Zeg niet ‘Zwarte Piet’, maar zeg ‘hoera, het is weer bijna Sinterklaas!’

Naar goede (nu ja) jaarlijkse gewoonte, een Sinterklaaspost! (eerdere invullingen van deze oude, en dus nu onveranderlijke traditie: hier, hier, en hier).

Wie niet wil doorgaan voor een geitenwollen sok, zatte nonkel, zeur in de leraarskamer of (o horror) gast in een praatprogramma: een lijstje in heuse pedante-schoolmeester-stijl, inclusief nutteloze weetjes om de volgende ontsporende discussie te voeden vermijden

Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet was er altijd al. Ze moeten onze tradities niet zomaar komen afpakken!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik heb zelf alleen maar goede herinneringen aan Zwarte Piet, en ik zou graag hebben dat mijn (klein)kinderen ook zo’n fijne feesten kunnen beleven’

 

Alleen wie denkt dat de geschiedenis begint en eindigt bij zijn/haar eigen leven, kan denken dat Zwarte Piet voor eeuwig en altijd is. Dat het om een ‘eeuwenlange’ traditie gaat, klopt gewoon niet. Hoewel het moeilijk is de verschijning van Zwarte Piet exact te dateren, weten we wel dat het beeld van de ‘Moorse’ knecht in Nederland pas gangbaar werd in de negentiende eeuw, en in Vlaanderen zelfs pas in de twintigste.

Sint Nicolaas

Sint Nicolaas, rijdend op een ezel en bijgestaan door…de bakker!

Vindt u het toch belangrijk om alleen hele oude tradities te vieren? Dan moeten we misschien opnieuw meer naar heiligenverhalen luisteren (het verhaal van Nicolaas die zeelieden redt is erg spannend, en dat van de kleine baby-Nicolaas die moeders borst weigert om te vasten valt misschien ook wel te vieren). Stoute kinderen verlaten wellicht beter het land voor een uiterst traditioneel, eeuwenoud feest…die zouden dan immers met rammelende kettingen (en geweld) bang gemaakt moeten worden.

 

 

 

 

Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet is racisme!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zou graag hebben dat alle kinderen kunnen deelnemen aan een fijn Sinterklaasfeest. Zwarte Piet reflecteert pijnlijke clichés van kolonialisme en racialisering, dat vind ik geen goed voorbeeld voor kinderen, en is kwetsend voor wie niet blank is’.

 

Belgen en Nederlanders met een (veelal) Congolese en Surinaamse achtergrond  wijzen al sinds de jaren ’60 beleefd op het kwetsende karakter van de vormgeving en praktijk van Zwarte Piet. Dat hun blanke medeburgers daar pas nu – nu de slogans simplistisch en luider worden –  op reageren, getuigt van weinig luisterbereidheid of empathie (en inderdaad ook van een latent racisme). Daarmee wordt de slogan desondanks niet zomaar correct.

Volgens Van Dale (en wie zijn wij om die in twijfel te trekken) is racisme

1.theorie die de superioriteit van een bep. ras verkondigt

2. discriminatie op grond van iemands rasZP

Nu hebben we Zwarte Piet natuurlijk ook met z’n allen uitgevonden (in tegenstelling tot Sinterklaas is Piet niet gebaseerd op een historische figuur), maar daarom moeten we hem ook niet meteen tot een theorie uitroepen. Piet belichaamt heel wat raciale stereotiepen, maar ‘verkondigt’ bijzonder weinig … behalve in de jaren ’90 dan. Toen werd hij blijkbaar bang van ‘de winter’.

 

 

Zeg niet

‘Je kan hier niets meer zeggen zonder voor racist uitgemaakt te worden!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zie zelf niet wat er kwetsend is aan Zwarte Piet. Kan iemand me dat uitleggen?’

 

Hoe ongemakkelijk het ook is, het beeld van Zwarte Piet zoals we dat nu kennen, dankt zijn bestaan wel degelijk aan het koloniale verleden, en niet aan de schoorsteen. De eerste beelden van de ‘Moorse knecht’ waren gericht op kinderen die zelf waarschijnlijk nooit iemand met Afrikaanse trekken te zien kregen, en het is dus misschien niet zo verwonderlijk dat Zwarte Piet vooral een collectie van uitvergrote, stereotiepe trekken is geworden. Met andere woorden: Zwarte Piet was nooit ‘echt’ een verbeelding van een zwarte slaaf (daar konden die kindertjes zich weinig bij voorstellen), maar gebruikte wel exact dezelfde beeldtaal die gebruikt werd om echte Afrikanen te kleineren en ridiculiseren.

