Category Archives: history

A Brief Digression on Semitic Languages

Scholars date the origins of Semitic languages to about 3800 BCE. They arose in the broad area of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa known as the Levant. The earliest has been identified as Akkadian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The evolving languages eventually produced Aramaic, Phoenician (the precursor of Greek), Arabic, and Hebrew, among others.

There’s a terrible irony in the linguistic closeness of Hebrew and Arabic, despite the ancient antipathy between speakers of the two languages. Here are a couple of relatives:

HEBREW                                                ARABIC
melech–king                                         malik–king
–study, interpretation         madrassa–school
menorah–lamp                                    minaret–tower (call to prayer )
kabbalah–esoteric wisdom               kibla--facing Mecca
rosh–head, first                                    ras--ruler

The revolutionary invention of writing appears to have originated in Mesopotamia (those Sumerians again!), perhaps to keep records. The wedge shaped figures incised on wet clay are known as cuneiform (public domain image).


Unlike Asian written languages, which evolved using images to represent things, Western writing used images to represent sounds. The Phoenician script from which our alphabet is drawn may have borrowed the images from Egyptian hieroglphs. For example, the Egyptian heiroglyph for head–a sketch of a head–may have been abstracted to a backwards P to represent the sound that began Ras, or head. This image by HoremWeb shows a possible route from a heiroglph to Phoenician and onto (in modern forms), Arabic and Hebrew.

Initially, Semitic languages were written without vowels (“adjabic” as distinct from “alphabetic” languages). Words were represented by letters for consonants only. For example, the letters SLM meant (Hebrew Shalom, Arabic Salaam). You might have noted that God’s call to Abraham, Lech Lecha, rendered in premodern Hebrew, uses the same characters for both words.


It’s as if “English words are odd” were written as “NGLSH WRDS R DD”. If you were fairly familiar with the written language, you could probably figure out the actual words and extract meaning.

And this is why the introduction of letters for vowels was revolutionary. Some thinkers associate it with the invention of democracy. Now that the vowels were there, it was easier to sound out the words. Many more people could read.



History, Like Sex

[Note: This story took place many years ago.] Passing a freight yard on our first family trip by train, Gabriel, aged seven, is struck by a funny thought: people traveling in freight cars. I don’t tell him that Jews, his very own great-great aunts and uncles, were shipped to concentration camps in freight trains. Fudging the issue, I agree it would be odd, never hinting that it happened. I wonder when I will break his innocence.

It seems something like sex, this question of history. I elect to wait until he asks me something about it.

Some weeks after that train ride, I find Art Spiegelman’s book Maus at the library and bring it home. Spiegelman’s artistry is not lost on my son. He grabs it eagerly and begins to read.

Not ten panels into the book, Spiegelman has raised the issue of French anti-Semitism, the Dreyfus affair, the Nazi collaborationists. Gabe skips those hard words, and I offer no explanation. After dinner, he urges me to read Maus to him—I’m so much faster a reader. “It’s a very sad story,” I warn him, “it’s awful.”

The beginning is bucolic, funny. Spiegelman’s father Vladek is so cheap is rations wooden matches, but leaves the gas burner on all day, because someone else pays for it. He has the dogged, powerful self-interest of the survivor. His scrimping old man ways are laughable. Soon, however, the story shifts back to Poland, 1944, to Vladek’s capture and arrival at Auschwitz.

“Does this frighten you?” I ask Gabe.

“No. Keep reading.”

The cartoon figures are naked now, with the face of mice and the bodies of men, and the camp guards, German cats and Polish pigs, are yelling the mice, who shiver, barefoot and shirtless, in the snow.

“Is this going to give you nightmares?”


I read on. Spiegelman’s gritty black and white cartoons now include smokestacks which Vladek grimly acknowledges.

I  ask, “Do you know that this is about?” We have only recently, the past Veteran’s Day, discussed the two world wars. I have probably even mentioned Hitler as the ruler of Germany, but have never spoken of his treatment of the Jews.

