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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

March 2012

How Many Kinds of English Are There?

Yesterday, in the middle of finishing an edit of several chapters of my next book, I found myself caught up in an internet search for the "correct" use of a word. I can't reconstruct my series of clicks, but somehow I ended up on the
PBS website, following a series of articles on the way language shifts and changes what we do and what we believe. The technical term for this field of study is sociolinguistics -- a topic I had never studied. Nevertheless, I found that I held a number of assumptions, nearly all of which proved to be wrong. I thought:

1. TV and radio have made the English language more homogenized.
2. Regional dialects are disappearing.
3. Differences in black and white speech are disappearing.
4. There is such a thing as standard American English.
5. Pronunciation is tied to social status.

Now, I've lived in many parts of the U.S. in my adult life. After being educated in northern Ohio, I've lived in Washington State; Panama City, Florida; Key West; Ontario, Canada; Colorado; and Tennessee. Almost everywhere I've traveled, someone has said "You're not from around here, are you?" My son learned to talk in Canada, and for his entire life, he could startle me with his pronunciation of the word "about" -- not "abowt" but "aboot." I said "Huh?" He said "EH?"
Still, I thought those were just small differences.

As an English teacher, I insisted on "correct English" from my students. But this whole series of articles seemed bent on proving me wrong: TV has had NO effect on the way we speak. Regional and ethnic differences are becoming more distinct. And pronunciation depends almost entirely on where the speaker lives at any given time. Red States really do differ from Blue States. Maybe that's why we have so much trouble understanding each other.

The article that really caught my attention had to with a regional dialect known as "Northern English." A map showed that northern English is spoken in a region that stretches from the shores of the Great Lakes  through Minnesota, with another small section referred to as the "St. Louis Corridor." I recognized the location; I grew up in it. But here was the kicker. The writer, an internationally respected sociolinguist, argued that pronunciations in this region were undergoing a major vowel shift. It was, he said, a change that started in 1960 and is continuing today. He offered lots of examples; the one I remember best is the pronunciation of my middle name -- Ann. He argued that in 1960, Ann was pronounced with one syllable and a flat, open-mouthed a-- [an]. Today, in Cleveland, Ann is pronounced the same as the name Ian-[-ee-un]. That kind of vowel shift is as distinct as the one that occurred in the English language between 1400 and 1600.

My first reaction was to say, "No way!" But then I realized that I really didn't know what I was talking about. I left northern Ohio in 1961, just as the change began. And I have not been back since, except for short periods of one to three days. I haven't heard the shift in pronunciation, but I know that I no longer feel at home there. Maybe you really can't go home again.

Beware! April's Almost Here.

