The Letter G …

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So, what, you may ask, does the Letter G have to do with 14 December? In truth, nothing that I know of. But because it has been a while since I’ve posted here, I have decided to go off-theme and simply include an interesting if undated bit of history: the letter “G” is unique among all of our other letters because we know who invented it! (Probably.)

Modern scholarship has determined that the invention of writing occurred just three times in Human History, each independently.

The oldest source of an alphabet is considered to be Egyptian hieroglyphics. These predate the oldest known Chinese pictographs by close to a millennium. The oldest Chinese writing is found on the so-called oracle bones which date to about 2000 BC. Chinese writing and Egyptian writing arose independently. In the Americas, the Maya created a writing system around 700 AD.

Now, we certainly know that there are many, many other writing systems in the world today, many more than just three “ur-scripts.” But all variations derive from one of these three sources. For example, Korean and Japanese each use modifications to the classical Chinese `alphabet’; Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Roman/Latin, and Cyrillic, and even Norse Runic scripts, all derive from Egyptian demotic.

There have been cases of intentional invention of new writing systems based upon the example of an alphabetic model. These invented scripts often have little resemblance to the model scripts, yet they are nevertheless derivative. Examples of this include Cyrillic, created by the Greek monks Cyril and Methodosius who made extensive modifications to the Greek alphabet in order to represent the many distinct sounds of Old Slavonic; the Cherokee Alphabet created by Chief Sequoyah (whose name is immortalized in the redwood genus, “Sequoia”) and the Korean Hangul Alphabet created by the Chos[eou]n King Sejong and officially promulgated in 1446.

It’s pretty rare to know who invented a writing system. Hangul and Cherokee were both invented in historic times, but most systems are really older than written history, and so the geniuses who created them are unknown to history. However, the Chinese have several different mythic attributions for the author of their writing system, and the Greek myths credit the Greek alphabet variously to Hermes, Perseus, Cadmus, Palamedes, and even Homer. Basically, no one knows who the credit belongs to, and of course it is really deserved by the Phoenicians in the first place.

The Romans were cognizant of the fact that their alphabet derived from the Etruscan model, and — perhaps less poetic or less romantic than the Greeks — they never attributed its creation to a mythic source. However, the Romans were keenly aware of the benefits that an alphabet provided, and from the very early days of Rome, they recorded events in their history on tablets and stones. The oldest known Latin inscription was long thought to be the Praeneste Fibula, an ornamental cloak clasp that had been dated to the very earliest days of Rome (7th century BC.) However, its authenticity has been challenged recently, and most sources now describe the “Lapis Niger,” “Black Stone” as containing the earliest extant Latin writing. The dating for the Lapis Niger is between the 7th and 5th Centuries BC. Some sources offer a different early inscription, the Duenos Inscription as the authentic oldest surviving Latin writing. The Duenos Inscription has been confidently dated to the 6th Century BC. In any case, the Romans had been writing for a good long while.

The Roman alphabet had many fewer characters in the early days than it finally ended up with. Originally 20 or 21 letters, it was expanded with borrowings from Greek in the Late classical era when they tacked on Y and Z to spell Greek-derived words in Latin. The original Latin alphabet had no “G” character, and used “C” to represent it. In classical Latin and earlier, the “C” and “G” were always hard, as in “coat” or “goat;” never soft as in “cyst” or “gist.” Oddly enough, they had three ways to express the “C” sound (always hard, as “K”.) They used C, K, and Q. (K before a, Q before u, and C before e, i, and o, though by classical times K was only used in Greek loan words.)

Originally, Latin pronunciation made a limited distinction between “C” sounds and hard “G” sounds and so a single character sufficed. (We often hear hard “C” and “G” crosses: “example” pronounced as “egzample” or “significant” said “signifigant.”) As the Latin language evolved and pronunciations changed, the lack of a written distinction between “C” and “G” was proving problematic. The praenomen “CAIVS” was pronounced “Gaius” and “CNAEVS” was pronounced “Gnaeus.” (This is why Gaius Julius Caesar is often abbreviated C Julius Caesar.) Yet there was no way to make clear to the reader the distinction between “CVSTOS,” guardian, and “GVSTOS,” tastes.

