Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

tree_face
steepholm steepholm
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
A Place for Everything, A Time for Nothing
Recently the teatime quiz programme Two Tribes asked a contestant to say whether the proposition that "William Shakespeare was born in the United Kingdom" was true or false. The contestant answered "True", and that was accepted as obviously correct, but I was of course left spluttering about the Act of Union, and dismayed at the apparent lack of historical sense of anyone involved. It's not that I mind the contestant's being awarded the point, but some acknowledgement that the question was problematic or ambiguous would have helped settle my dinner.

That story, combined with the various reports on the latest genetic study of the people of Britain (which every paper appears to have reported in such a way as to confirm its particular prejudices and obsessions), issued in the following mongrel autobiography, combining geographical precision with temporal indifference.



"Two Tribes"

Meet my folks – we’re into ochre.
Meet my folks – we’re into beakers.
My people winter at Stonehenge.
Doesn’t everyone?

My tribe? Why, I’m
Of the Belgae.
I hail from the province of Britannia:
A citizen of the Empire, where I was born.

In the Kingdom of Wessex I had my birth,
In the Kingdom of England
In the Kingdom of Great Britain,
with and without,
with just a bit of,
Ireland
(and possibly France).
The EU is my native land.

Meet my folks – we’re into ochre.
Meet my folks – we’re into beakers.
My people winter at Stonehenge.
Doesn’t everyone?

I like that.

Thank you.

George Washington was born in Virginia.

Virginia is in the United States of America.

George Washington was not born in the United States of America, and so much for Aristotle.

Indeed, all the Founding Fathers were foreigners.

But native born.

A birther conspiracy involving time-travel would be interesting to watch. Conversely, I've sometimes pondered whether Schwarzenneger could get around the Constitution's bar to a Presidential run, Austrian birth notwithstanding, by the simple expedient of travelling to a time just prior to the constitution's adoption, and thus qualifying as "a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution". For a terminator, that shouldn't present much of a problem.

Um.

This would require public knowledge that time travel works.

Ever read Zelazny's "The Game of Blood and Dust"?

I knew there was a flaw in my plan...

That's why I came back to fix it.

George Washington was not born in the United States of America, and so much for Aristotle.

+1.

Shakespeare was born in the United Kingdom; it just wasn't called that at the time. Similarly, one could say that a given person of that era died of TB, even though that wasn't called that at the time either, or had a chromosomal abnormality, even though the concept of chromosomes, let alone their abnormalities, was even more unknown than that of a United Kingdom, which at least had been mooted as early as the Treaty of Greenwich in 1543.

Those comparisons seem unconvincing, to say the least. Many things are mooted long before they come to pass, or indeed without ever coming to pass. It's occasionally been suggested that the UK might become a 51st state, for example; but this doesn't make me an American citizen, any more than Shakespeare was a UK citizen. Nor is anyone born in Edinburgh today a citizen of an independent Scotland, even though someone born there ten years hence may well be. For that matter, my mother wasn't born Mrs Butler, even though she's the same person who would eventually be known by that name.

The difference between "citizen of the UK" on the one hand, and "American citizen" or "citizen of independent Scotland" on the other, is that the former did eventually come to pass before the present. The purpose of pointing out that it was mooted before it happened is merely to distinguish those things that did eventually happen which were comprehensible before they happened, from those which did eventually happen which were not comprehensible before they happened. Not to bring in those which never did happen.

We have no trouble discussing the TB or genetics of persons who lived before TB or genetics were known to exist, so we should have no trouble discussing the UKness of people who lived before the UK was known to exist, to which the fact that it was considered as a possibility is mere lagniappe, an additional fillip of a point.

As far as Mrs Butler is concerned, I don't know her specifics, but it seems indisputable that Queen Elizabeth II was born on 21 April 1926, although she wasn't Queen Elizabeth II yet. One could say equivalently of any baby who remained nameless until a few days after birth.

I believe the equivalent in my mother's case would be to say that "she was born Mrs Butler" - which one wouldn't, of course. Otherwise, I can't improve on sovay's example of Hannibal, which even comes with its own famous mooting, courtesy of Cato the Censor.

Context matters in these cases, of course, and assuming that no one is trying to catch anyone out I think we mostly adjust the frame of reference on the fly to take into account what the speaker means. However, in the setting of a quiz show where that statement is offered without context, it becomes ambiguous - as I was saying in the post. And that is just what a quiz question ought not to be.

When you say "she was born Mrs Butler" you are specifying what was the case at the time she was born. If, however, you say "Mrs Butler was born ..." you are not specifying the time, only the person.

The proposition "William Shakespeare was born in the United Kingdom" does not specify that it was the UK at the time. Different wording would be required to specify that.

That lack of specificity is just what makes it ambiguous, and therefore a bad quiz question. It has different answers depending on whether it is understood as having a historical, geographical or political context.

This reminds me of a story I heard about a great Russian ballerina. On being asked where she was born, she replied, "St Petersburg."

