Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Madoff scandal: some background

Earlier this year, Edgar M. Bronfman gave an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Bronfman, now 79, is the former CEO of the Seagram concern, who has also served as president of the World Jewish Congress. With the assistance of Beth Zasloff, he has recently written a book entitled “Hope Not Fear” that, in Solomon’s words, “argues for a kind of neo-Judaism that loosens the rules of observance, welcomes converts and has nothing to do with synagogue.” Bronfman looks back with little enthusiasm on the dry, joyless Judaism of his youth. He maintains that the Holocaust and fear of anti-Semitism no longer suffice to drive Jewish identity and participation; only a more open, more celebratory, and hopeful communal life will draw and retain young Jews. This community must be pluralistic, unreservedly welcoming intermarried Jews and their spouses, gay Jews, and others outside the traditional Jewish mold.

I have not read the book, but I assume that the above summary is reasonably accurate. In his interview with Ms. Solomon, Mr. Bronfman did object to the term “neo-Judaism,” though.

Somewhat startlingly, the interviewee remarked “I don’t believe in the God of the Old Testament, but I am happy with my Judaism, without that.” Solomon then asked “If you take the spiritual element out of Judaism, what is left? Some would say the rest is just archaeology, bones in the desert.” To this, Bronfman replied “That’s their problem; that’s not my problem. What we have left is our ethics, our morals. It was our people who developed the Ten Commandments, and civilizations all over the world are based on the Ten Commandments. Whoever wrote that — and we assume it was Moses — had a great deal of wisdom.” When Solomon pointed out that every religion has an ethical system, Bronfman replied, “Well, they do now. But we were the first.”

For someone who has coauthored a whole book about his beliefs, Bronfman’s assertions show a shocking degree of ignorance. Apart from Judaism, only Christianity has adopted the Ten Commandments. Even in countries that are, or were Christian, it is not clear that the “civilization” has been based on the Decalogue. Contrary to popular perception, none of these countries has a system of law that incorporates the Ten Commandments. Such reliance would be contrary to the spirit of the Civil Law.

Then there is the claim that Judaism ranks as the first religion to have an ethical system. This is factually untrue since the first monotheism was established by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who lived several centuries before Moses. The hymns of the Aten religion founded by Akhenaten make a number of ethical statement, including an assertion of the essential unity of all of humanity. More broadly, the Book of the Dead, particularly in Chapter 125, addresses a host of individual ethical issues. To be sure, ancient Egyptian religion has disappeared. However, Zoroastrianism (Parsiism) and Hinduism, both very ancient religions that are living today, have ethical systems. Moreover, being first is not necessarily an advantage. The Wright Brothers flew the first aircraft, but who would want to go up in one now?

More importantly, Bronfman’s emphasis on ethics is typical of a good many people of his faith who have abandoned the ritual aspects of Judaism, while clinging to the reassuring belief that it is, in some remarkable way, particularly ethical. Ethical systems are numberless, and many have been sustained by religions, past and present. While it may be comforting to his nonobservant brothers and sisters, this ethnocentric claim of Bronfman’s is questionable, to say the least.

Moreover, Bronfman’s principle must now meet the challenge posed by recent revelations about Bernard Madoff, who--at a clip of 50 billion or so--may enjoy the distinction of operating the largest Ponzi scheme ever. For the record, Mr. Madoff is Jewish; Charles Ponzi, to the best of my knowledge, was not.

According to the New York Times, Yeshiva University was one of the Jewish institutions that was defrauded by Bernard Madoff. Currently, anguished discussions are going on at that university regarding the challenge to Judaism ostensibly posed by Mr. Madoff. From various parts of the country, rabbis have chimed in, asking--since by definition, they believe, Judaism is a highly ethical religion--how could this happen? And how could Madoff have cheated so many fellow Jews? Rudely, perhaps, one may ask: would he have been less unethical if he had only cheated gentiles? That seems to be the unspoken premise of what some are saying.

The underlying problem is that these Jewish authority figures are hoist by their own petard. That is, for a long time they have been advocating the view that Bronfman so confidently, and inaccurately, asserts: that there is something distinctively and superlatively ethical about Judaism. If it is so central to Judaism, this feature should have acted as a kind of fire break, causing Madoff to pull back. It did not--hence the conundrum and the ensuing anguish.

