Youth Day – South Africa

June 16

With the coming of summer, many students are struck with a debilitating illness known as cantgotoschoolitis. Symptoms may include inability to pay attention in class, wandering eyes, and an overactive imagination.

With students yearning so badly to get out of class, it’s hard to believe that on this day in 1976, many young students gave their lives fighting just to receive a fair and equal education.

In 1953, the white Apartheid government of South Africa passed the Bantu Education Act, which created a curriculum intended to reduce the aspirations and self-worth of the country’s black students.

As the Minister of Native Affairs and future Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd explained,

“When I have control of native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them…” (Apartheid South Africa, John Allen)

The supposed benefit of the Act was that it increased the number of black students able to attend school; the reality was that it provided no additional resources for the expansion. As a result, by 1975 the government was spending R644 per white student and R42 per black student.

The final straw came in the 1970s when the Apartheid government announced instruction would no longer take place in South Africa’s many native languages, but only in English and Afrikaans.

As one student editorial proclaimed:

“Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.” (South Africa in Contemporary Times)

The conflict came to a head on June 16, 1976 when a group of students held a protest against the educational system in Soweto. When students refused to disperse, police unleashed tear gas. Students responded by throwing rocks; police, by firing bullets. At least 27 students were killed in the massacre, including a 12 year-old boy named Hector Pieterson.

A string of protests and riots engulfed the region. June 1976 is considered one of the most divisive and tragic months in South African history.

After the fall of the Apartheid government in the 1990s, South Africa chose to dedicate June 16 as Youth Day, in memory of those who died in the Soweto Riots, and those who devoted their lives to the long struggle for equal education and the abolition of apartheid.

Name 3 words that end in ‘gry’

February 21

Language is the soul of a nation… Do you want to make a people disappear? Destroy its language.

Jules-Paul Tardivel, L’anglicisme, voila l’ennemi, 1880


Today is International Mother Language Day.

For some reason the excitement surrounding this occasion is not quite as intense as other more important holidays, such as Talk Like a Pirate Day. This may be because our national linguistic experience differs from most countries. As one joke goes:

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one language?


Even our neighbors to the north have had a very different outlook on language. In Canada there are laws monitoring the use of the French and English languages, down to the size of words on cereal boxes.

Conflicts between dueling languages (like the Quebecois woman who complained to a pet store owner that her parrot didn’t speak French) are not always trite. As Quebec’s Jean-Charles Harvey wrote:

In the middle of an ocean of English-speaking men and women, the only chance of survival for the French is if it becomes synonymous with audacity, culture, civilization and freedom.

Jean-Charles Harvey, La peur, 1945

+  +  +

The origin of International Mother Tongue Day lies in the aftermath of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The nation now known as Bangladesh was East Pakistan after the partition. Even though over half of Pakistan’s 69 million inhabitants lived in East Pakistan, the country was largely ruled from West Pakistan’s central government. In 1948 the central government declared Urdu as the nation’s only official language. This meant Bengali, the native language of over 90% of the people of East Pakistan (and thus one of the most spoken languages in the world) could not be taught in school or used in government affairs. The change also threatened to make the majority of educated people of East Pakistan essentially ‘illiterate’ and unable to participate in government or hold national posts.

This understandably outraged the East Pakistanis, and a Bengali Language Movement formed. Pakistani Governor-General Muhammed Ali Jinnah proclaimed that the Bengali language movement was a “fifth column” movement attempting to sabotage true Pakistani unity.

In February Dhaka University planned mass protest demonstrations, but the central government imposed a ban on all public assemblies in the city of Dhaka. On February 21 students held the protest anyway.

Bangladesh demonstrators, Feb. 22, 1952
University of Dhaka demonstrators, Feb. 22, 1952

Police attacked the students with batons. Students fought back, throwing bricks at the police, who responded with tear gas and gunfire. Several students were killed. The outcry over the police attacks led to more demonstrations and violence over the following days. On February 22 police attacked a mourning rally, presumably for violating the ban on assemblies.

The government-censored news reports purported that the demonstrations were instigated by communists and Hindu foreign influences. After two more years of protest Pakistan passed a resolution accepting Bengali as a national language of Pakistan along with Urdu, and the anniversary of the first martyrs was adopted by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day in 1999.