"No," the patriotic Soviet reporter corrected, you were born in Leningrad."

"My dear," the ballerina said, "I wish I were young enough to have been born in Leningrad, but I was born in St Petersburg."

Of course you could do a similar conversation now but with the names of the cities reversed. :)

I have more than once been told that Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, had his schooling in Petrograd, and lived the rest of his life in Leningrad, all without moving.

Similarly, one could say that a given person of that era died of TB, even though that wasn't called that at the time either, or had a chromosomal abnormality, even though the concept of chromosomes, let alone their abnormalities, was even more unknown than that of a United Kingdom

I classify countries across time differently than diseases; I think part of it is the way cultures and senses of nationality shift over time (sometimes with borders, sometimes not) where symptoms don't. Outside of evolutionary alterations like the development of antibiotic resistance, TB is much the same whether you contract it in the thirteenth century or the twentieth. When you identify it in a person who would have called it phthisis or consumption or the white plague, it is the same essential organism. It means something very different to have been born in Cahokia than in East St. Louis. Each city exists in an entirely different matrix of language, culture, political affiliation; they are the same place only by the strictest definition of geography. You can say that William Shakespeare was born in a country that would eventually become part of the United Kingdom, but I think it makes a genuine difference that when he was born, it wasn't.

It is, however, the same spot on the surface of the Earth. If you wish to locate that spot, you need to know what it is now.

That it was under different administration then is indeed worthy of note, but no more so than that it's worthy of note that getting TB in the 16th century was quite a different proposition from getting it today.

It has long been a hobby of mine to map the birthplaces of composers. I don't see how it's reasonable to discuss the birthplace of Bela Bartok, Hungarian nationalist, without noting both that his birthplace was in Hungary then and in Romania now.

I was driven to distraction trying to find the birthplace of Mily Balakirev in Russia. Encyclopedias said he was from Nizhny Novgorod, a town I could find on no map, no matter how comprehensive. If only the encyclopedias had bothered to say that the name had since been changed to Gorky, I could have found it. (With the fall of the USSR, it was changed back again, but I was doing my looking before that happened.)

That it was under different administration then is indeed worthy of note, but no more so than that it's worthy of note that getting TB in the 16th century was quite a different proposition from getting it today.

I disagree. Nationality and genetics don't reduce down to the same essentials. That the treatment and prognosis of cases of active infection by assorted strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis differ radically today from those in place even at the beginning of the twentieth century, absolutely. But the presentation of the disease itself is little enough changed that it is possible to make diagnoses in retrospect without needing to exhume everybody to be sure. It's recognizable as itself even when it's being called vampirism. The presentation of the modern-day UK, if you want to call it that, is not identical to the presentation of Tudor England. They do not function identically as societies; they do not produce the same effects on their populations. You can recognize them as closely related and existing on the same cultural continuum, but it's not as though the UK has always existed throughout history and was only correctly identified and named in the early nineteenth century (and then reclassified slightly in 1922). That study steepholm linked notwithstanding, the conditions which define a nation are not comparable to phylogenetic analysis.

I don't see how it's reasonable to discuss the birthplace of Bela Bartok, Hungarian nationalist, without noting both that his birthplace was in Hungary then and in Romania now.

I have no argument with that statement at all. The parenthetical "modern-day [place name]" is invaluable. But using one time's name unqualifiedly in place of the other is like saying that Hannibal Barca was a citizen of the Roman Empire just because the Roman Republic annexed Carthage's land in 146 BCE and the province of Africa Proconsularis remained Roman until the western half of the Empire broke up in the fifth century.* "William Shakespeare was born in the United Kingdom" is a different assertion than "William Shakespeare was born in England, now part of the United Kingdom."

* My original example was "like saying that Ovid was exiled to Constanța just because the city has been continuously occupied for the last three thousand years," but the Romanian poet Liliana Ursu has an amazing cycle about bringing Ovid's ghost back from present-day Constanța to Rome, so I almost give that one a pass.

like saying that Hannibal Barca was a citizen of the Roman Empire

No, now that's saying an entirely different thing. What you are a citizen of is not identical with the question of where you were born. Never mind the Roman Empire; Hannibal was, I presume, born in (what is now) Tunisia, and so the statement "Hannibal was born in Tunisia" has the validity I am arguing for here. But no-one would claim that Hannibal was a citizen of Tunisia.

Meet my folks – we’re into ochre.
Meet my folks – we’re into beakers.


Yay.

:)

The conversation in the comments here has reminded me of how my grandmother always used to say that her parents had emigrated from Austria-Hungary, whe of course what we wanted to know that she was deliberately obfuscating was that they had come from present-day Poland.

And it strikes me what a strange usage we have in English, where to say that someone was born in present-day Poland can be understood as perfectly compatible with saying that they were born in olden-day Austria-Hungary?

Featuring Commodore Perry as Antonio.

?

Log in

No account? Create an account