Those rabbis should recognize a simple truth. There are bad people of every religious faith. Look, for example, at Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who I assume is Serbian Orthodox.

Unless one thinks that working in finance is itself wrong (a feature of Marxist ethics, but not of most other systems), this activity itself is not unethical. Moreover, Mr. Madoff cheated Jewish investors and charities because he operated through networking, and many of his contacts were Jewish. He also cheated non-Jewish individuals and charities.

At the very least we should be grateful to Bernard Madoff for disproving the old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish swindlers prey only on non-Jews. That is nonsense, because such individuals follow the Willie Sutton principle: they go where the money is. Madoff surpassed Sutton because he had a more subtle means of prying the bank vaults open.

We can be grateful to Mr. Madoff--those of us who were not victimized, that is--for teaching a valuable lesson: avoid Ponzi schemes. To be sure, it is too late for this advice to help those who have lost out through their reliance on Madoff. At least some of them, though, ought to have known better.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The origins of Christmas

A seemingly inescapable feature of this time of the year is the rerun of the myth that the observance of Christmas is nothing more than a continuation of the rowdy Roman rites of the Saturnalia. Many otherwise judicious writers endorse this claim of derivation. As we shall see, the argument for it does not hold up.

The reasons for yielding to the Saturnalia temptation are several. One is a legitimate wish to learn why the birthday of Christ should have come to be celebrated on December 25. After all, the New Testament gives no indication of when Christ was born, and Early Christian writers opt for various dates, reflecting the fact that different customs prevailed in different parts of the Empire. In addition to this natural curiosity, however, some advocates of the Saturnalia theory seem to want to “stick it to Christians” by uncovering the somewhat sordid origins of one of their major festivals.

What then was the Saturnalia? Saturnalia was the festival by which the Romans the commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, a somewhat ambiguous figure who has given us the adjective “saturnine.” Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, it grew it to week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the length of these festivities were unsuccessful. The emperor Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. If the available reports are to be believed, Saturnalia was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters switched places. Temporarily, slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with a pretense of disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was superficial, for the slaves had to do the work of actually preparing the banquet. Saturnalia was, or appeared to be, what sociologists call a “zone of licence.” Yet the license was confined within carefully defined boundaries: it reversed the social order without subverting it.

What can we conclude from the time of the festival’s observance, December 17 to 23? First, by advancing into December, it came to encompass the Winter Solstice. We customarily mark that event (after which the days become longer) on December 21. However, an astronomer of my acquaintance indicates that actual observation is somewhat less precise, and can range from December 20 to 23.

Note that even its expanded form, Saturnalia, ending on the 23rd, did not overlap Christmas as we currently observe it. Nor does that Christian festival fall within the range of dates for the Winter Solstice.

The real parallel is this. The observance on the 25th of December corresponds to the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The exchanging of gifts was originally associated with January 6, Epiphany, when the visit of the Three Magi was commemorated; hence the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Of course no one knows even the season when Jesus was born, or the precise year. Various preferences for the day of the Nativity were found in different areas of the Roman empire. About 200 CE Clement of Alexandria that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Paschon 25, corresponding to January 6, now observed as Epiphany, or Three King’s Day. Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a feast day in the church of Roman Africa. In his “Chronographia,” a compilation issued in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the Spring Equinox. The Equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. “De Pascha Computus,” a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the Nativity. Others rejected the whole principle. In 245 the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, "only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod" celebrated their birthdays. In 303 the Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, suggesting that for some Christmas was not yet a feast at this time.

In view of this diversity, the success of December 25 was not preordained in any obvious way. Yet its coincidence with the Sol Invictus observance was probably the decisive factor, because of the concept of Christ as the "sun of righteousness" prophesied in Malachi 4:2. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, some secular scholars proposed that Christ himself had never lived, but was simply a personification of the solar principle. In the broadest sense, this connection goes back to Egypt of the Pharaohs. Not only was the sun worshipped there under various guises, Re or Ra, Re-Horakhte, Amun-Re, but the first monotheist, Akhenaten, devised the first form of monotheism based on the sun as supreme deity (the Aten)

To be sure, once the custom became established, many Christian writers accepted as a matter of course that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton seems to have been the first to argue, incorrectly, that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, However, in 1743 the German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski reached the correct solution: Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, and therefore represented a Christian purloining of a pagan custom.

