Press Freedom: Before the First Amendment

Almost 250 years after America’s founding, lawmakers and the Supreme Court are still trying to strike a balance between the practicalities of running a nation and the spirit of that deeply important three-word phrase.

It’s astounding that the phrase was even included in the Bill of Rights at all. It was really bold for the new nation to value its lofty democratic ideals over the stability of its government, since every ruler up to this point had considered censorship a matter of course for their own well-being.

However, history classes often make it seem like the founders of America dreamed up the concept out of nowhere, and that minimizes the fascinating history of freedom of the press in the English-speaking world.

(Since I bet all y’all are preoccupied with barbecue, I’ve done my best to make this one as concise and entertaining as possible. Enjoy!)

The Printing Press

Around the time that Gutenberg invented the printing press, the rulers of Europe were both political and religious leaders, and therefore many types of new ideas were a threat to their power (and their heads). In modern secular America, very little speech is viewed as a real threat to the stability of the nation, but in Gutenberg’s day, even agnostic thinking was very, very dangerous. Therefore, the printing press served to really upset kings, who then kicked a bunch of people out of their country.

“Prior Restraint”

In England, printers were required to be licensed until 1694, which served as a way for the government to control what they published. Even after the law was repealed, printers were often charged with “seditious libel” for printing anything that might harm the nation, and therefore they often self-censored.

Milton’s Areopagitica

John Milton, the same guy who wrote Paradise Lost, wrote a pamphlet that advocated for total press freedom, because he believed that, like in a free market, the best and most truthful ideas would win out. Milton’s popularity meant that American leaders were undoubtedly familiar with this work.

The Zenger Trial

Around 1735, a very popular interim Governor in New York named Morris got replaced by William Cosby from England. Cosby started behaving poorly according to his citizens, and a group called the Morrisites hired a printer named Zenger to publish their anti-Cosby newspaper. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Cosby had Zenger arrested. The Morrisites found a couple of quality lawyers but Cosby, in a true dick move, disbarred them right before the trial. Andrew Hamilton (not Alexander!) volunteered to defend him, and gave the jury a stunning ending statement that continues to affect rulings today.

When someone was charged with seditious libel, all the prosecution had to do was prove that the person in question had published material that would harm someone else (or something, like the government as a whole). Hamilton argued that the jury should take into account whether Zenger had published anything false. This set an important precedent, and helped clarify freedom of the press for the new nation. And Cosby probably ended up pretty upset.

George Mason

When the colonies split from the new nation, each one drafted its own constitution and many of them not only set down how the state was to function in a practical sense, but in the anti-British frenzy, also included “inalienable rights” that lawmakers couldn’t restrict.

Virginia was one of the first colonies to get to work, and the effort was headed by George Mason, who was strongly in favor of a free press. Most of the other states used his work as a blueprint, and therefore freedom of the press got included in many state constitutions.

After the Constitution was drafted, the states refused to ratify it unless they included a Bill of Rights, thereby cementing freedom of the press into the structure of our nation.

Happy Fourth of July!





Commedia Dell’ Arte: Background

In early Renaissance Italy, theatre was mainly happening privately, in the courts of the rich and the halls of the academies. By the mid-1500s, a new type of theatre for the masses had bloomed, known as the Commedia Dell’ Arte (which can be translated to “professional theatre”).

Even if you have never heard of Commedia before, you have definitely felt its influence. This makes sense, since it was the pervading form of entertainment in continental Europe for an entire two centuries! As we’ll see in later posts, many of the characters are familiar, and the pervading humor isn’t very different from The Three Stooges.

Italy was the center of Europe’s Renaissance, in part because of the vitality of its trade, but also because that was where the influence of Rome was most heavily felt. There, the arts blossomed, in part because of the ruling class status symbol of patronage for artists. It gave talented people time to develop and create artwork that otherwise, most people wouldn’t have the time for.

Commedia has two defining features: stock characters and improvisation.

The actors were both male and female, and for the most part wore easily-recognizable masks that showed their character’s personality. Not every troupe had exactly the same repertoire of parts, but audiences in different countries could recognize the most famous characters from their mask alone. This is familiar to us in the form of a family sitcom: we have the dull-witted husband, the controlling wife, and the smart-aleck kids, who entertain us with a new situation every week. Even if we’re watching a new show, the formula is basically the same.