The story of Bengali has been repeated, and preceded, by countless stories of language repression

In the twentieth century Spanish dictator Franco banned the Basque language—one of the oldest languages in the world—for thirty years, nearly destroying it. (Basque has no known linguistic relations, and as such is one of the four language families in Europe: the others being Indo-European, Uralic, and Turkic.)
Picasso's depiction of the bombing of Guernica

Of the over 6,000 recorded languages in the world today, less than 300 are spoken by populations of 1 million or more. Much like how McDonald’s and Barnes & Noble have driven out local restaurants and book stores, so the larger languages are replacing indigenous ones. According to the U.N. thousands of languages are in danger of extinction.

South America had an estimated 1,500 languages before European contact. Today it has 350. Strangemaps displays a map of the world (from Limits of Language by M. Parkvall) distorting the size of nations and continents by their linguistic diversity:

Lingual Map
Linguistic map of the world

The lingual giant Papua New Guinea boasts some 850 languages. Countries in red speak over 200 languages.

The U.S. gets a bad rap for how few languages we speak, but as you can see, as a whole its inhabitants speak nearly as many as the entire European continent.<

Yesterday I drove through a stretch of Westminster, California that, I kid you not, was entirely in Vietnamese.

The most popular* languages in the world are:

  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Hindi
  • English
  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Russian
  • Portuguese

and the one that started today’s holiday: Bengali.

(*popular as in how many people speak them, not as in votes on Americal Idol)

Today’s language question: Name three words in English that end in “gry”

Language map of Europe
European Language Map

Also from Strange Maps:

Languages of Europe: Praise the Lord and Pass the Dictionary

Other Links:

Urdu controversy is dividing the nation further

National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language

Bengali Language Movement and History

Wikipedia: Bengali_Language_Movement

Wikipedia: Languages of Europe

International Mother Language Day

February 21

I’d like to take this moment to assure you that all typos in this blog are my subversive attempts to alter the English language.

That said, you can read all about the history of International Mother Language Day–a holiday that started in Bangladesh over 50 years ago–at last year’s post Name Three Words That End in ‘gry’.

Rather than repeat myself, I decided to research my own native tongue, English, and found that, contradictory to popular belief, English does not borrow from other languages:

English doesn't borrow from other lanugages

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of English is its pronunciation, as T.S. Watt noted in the poem, “Brush up your English”, published in the Manchester Guardian in 1954:

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart –

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Preseren Day – Slovenia

February 8

When all the nations stand before the judgment seat and are asked to explain how they used their basic talents…the small Slovenian nation will dare without fear to present a thin book with title Prešeren’s Poems alongside the others.

— Josip Stritar

Don’t mess with the Slovenes when it comes to their national poet, France Prešeren. He gets, not one, but two days in his honor on the Slovenian calendar. Today, the anniversary of his death in 1849, is a national holiday known as Culture Day; many Slovenes celebrate his birthday as well.

Preseren's statue
Preseren's statue is the most prominent in Lubljana, though its likeness is disputed. It was sculpted fifty years after his death, and no known portrait was made of Preseren when he lived.

France Prešeren was the son of a farmer, studied law, and spent most of his life as a lawyer and civil servant. He “led no revolutions, proposed no political programs, and died of tuberculosis, impoverished and almost alone, at the age of 49.”

Yet his popularity is unrivaled. Why? It wasn’t simply because his poems came to symbolize the Slovenes and their culture. According to many, Preseren’s poetry helped to save Slovenian culture:

“To understand Preseren’s importance we must appreciate that tiny Slovenia had no history of national statehood and no possibility of achieving political independence in the mid-nineteenth century. Simultaneously, there was a real chance that the Slovenian language would disappear…Through his creation—in response to the dual threat of Germanization or Croato-Serbinization—of a body of world-class poetry in his native language, Prešeren is seen to have ensured the very existence of the Slovenian nation.”

—Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Remaining Relevant After Communism: The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe

His poetry mirrored the fortitude and resistance of the Slovenes, it represented a new form of literature and national identity for a group that had never coalesced as such. Appreciation of Preseren continued to grow through the 20th century, despite—or perhaps because of—the Yugoslavian regime of Tito, who sought to repress symbols of regional patriotism.