The historical record indicates that in 274 CE, during the time of troubles in the Roman Empire, Aurelian stipulated December 25 as the date of the celebration of "Birth of the Unconquered Sun." Aurelian's empire seemed near collapse. As politicians so often find, when practical measures fail propaganda fills the gap. Accordingly, his festival proclaimed imperial and pagan rejuvenation. As we have noted, December 25 falls AFTER the range assigned to the Winter Solstice itself. Instead, it marks the confirmation of the period in which daylight begins to lengthen.

Recently, William Tighe, a Church historian at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, has proposed a different theory. Tighe acknowledges that the first hard evidence of Christmas occurring on December 25 is not found until 336 CE and that the date only became a fixed festival in Constantinople in 379.

However, a reference occurs in the "Chronicle" written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus held that Jesus' birth "took place eight days before the kalends of January," that is, December 25. However, Aurelian did not make up his observance out of whole cloth. In fact, the title Sol Invictus embraced several established solar deities, allowing them to be honored collectively. These include Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; the older Greek deities Helios and Apollo, and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin. In his own way the eccentric emperor Elagabalus (218–222), who was a priest of Elah-Gabal, observed the festival. Aurelian merely confirmed it as an empire-wide holiday.

Tighe’s citation of Hippolytus seems a slender reed on which to hang a revisionist theory, as there is every reason to believe that December 25 would be significant for sun worshippers, but not, in the first instance, for Christians. As we have noted, sun worship had prevailed for millennia in the ancient Mediterranean. Consequently, the origins of Christmas illustrate one of the major sources of religion: reverence for cosmic forces, in this case the sun.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas carols--ugh (though not always)

I generally dislike Christmas carols, as so many of them have been repackaged as annoying ear-worms that bombard us at this time of year. I do make an exception for the stately “Adeste, fideles” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

"Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte Regem angelorum."


"Venite adoremus, venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus, Dominum."

I learned to sing this hymn in the second grade, before they excluded such things from secular schools. I particularly enjoyed the way we lingered over the Latin words, including the final “Domin-uuum.”

Not classical Latin, the words are almost certainly medieval. The text has been ascribed to various individuals and groups, including St. Bonaventure (13th century), King John of Portugal, or some particular order of monks. A Portuguese connection seems likely.

The tune that is currently used seems to stem from the English composer John Francis Wade in 1743. However the music seems to have been generally common at the time, being attributed to John Reading, Handel, and the Portuguese musician Marcos Antonio da Fonseca.

Now comes an instance of academic criticism that seems to have gone off the rails. Professor Bernett Zon, the head of the department of music at Durham University, proposes that the hymn is actually a birth ode to Jacobite pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. He maintains that there are "clear references" to the Prince in the carol's lyrics. Zon claims that “Fideles” means Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is a common Jacobite cipher for England and Regem Angelorum is a well-know pun on Angelorum, angels, and Anglorum, English. Therefore, Zon holds the Carol really means "Come and Behold him, Born the King of the English.” Supposedly, the carol is actually a birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and embodies a secret political code decipherable by the "faithful," the followers of the Pretender.

Since the words were probably written centuries earlier, these claims seem speculative at best. Wade may have been a Jacobite, but he wrote--possibly--only the music not the words.

Perhaps the central problem is the search for a single author, rather than seeking collective roots. Works that enjoy such talismanic popularity often embody a series of changes, as they are gradually fine-tuned into a version of enduring resonance.

A case in point is the familiar song "Lili Marlene," about a soldier on leave. The text, the first part of it at least, was written by the poet Hans Leip in Berlin in April 1915. He was in love with two women, Lili and Marleen--hence the title fusing the two names. Leip himself wrote the first musical version, which was followed by another setting by Rudolf Zink. In 1938 Norbert Schulze finally created the melody that we all know. During World War II the singer Lale Andersen gave it the distintive melancholy tincture that is now part and parcel of the song.

Thus it is vain to search for the "author of 'Lili Marleen'." as four different people contributed to its final realization. Likewise, it seems, for "Adeste, fideles."

At all events, happy holidays to all!


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where are we headed?

As a supporter of Obama from the moment he announced, I always recognized that this candidacy was something of a Hail Mary pass. Like most of us, I was enticed (up to a point) by the "change" rhetoric, but I always feared that it might be a crock. And so it turned out to be.

My main concern was to block the appalling and sinister John McCain, for with his psycho buddies at his side (read Lieberman and Palin) we would be plunged into: a) endless warfare in the service of Israel (Lieberman); and b) fundamentalist knownothingism (Palin). We avoided those traps--or did we?

In my more sober moments I felt that the matter boiled down to a choice between a third term for Bush or a third term for Clinton. With considerable misgivings, I opted for the latter.

Now it looks as if I was wrong. What we are getting is both: a third term for Bush (Gates and the idiotic Paulson, whose folly will linger for a long time) and a third term for Clinton (Rahm Immanuel and John Podesta, both eager to pay back old scores--not to mention Hil herself).

Long ago, my radical parents instructed me that whomever one votes for, be it Republican or Democrat, one always gets the same policies. Tweedledum and tweedledee. How right they were! For a time, in their different ways, Ralph Nader and Ron Paul charted out a different path. But most people were (and are) still hypnotized by the old D vs. R shell game.

Now we are going to have endless war (in the hopeless Afghanistan mess AND Iraq) and endless ("stimulus") spending, which will mortgage the country for generations to come. Thank goodness I have no children.

The preposterous handwringing over the auto manufacturers (which ought to go immediately into Chapter Eleven) shows that the unions will be increasingly calling the tune. That charlatan Barney Frank admitted as much. Union domination, always the solf underbelly of the Democratic Party, was something that Bill Clinton was able to avoid--up to a point. The obstinacy of the teachers' unions remains, however, the biggest problem in getting this country moving. Obama will not, cannot do anything about that vested interest. And so the United States will sink ever lower in the competition among the nations of the developed world. Trust me: I'm a teacher myself.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Akhenaten to Buber

In my lectures on ancient Egyptian art (just concluded), I dealt at length with the astonishing religious innovations of pharaoh Akhenaten (reigned 1353-1337) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Ever since the recovery a century ago of art works and documents of this pharaoh, it has been recognized that Akhenaten introduced true monotheism--the worship of a single deity in the form of the Aten, visualized as a sun disk. The reforming pharaoh did not tolerate other deities, and required that their images be smashed. The similarities between Akhenaten’s ideas and those ascribed to Moses are so close that some--famously Sigmund Freud--have been tempted to posit a direct connection between the two phenomena. However, the chronological gap between the two forms of monotheism is too great. One must assume that the Israelite development was an independent invention, and not an instance of diffusion.

At all events, in discussing the bas reliefs of Akhenaten adoring the Aten I noticed that they exhibited a reciprocity that is rare in ancient Egyptian religious art, and indeed anywhere in ancient art. That is, the deity responds vigorously to the king’s adoration by emitting a virtual shower of rays, each terminating in a tiny hand.

In the course of my lectures it occurred to me that this phenomenon of reciprocity might be an example of the famous “I-thou” nexus advanced by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965). After all, I reasoned, Buber was working in the context of Jewish monotheism, which as we noted, shows striking affinities with the monotheism of Akhenaten, even though it was not derived from the ancient Egyptian prototype.

After the lecture I got out my old copy of “I and Thou,” and reread this wonderful text, which surely ranks as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. To my surprise, I found very little that is overtly Jewish. To be sure, scholars have detected two or three veiled allusions to the Hebrew text of Exodus. By contrast, there are several direct references to the Upanishads and to Buddhism. Jesus, the Gospels, and Christian mystics receive favorable, explicit attention. In short, if the text had been published anonymously, one would not detect that its author was a famous authority on the Hasidism. In fact, for much of its life--”I and Thou” was first published in German in 1923--the book was admired mainly by protestants.

Even more startling, however, is the fact that the book is not primarily about religion, but about deepening our human interaction with the world by observing the distinction between “I-thou” and “I-It.” The former manifests deep empathy; the latter instrumentalizes the world, reducing it to a mere convenience.