In the third century BC, a Latin schoolmaster established the first formal Roman school for tuition-paying students. He is well known in the surviving literature because he was recorded to be the first Roman to divorce his wife! But he is also known to have developed a regular and standardized curriculum for smaller children. Discovering that the “C/G” confusion was a stumbling block for his pupils, he added a cross stroke to “C” to indicate when is was to be pronounced as “G.” Thus — uniquely among our Roman alphabet — we know who invented the letter “G,” and we should be thankful to Spurius Carvilius Ruga for this useful contribution.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is fine to write what one thinks; it is the privilege of man.

— Voltaire

Nota Bene: some ancient sources attributed the creation of “G” to Appius Claudius Caecus, famed for the first aqueduct (“Aqua Appia”) and the first long-distance paved road, (“Via Appia” or Appian Way.) Appius lived about a century before “G” shows up in surviving inscriptions, and he is credited with many legacies that are demonstrably not his doing (he did sponsor the aqueduct and the road) because he was responsible for so many improvements in Rome’s infrastructure. The earliest textual sources attribute the creation of “G” to Ruga, and Appius is only given credit later. As Ruga was a commoner and Appius a patrician Claudian and consul, it seems to be a case of trying to steal the credit from an ordinary citizen. Cicero, Plutarch, Scaurus, and Pliny, among others, felt the credit was due to Ruga.

Remembering Our Veterans On Armistice Day

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AT 11:00am on 11 November 1918, an armistice took effect which effectively ended World War I – or “The Great War” as it was then known. The world had never seen carnage on such an immense, global scale. So great were the number of the dead that Europeans basically abandoned the ancient traditions of open mourning, of donning black and retiring from society for a term, because virtually every family had lost someone, and so much ritual mourning could not be sustained, neither emotionally nor economically.

Too, the world had never seen valor on such a scale; a mere parade would not do to honor the people who had served in “The War To End All Wars.” And so throughout the world, a day of remembrance was instituted. In the United States it was originally called Armistice Day. But the hopeful epithet, “The War To End All Wars,” has proven too hopeful, and as we well know, many, many wars followed, including the far vaster enormity of World War II. In the wake of that conflict and others, the United States renamed the holiday “Veterans Day,” to include ALL who have served.

While we do rightly deplore war, it is nevertheless still a human reality, and I am deeply grateful to those who have served in the military and uniformed services. For all that some conflicts may stir political and social upheaval, and for all that some conflicts may seem unwise, nevertheless, those who serve do so for all of us, and they do also merit our gratitude. We in America have what we have today because our forebears not only wrote about freedom: they fought for it.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.

— Otto Von Bismarck, 1890

FURTHER READING:

Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman; Ballentine Books, 1994 ed.: ISBN: 034538623X

Absolutely EssentialL

Tuchman’s history of the start of World War I was first published in 1962. It was re-issued in 1994 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the start of that War. This book has been called “the best history book ever written.” Masterfully researched and documented, it is as scholarly as any such work need be, yet it retains a readability — and excitement — that makes it as entertaining as any fictional thriller. Even after the passage of 50 years, this book remains essential reading for those who wish to learn about World War I.

The First World War, John Keegan; Vintage, 2000: ISBN: 0375700455

A Must

I am of the opinion that anything by Keegan is worth reading (I’ve not been wrong yet, to my way of thinking.) This is a highly readable and complete account of World War I from start to finish. Perhaps the best one-volume coverage of that war we have.

Of Interest:

In 2004, on the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, there was a remarkable amount of publishing activity. All the following are good, but these are not aimed at the casual reader.

Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Fromkin; Knopf, 2004: ISBN: 0375411569

In this minutely researched volume, Fromkin answers his title question. The result is the well-known tragedy of a war that many wanted, but from which none saw the ultimate outcome. I must confess that though this book was well-regarded in the review I read in August 2004, I find it fairly tedious in its presentation. Scholarly, to be sure. But not an entertaining read.

Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, David Stevenson; Basic Books, 2004: ISBN: 0465081843

This one-volume history of World War I is complete and as scholarly as can be, but at times the reading feels a bit too much like slogging along with those foot soldiers of the era, knee-deep in mud and growing ever wearier. Still, it is worth the effort, because Stevenson offers some fresh insights which offer a new perspective on the well-known truisms about World War I.

The First World War, Hew Strachan; Viking Adult, 2004: ISBN: 0670032956

Strachan’s one-volume distillation of his unfinished trilogy on World War I, this effort has many of the same virtues and limitations that I identify in Stevenson’s book: it is not “popular history” (whatever that might really be) and so it is not light reading. But it is likewise worth the effort.

