He has taken the ship to wife, for better or for worse, for calm or for gale; and she is not to be shuffled off. With yards akimbo, she says unto him scornfully, as the old beldam said to the little dwarf: “Help yourself.”
—Herman Melville, Omoo: A Narrative of the South Seas
After Harry Houdini died, his body was placed in a stage coffin he had often used for underwater magic tricks and taken to a cemetary in Brooklyn. One of his pallbearers, theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, was heard to say as the coffin was lowered into the grave, “Suppose he isn’t in it!”
A nice quick character sketch from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time:
He used to read in the evenings, never with much enjoyment or concentration. “I like to rest my mind after work,” he would say. “I don’t like books that make me think.” That was perfectly true. In due course, as he grew older, my father became increasingly committed to this exclusion of what made him think, so that finally he disliked not only books, but also people—even places—that threatened to induce this disturbing mental effect.
He hid in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by anyone but himself.
Victorian lexicographers, as you might expect, present almost gingerbreadlike ornamentations upon shit. An 1857 dictionary features shitesticks and shiterags (both meaning a miser) and the delightful “exclamation of contempt” shittletidee, while a 1875 study notes the institution of Shit-Sack-Day, which seems to involve apples. Shit-Sack-Day, by the way, falls on May 29. I trust you will not confuse it with Shitten Saturday, which is another occasion altogether.
—Paul Collins, “Dear Editors of the Oxford Dictionary,” Slate
Yup, definitely plan to resurrect “shittletidee.”
I was on a jury for a medical-malpractice lawsuit all last week, and one day during a break, one of my fellow jurors, an effusive lady from Guam, was telling me about the curious case of Shoichi Yokoi. That led to a productive half-hour of Internet searching, and I guess there’s no harm sharing the results…
Shoichi Yokoi was a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, stationed on Guam. After the U.S. forces took back the island in 1944, Yokoi went into hiding. That in itself wasn’t so uncommon: some 1,000 Japanese soldiers took refuge in Guam’s jungles after the fighting ended, rather than surrender or commit suicide. But most of them died of starvation or disease after a few years; Yokoi, by contrast, managed to survive for decades, holing up in caves, subsisting on fruit, shrimp, frogs, and rats, and making clothes out of bark. He wasn’t discovered until 1972, by two local fishermen. Here’s The New York Times on Yokoi’s return home:
Mr. Yokoi returned in 1972 to Japan—an entirely different country than the one he had last seen in August 1940—and he stirred widespread soul-searching within Japan about whether he represented the best impulses of the national spirit or the silliest.
”I am ashamed that I have returned alive,” Mr. Yokoi declared after his return, reflecting the traditional warrior spirit that it is better to die than to give oneself up to the enemy.
Oddly enough, Yokoi seemed to get on well in the new country—teaching survival skills and getting married six months after his return. There were just a few things about modern life that bothered him:
”I can’t understand why cities must burn garbage,” he scolded Japan in 1980. ”My family does not produce garbage. We eat every last bite of food. Parts of food that are not edible are used as fertilizer in my garden.”
Anyway, it turns out that there were a whole bunch of Japanese Army “stragglers” after World War II. Some, such as Major Sei Igawa and Major Takuo Ishii, stayed in Southeast Asia to advise the Viet Minh. Four other soldiers stranded on the Philippines, led by Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, continued to wage war for years and years. Of that group, one turned himself in, another was killed by a search party, a third was shot in 1972 by local police after burning a local rice warehouse (all part of guerrilla warfare, you see), and that left Onada, alone and recalcitrant:
On 20 February 1974, Onoda met a Japanese college dropout, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling the world and was looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.” Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer.
Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. He flew to Lubang and on 9 March 1974 informed Onoda of the defeat of Japan and ordered him to lay down his arms.
Lieutenant Onoda emerged from the jungle 29 years after the end of World War II, and accepted the commanding officer’s order of surrender in his uniform and sword, with his ArisakaType 99 rifle still in operating condition, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades. Onoda was so popular following his return to Japan that some Japanese urged him to run for the Diet.
Just like Rambo! Also amazing is what happened on Anatahan, a volcanic island in the Marianas. In 1945, eighteen Japanese holdouts on the island refused to believe the war had ended, and for six years they resisted every attempt by the U.S. Navy to rescue them (the soldiers had salvaged weapons and supplies from a B-29 Superfortress that had crashed on the island). Eventually, a Lord of the Flies-type situation transpired:
Personal aggravations developed as a result of being too long in close association within a small group on a small island and also because of tuba [coconut wine] drinking. The presence of only one woman, Kazuko Higa, caused great difficulty as well. Six of eleven deaths that occurred among the holdouts were the result of violence. One man displayed thirteen knife wounds. Ms. Higa would, from time to time, transfer her affections between at least four of the men after each mysteriously disappeared as a result of “being swallowed by the waves while fishing.”
