originally the covered gate into a churchyard (litchfield, from Old English lic ‘corpse’)], a novelty turret or a barley-sugar [corkscrew-shaped (or Solomonic)] chimney – still represented the oldest English ideal of all: the image of the cottage, nestling secure within its own small piece of land.

Kindle Loc. 3019:

Other alternative residential setups included hostels, such as the one where young Bronwen Morris worked as a kitchen-maid, helping to produce three daily meals for ‘young businesswomen’, just off Sloane Square, London. Bronwen was kept busy cleaning the kitchen and peeling vegetables and was later upgraded to the post of cook, producing three large hot meals a day for seventy-two young women who came back for lunch: ‘bacon, bloaters [whole smoked herring] or kippers [split smoked herring] and boiled eggs for breakfast, rabbit stew or rabbit pie for lunch and dinner, or pork, beef with vegetables – also always steam or rice puddings and suet puds‘. By the 1920s there was a proliferation of these residences for girls working as stenographers, typists or clerks or generally what E. M. Forster’s anxious Mrs Honeychurch called ‘messing with typewriters and latchkeys’.

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