The First World War: To Arms, Hew Strachan; Oxford University Press, 2003 ed.: ISBN: 0199261911

This is the first volume of a yet-to-be-completed trilogy about World War I. Strachan is a foremost authority on that war, and this book is a definitive account of the build-up to World War I. It is, however, so thorough and so comprehensive that it can be both daunting and — at times — almost tedious.

U. S. Election Day 2016

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For the United States of America, today is a national Election Day. It is election day in across all of the United States, from Nome, Alaska to Key West, Florida; people will go to the polls in Honolulu, Hawaii, Chula Vista, California, and Eastport, Maine, and here in my home of Flower Mound, Texas. Because of our system of a College of Electors, votes in some states have far more impact than votes in others, a legacy of the 18th Century compromise that led to the adoption of our present Constitution. Nevertheless, voting matters. As is the case with every Election Day, it represents an occasion to have important impact upon the future, and there is so much more at stake than just the immensely high-profile presidential race. Having that impact, of course, is only available to those who vote.

While the United States was still in the throes of the ferocious fighting of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the radio on 5 October 1944 to address a nation about the need and the obligation to vote:

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do that is by not voting at all.

The continuing health and vigor of our democratic system depends upon the public spirit and devotion of its citizens which find expression in the ballot box.

Every man and every woman in this nation, regardless of party, who have the right to register and to vote, and the opportunity to register and to vote, have also the sacred obligation to register and to vote. For the free and secret ballot is the real keystone of our American constitutional system.

The American Government has survived and prospered for more than a century and a half, and it is now at the highest peak of its vitality. This is primarily because when the American people want a change of Government, even when they merely want “new faces,” they can raise the old electioneering battle cry of “throw the rascals out.”

Roosevelt also frankly acknowledged the serious defects which then plagued America’s voting rights then, saying:

It is true that there are many undemocratic defects in voting laws in the various States, almost forty-eight different kinds of defects, and some of these produce injustices which, prevent a full and free expression of public opinion.

The right to vote must be open to our citizens irrespective of race, color or creed, without tax or artificial restriction of any kind. The sooner we get to that basis of political equality, the better it will be for the country as a whole.

Two decades would pass before Roosevelt’s ambition for equal access to voting would be made into law. For many Americans today, access to voting may be more difficult than it should be. Polling places are often fairly distant, lines will likely be quite long, and even registered voters may be challenged. But exercising one’s right to vote is a very worthwhile thing, and worthwhile things do not always come easily.

I have heard from many folks that they either have already voted, taking advantage of early voting options, or that they surely intend to do so today. I have also heard from a variety of folks who tell me that they have been praying and plan to pray about this election. That sounds like a good idea.

This conflation of voting and praying is wholly apt, as it turns out, at least from the etymology and origins of the word “vote.”

Our English word “vote” derives from the Latin VOTVM, which means a prayer, a wish, or a promise to God (this last is reflected in our words such as “devotion” and “votive” offerings.) The word VOTVM is in turn derived from the verb VOVERE meaning to pray, wish or to vow.

When we vote, then, we express our wish. Perhaps we avow our preference. Possibly we pray. And maybe – just maybe – our prayers will be answered.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:

1, To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:

2, To speak no evil of the person they voted against: and,

3, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.

– John Wesley

From The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M., Volume IV, 3rd edition, London: John Mason, 1829, entry from Thursday, October 6, 1774:

Politics, The Force of Arms, And Genteel Language

It was on this day, 28 October, in 1066 – nine and a half centuries ago – that Duke William of Normandy, known as “William the Bastard” due to his illegitimate birth, but later styled William The Conqueror, (Guillaume Le Conquerant) received the submission of the Saxons of Kent and their recognition of him as King of England.

William had landed on the English coast exactly one month before. The Norman forces met in battle with the Saxon troops of English king Harold II on 14 October 1066 at Hastings. There, after a long and pitched battle, King Harold was killed by an arrow through his eye, according to legend, and the Norman army proved victorious. Duke William moved quickly to consolidate his victory and to secure the acceptance of his rule among the vanquished Saxons of England’s rich and fertile south. Though the Norman invasion force was comparatively small, they quickly pacified southern England and William marched to London where he would be crowned William I, starting a period of Norman/French rule over England that forever changed England and her peoples.