Of beter: Piet is niet echt gebaseerd op een historisch figuur, maar verschijnt wel in een periode waarin ‘Moorse’ jongetjes als een soort modieus accessoire van de hoge burgerij werden afgebeeld.

 

Zeg niet

‘Hoe moet ik dat nu weer aan mijn kinderen gaan uitleggen?!’

Maar zeg

‘Dat ga ik aan mijn kinderen uitleggen!’

 

Uw kinderen weten vast al allerlei dingen waar wij geen weet van hadden. Waarom dan ook niet een beetje correcte informatie over de Sint meegeven? Wie het gevoel heeft te weinig kennis (of te weinig leuke verhalen) over Sinterklaas te hebben, kan zijn licht opsteken bij het Meertensinstituut (waar al jaren onderzoek wordt gedaan naar de traditie van Sinterklaas). En wie wel eens een echt traditioneel oud Sinterklaaslied wil zingen, kan terecht bij de Liederenbank.

Advertisements

All the world’s a stage … except the kitchen

Why can’t cooks act? Or rather, as I have been wondering lately, why was the figure of the ‘cuisinière‘ used quite so often to denote a lack of suitability for the theatre? Having gone through thousands of pithy descriptions of young hopefuls presenting themselves for the cours de déclamation, it has become clear that the most scathing comment one could direct at a would-be ingenue would be to call her a cuisinière. One would think that, at a time when Escoffier was naming his dishes after operatic characters and diva’s, there would be more love to share between the stage and the kitchen.

Of course, the imaginary cuisinières who appear in my sources were not imagined as chefs, they are domestic staff – and to assert that a young woman appears as a “cuisinière qui joue la comédie” could just be a class-based insult. Others were dismissively referred to as “une bonne” or even a “pauvre ouvrière”.

P1120471

Description of a young woman seeking admission to the declamation class – the (mis)spelling mimicks (and mocks) what was called ‘grasseyement’, a fairly common pronunciation fault among french speakers but often linked to regional or class-based ‘accents’

There’s more at play, though…the figure of the cuisinière also seems to have evoked a particular (and unflattering) image of certain physical characteristics. They remain sadly – or perhaps luckily – unnamed in my exambooks, but the young woman who was described as having ‘a good physique for a cook’ was unlikely to take it as a compliment.

P1120472

The aspiring actress with a “jolie physique pour une cuisinière” may not have had much to be happy about, but was possibly still better off than her predecessors, who inspired the examiner to simply exclaim “why?” and “ox tail”. A certain obsession with food and recipes seems to suggest itself.

Perhaps it was just an association with the domestic sphere of the kitchen – and therefore the lack of glamour – that made the cuisinière such a stock image for what another examiner called a “physique anti-théatrale”. The better one appeared to be (or the better one fitted the stereotypical image of) one, the less likely one could become the other.

P1120440

 

On the Parisian stage, one could either be domestic, or a goddess, but clearly not both.

untitled

 

Do you have what it took…

… to make it into the Conservatoire Nationale in the 1870’s?

Judging from the notes left in the archives, appearing in front of the jury must have been a harrowing experience. And whilst it cannot (and probably shouldn’t) be recreated, I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the joy of being cynically assigned a place. So I’ve created this handy flowchart:

Slide1

Scientific Babel?

As we are gearing up towards our symposium “Writing Voice and Speaking Text” (which features some excellent speakers and topics, so do come along), I am increasingly turning towards the bible.

Not for solace (yet), but for some inspiration. As Michael Gordin has documented so beautifully in his book on the development of shared languages of science – and the eventual rise and dominance of English – our expectation as scientists to be able to talk to each other easily has risen considerably in the last century. (Our tolerance for those who don’t speak the lingua franca clearly and fluently has consequently plummeted as well).

There are advantages to clarity, of course, and I’m pretty sure all our speakers are fluent in global English, but I am rather partial to a bit of chaos and am therefore probably taking just a bit too much pleasure in the knowledge that their wildly different disciplinary backgrounds will cause some mayhem.

If the book of Genesis is to be trusted, however, that just shows how god-like I am in my approach to scholarship.