April Fool's Day is this coming Sunday, and I don't want you to miss it. Since my weekend promises to be full of editing and writing, blogging time will be at a premium, so here's your annual warning about the tricks the world may be planning for you. You may avoid the usual office pranks, but while Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, remember that family members will be home, with all too much time on their hands.  On April 1st, you can't trust anyone. In fact, you can't trust the month of April itself.
           Easter often falls in April, although the calculation of the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon (which may not really be full at all) after the vernal equinox (which is set at March 21, whether it is or not) is a question best left to astronomers.  And I hope you're not expecting an explanation of what colored eggs and Easter bunnies have to do with the church holiday.  Suffice it to say that rabbits, tulips, and eggs are all signs of the new beginnings of Spring and pre-date the celebration of Easter. 
            Since Easter does not have to occur in April at all, the one thing we can count on is that some of us will start April by making fools of ourselves.  Did  you ever wonder where April Fool's Day originated?  Fools are always with us, of course, but why is there a special day to call attention to them?  One explanation is tied to that confusing date of Easter.  In the calendar devised by Julius Caesar's astronomers, there were a few too many days.  They had posited a year of 365 days and even added a leap year every four years. But the solar  year is a actually 365.242199 days long, which means that the calendar got ahead of itself by one day every 128 years.  By 1582, there were serious concerns that Easter was not being celebrated on the right day because the calendar was out of whack. 
            Pope Gregory XIII declared that something had to be done to restore God's timetable.  His official astronomers went to work and created the Gregorian calendar, which most Christian countries still follow. To make up for the ten days that had been added over the centuries, they cancelled the days between October 5 and October 14.  They also declared that any full century year would not be a leap year unless it was divisible by 40 (so 2000, but not 1900). And while they were at it, they moved the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1.  Then all they had to do was convince the rest of Europe to adopt the new calendar.
            That was not as easy as it sounded, especially since a large part of Europe was occupied by Frenchmen, who did not like being told what to do by an Italian pope. On April 1, there were New Year's celebrations all over France, while the rest of the continent made fun of those "poor French fish" who didn't know what day it was.  The first April Fools Day prank seems to have been pinning a picture of a fish on a Frenchman's back to show his foolishness.
            Since then, the jokes have gotten more elaborate, if not more sophisticated.  Historians of such things are pretty much agreed upon the best joke of all time.  In 1957, BBC news ran a picture of a tree festooned with long strands of spaghetti.  The accompanying report announced that ideal pasta-growing conditions in Switzerland were producing a bumper crop.  Thousands of views wrote or called to ask where they could by their own spaghetti trees.  Inquirers were instructed to plant a strand of pasta in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best.
            My personal favorites include the pranks played by fast food companies. Taco Bell announced in 1996 that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, which would from then on be known as the Taco Liberty Bell.  Patriotic citizens were outraged and besieged Washington D.C. with their demands to cancel the sale. Two years later, Burger King proudly heralded the creation of a left-handed Whopper.  It would contain exactly the same ingredients, but everything would be rotated 180 degrees for the convenience of their left-hand customers.  Customers dutifully ordered one or the other. No foolin'!

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh

Civil War Battle of Shiloh 150th anniversary events include speeches, battles, and tours. This guide to events was written by

Monuments fill the grounds at Shiloh National Military Park. HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- “Shiloh is a wonderfully dramatic battle. The leader of one side is killed, and the other one is going on to glory, and it was the first great battle. It lasted two days.” – author Shelby Foote

More than 40,000 Confederate soldiers faced just over 62,000 Union troops in a field in western Tennessee on April 6-7, 1862, near a little church known as Shiloh. When it was over, the number of dead, wounded or missing totaled 23,746. Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston was dead, and his troops were forced to retreat.

Tennessee’s Shiloh National Military Park will commemorate the 150th anniversary of that landmark 48 hours in American history with a schedule of tours, discussions and a giant illumination of the park at various times April 4-8. Two re-enactments not affiliated with the park are scheduled March 30 through April 1. Here are highlights:

April 4: Premiere of the film “Shiloh - Fiery Trial” at 7 p.m. at Pickwick Landing State Park in Pickwick Dam, Tenn. Regular showings begin April 6 at 7 a.m. in the visitors center.

April 5: The official opening ceremony at 9 a.m. will feature a forum with some of America’s foremost historians on the battle of Shiloh, living history demonstrations, a special sesquicentennial Civil War exhibit with rare and unique artifacts from Shiloh, and music by the 52nd Regimental String Band. Firing of an official Shiloh cannon will kick off the event.

April 5-8: 150th anniversary battlefield hikes April 5-7: Local tour guide Jimmy Whittington will lead car caravan tours around Shiloh Battlefield, departing at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. from the visitors center. Tours will last two and a half hours. Advance registration is suggested.

April 6: Civil War musician and composer Bobby Horton will perform free at the Shiloh Battlefield visitor center at 7 p.m. He has released 14 volumes of Civil War music on CD and done music scores for PBS and NPS films.