In the early 1990s Slovenes chose Preseren’s poem Zdravlijica (A Toast) as the young country’s national anthem:

God’s blessings on all nations
Who long and work for that bright day
When o’er earth’s habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see
That all men free,
No more shall foes, but neighbors be…

–from “A Toast”

Unlike “A Toast,” most of Preseren’s works convey a bleak pessimism that followed the poet all his life.

The piece that put Slovenian literature on the map, and ensured Preseren’s immortality,was Preseren’s only epic poem Krst pri Savici (The Baptism by the Savica) about the clash in Slovenia between the pagans and early Christian converts.

Excerpt from The Baptism by the Savica translated by Alasdair Mackinnon read by Katrin Cartlidge

…The clash of arms has ceased
throughout the land,

Yet in your breast the storms of war still roll.

If aught of life’s dire ills I understand

The eternal worm takes yet more deadly toll,

Battens on lifeblood in its inner lair

And reawakes the harpies of despair.

illustration by Milogoj Dominko in Prešeren's poem "Baptism at Savica" (Humar Publishing, 1996)

Zamenhof Tago!

December 15

Originally celebrated as Zamenhof Day, Esperanto Day is the birthday of Esperanto founder L.L. Zamenhof. He would be 149 today.

The son of a German teacher, Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, Russia, in what is now Poland. He spoke all three of those languages as a child, and studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and French. He grew up to be a doctor, but had an incredible ability to pick up languages. During his formative years in Poland, conflicts in Eastern Europe led Zamenhof to believe that much of the world’s violence could be stemmed by a common language. Zamenhof set out to create an international language, easy to learn, simple to use, that could unite the world’s speakers for the first time since the Tower of Babel.

In 1887 he published a booklet of the rules of “An International Language” using the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (one who hopes).

Ludoviki Lazaro "Dr. Esperanto" Zamenhof

The pseudonym became synonymous with the language, and Esperanto was born. It was an uphill battle promoting his language. At the first Esperanto congress in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, Zamenhof stated:

And now for the first time the dream of thousands of years begins to be realized. In this small French seaside town I have met men from the most varied countries and nations, and they meet each other not as deaf-mutes, but they understand one another and speak to one another as brothers, as members of one nation.

One common criticism of Esperanto is that English has become the default “international language”. However, we forget how many languages have attained that position during the peak of their mother country, only to ebb away. The Romans, the Spanish and Portuguese, and the French empires once could say the same.

After the First World War delegates from Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia submitted a proposal that the League of Nations: to make Esperanto the working language of the league. Ten voted for the proposal, one against…

The French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux, argued that French was and should continue to be the language of international affairs. It didn’t work out that way. Because of Hanotaux’s objection, the League of Nations failed, and the world plunged into the Second World War.

Okay, maybe the chain of cause-and-effect wasn’t that drastic, but the twentieth century proved that the ability to communicate was of paramount importance to international peace and stability.

Today France is the leading host country of Esperanto’s Pasporta Servo, where Esperanto speakers can travel the globe practically for free, lodging at the homes of Esperanto hosts in 92 countries. The Pasporta Servo is actually a major incentive for young people to learn Esperanto, which can be learned in a fraction of the time of other languages.

Pasporta Servo host map
Pasporta Servo hosts

Of course with the growing popularity of sites like Babelfish, and increasingly accurate voice-recognition software, it may be that one day everything we say will be instantly translated into whatever language the listener desires.

But until that day…mi provas lerni Esperanton.

Esperanto FAQs

Clerihew Day

July 10

7/11 might be a more appropriate day to extol the virtues of poetry, but as it is, we’ll celebrate on 7/10, the birthday of poet, journalist, and author Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who created the most venerated form of poetry in all the English language: the Clerihew.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley

The Clerihew is a four-line verse where the end of the first line, or more often the full first line, is the subject’s name. Clerihews have an AABB rhyme scheme and meter is of secondary (or no) importance:

Even Steven
Will be leavin’
To get mugged in Chicago
After watching Dr. Zhivago

— the author, age 11

According to Steven Gale’s Encyclopedia of British Humorists, Clerihew composed the first such poem as a 16 year-old student in science class, in honor of a British chemist.