 

The Tower of Babelkunsthistorisches-museum

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1-9 New International Version (NIV)

Did Demosthenes lose his marbles?

As people subjected to hearing me talk about my research often point out to me, the methods to ‘cure’ stammering of the past tend to border on the weird. It can be hard to explain why certain practices would have seemed logical in the nineteenth century (does boxing and joining the military result in fluent speech? It seems unlikely, and yet contemporary sources seem convinced this worked).marbles

By far the best-known ‘weird’ practice is that of putting marbles in your mouth to ‘exercise’ the jaw muscles and tongue. It was, for example, featured in The King’s Speech as an old-fashioned, cruel (and ultimately useless) method.

 

The method supposedly goes back to famous Greek orator Demosthenes, whose first public speech caused him such embarrassment, that he secluded himself in rigorous training before he dared appear before an audience again. Part of his self-help regime reportedly consisted of ‘shouting against the waves’ and filling his mouth with marbles. And because Demosthenes eventually became famous for his oratory, he grew into a veritable poster-boy for ‘cures’ for speech impediments.

Démosthène_s'exerçant_à_la_parole_(1870)_by_Jean-Jules-Antoine_Lecomte_du_Nouÿ

Demosthenes practicing oratory (1870). J.J. A. Lecomte

It’s unlikely that Demosthenes’ impediment (if indeed he ever had one) was a stutter, but he somehow got connected to that particular ailment nevertheless – and scientistis and quacks throughout the nineteenth century just couldn’t get enough of him. Which is why he now also features in my contribution to the latest issue of Persona Studies, dealing with the practices of ‘modern’ purveyors of stammering cures. Everything you wanted to know about Demosthenes marbles you can find here (better not try it at home, though).

 

Everyone’s a critic

The “interest of the University”, it transpires from my current readings, is to “produce useful men” (and by current, I mean around the turn of the 20th century). I have no thoughts to offer on whether we manage to do so at present day universities, but I certainly have some questions about practices of the past. One of the ways to “produce” these elusive creatures in the late nineteenth century was to offer opportunities to get some practice in what might become a profession later on. Debating societies were therefore believed to produce “embryo politicians”, and one would assume that the young men reporting on these debates would therefore be “embryo political journalists”.

That only seems to hold true for some of them, though. Reading through these reports, it’s hard to tell how many authors are involved (no reporters are named) but I’d suggest that a number of the fledgling journalists were aiming to engage in a genteel profession that was gaining popularity in the nineteenth century: that of the critic.

The most prevalent among them, attempting to produce the most established form of critique at the time- seem to have aimed to be concert critics. They alerted the readers to “voices like trombones” that were “out of tune”, described how speakers were like “soloists” being drowned out “by the orchestra” when interrupted by the crowd, and overall managed beautifully to compare a debate to a symphony.

As to the debate, it begain pianissimo, then led through a crescendo, to fff. Then came a diminuendo and a pretty little staccato passage from Mr. Malim, that was a relief after a long spell of Maestoso

Others seem to have thought of the start of a debate as embarking on an adventure. At first I thought they were aiming for a military career, as the start of the debating season was presented as “launching our oratorical fleet”. But it turns out that they are more interested in the sea itself, a bit like precursors to a TripAdvisor comment, offering opinions on comfort and sea views were none are needed.

Mr. MacDonnell’s sentences remind us of the waves of the sea. They rise to a point, break in indignation, and then ripple gently up the floor of the House in clauses, each more insignificant than the last, until one wonders whether there is not such a phenomenon in acoustics as perpetual sound.

Untitled

And then there’s the last category, who went to report on debates but actually wanted to be restaurant critics, a rather new and fashionable thing to be at the time. Or maybe this reporter writing in the Granta in the summer of 1895 was just very, very hungry.

The debates in the Summer Term are never well attended. This is partly because speakers do not adapt themselves to the meteorological conditions. Beefsteak is excellent in winter; also plum pudding; but in summer one’s soul (I speak after the manner of Autolycus) delights in the stimulating coquetry of curry, or in the cool thirst-assuaging lettuce.

This is an allegory. In the summer an audience wants but little, but likes that little good, flavoursome, spicy, and piquant. Lay this to heart, ye that shall speak. Leave the heavy solids for the long witner evenings, when slumber is easy and healthy.