When we talk about improvisation in Commedia, it’s important to understand that each actor played the same role for many years (often, their entire lives). Therefore, while it wasn’t scripted or planned in advance, the actors had time to tailor their lines based on favorable audience reaction. In addition to the main plot, there were “bits” planned in advance, known plurally as lazzi, which set the base for the individual scenes. (This will be discussed more in a later post.)

Another important feature of Commedia is the emphasis placed on acrobatics and other particular types of movement. Each character had a specific way of moving that was central to the role, and many of their trademarks involved athletic stunts and tumbles, in addition to stage combat. It would have looked very much like the work of Buster Keaton (made even better in this video by the addition of Queen):

Commedia Dell’ Arte’s roots are in the Roman theatre form known as Atellan Farce. Attelan Farce grew out of Greek theatre traditions, modified for a much, much less serious audience. It was obscene, improvisational, and featured stock characters, some that are obviously ancestors of Commedia characters.

The Commedia Dell’ Arte inspired a famous literary figure: Moliere. Moliere (which was his stage name) was a well-educated French playwright who wrote during the late 1600s. You may have heard of Don Juan? That was Moliere. His best talent was comedy, and he would pick-and-choose from Commedia scenarios to add to his work.

From a linguistics perspective, there is one aspect of Commedia that is particularly interesting: Gromalot. Since the actors traveled through a variety of countries that all spoke different languages, they came up with a creative solution to hurdle the language barrier: they used a nonsense language, which came to be known as Gromalot. Skilled actors understand how sounds contribute to meaning, and so do linguists (as we have seen from the famous “kiki” experiment). Therefore, an angry character might use harsh, guttural-sounding nonsense, and a jovial character’s speech might sound round and bubbly.

Here’s a video about Gromalot:

The History of Cursive

Apparently, American schools will no longer be teaching cursive, as it has been deemed useful for nothing more than signing your name. The news got me thinking– why do we have two different scripts in the first place? Where did cursive come from?

Our alphabet is based on the Latin one, which resembles our uppercase letters. By the fifth century, lowercase letters were starting to develop, and people were connecting letters sort of like in cursive. After the decline of Rome, most writing was happening in monasteries, by monks who turned hand-copying books into a form of worship and art. Most people are familiar with the type of beautiful script they produced, but Charlemagne found regional differences to be annoying, so called for standardization.

However, the Italians during the Renaissance (namely Niccolo Niccoli) didn’t like the clunky look, and started showing off ornate writing forms as a status symbol. The habit of elevating certain scripts continued into American history, and in the mid 1800s a bookkeeper named Platt Rogers Spencer decided that since all humans are created equal, their handwriting should be equal, too. He invented a widely-used system, that was later replaced by multiple successive styles that fit the needs of the writers. Cursive has become a way to write quickly and often casually, without lifting the pen from paper.

Today, the need to write quickly, accurately, and legibly has been reduced by the availability of typewriters and then computers, and therefore penmanship is no longer taught as a discipline.

People have been fretting over the loss of good penmanship for half a century, but if my study of Linguistics has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t stop the flow of language. If a culture no longer needs something, it will be dispensed with.

However, that doesn’t mean that the art of penmanship is dead. Calligraphy is a popular hobby, and there will always be those who will appreciate the visual beauty of written language. In my opinion, there’s no reason to mourn.

For further reading:

A Brief History of Penmanship on National Handwriting Day

Is Cursive Dead? Not on your life.

History of Handwriting

Tracing Cursive’s History

The Pronoun War: English’s Gender Neutral Third Person

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

–Benjamin Lee Whorf

In English, if we are going to talk about someone in the third person, we are often required to assign them a gender. However, in recent years, more and more people have been coming forward to talk about their relationship with our culture’s gender system, and many have found it lacking. They may consider themselves to be at multiple points within this complex universe (a gender wormhole!), or planted firmly on an asteroid between Mars and Venus, or floating apathetically somewhere in another constellation.

This matter is of particular importance to me because I am one of those people. The fact that English has no construction for a gender-neutral third person singular shows how non-binary people have not traditionally had a voice or a place in our culture. We should not have to jump through verbal hoops to express our lived experience.