“Yes,” Gabe says. “The Germans killed the Jews.” He is matter of fact.

It is like sex, revealed to him some years ago by an older girl. Someone else has already told him about this history. Colin, a nine-year-old neighbor child whose favorite games involve lining the younger children up in order to shout orders and blow his whistle at them, has broken to Gabe the truth that seemed too dangerous for me to tell him.

Gabe has wept for hours about the injustice of Colin’s grandmother putting an inconvenient cat to sleep, and he has, as a younger boy, poured cup after cup of water down an anthill for the sheer thrill of the pandemonium it creates, but he has just begun, barely, to put the two together, the pity of an individual’s death and wholesale, unthinkable terror of mass murder.

He is too young to know he has lost his innocence about history. No longer a technical virgin in the human story, he has still has plenty more to learn. A more serious parent than I could start in: Hiroshima. Stalin. Pol Pot. Where would they end?

Some days after our reading of Maus, I hear him ordering his younger brother around in the language of a camp guard.

I keep writing history as though somehow this may be a story that goes somewhere, that shows some progress.

I wanted, like mothers before me, to protect my child from something unpleasant, in this case, one particular nightmare of twentieth century history. But history, like sex, will break through.

Sir Ken Robinson on Breaking Down Schools

Ken Robinson is a very witty, pointed thinker, whose major complaint is that education (and by extension, society) is founded on false premises and destroys creativity, self-knowledge, and happiness. This talk, animated by RSAnimate, is a gem.

Fired Up!

Can it be that Obama has found his voice again and is prepared to do some radical social capitalism by putting people to work and harnessing all this energy we Americans have? The disparities in wealth are so huge that it seems only a matter of months before we have a revolution on our hands. He face the same situation FDR did: act, or face revolt. The Tea Party is certainly revolting but not in the way I mean. They are dupes of the wealthy.

August 28, 1963–Sullied

The incredible, offensive, hubristic disrepect  of Teabaggers’ appropriating the anniversary of “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation” in order to spill their inane hatred is best answered by Dr. King’s speech itself:  MLK_-_Aug

Warriors Don’t Cry

Most books I read come to me second-hand and serendipitously. Warriors Don’t Cry spoke to me last weekend from a shelf at the Goodwill. I thought it would be about the Maori—I remembered a movie with a similar title. It was instead a gripping first-person account by one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in 1957. Melba Petillo Beals recounts the constant threats and insults that made her dream of attending this prestigious high school a nightmare she had to steel herself against daily. Only faith in God and the unyielding support of her mother, grandmother, and brother, got her through what was surely the most miserable year of her life.

Beautiful, smart, and articulate, Petillo Beals would have been a star student if she had been allowed to participate—or even to focus on her studies instead of fending off thrown pencils, eggs, attempted rapes, and stabbings. Although one member of the 101st Army, placed in the school at the request of President Eisenhower, kept an eye on her and taught her something of being a warrior, the Arkansas National Guardsmen ignored the assaults, and the school administrators were too timid to do anything but dismiss her complaints.

Fortunately, a white student, aptly named “Link,” helped her, warning her of places and people to avoid—segregationists became more and more agitated as the school year went on and were on a murderous path—and she and seven of the original nine survived the year (one transferred to a northern school).

The most famous picture of the event was probably that of Elizabeth Eckford (right) being harassed by screaming adults who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. A sympathetic white woman led Elizabeth away to safety. This white woman, like Link, are reminders of the critical role bystanders play when wrongs are being committed. We often forget in disputes that third-party players have a role, too. It’s not enough not to be bad.


Work on the town path is moving forward, and it’s possible to walk a mile or more via path (crossing a couple of streets) to downtown. Grafitti artists have already tagged the tunnel. Two guys were grilling on the sidewalk; the outdoor restaurants in the old mills filled up. The air was warm and clear after a long rain. On the way home a friend was burning twenty years of tax records, getting ready to move to Missouri and go back to his music roots.