Perhaps the greatest impact of this invasion and its aftermath is to be found in our modern English language. In 1066, England spoke Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic dialect very unlike what we speak today. William and his Normans spoke Norman French, and French remained the language of the Royal Court for more than two centuries. In the ensuing 950 years, the two more-or-less merged into what we speak today.

Because of the fact that the nobility spoke French and the peasantry spoke Anglo-Saxon, there is still a sense of refinement and niceness attached to the Frenchified way of saying things. This is perhaps most notable at our mealtimes; one does not eat “cow,” (Anglo-Saxon) rather “beef” (French.) And so it is with many meats: pig/pork, calf/veal, buck/venison, and sheep/mutton. For some reason, the pattern is not followed with birds, and it is not followed in vegetables and grains, most likely due to the fact that the meals of the nobility were preponderantly meat, those of the peasants coarse meal and legumes.

In other areas of our tongue this pattern of nicer French-derived words versus meaner Anglo-Saxon words still applies. For example, “Royal” is far more frequently used than “Kingly” (and “Regal”, derived directly from Latin is fancier still.) A mansion is finer than a house, a cottage nicer than a hut. Chivalry is more polished than mere Knighthood, garmentry more stylish than mere clothing. Larceny has a cleaner ring to it than theft, while courage seems elevated above mere hardihood. To deceive is done with greater refinement than to lie, just as to cry out is more genteel than to yell out. And such a list could run to many thousands of examples. Indeed, language is what people of attainment employ whereas a tongue is what the every-day folk speak.

Of course it is true that the Norman Conquest left us many other legacies in Government, Law, and Culture. But the linguistic heritage we received from this invasion touches us all, even today, hundreds of times each day.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

— Rudyard Kipling

Technological Progress and Romantic Legend

It was on this day, October 24, 1861, that the Western Union Telegraph Company successfully completed the first transcontinental telegraph link between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This vital communication link was completed in a remarkably short time; only a little more than a year before had Congress offered an annual subsidy of $40,000.00 to any company that could complete the project of linking the Eastern telegraph network, which extended as far west as Saint Joseph, Missouri, and the Western telegraph network, which extended as far East as Virginia City, Nevada.

The completion of the link between East and West was crucial in helping to ensure that California and the West remained in the Union. Prior to the connection of the two telegraph networks, the fastest that information could move across the continent was the speed of a fast rider on a fresh horse, about ten miles an hour. At a stroke, information could travel that great distance in minutes. It took more than a week for the text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address to reach California. It took less than fifteen minutes for the text of his Gettysburg address to be transmitted over the telegraph to San Francisco.

The telegraph link also spelled the end for the legendary Pony Express. The short-lived Pony Express began operation April 3, 1860 about the time that Congress was debating a telegraph subsidy, and ceased operation abruptly upon completion of the telegraph link. In the scant 18 months of its existence, the Pony express embedded itself in the mythology of the Old West with lore and color that the telegraph could never hope to match. Such is progress.


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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull.

— Charles F. Kettering

The World Turned Upside Down

It so often happens along the inexorable March Of History that great changes and meaningful events are the result of violence – usually massed violence in the forms of wars and battles, occasionally individual violence as murder and assassination – but sometimes potent change comes about in more appealing and productive ways. Many notable historical occurrences that have an impact upon the United States of America took place on 19 October, some violent, some not so much so.

* * *

In 1864, on 19 October, Union General Philip Sheridan rallied his panicked forces to turn the tide of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ending once and for all the Confederate threat to invade the Union. The victory was decisive, but desperately costly. It did not end the conflict – that was still more than six months away – but from that point forward, the outcome of the war was inevitable: the Union would triumph. An important result of this victory, too, was that it served as a major boost for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for a second term as President.

* * *

And it was on this day in 1781 that British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his force of nearly 9,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. Though the war did not officially end for two years, this surrender marked the effective end of British efforts to retain the Colonies by force. American independence was secured and the new nation could concentrate on rebuilding.

General Cornwallis had initially insisted on surrendering to the French, but General Rochambeau insisted that he was only there to assist Washington, and refused to accept Cornwallis’ proposal.

Washington’s forces at Yorktown included some 5,000 French Army regulars, and Yorktown’s seaward approaches were guarded by French Admiral De Grasse’s heavily armed fleet. Washington told the French General Rochambeau: “This could not have been achieved without your participation. The United States are for ever in your debt.”

