Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine et al (Thomas Nelson 1984)

Grafting Greek onto Hebrew is rather like grafting an orchid onto an oak. But that’s what happened when the writings of a new religion were added to the Jewish scriptures to create the Christian Bible. Hebrew and Greek are very different languages grammatically, phonetically and alphabetically. As I said: orchid and oak. But those differences, and that disjuncture, make the Bible more interesting.

This is a good book for studying the differences and the disjuncture. Millions of people have done so down the centuries, but most of them have been driven by one of the most powerful of human fuels: ego. As an atheist, I’m motivated by an interest in linguistics and history. Which means I’m not particularly driven. The Bible is a fascinating and highly influential text, but studying it seriously demands more time and attention than I’m prepared to give. So I like dipping into this book, not dedicatedly delving:

MOTH

sēs (σής 4597) indicates “a clothes moth,” Matt. 6:19, Luke 12:33.¶ In Job 4:19 “crushed before the moth” alludes apparently to the fact that woolen materials, riddled by the larvae of “moths,” became so fragile that a touch demolishes them. In Job 27:18 “He buildeth his house as a moth” alludes to the frail covering which a larval “moth” constructs out of the material which it consumes. The rendering “spider” (marg.) seems an attempt to explain a difficulty.

MOTH-EATEN

sētobrōtos (σητόβρωτος 4598), from sēs, “a moth,” and bibrōskō, “to eat,” is used in Jas. 5:2.¶ In the Sept. Job 13:28.

As you can see from that, the Greek of the New Testament is set in the context of the Septuagint. The Hebrew of the Old Testament, on the other, is set in the context of what you might call the Semitic sea:

SWORD

hereb (חֶרֶב, 2719) “sword; dagger; flint knife; chisel.” This noun has cognates in several other Semitic languages including Ugaritic, Aramaic, Syriac, Akaddian, and Arabic. The word occurs about 410 times and in all periods of biblical Hebrew.

YEAR

šānāh (שָׁנָה, 8141), “year.” This word has cognates in Ugaritic, Akaddian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Phoenician. Biblical Hebrew attests it about 877 times and in every period.

But the Semitic sea was also a pagan sea: there’s a disjuncture here not only between Hebrew and Greek, but also between monotheism and polytheism. Everything in the Jewish scriptures, from the alphabet and the stories to the vocabulary and the verse, has roots in pagan, polytheistic culture. But Judaism slashed and severed, setting itself apart and creating something very powerful and perhaps very pernicious. The Bible is big in every way and this book is a gateway to its greatness.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

A Radical New Interpretation of the Christian Message

Jesus.

Who was He?

The Christ.

What was He?

A carpenter.

Whence was He?

From Galilee.

Let us take His attributes one by one and see what clues they offer to the true nature and purpose of the King of Kings and so-called Lord of Lords. First, Jesus was the Christ: in Greek, ho Khristos, the Anointed One, translating the Judaic term maashiah, from the Hebrew verb maashah, meaning “to smear or rub over with oil”.1 And during His ministry, He would be closely associated with Olivet, the Mount of Olives. The key concept here is oil.

Second, Jesus was a carpenter: in Greek, tektōn, the skilled worker in wood mentioned in this New Testament text:

Matthew, xiii, 55. Is this not the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?

And during His ministry, His teaching would often make literal or symbolic use of trees: the fig, the sycamine, the “mustard”, those trees bearing good fruit, those bearing bad.2 The key concept here is wood.

Third, Jesus was from Galilee, the hilly region of northern Palestine that took its name from the Hebrew verb gaalal, “to roll, to go round”. And at the end of His ministry, He would be crucified at Golgotha, the Aramaic form of the Hebrew gulgōleth, “a round, rolling thing or skull”, also from gaalal. The key concept here is roll.

And so we have oil… wood… roll… and stand trembling on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of our perceptions of the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ and the religion He founded. One more text will suffice to tip us over:

John, xix, 33. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs … 36. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

Oil… wood… roll… And a divine promise that Jesus would never break a bone… There is only one conclusion to draw: that Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Carpenter, Jesus the Galilean was a skateboarder. A skateboarder who built His own ’boards of wood, lubricated their wheels with oil, and then rolled atop them with such skill that He never broke a bone even on the unsuitable road surfaces of first-century Palestine.

Straw Power

Though He occasionally had to get by — literally — with a little help from His friends:

Matthew, xxi, 6. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 and brought the ass, and the colt[, and] set him thereon. 8 And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9 And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

This is clearly a description of Jesus skateboarding into Jerusalem between cheering crowds who have “strawed”, or strewn, a particularly bumpy road surface with clothing and foliage to ensure Him a smooth ride. This interpretation even enables us to solve one of the greatest puzzles of New Testament scholarship: Matthew’s seemingly inexplicable misreading of the poetic parallelism of Zechariah’s prophecy of this event:

ix, 9. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Zechariah refers here to one animal in two different ways, and  Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, has long been thought to have misinterpreted him and supposed that Jesus was, grotesquely, riding two asses into Jerusalem.

But if we realize that “ass” — onos — was in fact a first-century slang term for “skateboard”, we clearly see that Matthew was merely recording something that Mark and Luke overlooked: a trick performed by the skateboarding Jesus in which, for some part of the journey, He rode simultaneously atop two boards. Today, part of such a routine can be referred to as a

Daffy duck: one person rides two boards — doing a tail wheelie [sic] with the front one and a nose wheelie with the back one.3

It is a difficult trick, part of the repertoire only of an advanced skater, even with hi-tech, easy-to-manage modern ’boards.

Jesus the Divine Skateboarder

But that, surely, is a fatal objection to the theory of Jesus the Divine Skateboarder, is it not? After all, first-century technology could not have met the engineering requirements of skateboard construction, which relies on a precise working in both wood and metal that was surely beyond the capacity of ancient carpenters and metalworkers. Surely? Not so, in fact:

The National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens possesses corroded fragments of a metallic object found by sponge-divers near the island of Antikythera in 1900. Complex dials and gears of the mechanism were unlike any [other] artifact from ancient Greece. From the inscription on the instrument and the amphorae found with it, a date c. 65 B.C. was ascribed to the object.4

The artifact was first misidentified as an “astrolabe” and only later realized to be “a computing machine that could work out and exhibit the motions of the sun and moon and probably also the planets”.5

Skateboards, then, would have been well within the technological grasp of the first century. But one might ask again: would the first century have realized they were there to be grasped? For it seems highly unlikely that skateboards would appear spontaneously in any culture, regardless of whether it was capable of building them to an advanced standard. In our own culture, for example, they appeared like this:

In the ’60s, Californian surfers bolted roller-skate wheels to old surfboards and used them to ride down hills when conditions at sea were against them.6

In other words, the first skateboarders were surfers. So did Jesus surf before He skated? Seemingly He did:

Matthew, xiv, 24. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit, and they cried out for fear.

Clearly this describes Jesus introducing His apostles to surfing as the first stage of their journey to the higher truths of skateboarding. They are astonished and fearful as He seems to “walk” towards them over the surface of the water, shifting His feet on the surfboard to adjust His balance as He prepares to give the most adventurous of His apostles a first surfing lesson:

Ibid., 27. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. 28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. 31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

And here we understand why Jesus recruited so many fishermen at the beginning of His ministry. Skateboarding would have been too dangerous for the apostles to undertake without an apprenticeship as surfers, but surfing likewise would have been too dangerous if some of them had not been able to swim and, when necessary, rescue themselves or their less natatorially inclined fellows as they all acquired the necessary skills of balance and footwork.

From Sea to Land

Once they had acquired these skills, they could transfer them to the more demanding conditions of “surfing” on land, where a fall or loss of control would mean not a soaking but a severe bruise, graze or even broken limb. The apostles’ apprenticeship at sea with surfboards meant that they took up skateboarding with insight and experience, neither over-cautious nor over-confident, but well able to fulfil the mission Jesus had mapped out for them: to introduce skateboarding to the world. In token of this, they were twelve in number, symbolizing on earth the heavenly skateboard wheel of the Zodiac. Here is the list of twelve given by Mark, for example:

iii, 16. Simon he surnamed Peter; 17 and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder: 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphæus, and Thaddæus, and Simon the Canaanite, 19 and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him …

Notice again how our new interpretation of Christianity solves another long-standing puzzle of New Testament scholarship: the precise significance of Boanerges, “The Sons of Thunder”. After all, what more appropriate name could be given to a pair of young and adventurous skateboarders?7

And perhaps it was even a nickname, given to James and John by Jesus because the two were such enthusiastic ’boarders that they were inclined to neglect the oiling of their wheels. Another nickname is certainly present in the list of apostles: that of Judas Iscariot. Many suggestions have been made as to the significance of his surname, including:

(1) From Kerioth (Josh. xv. 25) … (2) From Kartha in Galilee (Kartan, A.V. Josh. xxi. 32). (3) From scortea, a leathern apron, the name being applied to him as the bearer of the bag, and = Judas with the apron.8

The Oxford English Dictionary supports the first of these, deriving Iscariot from the Hebrew ’iish-qeriōth, “Man of Kerioth”. Kerioth comes from the Hebrew verb qaaraah, meaning to “to frame, build”. Does this suggest that Judas “had the bag” (John xii, 6; xiii, 29) because he carried tools therein and was in charge of repairing Jesus’s and the apostles’ skateboards?

Repairing… and Wrecking

If so, it provides an excellent explanation for why Judas was the apostle selected by the high priests to be suborned, to become the betrayer of his master. If Judas was in charge of repairing the skateboarders, he was also very well-placed to sabotage them and thereby end Jesus’s previous immunity from harm. Jesus’s enemies had tried to kill Him previously, but He had always escaped from them in some mysterious way that has, until now, been difficult to explain:

Luke iv, 28. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, 29 and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30 But he passing through the midst of them went his way.
John viii, 59. Then they took up stones to cast at him: but Jesus … went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
x, 31. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him … 39 … therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand.

If Jesus was on a skateboard and His enemies on foot, it becomes easy to understand how He escaped, particularly in the first case, when He had a good slope to pick up speed on. His enemies would have swiftly been left far behind, raging impotently at His speed and skill.

And vowing to find some means of turning it against Him. Hence the bribe they offered to Judas to sabotage Jesus’s skateboard: thirty silver coins symbolizing the way in which its glittering wheels bore its owner to and fro on every day of the month. By this stage in His ministry Jesus had begun to introduce the apostles to:

DOWNHILL: the easiest and deadliest form of skateboarding … Though anyone can ride down a hill at high speed, it requires considerable experience to do it safely.9

This is clearly described in the Gospels:

Mark ix, 2. And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain by themselves: and he was transfigured before them … (cf. Matthew xvii, Luke ix)

Remember that Peter was the first to try surfing, and James and John were the “Sons of Thunder”: these three were the most enthusiastic and confident skaters amongst the apostles, and obvious candidates for this initial introduction to the potentially deadly delights of downhill, in which the lithe, darting, alinear movements of ordinary ’boarding are transfigured into a headlong linear rush of pure speed.

