Why I Am a Christian

Friday, 26 December 2014

Why Columbus Didn't Write Italian

     Although it is as well established as anything can be that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, there has been a lot of foolish speculation about his nationality, particularly by those hoping to claim him for their own. In this debate, the question is often raised: why didn't he ever write anything in Italian?
     Well, for a start, most of his most important correspondence was when he was resident in Spain, and writing to people who spoke Spanish. However, one commentator has pointed out something that would have been as obvious to his contemporaries as it is forgotten today: his native language was not Italian; it was Genoese! Genoese is not a dialect of Italian; it is a dialect of Ligurian. It is as different from Italian as Occitan/Proven├žal is from French.
     Over the last few centuries the centralisation of political power has also meant the centralisation of national languages, leaving the regional languages to wither on the vine. However, they were still very much alive five centuries ago. Indeed, Italy itself did not exist then as a political entity. Genoa in those days was one of many independent republics which patterned northern Italy at the time like a big jigsaw puzzle.
     Genoese is not dead yet, but it is withering on the vine. In a couple of centuries it will be forgotten, and people will still be asking why Columbus never wrote in Italian.

Reference: Paolo Emilio Taviani, Cristoforo Colombo, Genius of the Sea (2nd edition, 1991)

Monday, 22 December 2014

Do We All Have a Double Somewhere?

     The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894) is, of course, the classic novel about a protagonist who closely resembles a stranger. The genre has been done to death; I don't know how many stories I've read or watched with this as the theme. But could it happen in real life? There are people who make a living impersonating celebrities. Mostly, the resemblance is very close, but not perfect. However, one of those doubles, Janet Brown was the splitting image of Margaret Thatcher, so much so that she was able to take part in an elaborate practical joke in which Joan Rivers thought she was meeting the British Prime Minister. Logically, the variety of human facial features is not infinite; duplicates must turn up at times. Do we all have a double somewhere?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Of Course There Is Such a Thing as Race!

     In my younger days I enrolled myself in the bone marrow registry, as a part of which I was asked to state my race, or ethnicity. An impertinence! you may say, so they provided a reason. Matching marrow types is much more complicated than matching blood groups, and the various types are not spread randomly throughout the human race. If a patient requires a marrow donation, a search will first be made among members of those races where the required match is more common; it might not be the patient's own race.
     The major races of mankind are as obvious as different breeds of dogs. So why do so many people insist that there is no such thing as race, that it is merely a "social construct"?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

What You Didn't Know About Shaving

     There are so many things we just take for granted, but never question: like men shaving themselves. We've always done it, haven't we? Well, at least since we decided we didn't like our beards? Not exactly. In ancient Rome, men didn't shave themselves; they went to the local barber (from barba, a beard), who wielded his razor at a streetside stall while the crowds jostled around. They also went only every second day, which meant that most males sported a five o'clock shadow - something Hollywood never cottoned on to. So why didn't they shave themselves?