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Yet small and peaceful events can have an immense impact upon history as well, so it is apt that I observe that it was on this day, 19 October 1469, that a small and secret wedding took place that produced an impact that resonates even today. It is a story that seems more likely to have been written as a fairy tale than a chronicle of history: a beautiful teenaged princess rejected eligible suitor after eligible suitor, finding no man quite to her liking, until, at long last she stealthily eloped to secretly marry the carefully disguised teenager whom she first intended to marry, he himself a handsome prince; the marriage united their two kingdoms and the royal lovebirds and their two kingdoms prospered and they all lived happily ever after.

Well, the reality is rather more complex and nuanced than that quick spin, yet the basics are found in the historical record. Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were indeed secretly married on this day in 1469. The secrecy was needed because the political implications of the two largest and most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula being conjoined in matrimony was immense. For a generation or more prior to this marriage, the whole of Iberia had been rent by war and rebellion and a succession of indifferent or incompetent monarchs among various kingdoms and principalities had resulted in civil unrest and economic decline across the region. A marriage between Castile and Aragon threatened to fundamentally shift the power in Iberia, and so it did. From this small and secret wedding ultimately arose the greatest global superpower history had seen to that time, and Spain dominated European power politics for more than a century.

Though Spain was not a single nation during their lives, under the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, Emperor Charles V, a unified Spanish nation was realized, and Spain’s conquest and plundering of the New World permitted unimagined wealth to flood into the formerly cash-poor lands of Iberia. As heir to the Habsburg domains as well, Emperor Charles V ruled over what was then the most extensive empire in history, stretching across half the globe.

And, of course, as ever schoolchild knows, this empire was the result of Queen Isabella’s investment in a modest adventure proposed by an Italian navigator. In 1492, Queen Isabella sponsored the voyage of Christopher Columbus to develop a western passage to Asia. The fact that Columbus never came close to reaching his intended destination notwithstanding, his arrival in the Caribbean indeed changed everything that followed. The indigenous inhabitants of the New World were extirpated or marginalized, and over the next four centuries Europe rushed in, reshaping the global economy, and permanently altering the course of history. This change most certainly was not accomplished without violence and bloodshed, but the spark that touched off the conflagration of change was indeed just a simple, secret, and very private wedding in the unprepossessing city of Valladolid, in a modest realm of the Iberian Peninsula.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

— Michael Crighton

A Coup In Ethiopia

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My portrait drawing of Haile Selassie. 1981.

It was on this day forty-two years ago that Haile Selassie, The Lion Of Judah and Emperor of Ethiopia was deposed in a coup by the Derg. Haile Selassie had been Emperor of Ethiopia for nearly 44 years, but, having served as regent from 1916, his rule of Ethiopia lasted a span of almost 58 years.

The Emperor remains a towering figure in African history, and he featured prominently in the history of the 20th Century. His famous plea for international justice before the League of Nations in the wake of Italy’s invasion and bombing of Ethiopia stands as a seminal moment in modern international law.

Though Haile Selassie was considered an enlightened leader, taking Ethiopia into the 20th Century and investing in his country’s infrastructure and educational institutions, some of his reforms failed. An attempt at taxing the hereditary nobility in the 1960s led to revolts and disruptions which ultimately slowed economic development to a halt. The Derg, a junta of military officers who proclaimed adherence to Communism (more for the chance to get support from the USSR, it seems, than for ideological reasons) deposed the Emperor on 12 September 1974.

Halie Selassie was placed under “house arrest” and remained a prisoner until his death the following Summer. Though the official explanation was that the 83 year old Emperor had died of old age, suspicion remains that he was killed for the convenience of the Derg.

In addition to being a foremost figure in the long and ancient history of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie remains revered by Rastafarians. Before he took the throne, Haile Selassie was titled Ras Tafari, roughly “Duke Respected.” (The regnal name “Haile Selassie” means “Power of the Trinity.”) Though he never assented to being worshipped as a living divinity – he was after all the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – he did make one visit to Jamaica in the 1960s.

I am no great fan of monarchs, though I find enlightened, modern ones acceptable. But I have always had an especial fondness for Haile Selassie. In my early youth, along with my brother Rob, I encountered Haile Selassie on two occasions, one quite memorable and personal, so I offer this brief posting in his memory.

“Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.”
—Address to the League of Nations, 1936.

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The Lion Of Judah.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true…

― Thomas Paine