Buber’s book is laced with many references to Goethe. This was more or less obligatory in German scholarly writing of the time, but Buber seemed to have responded in a genuine way to the great writer’s humanism. Ultimately, however, “I and Thou” seems to be based on a cardinal principle of the ethics of Immanuel Kant, who requires that we treat others as ends not means. To take a familiar example, sexual objectification reduces the other person to a mere convenience--a means--for the satisfaction of the individual. By contrast, genuine love treats the beloved as an end, someone to be honored and treasured for his or her self. Indeed, Buber sometimes speaks of the man-and-wife relation as an example of “I-thou.”

In addition, Buber’s masterpiece was a child of its time, Weimar Germany. Its rhapsodic, sometimes obscure style shows notable similarities with the contemporary work of Martin Heidegger and Hermann Hesse. I also detect a more remote connection with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece of concision, the “Tractatus.”

Examining the details of Martin Buber’s life, it is not difficult to discern the origins of his knowledge of Christian traditions. His dissertation dealt with the Christian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme [Zur Geschichte des Individuationsproblem (Nicolaus von Cusa und Jakob Boehme), University of Vienna, 1904]. For a long time the manuscript has remained unpublished in Buber‘s papers in Tel Aviv. I have not been able to examine the first installment of the new collected edition (planned for 21 volumes) of the writer’s German-language writings, but it seems that that this early formative text was not included therein. Perhaps it will appear in a later volume. Still, some periodical articles published by Buber at the time of his studies offer a glimpse of its contents. Guided in part by the nineteenth-century Christian theologian, Ludwig Feuerbach, Buber contextualized his subjects by also discussing Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Weigel.

Another interesting point--though it is a sidelight--is that after obtaining his Ph.D. Buber went for a time to Florence to study art history, with a view to teaching that subject. Had he persevered, he might have become one of my teachers in graduate school at New York University.

As far as I know, Buber never contemplated conversion to Christianity, but clearly his allegiance was to European and indeed to world culture. In this light, it is ironic that he is now known mainly to American Jews by his collections of the Hasidic tales associated with the eighteenth-century Ashkenazic sage Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. In the eyes of today’s enthusiasts, the Besht ranks as a kind of protohippy. Discarding conventions and doctrinal restraints, he freely roamed the fields, all the while singing away. Since this archetypal Hasid wrote almost nothing and was limned by followers only some fifty years after his death, it is hard to establish the truth of these claims. Skeptics have doubted whether the Baal Shen Tov ever existed, though surely this goes too far, as some contemporary documents have been found. At all events recent popular accounts are poorly sources and redolent of anachronism. For a demythologized view of this much-extolled figure, see the sober monograph of Moshe Rosman, “Founder of Hasidism,” 1996.

When he first engaged with this material, just over a hundred years ago, Buber seems to have viewed Hasidism as an exemplary source of Jewish cultural renewal, citing examples from the Hasidic tradition that emphasized community, interpersonal life, and the meaning that dwells in humble, everyday activities (for example, a worker's relation to his tools). According to Buber, the Hasidic ideal emphasized a life conducted in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no separation between daily life and religious experience.

Martin Buber has been criticized for presenting the tales in such a way as to illustrate his own philosophy of life, while omitting the overarching theology that was uncongenial to him. He has also, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to the cloying sentimentality that has come to envelop the vanished shtetl culture of Eastern Europe--what might be termed the “Fiddler on the Roof” syndrome.

In this vein, an element of wishful thinking has been noted in Buber's recasting of the Hasidic tradition. In the introduction to his edition of “Tales of the Hasidim,” Chaim Potok maintains that Buber overlooked Hasidism's "charlatanism, obscurantism, internecine quarrels, its heavy freight of folk superstition and pietistic excesses, its zaddik worship, its vulgarized and attenuated reading of Lurianic Kabbalah."

For their part, traditionalists have charged that Buber deemphasized the importance of Jewish Law in Hasidism. Yet Buber would have probably have replied that that was precisely his point. A commitment to a genuinely religious life is reflected in one’s daily conduct, not in adherence to a rigid set of beliefs.

A 2008 book by Martina Urban,”Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik,” links this interest on Buber’s part with his Zionism. Well, yes and no, for one of the key points of early Zionism was to begin a new life in Palestine, discarding the baggage of the old ways. Moreover, Buber’s freeform interpretation of Hasidism retains more than a few residues of his formative studies of the Christian antinomian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Dying" languages

Since my early teens I have been interested in languages. I regularly read books in the major Western European languages, and still aspire to do the same for East Asian languages.

One aspect of this interest is languages that have become extinct. Although they have no living speakers, Hittite and Sumerian are reasonably well understood by scholars who work on the texts. Some 200 words (maybe more) are now understood of Etruscan. However, we know nothing at all of the ancient Indus Valley language, as its script has not yet been deciphered.

Nowadays some linguists and others are sounding the alarm about the imminent extinction of many languages with a small number of speakers. This matter is addressed in the closing section of a new book, “One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost,” edited by Peter K. Austin, the director of the endangered languages program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

One question that is often asked is: how many languages are spoken in the world today? Austin's Introduction reckons the figure at about 6,900. Such estimates are always subject to a certain amount of oscillation because not everyone agrees about what criteria constitute a language. Most scholars--and native speakers--would agree that Dutch (the Netherlands) and Flemish (Belgium) are the same language, so that they count as one, not two in the reckoning. Corsican is simply a dialect of Italian; claims that it is a separate language are political, not scientific. But is Ruthenian separate from Ukrainian, or simply a dialect of it" Does Norway have one language or two (Bokmal vs. Nunorsk)?

I would say that the actual figure of languages is closer to 5,000. But perhaps there are a few that, even now, are unrecorded. The Introduction also tells us that just four percent of these languages are spoken by 96 percent of the world’s population. However, the figures for mandarin Chinese (the top language) are commonly inflated; it does not count over one billion speakers, because many people in China continue to speak Cantonese, Fujienese, and other Sinic languages. That they are not truly proficient in Mandarin is shown by the fact that television broadcasts of political figures are accompanied by subtitles when broadcast in South China. Be that as it may, we also learn that Vanuatu (an island republic in the South Pacific), with 100,000 people and 120 languages, has the highest language density of any country in the world.

The two final chapters are entitled “Endangered Languages” and “Extinct Languages.” Clearly some tongues are on the verge of dying out. Njerep, with four speakers left, none of them younger than 60, can't last much longer. Burushaski, with 90,000 speakers, is in much better shape. Kunwinjku, with only 2,000, has an intermediate status.

As the writer of the notice in the New York Times Book review aptly notes, "[w]hen a small population gives up its language voluntarily (as opposed to compulsorily), it does so to become part of a larger or more powerful community. To preserve such peoples, we’d have to isolate them or maintain their languages through some other artificial, even coercive, means. But that very artificiality is a signal that a language is on its deathbed."

The author of the chapter on endangered languages believes that 90 percent of the languages currently spoken will probably disappear by the end of this century. Before this occurs they should all be recorded, in grammars, dictionaries, and--of course--video presentations that will also show the accompaniments of gesture, too often ignored in these efforts. In all likelihood there will not be enough qualified linguists to undertake the job. In some cases laypeople could clearly help, especially with the videotaping.

Many who deplore this forthcoming mass extinction like to compare languages to species. What if we were told that 90 percent of the animal species on the planet would die out by the end of the twenty-first century? Wouldn't we be impelled to take urgent action? However, languages are not biological species, but human artifacts. Moreover, not all species are sacrosanct, for we believe and hope that some viruses have been extinguished forever.

Rather, it seems to me, one should evolve criteria for determining which languages should be saved. If memory serves, Dalmatian, a Romance language, disappeared in 1898. Since similar languages, such as Italian, Romansh, and Sardinian are flourishing we need not be too concerned with this loss. Ditto Cornish. It is gone, but Welsh and Breton, its close cousins, survive. However, if Basque were to be threatened--which happily it is not--every effort should be made to save it, as that language is the only representative of its particular language family. As such, Basque preserves special features that are not found in any other tongue.

There are also more subjective criteria. Some languages might be selected because of special qualities of harmony of their soundscape--beauty in short. Others might be chosen because of the epic poetry or other literature that they have produced.

I doubt if anyone is preparing a roster of such qualities. In view of the large number of tongues that are scheduled to disappear (if this book has the story right) there will probably be no rational pattern of preservation.

Is all this truly a cause for lamentation, however? If we were to end up with just the eleven most popular languages today, that would constitute impoverishment--a crime against "diversity," if you will. But the likelihood is that enough languages will survive to illustrate all of the main principles that have been discerned by comparative linguistics. There will certainly be more than even the most assiduous student could hope to learn in a lifetime.