 

The (in)imitable human voice

“But how can you study vocal sounds if there aren’t any recordings of these people?”. It is perhaps the most often repeated question I hear about my research. It’s a fair enough question of course: none of the documents I use are ‘acoustic’. But it’s also a very ‘modern’ question, more relevant to the present than to the past I’m trying to understand. So used have we become to acoustic recording and replay that we have entirely forgotten that sound can live outside our increasingly sophisticated machinery. We’ve also forgotten that for centuries ‘accuracy’ in repeating sound was not synonymous with ‘high fidelity’, but a matter of ethics and trust.

The anxiety that sound is ‘lost’ is, in fact, a product of the technology to preserve it. Although people must have missed the sound of their loved ones’ voices when they passed or moved away, it was the introduction of the gramophone and telephone that allowed them to really articulate this particular loss. It’s a classic salesman’s trick, really, tell people they have a problem so you can sell them the solution.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, as the gramophone and telephone were still taking shape, most people were perfectly happy to ‘record’ sound on paper: by writing down words or musical notes, by describing sounds through flowery metaphors, or -another invention- by using shorthand, which was known as a ‘phonographic’ method. It is only as acoustic recording became available that transcribers, clerks and journalists began to think they were failing to capture sound – and speech in particular – with sufficient accuracy.

artofphonography00munsiala

In 1893, the reporter describing the debates at the Cambridge Union lamented that “it is impossible to reproduce mr. Binning on paper. A phonograph is needed to catch the accent”. After several years describing debaters’ voices and pronunciation with great creativity and evocativeness, the impossibility of this task suddenly became clear. Of course, the reporters of the Granta did not have a phonograph at their disposal – the invention was not sufficiently well spread for that – and so they went on describing and transcribing the acoustic features of the debate with great skill. But occasionally the phrase “one cannot reproduce his voice without a phonograph” reappears … ironically making my job much harder. Because voices that “cannot be reproduced” (and therefore aren’t transcribed or described) are indeed lost to history. Voices that have been reproduced on paper, however inaccurately or incompletely, do find their way into the historical record. For better or for worse, as speakers who will now be forever know for their voice “like a boiling kettle huffing and puffing steam” can attest.

The psychologist as historian

There seems to be no end to the turf wars in the study of speech. If the discovery of the ‘seat’  of language was contested between two particular scientists, the search for the ‘origin of language’ was one conducted by rival ‘teams’. Albert Lemoine, who wrote a book on the physionomy of language in 1867, devoted quite a large part of the book to that search which was relevant, he claimed in a time

in which some think they have discovered the authentic remains of fossile man, others hope to have proved that man is but a monkey, or perhaps a perfected vegetable

Granta 1900 (9)

The Granta, 1900

 

Clearly the late nineteenth century was a trying time in which to be a scientist – not to mention a time in which it was increasingly unclear which scientists could claim authority about the ‘origin of man’ or its connected issue of the ‘origin of language’. Philology, “the youngest, hardiest and most ambitious of the sciences this century has born and grown” had taken an interest but not managed, according to Lemoine, to stake a claim. Likewise, philosphy had failed to fully explain the origin of language “because she would only know to reconstruct the past in her dreams”.

The origin of language had to be somewhere in the distant past, of course, considering the level of linguistic development humans had reached by the time these researchers started their studies. It was therefore a historical question of sorts – but one that could only lead to failure

To search for the origin of language by claiming to tell the story of the early days of humanity or to reassemble the vocabulary of the first human speech, this is where all science will ridiculously fail.

The question therefore had to be rephrased – and in a world in which the ‘human’ was understood as the result of an evolutionary process – exhibiting mainly features universal to its species – that had become possible. One had to look for the origin of language

not in some language long extinguished and of which the debris is hidden under the ruins of other languages that have likewise disappeared and been forgotten, but in human nature itself. There, the past does not differ from the present.

Rather than in old documents or objects, the origin of language was therefore to be discovered in young children, who would relive these origins like every other human being in the past had done (as they shared this ‘human nature’).

And so the problem of the origin of language, insoluble as a historical problem, is transformed and becomes a question of psychology.

Lemoine’s (willful) confusion between language acquisition and the historical ‘origin’ of speech is an interesting way of framing disciplinary conflict. But in a way, it also offers some relief: if ever I encounter another question that is “insoluble as a historical problem”, I’ll make sure to consult a psychologist.