Coconut wine is no joke, kids.
“[T]he numbers and figures O-chan penciled on his calculation sheets looked like unrestrained processions of eccentric ants devoid of team spirit….” —Kenzaburo Ōe, A Quiet Life
Metro train operator over the loud speaker: “Someone asked for an update on the customer struck by a train at Bethesda. Let’s just say, you all will be able to turn around from this bad day and have a better one tomorrow. This person will not.”
While I was rooting around for info about extinct languages, I came across a wonderful old Wall Street Journal story about how the Cia-Cia, a group of former hunter-gathers in Indonesia, are learning to read and write in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in order to preserve their dying language. It’s not clear that the Cia-Cia should be using Hangul, as opposed to Roman script, but Hangul “does a good job capturing certain oddities in Cia-Cia—like d and b sounds that are pronounced while sucking air into the lungs.”
There was just one line in the story I didn’t get: “To date, South Korean linguists have had little success spreading what they see as the scientific beauty of their native script.” What’s so beautiful about Hangul? Lots, it turns out. Here’s a good overview:
The principal reason Hangul has attracted this praise is its partially featural design: The shapes of the graphs are related to the phonemes they represent. The shapes of consonant letters are based on the shape of the mouth and tongue in the production of that sound, sometimes with extra marks showing features such as aspiration. In addition, vowels are built from vertical or horizontal lines so that they are easily distinguishable from consonants.
First and foremost, it is a perfect alphabet. It distinguishes all of the distinct sounds in Korean and makes no subphonemic distinctions. From the point of view of the reader, there are no ambiguities.
There’s also such a thing as “Hangul supremacy”—the belief among Korean scholars that Hangul is the greatest alphabet on the face of the planet. (October 9 is “Hangul Day” in South Korea) Supremacists note that, unlike most baggy languages, Hangul was designed from scratch with extra care—in the 15th century, King Sejong wanted a script that could be read by the peasants, since Chinese was too difficult to learn for most people. (There’s some dispute about whether the language was sui generis or not—its inventors were working with Chinese phonological theory and writing systems from Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan.) Hangul also gets credit for South Korea’s improbably high literacy rate, although that theory seems a little fishy.
Love this story. There are only two Ayapaneco speakers left in the world—and they’re not on speaking terms with each other:
The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction.
There are just two people left who can speak it fluently – but they refuse to talk to each other. Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company.
“They don’t have a lot in common,” says Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, who is involved with a project to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco. Segovia, he says, can be “a little prickly” and Velazquez, who is “more stoic,” rarely likes to leave his home.
Stoic people aren’t particularly good standard-bearers of dying languages. Also, a related tale: Last year, Boa Sr., an 85-year-old woman from the Andaman Islands off India died. She was the last living speaker of Bo. Her Daily Mail obituary explained how she survived the 2004 tsunami by climbing a tree (she was 78 years old, bear in mind): “We were all there when the earthquake came,” she said. “The eldest told us, the Earth would part, don’t run away or move.”
Anyway, I was searching around trying to figure out why we should give a shit about languages going extinct. Wade Davis says the extinction of cultures limits “entire range of the human imagination […] to a more narrow modality of thought,” which seems a little fluffy, no? And here’s Wikipedia, summarizing Joanne Sharp’s Geographies of Postcolonialism: “Foucauldian ideas of power and knowledge, as both inseparable and symbiotic, are implicated in the universalizing of Western knowledge as truth, and the rendering of other forms as less valid or false: mere superstition, folklore, or mythology.”
An old New Scientist piece offers a more prosaic concern: There’s a whole heap of valuable knowledge about plants and animals that disappears when indigenous languages die away. One example: English speakers (at least the ones who know a lot about fish) have long referred to steelhead trout and cutthroat trout. The Halkomelem Museueam tribe of Britsh Columbia, by contrast, always labeled them as a type of salmon in their language. Turns out, genetic analysis later proved that the Halkomelem Museuaem were right. So there.
In Japanese cities, much more so than in England, the restaurant owners, the teahouse proprietors, the shopkeepers all seem to will the darkness to fall; long before the daylight has faded, lanterns appear in the windows, lighted signs above doorways.
—Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills