The Signed Lingua Franca That Once Spanned North America

There were once hundreds of indigenous languages, belonging to dozens of widely different language families, spoken across North America. Still, tribes were able to communicate with each other through a well-developed gesture system. That system was observed in action by Europeans as early as 1540, when the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado wrote of the Tonkawa people he encountered in what is now Texas. He observed that “although they conversed by means of signs, they made themselves understood so well that there was no need of an interpreter.” By the 1920s, the system, now known by scholars as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), was nearly extinct.

Concerned about preserving it in some form for posterity, Hugh L. Scott—a retired major general of the U.S. Army who had served much of his military career in the West—lobbied Congress to support the making of a film and dictionary of the language. In 1930, documentation under an Act of Congress began with the filming of the Indian Sign Language Council, where 18 participants, from a range of tribes and language groups, came together in Browning, Montana, on the site where the Museum of the Plains Indian now stands.

The Great Depression soon interfered with the progress of the project, and though Scott tried to continue it under his own funding, he died in 1934. The film languished in the National Archives until the beginning of the 21st century, when University of Tennessee professor Jeffrey E. Davis began digitizing and analyzing the original 8mm films, with the help of grants from the University of Tennessee, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His book Hand Talk: Sign Language Among Indian Nations was published in 2010.

In the above video, narrated by Scott, you can see the participants of the Sign Language Council talking in sign about a variety of things, including how much they enjoy coming together for this gathering. But the dark cloud hanging over the proceedings is that the language is already on the way out. As Scott notes, “young men are not learning your sign language, and soon it will disappear from this country. It is for us to make a record of it for those who come after us before it becomes lost forever.”

More information about PISL, including films, drawings, and a basic dictionary, can be found at the Hand Talk site.

A Letter Written by Albert Einstein in 1922 Predicted the Rise of the Nazis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a Jew living in Germany in the 1920s, Albert Einstein had an up-close view of the Nazis’ rise to power. As early as 1922, he could see turbulent political times ahead, as a letter to his sister reveals. The handwritten, signed letter recently sold at auction for $39,360, Live Science reports.

The letter, offered by the Jerusalem-based Kedem Auction House, is addressed to Einstein’s younger sister Maja. Einstein wrote it from an undisclosed location—probably Kiel, Germany, according to the auction house—after he fled Berlin in 1922 in the wake of the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing terrorist group. Police had warned Einstein that as a prominent Jew his life could be in danger, too. “Nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he writes in the letter.

He remained upbeat while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the political situation that he and other German Jews were facing. “I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” he assured Maja. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he wrote, alluding to his upcoming six-month trip to Asia, during which he would learn that he had won the Nobel Prize. He was right—Adolf Hitler's failed coup in Bavaria would take place the next year, in November 1923.

Einstein goes on to say “Don't worry about me, I myself don't worry either, even if it's not quite kosher; people are very upset. In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad, by the way."

After his Asian tour, he returned to Germany before setting out on new travels, including a tour of the United States. He was in the U.S. when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, and decided to renounce his German citizenship. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

See the full details of the letter at the Kedem Auction House’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

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