The Long View 2005-04-13: Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

The Origin of the Finnish Peoples

Speaking of Tolkien's languages, Razib Khan recently had this to say:

...the Finns and Estonians speak language is rather peculiar in a Europe dominated by Indo-European tongues (I suspect one reason that Tolkien based Quenya, the high elvish language, on Finnish is that it is so otherworldy to the Germanic ear. The Sindarin language, which was the common tongue of elves in Middle Earth, was based on Welsh). Rather, the distribution to the Uralic languages extends to the east, as far as Siberia. Even the closest affinities to Finnish and Estonian extend eastward, as there are Karelians who live deep in northwest Russia.

John's comment on his made-up languages

Artificial Languages; Social Security Will Be Cheap; Roman Decapitation; Desperate Islamists

All you language-buffs in cyberspace: drop whatever you are doing and go immediately to Lang Maker, a site that archives artificial languages. You will find complete descriptions of the familiar ones there, such as Esperanto and Tolkien's languages. You will also find more obscure ones. Some of these have considerable cults, and even their own literatures.

I used to make up languages when I was in high school. The earlier ones were very Latinate (which makes sense, because I was studying Latin at the time). The later ones were less about language than about logic. What I chiefly remember is that the more logical a system, the more uselessly long its utterances became. There is a lesson in that.

* * *

All discussions about Social Security start with the premise that we will soon be entering a world in which an unprecedentedly small proportion of workers will be supporting an unprecedentedly large dependent population. In last Sunday's New York Times, however, Eduardo Porter argued Maybe We're Not Robbing the Cradle:

The overall burden on the employed will grow, but not to unprecedented levels. The ratio of people of working age to those either under 20 or over 65 will decrease to 1.2 in 2050 from about 1.5 today. But this is still an easier load than in 1965, when the country was awash with children, and the ratio of the working-age population to each dependent was only 1.1.

True, the young are cheaper to maintain than the old. In 1990, economists at Harvard and M.I.T., including David M. Cutler and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard, estimated that people over 64 consume 76 percent more than children.

Still, Mr. Burtless estimated that in 2050 a worker will have to sacrifice 49.6 percent of his or her wages - through taxes or other means - to maintain society's dependents. That is nearly 6 percentage points more than in 2000, but it is merely 0.8 percentage points more than 1965. And the percentage could well be smaller if people work later in life to pay for more of their keep.

This argument is comforting, but there is something fundamentally wrongheaded about it. Supporting old people is a good thing in itself, but it is a pure expense; support for children is an investment, which pays for itself many times over during the course of their lives.

* * *

Speaking of Tolkien and the logic of sentences, here's a dispeptic remark from Mark Steyn, about the upcoming British election, which may rank with Bilbo's Farewell Address at his 144th birthday party

That's also the problem those three party leaders face. I've no reason to disbelieve the crop of polls showing Labour and Conservatives neck and neck, but, unlike American polling, where distinctions between "registered" and "likely" voters are carefully studied, none of us has any clear idea which unloved party will do the least effective job at further depressing the turnout of whatever unenthusiastic faction of its dwindling base is most unresistant to being cajoled to the polls.

And did Bilbo's remarks amount to a compliment? I've never been sure.

* * *

The Vatican's website has done a good job of posting material relevant to the current papal interregnum. Among other things, there is the Apostolic Constitution that John Paul II issued a few years ago, Universi Dominici Gregis, which updated the rules for the next papal conclave, and gave instructions about the government of the Holy See while there is no pope:

Precisely for this reason, while recognizing that theologians and canonists of all times agree that this institution is not of its nature necessary for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff, I confirm by this Constitution that the Conclave is to continue in its essential structure; at the same time, I have made some modifications in order to adapt its procedures to present-day circumstances.

The modifications are not dramatic. The chief novelty is that the cardinal-electors will be housed in hotel-like accommodations within the Vatican, rather than in a spartan temporary dormitory in the Sistine Chapel. What struck me, however, is that JPII's Constitution did not address the issue of decapitation: what happens if all the electors are killed or disabled? Before he committed The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown wrote a novel called Angels & Demons that dealt with just that kind of threat. It's a silly book, but a serious issue.

It is possible that I missed something, but the Code of Canon Law does not specify what would happen if a regular election were impossible. Some general provisions say, in effect, that the necessary executive power resides "in the Church" to deal with any situation in which there is factual or legal uncertainty.

We should remember that the pope is the bishop of Rome, and the cardinals are, nominally, members of the clergy of that diocese: each has a titular appointment to some church in the city. Might the actual clergy of the city act if the College of Cardinals cannot?

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, Thomas Friedman is writing columns with titles like: The Calm Before the Storm?

The reason things may be getting more dangerous now is that the formation of a freely elected government in Iraq may signal that the Baathist-Jihadist insurgency is being gradually defeated...In short, the more the Jihadists lose in Iraq, the more likely they are to use their rump forces to try something really crazy in America to make up for it.

There is something about spring that incites columnists to dark meditation.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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