November 28, 2013
I work with a Greek man who constantly reminds me that the prescriptive grammar rules of languages are put in place with the intention of controlling a society. Language, after all, is the operating system by which virtually all thought and a great deal of action is processed. The more you can control a language the more you can control the people using the language.
Language and Control
The French rejoice that a governmental organization (L’Académie française) controls their language to help keep it pure and inflexible. Grammar teachers the world over exhibit a constant lack of creativity by always looking at what is wrong with speech patterns instead of allowing for any combination of words that allows for communication. The Greeks in response to Ottoman control came up with a form of Greek in which many words had secretive double-meanings allowing for communication that meant something entirely different to whatever it was that the Ottomans thought it meant.
Slovaks and Their Language
An aspect of Slovak culture that I love is the playfulness with which so many approach the language. There is correct and incorrect in Slovak. At the same time there are suffixes like -ič, -ik, or -ak used to shorten words and make them sound slang. A Bratislavčan (a citizen of Bratislava) can also be called a Blavak in less polite company, based on the word “Blava,” a slang term for Bratislava. Blava, as a Czech book I once read pointed out – sounds like the combination of the words for “mud” and “cows” – two words that are perhaps befitting the Pragocentric view of what Bratislava must look like. For more about my view on Pragocentrism or Blavocentrism please see these article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia.
Another aspect of Slovak culture that I love is how common diminutives are. There are the diminutive forms of words that give every Slovak noun another five or ten forms as a way to make speech sound cuter. Instead of good morning as “dobre rano” some may say good morning as “dobre ranko.”
I like how phonetic Slovak spelling is. A Slovak linguist of the past wrote “Piš ako počuješ” as a method of instruction to his fellow Slovak speakers -” Write as you read,” or write phonetically.
This is much different than the system of spelling in the English language. George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out as a way to make fun of the non-phonetic nature of the English language that “ghoti” was an alternative way to spell “fish” in English. This was done by using the GH from laugh the O from women and the TI from nation.
Slovak on the other hand has a spelling system in which an O always sounds the same, a TI always sounds the same and a G and H always sound the same. Spend an hour learning the Slovak rules of pronunciation correctly and you will forever be able to pronounce almost any word correctly. This systematic, clear, ease of spelling and pronunciation is one reason that I believe Slovak is this best method of entry into Slavic languages, especially for someone unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet. When it’s time to learn Cyrillic, having a Slovak base makes the learning process effortless, literally lasting minutes to reach a high level of competence. (Start at this article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia if you want to learn to read Cyrillic in under an hour.)
Some Slovaks will play with this phonetic nature of the language by pronouncing foreign words with a Slovak pronunciation – nation sounds like “Nah-tyee-ohn.” Women sounds like “Voh-men” and laugh sounds like “LA-Oo-guh-huh”
Alternately Slovaks will spell English words in Slovak for fun – blekfrajdej – could be a way that a Slovak would spell the post-Thanksgiving retailer’s holiday “Black Friday” in order to preserve the English language pronunciation.
Finally, my final bit of praise at the moment for the Slovak language – the verb ending -ovat’ is the most playful and pleasant verb ending. It allows virtually any noun to be turned into a verb. Sprechuješ?” Is the slang way to ask “Do you speak German?” It’s based on the German “Sprechen” (to speak). Spikuješ?” Is the slang way in Slovak to ask “Do you speak English?” It is based on the Slovak spelling of the English verb “speak.” In the title of this piece is a single word made using the -ovat’ verb form.
Blekfrajdejuješ – well, that was a word invented this morning by yours truly as he wrote a friend asking what she was doing. “Getting a deal on headphones online was her answer.”
It of course occurred to me that Black Friday was the perfect day for that to happen. Other than “shopping on Black Friday” what might the connotations of Blekfrajdejuješ be?
In 1939 the American president who prolonged the Great Depression with his New Deal policies and who decided to break with tradition and set himself up to be the first ever president to serve 4 terms also decided that he would be involved in a variety of other shows of megalomania.
He decided to make the national day of giving thanks to God for the bounty he has bestowed on us (Thanksgiving) into an excuse for added consumerism in American culture. This was entirely acceptable for him. He was under the misconception, after all, that an intelligent dictator was the best form of governance, so he hired his famous brain trust who advised him on all kinds of ways to expand the power of government to make American life “better.” The question in such situations is always “better for whom?” For example when the US Government put a price floor on foodstuffs in order to keep prices high during the Great Depression, it might have been great for some producers of food. It was terrible, however, for people who needed to eat. Everyone needs to eat. Not everyone produces food. This therefore benefited fewer people than it hurt, as was the case with many New Deal policies.
That’s an important issue when looking back at the New Deal – from the perspective of many economic historians, the New Deal really worsened and prolonged hardship on the average American (who were virtually all consumers and workers) by exerting control on broad parts of the economy and making many products and service more expensive. New Deal policies, which were essentially a continuation and expansion by Roosevelt of the work started by his predecessor Hoover took a minor economic event and helped turn it into something widespread and lengthy. (While this topic is dealt with in depth by many historians, Robert Murphy’s Politically Incorrect Guide
very blithely deals with this topic and others, addressing the fact that Hoover was not a “do nothing President,” but an anti-free market President who set the groundwork across the aisle for Roosevelt’s interventions.)
Despite what is commonly taught in American schools, the New Deal benefited some in society, just like FDR’s insistence in shifting the date of Thanksgiving benefited some in society. Here’s how writer Bill Kauffman tells the story of FDR’s moving of Thanksgiving in an attempt to satisfy well-connected retailers.