Have you been to Broca’s area?

Reading about the grand discoveries and great inventions of the nineteenth century leaves me slightly jealous sometimes, and more than a bit frustrated. This is not how my ‘scientific research’ works: I have no important findings that need to be announced to the world immediately, and even though I have my private little victories in the archives, they are unlikely to inspire much more than an indulgent chuckle in others. How much more exciting must the research of my ‘subjects’ have felt like, who could set out like intrepid explorers to chart out unknown territory of human invention – or indeed the human body.

I’m currently reading up on the work of Paul Broca, who would become famous for identifying the speech centre in the brain. It’s the perfect example of an actual scientific ‘discovery’: this previously unknown ‘area’ he managed to find and map out. After hard work, and lots of experiments, a real Eureka moment of discovery and subsequently the feverish telling and retelling of the story to colleagues in different scientific societies. Broca became so intimately connected to his discovery that the ‘speech centre’ is now also known as ‘Broca’s area’. Moreover, the two brains on which his original observations were made were re-examined as recently as in 2007, showing Broca’s continuing status in the field of neurology and speech pathology.

Broca's Area

‘Centre de Broca’, visualized in G. Rouma, La parole et les troubles de la parole, 1907.

However, re-reading Broca’s lecture to the Société d’Anthropologie in 1863 has also lead to a little discovery of my own … which is that Broca may not have been the great first ‘discoverer’ of the area at all. In his lecture, he refers to the accusations of plagiarism that had been made by a certain dr. Gustave Dax, whose father Marc (referred to by all and sundry as ‘Dax père’) had made very similar observations about the left frontal lobe as early as 1836. It clearly caused Broca some embarrassment. Before the Société d’Anthropologie he claimed to ‘dislike discussions of priority’, but could not discount Dax père’s conclusions either. He merely pointed out that, as this earlier thesis was unpublished, it was ‘as unknown in Montpellier as it was in Paris’ and he was therefore innocent of the sin of plagiarism. In the long term, none of this harmed Broca’s reputation in the slightest, and Dax was more or less forgotten by the end of the nineteenth century, but it’s somewhat gratifying to know that even these ‘grand’ discoveries come with their own complexities and petty turf wars.

….

My discovery of Dax is, of course, not exactly a scoop either. Brief histories of the controversy have been published in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences and in Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, but I didn’t know about those when reading the primary sources. And I dislike discussions of priority, so there.

Ulysses with an umbrella

It’s a common enough occurrence (for me, at least). The talk has been written, the slides prepared, shoes have been chosen carefully for that elusive combination of comfort and grace … and when the moment to speak arrives, I turn out to once again have forgotten that most important thing of all. Where, o where, do I hold my hands? (The result, of course, is that I will once again flap them around like an overexcited goose).

I was therefore glad to note that I’m not the only one struggling with my upper limbs while speaking. Even the great and the good of the Cambridge Union, speaking when the institution was arguably at the height of its powers, recognized that gesticulation was one of the pitfalls of public speech. “To acquire the art of putting together tolerably connected sentences in public” was considered “worth something on its own account”. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, it seems that “the groundwork of many speeches is a rumble of inarticulate sounds”.  Where serious and repeated practice was really necessary, however, was in attaining “that last pitch of perfection at which the orator knows what to do with his hands”.

Sadly, it remains unclear where exactly that would be. The illustrations accompanying reports of the Union debates certainly suggest a preference for the grand gesture, suggestion either passionate persuasion (or some golden future to be pointed at) or genial bonhomie.

As I feel ill-equipped to imitate these rather imperial (and indeed very masculine) models of gesticulation, I’m now considering investing in an umbrella. Professor Selwyn, speaking at the Union’s anniversary in 1866, certainly seems to have garnered great success with his – and he was speaking as an expert on oratory.

But of all the Homeric orators the best model for your imitation is [..] Ulysses, whose words fell ‘like flakes of wintry snow’. But I would not have you copy his ungainly action, for we are told that he

Nor back nor forward did his sceptre move

But held it straight before him like a clown

(Here the speaker caused great merriment by imitating the action of Ulysses, with an umbrella)

Advising orators not to gesticulate too much whilst waving around an umbrella ‘like a clown’ strikes me as very competent use of rhetorical irony indeed. I can’t wait to try it. Now where do I find an audience that knows the Iliad by heart?