I completely support anyone who would like to invent their own pronouns, but this post will provide a survey of the most common gender-neutral pronouns. While written from a language-centered point of view, I hope it might provide some guidance to non-binary and/or questioning people looking for a pronoun to identify with, and their loved ones who may be new to the issue.

(It is generally considered dehumanizing, and isn’t commonly used by non-binary people, and therefore is left off this list. However, like anything else, it is a perfectly legitimate choice!)


They/them/their is a common choice for people of non-binary genders. It has the advantage of being already firmly entrenched in our language, but the disadvantage that it is generally understood to be plural, resulting in possible confusion.

Many people denounce its use on the basis that it isn’t “grammatical,” but really, that sort of prescriptivism is nonsense. Singular “they” has a long use in literature, often used alongside the sexist but more acceptable general he/him/his. Chaucer, who is particularly well-respected in academia, used it. Its use was not even questioned until the 1700s, when intellectuals began to artificially apply Latin logic rules to English grammar, resulting in the shunning of many perfectly natural English constructions.

If you’re still not convinced, check out this article from Motivated Grammar about why singular they is perfectly acceptable.

This page focused on singular they in the works of Jane Austen also provides an interesting look at the history of pronouns in English.


These pronouns, often called Spivak pronouns after the mathematician who popularized them, are particularly convenient as far as invented pronouns go because they are based on existing ones. It’s easy to think of them as they without the “th:” Ey went to the store and bought emselves a cake for eir birthday. Interestingly enough, since Spivak was a mathematician, the pronoun has caught on surprisingly well in the world of internet gaming, and is often used as a gender option in multi-player games..


Ze/hir/hirs is a common choice in the transgender community, but is easily mixed up with “her,” which may or may not be desirable. It has a variant, ze/zir/zirs, that avoids this problem. Neither come particularly naturally to most English speakers, but this is not a reason not to use them!

For a more gender-neutral pronoun options, and examples of how to use them in a sentence, visit the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. Almost certainly useful for anyone deciding on their preferred pronoun!

Shen Yun Performing Arts

Recently, my mother and I had the good fortune to see the Chinese dance troupe, Shen Yun, perform at the Rochester Auditorium Theatre. If you get the chance to see it at any point in the future, please do– we were gasping and clapping the entire way through. Filled with acrobatic dance numbers and interspersed with opera and instrumental exhibitions, and featuring a particularly interesting use of a projection screen, audiences of every age and temperament can enjoy this

It was this show that inspired my post on tonal languages, but I couldn’t neglect the main focus of the show: the dance. According to the hosts, many of the world’s flips and tumbles were invented by ancient Chinese dancers, and that piqued my curiosity.

Here is a video that will give you a taste of what I saw, including a history lesson about why they perform around the world but not in China.

Tonal Languages

Recently, I went to a traditional Chinese dance show called Shen Yun (more on that later!). Between the acts, a member of the company would introduce the next act in Chinese, which was then translated for the American audiences. Listening to that much Chinese reminded me of my interest in tonal languages.

Tonal languages use pitch to create meaning. In English, the ends of sentences go up in pitch to denote a question, but in tonal languages, the pitch at which something is spoken can affect the understanding of individual words.

Here’s a video to watch if you’d like to hear some examples of Cantonese tones. It won’t teach you about tones– it’s just a collection of fun slang from a native speaker.

Cherokee is also a tonal language. Here’s a ten-minute documentary including some history and interviews with Cherokee speakers.


Further Reading:

Tonal languages & music skill

The Long History of Pancakes

Jan Steen’s ‘The Pancake Woman.’ Memorial Art Gallery.

Recently, I went to Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery and came across a painting depicting someone making pancakes. The plaque beside it read:

Pancake vendors, much like outdoor food vendors today, were a common sight on Dutch streets during the 1600s. Originally a delicacy prepared on the festival day of Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival and the day before the beginning of Lent, pancakes were associated with feasting and wild behavior. Images of pancake makers were initially moralistic in nature, symbolizing gluttony and lust. By the 17th century, pancakes were eaten every day and the theme lost some of its allegorical significance. The scene retained its popularity among painters and printmakers of “low-life” genre scenes, or scenes of everyday peasant and street life.