It seems that in 1939 Thanksgiving was to fall on November 30th, a matter of consternation to the big merchants of the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA). The presidents of Gimbel Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and other unsentimental vendors petitioned President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the previous Thursday, November 23, thus creating an additional week of Christmas shopping – and to the astonishment of those Americans without dollar signs in their eyes, the president did so. (Not all merchants favored the shift. One Kokomo shopkeeper hung a sign in his window reading, “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.”)
Opinion polls revealed that more than 60 percent of Americans opposed the Rooseveltian ukase; dissent was especially vigorous in New England. The selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, informed the President, “It is a religious holiday and [you] have no right to change it for commercial reasons.” Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks to the Almighty, harrumphed Governor Leverett Salstonstall of Massachusetts, “and not for the inauguration of Christmas shopping.”
Although the states customarily followed the federal government’s lead on Thanksgiving, they retained the right to set their own date for the holiday, so 48 battles erupted. As usual, New Deal foes had all the wit, if not the votes. A New Hampshire senator urged the President to abolish winter; the Oregon attorney general versified:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one.
Until we hear from Washington.
Twenty-three states celebrated Thanksgiving 1939 on November 23, and another 23 stood fast with November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, shrugged their shoulders and celebrated both days – Texas did so to avoid having to move the Texas/Texas A&M football game. (In recent years, the Texas turkey bowl game has been transplanted to the Friday following Thanksgiving due to pressure from a power even greater than FDR: television.)
This New Deal experiment in Gimbelism lasted two more years, until finally the NRDGA admitted that there was little difference in retail sales figures between the states that celebrated Thanksgiving early and those that clung to the traditional holiday. Without fanfare, President Roosevelt returned Thanksgiving 1942 to the last Thursday in November. Mark Sullivan noted that this was the only New Deal experiment FDR ever renounced.
Just as Roosevelt’s megalomaniacal refusal to observe the two-term tradition set by George Washington necessitated the 22nd Amendment, so did his flouting of Thanksgiving precedent require corrective legislation. In a compromise of sorts, FDR signed into law a bill fixing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday – not the last Thursday – in November. Never again would Thanksgiving fall on November 29th or 30th. The states followed suit, although Texas held out until 1956.
FDR is not to blame for a societal trend. He played a significant role in the use of Christmas and Thanksgiving as cynical tools for buying and selling that is seldom discussed. Nor in the 2oth century – the century of the great dictators, great states, and great wars do I look at FDR’s New Deal as the greatest tragedy the world witnessed. The US could have had much worse. The New Deal was among the worst collection of policies to happen to the US, Roosevelt among the worst Presidents from an American perspective that a constant pursuit of greater freedom is what America has potential to be truly great at.
Over time FDR’s move to shift the day of Thanksgiving to lengthen the holiday shopping season seems to have had such an effect that a day is named for the important first day of that season, known as “Black Friday.” It can’t be said whether the move was a good decision or a bad decision. The results of studies are conflicting, and additionally, there is a philosophical argument at hand – what would even constitute “good” or “bad” in this situation.
Some Effects of a Longer Christmas Shopping Season
For example – consumer spending takes place in larger amounts earlier which likely leads to an increase in spending with a lengthened shopping season. At the same time, worker productivity declines as more time is spent on holiday shopping. Productivity is what strengthens an economy. Shopping doesn’t. At the same time holiday family time does not increase, people simply spend less time in the office and more time shopping.
There is a term “discretionary spending.” Discretionary time should be considered in this equation as well. We only have a limited amount of free time. Not only does more shopping eat away at time spent on productivity, it also eats away at “discretionary time.” Family time decreases during the holidays as people go out shopping for family instead of sitting down to have a heart-to-heart with family. Taking your father out for a $3 cup of coffee is infinitely better at building bonds and expressing love than buying him a $300 electronic device. In the former situation you will be spending time with the other person, in the later you will only be spending money on the other person.
Here we have an important crux of American culture that is being exported around the world – as people become wealthier, people want to spend more, often beyond their means, which creates more of a need to work, sometimes overwork, and a desire to spend more as a method of comforting oneself. This can form a vicious cycle.
Themes of Discussions
Sit down with many middle class Americans for a discussion or listen in on a discussion. As soon as the participants arrive at a certain amount of comfort with each other, it is very common to talk more than anything about the ways that they spend their money: how to be frugal, the new cars, what the next vacation will be, what their latest appliance purchases have been like.
I see nothing wrong with having lots of money. I see nothing wrong with working hard. I see nothing wrong with spending lots of your own money exactly the way you feel like spending it. In fact, I think those are all ideal. What I do recognize is that Americans (and probably all humans) caught in a cycle like the one I mention seem to lose an ability to communicate with each other in a way that does not heavily involve a discussion of possessions purchased and possessions to be purchased. Discussions like this are ever-present in American society and of course we turn to our peer group to have the discussions about things that we feel are most important. It’s fine to turn to our peer groups. Listening in on discussions often leaves me with the feeling that the latest purchases and the next purchases are the most important topics on the minds of many Americans I encounter, since that is the subject of so many discussions people have with their peers.
Slovaks, in my experience, tend to speak to each other differently, but that is changing. Slovaks increasingly talk about where the next fix will come from, what the next purchase is that they will make. At this moment the content of discussions I hear in Slovakia seem to impress me a bit more than the content of discussions in the US. One tends to be about purchases and possessions and another seems so adept at using communication to build bonds without obsessing with the topics of purchases and possessions.
How will you spend your Black Friday? If you read this, before your family’s Thanksgiving celebration, I’d be curious to hear your observation on this – did you and yours spend a lot of time discussing past and future purchases? If you shifted the discussion around the dinner table off of the topic of purchases, what are topics you shifted discussion to?
Also, I’d like to say:
Dear Readers, I wish you the happiest of days today and want you to know that I am thankful for your readership, for your comments in these pages, and for your encouraging and fascinating emails. You are the ones who make this website possible.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.