April 6-8: A display in the visitor center will feature artifacts relating to the 14th Missouri Infantry (later 66th Illinois), part of McArthur’s Brigade at the Battle of Shiloh. Exhibits will include images, letters, postwar memorabilia and an original Dimick rifle.

April 7: A “grand illumination” of the park will feature luminarias throughout the battlefield representing casualties. The illumination begins at dusk and will end at 10 p.m. (Rain date is April 14.)

Two re-enactments are planned in conjunction with the anniversary March 30 through April 1, but not on National Park Service grounds. They will involve more than 6,000 participants and more than 100 cannons, coordinated and sponsored by The Armies of Tennessee and the Blue-Gray Alliance. The Armies of Tennessee reenactment will feature a march to Shiloh from Mississippi. The Blue-Gray Alliance reenactment will transport soldiers by rail and river, as they were 150 years ago, directly into the battle. Battles are at 1:30 p.m. March 31 and 1:30 April 1 adjacent to the park. Tickets are required.

The Battle of Shiloh was fought on Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee, near Shiloh Church not far from Savannah, Tenn. Most of the original battlefield is now Shiloh National Park. Call 731-689-5696 for more information, find Shiloh on Facebook or Twitter@ShilohNPS.

A Glimpse of Confederate Life at the End of March 1862

In A Scratch with the Rebels, a new recruit named Gus Smythe represents the Confederate experience. His father was the minister at the Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston. The well-to-do family had shipped young Gus off to college in Columbia in hopes of keeping him out of the war, but when the Confederacy initiated a draft in March 1862, Gus and most of his friends decided to enlist rather than wait.  He had first enlisted in a company commanded by Captain Alex Taylor, the father of one of his college friends, but in obedience to his parents' wishes, he immediately requested a transfer to Company A, 24th South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, Hagood's Brigade so that his older brother could keep an eye on him.

 By 21 March 1862, he was a soldier in fact as well as in title, and was beginning to learn what soldiering was really like. Although he was camped just a few miles from home, he suffered from homesickness. His frequent letters to his mother give us a good idea of what camp life was like for a new recruit. The following examples appear in A Scratch with the Rebels, Chapter 5:

"Here we are, safe and sound, tho' a little jaded by traveling & the labor of fixing up. We got all our truck down safely, & are now in a measure fixed up, tho' of course we do not feel settled. We were quite hungry aboard of the boat and had to open our haversacks. We are now on Goat's Island, but had to land on Cole's Island with our baggage, and then walk ¾ of a mile to the camp . . . there are too many sand-fleas and mosquitoes here for comfort."

   Despite the fact that he had his own slave, Monday, with him to do the cooking and washing up, Gus found less and less to like about soldiering. His letters to his mother tell of snakes and alligators, flies and ticks, "green, slimy water that promises malaria," and sand that was "everywhere, in eatables as well as everything else."

Gus also complained of the short rations provided every three days for his mess, which included his brother Adger, his Uncle Joe, and Monday: hard tack, which the men called "floating batteries," along with 1 ½ oz. sugar, 6 gills of rice, some hominy and salt, and a fair amount of tough beef. Nearly every letter he wrote was filled with requests to send him things that would make his life more comfortable: mosquito "fixin's" [presumably some sort of repellent], fishhooks, "a little bunch of orange blossoms to perfume my tent, and a bundle of candy to sweeten my temper," along with warm socks and another uniform coat.

His most unsoldierly request was for "a piece of homespun, or old table-cloth, or sheet, or anything in that line, that will do us for a tablecloth. The table is a little less that 2 yards long and about 3 ½ feet wide. It is very dirty however and unpleasant to eat off the boards fresh from contact with Monday's hat and our boots, etc." Apparently, no one told him to keep his feet off the table.

Nevertheless, even such callow recruits were a welcome solution to the short-handed army. The Confederacy was entering a new phase of the war, when the harsh realities of warfare required all citizens, from dirt farmer to aristocrat, to relinquish their idealism and fight for their own survival. Under such circumstances, even very young soldiers grew up quickly.