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Evidently the poem was a big hit with his fellow students, for he never stopped writing them. He published his first collection in his 1905 classic, Biography for Beginners. Other favorite clerihews include:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I am designing St Paul’s.

And from the Boston Globe’s Clerihew contest:

Edmund C. Bentley
Wrote intently,
But would now be anonymous
Were it not for the verse form for which his middle name is eponymous.

Clerihew was also a mystery author. He wrote one of the great detective stories of the early 20th century, Trent’s Last Case.

“Cupples, I have absolutely nothing left to say, except this: you have beaten me. I drink your health in a spirit of self- abasement. And you shall pay for the dinner.” — Trent’s Last Case, 1913

It wasn’t Trent’s Last Case. Bentley wrote two sequels, Trent Intervenes and Trent’s Own Case.

So before you go off and celebrate Clerihew Day with the reverence it deserves, remember,

Edmund Bentley
Was born in the U.K.
On Clerihew Day

Saints Cyril & Methodius – Slovakia

July 5

St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the two missionary brothers who gave birth to the written Slovak language, are celebrated by the Eastern Catholic Church in May. (The exploits of the Brothers are detailed here.) But in the early 20th century the Roman Catholic feast day for the saints, held on July 5, took on a new importance.

After the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovaks around the world struggled to defend their national identity. When the Czechs declared July 6 a public holiday, in honor of 15th century Protestant forerunner Jan Hus, Slovaks pushed for the feast day of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, July 5, as a national celebration as well as religious one. Today it’s celebrated in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Gettin’ Glagolitic with Cyril & Methodius

Snellman Day – Day of Finnishness

May 12

Today is Day of Finnishness in you-guessed-it: Finland. It’s also known as Snellman Day, named after the Finns’ national hero Johan Vilhelm Snellman, but referred to as Day of Finnishness (perhaps because ‘Snellman’ sounds like that teacher in high school whose nostrils screamed when he breathed through his nose).

Snellman was in fact a teacher (but no word on his nasal exhalations). He was also a statesman, journalist and philosopher, who crusaded to make Finnish the national language of Finland. While this seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, it was a controversial issue at the time.

Finnish as a written language dates only to the 15th century. According to Wikipedia:

The first known written example of Finnish…was found in a German travel journal dating back to c.1450: Mynna tachton gernast spuho somen gelen Emyna dayda… English: “I willingly want to speak Finnish, [but] I cannot”…*

[*presumably because the author was the only one who understood it.]

In the 16th century, Mikael Agricola had set down the rules of written Finnish in order to translate the New Testament. 300 years later however, outside of religious ceremonies written Finnish was still virtually unused.

Along came Snellman, who encouraged politicians and the upper classes to make Finnish a part of everyday life, a vehicle for the arts and sciences, instead of a vernacular spoken only by commoners and a written form relegated to church services. Snellman felt a unique national language was essential to building a strong, unified nation. His outspoken nationalist agenda—known as the Fennoman movement—was a loaded issue. His newspaper, Saima, was censored by the Russian-dominated Finnish government, and eventually shut down.

J.V. Snellman

After the death of the Russian Czar Nicholas I in 1855, the government eased censorship, and Snellman was appointed a professor at the University of Helsinki. He was appointed to Finland’s Cabinet in 1863 and devoted much of the remainder of his career to fixing the Finnish financial system. Russia granted Finnish a status on par with Swedish in Finland in 1892.

Finnish is virtually an island among European languages. All the other Scandinavian languages—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are closely related, while Finnish’s closest relatives are Hungarian and Estonian.

After over five centuries of Swedish rule and one century as a Russian Grand Duchy, Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917.

During World War II, Finland successfully defended its independence against the Russian invasion of 1939-1940.

+  +  +

A language of Finnish origin is currently taking over the world, but it’s not the one Snellman spoke. It’s called Linux, an open source computer operating system developed by Helsinki native Linus Torvalds. Linux is used in 90% of the world’s top supercomputers.

[Below: Armi Ja Danny – I Want to Love You Tender: Finnish National Anthem]