Being me, and loving both food and research, I was then inspired to look up the history of pancakes, and found that someone else had already done the bulk of my work for me. There is an entire site dedicated to the history of food! Here is their article on pancakes, but I invite you to explore because it’s a really interesting, quality resource.

Ancient Anorexia

Knowledge about anorexia nervosa (often known just as anorexia) didn’t hit the mainstream until 1978, through Dr. Hilde Bruch’s book The Golden Cage, which chronicled case studies of the problem. Frustrated therapists around America were calling her for help with patients who didn’t eat– tough cases that the psychiatrists didn’t know how to handle. Is this just a modern problem, a result of cultural pressure to be thin, or is it a basic human experience? How far back can we trace it?

I realize that this could be a controversial and/or sensitive topic, so I would like to go no further without a disclaimer. Though I have never personally experienced anorexia or any sort of eating disorder, I have been diagnosed with a couple other mental health problems, so I have nothing but sympathy for those suffering from something that may be invisible to others. So please, if this problem affects you and I have dealt with it poorly, let me know in the comments and I promise to be receptive.

A primary feature of anorexia is controlling one’s eating for a higher purpose. Today this is usually beauty. control, or perfectionism, but in the past the severe restriction often served the sufferer’s sense of religion. Of course, this perception may be skewed by the era’s tendency to record religious matters over the secular details of people’s daily lives.

Saint Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of fire prevention, is an early example of anorexic behavior in the Western world. Over the course of her life, which ended in 1380, she reported being in constant physical pain, and ate almost nothing for long periods of time. After being disappointed that an assassination attempt had failed to result in her martyrdom, she starved herself to death while working ‘strenuously’ on behalf of the church. A century earlier, Saint Hedwig of Silesia engaged in similar fasting behavior.

Jane Balan supposedly did not eat or drink from February 15th, 1613 until her death three years later at age 13. After a sickness with fever and vomiting, she totally refused to eat. The author who described the incident blamed a cursed apple for imbalancing her humors.

Sir Richard Morton, in 1689, produced the first medical description of what we now think of as anorexia. Its medical name was coined by Sir William Gull in 1874, who was the first to recognize it as a psychological condition. It became officially recognized as a mental disorder in 1980.


Further Reading:

Contemporary article about Hilde Bruch’s book

Saint Catherine of Siena

History of anorexia, from Encylopedia Brittanica


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Give Hamlet another chance!

Part of the reason that Shakespeare wrote such long explanatory soliloquies had to do with the fact that the most important members of his audience couldn’t see him. The Globe theatre was constructed in a sort of extreme horseshoe. The lowest-paying patrons, the Groundlings, stood in the circular center in front of the stage, whereas wealthier patrons sat in the three stories of boxes surrounding them. The most expensive boxes were above and next to the stage, meaning that the highest born audience members could be seen out and about, but also that they couldn’t see the actors’ faces and gestures. This was the Elizabethan equivalent of People magazine, displaying fashion and scandal of the upper classes to the lower classes.

The Legend & History of Hereward the Wake

A 19th century interpretation of Hereward in battle. Click through for citation.

Hereward the Wake (which was understood as the Watchful) was an English folk hero that served as early inspiration for the Robin Hood legend. Pretty good records exist verifying his existence, but some stories connected with him seem obviously exaggerated.

In the 11th century, natives of northern France known as Normans and led by William the Conqueror were trying to conquer Britain. Already occupying Britain were the Anglo-Saxons, who were Germanic. Evidence of both these heritages can be seen in the modern English language, which blends Germanic grammar with French vocabulary and sprinklings of Latin.

Hereward was from South Lincolnshire which, due to its location in northern England, was one of the later areas to feel the grip of the Norman rule. He is purported to have been a very wild young man, with eyes of two different colors, who constantly got into arguments with his father.

Hereward is renowned for his stand against William the Conqueror. A group of Danes (also known as Vikings) picked him up, sacked the abbey at Peterborough, and then escaped to the Ilse of Ely. Here we can see parallels to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Eventually, William the Conqueror won, but not before Hereward had made quite a name for himself as the epitome of Anglo-Saxon chivalry.

For further reading:

Selection from Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales

Selection from Bulfinch’s Age of Chivalry

Specific stories about Hereward’s legendary life