The Second Mouse's Guide to Using Social Neworking

There are dozens of social media sites on the Internet, and I am certainly no expert on all of them. The big three—the ones most often used—are Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They serve different purposes, and I’ve been surprised to see how different their audiences are.

Let’s start with Facebook, which now advertises that it has over 500 million users. . . . On my own Facebook account I have discovered close to 400 “friends.” They include a few family members; a neighbor or two (although that strikes me as silly); some long-lost high school classmates; several former students, some dating back over twenty years; and a fairly large contingent of academics, mostly medievalists. The rest are members of Lions Clubs or members of the Military Writers Society of America, both locally and around the world. What can they possibly have in common? I know them. I’d recognize them on the street. I’d probably hug most of them. They are all people with whom I have shared both common interests and common experiences. We’ve worked together, struggled with the same problems, and shared our ideals and goals. I care about them and how they are doing, and I hope they care about me.

When it comes to posting my status on Facebook, I try not to bore my friends or irritate them unduly with efforts to sell my latest book. But if I have had a wonderful day—or a miserable one—these are the people with whom I can share it. I post pictures here, both of myself, so they can watch me age, and of my current activities. It is on Facebook that I am most open about my personal activities and opinions. What good does that do for business, you may wonder? Many of my friends will buy my books; even more will be tickled for me when I win an award. I receive a benefit when they talk about me or leave a congratulatory note on my wall. Facebook friends can form a virtual cheering section in our lives, and that’s important. . . .
My second social media outlet is LinkedIn. As I indicated earlier, this site is much more business-like than Facebook. I have over 300 connections on LinkedIn, and almost none of them are cross-overs to my list of Facebook friends. I know less than half of them personally. My LinkedIn connections are the power-brokers in my world . . . Many of my connections are members of Lions Clubs International, but they are the leaders in that organization—former international officers, staff members, or CEOs of Lions-associated non-profit organizations. They are people I can turn to when I need business-type advice. The rest are business figures with whom I have had some contact, and media and public relations people.
How can they help build my publishing platform? Well, my financial advisor, my lawyer, and my accountant are on that list, along with public figures who can orchestrate newspaper or TV coverage when I have an announcement of a new book or an award. They are the people who can help set up book signings or public speaking engagements. They are great contacts because they have their own contacts.

Another great advantage of LinkedIn is that it lets people with common interests form discussion lists, where they can connect with people who have similar interests or who are facing similar problems. I currently participate in several writers’ groups, as well as one that discusses fund-raising ideas for non-profits.

And then there is Twitter. What can you possibly accomplish with 140 spaces? The easy answer, of course, it that it teaches you to cram a lot of information into the smallest possible space. Brevity is good. But beyond that, I see Twitter as a conduit—the vital link between me and the huge world of the Internet.

At the moment I have around 800 followers on Twitter, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know many of them. We are strangers who have made a brief connection because of a third party who knows us both, or because we have a common involvement. They are simply people who have indicated an interest in what I might have to say. When they follow me, anything I post will automatically appear on each of their Twitter feeds. They may, or may not, ever see it. But when they do, they each have the option of passing it on to their own followers, giving my message access to untold numbers of readers. Twitter also has the ability to post automatic messages for me, and to re-post my messages to my other social media outlets.

Here’s how it works. Suppose I’ve finished a blog post announcing the publication of a new book and including a link to the book’s order page. I send it to my 800 followers, and Twitter also posts it on my Facebook page (+400 readers) and my LinkedIn profile (+300 readers.) Then a dear fellow writer in England retweets it to her whole list (+1000 readers), the president of a writers’ society to which I belong retweets it to her list (+1250), and three faithful blog followers in Missouri, California, and Colorado send it to all their followers (+1700 total). That one personal message reaches over 5000 people within minutes. That’s the best, and easiest, advertising I know.