Jesus in a Jam

In downhill, then, the ’boarder relies even more heavily on his equipment than usual, and a jammed or otherwise malfunctioning wheel renders him liable to a very serious case of

Road rash: bruises, gashes and other skateboarding wounds.10

In other words, the scourging and other maltreatment Jesus undergoes before His “crucifixion” are in fact allegorical of wounds suffered by Him in a downhill ’boarding accident that takes place after the Last Supper in

Gethsemane … the name of a “garden” or enclosure on the Mount of Olives, scene of the agony of Jesus11

Jesus has brought the apostles here to practise downhill ’boarding on the slopes often seen in traditional portrayals of the Garden of Gethsemane. The apostles, however, become exhausted and retire for a time, leaving Jesus to skate on alone, well aware that the ’board He is using has been sabotaged by Judas. We see this described, partly in allegorical terms, by Luke:

xxii, 41. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, 42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done. 43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

“Kneeled down” is a literal description of the position adopted for downhill ’boarding and “prayed” is allegorical of the ’boarding itself, a holy act that renders homage to God. But the prayer is cut short when disaster strikes: Judas’s sabotage is consummated, a wheel jams or falls off, and Jesus, sweating heavily from His exertions, is flung to the ground, splattering it with blood.

Rock and Roll

And now, finally, badly injured, unable to escape on His disabled ’board, He can be seized by His enemies and taken away for execution:

Luke xii, 54. Then they took him, and led him, and brought him to the high priest’s house.

Jesus’s trial proceeds, He is condemned to death, and led out for… what? Crucifixion? Nailing to a cross? So readers of English translations of the New Testament might suppose, but in fact there is no direct reference in the original to a “cross”: New Testament Greek uses the nouns stauros and xylon, meaning a “pale, stake or pole” and a “stick or piece of wood”, respectively.12

The conclusion? That the high priests sadistically and sardonically ordered Jesus to be executed with His own skateboard: injured though He is, He is forced to ride His repaired ’board again and again on the hill called Golgotha, “The Round, Rolling Place”, under the supervision of brutal Roman soldiers who force Him on with prodding spears and draughts of sour, re-invigorating vinegar. The result? That after a day of this enforced ’boarding, He “cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost” (Mark xv, 37).

And so Jesus passed from the Mount of Olives, the oil-trees, to execution with a piece of wood on a place named from the Hebrew-Aramaic verb to roll, and we have each of the three key concepts enunciated at the beginning of this article. The third, final, and most important of them will shortly appear again in the closing act of the Synoptic Gospels, when Jesus’s grieving female followers come to His tomb to perform the final rites of burial:

Mark xvi, 4. And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had brought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun … 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. 5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. 6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified [ton estaurōmenon]: he is risen: he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. 7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee

In Greek, “rolled” is -kekylistai,13 the same verb as is used for these stone-rolling episodes in the Septuagint, an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek:

Genesis xxix, 10. … Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth
Proverbs xxvi, 27. Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.

In the original Hebrew, the verb in Genesis and Proverbs is gaalal, and the play on words in Mark between “rolled” and “Galilee” would have been obvious to the apostles, as would its meaning: that Jesus had conquered death, recovered from His wounds, and gone away to skateboard on the rolling hills of Galilee. The Risen Christ is the Risen Skateboarder, King of Kings, and Lord, quite clearly, of ’Boards.


NOTES

1. Discussion of Hebrew words is based on Benjamin Davidson’s The Analytic Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, 1970.

2. See, respectively, Luke xxi, 29; Luke xvii, 6; Matthew xiii, 32; Matthew iii, 10.

3. John Blake, The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, Phoebus Publishing, London, 1977, “Glossary”, pg. 62

4. Andrew Tomas (sic), We Are Not the First, ch. 17, “First Robots, Computers, Radio, Television and Time-Viewing Machines”, pg. 162 of the 224-page 1973 Sphere paperback.

5. Ibid., pg. 163, words of the English scientist Dr Derek J. de Solla Price in Natural History, March, 1962.

6. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Sidewalk Surfin’”, pg. 6

7. One previous suggestion: “the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ has been shown by Rendel Harris to be connected with the cult of twins. The sons of Zebedee were probably twins” (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, notes to Mark iii, 17).

8. William Smith, LL.D., Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, N.J., 1977, entry for “Judas Iscariot”.

9. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Superskating”, pg. 50

10. Ibid., “Glossary”, pg. 63

11. Oxford English Dictionary, which derives “Gethsemane” from the Aramaic gath shemani(m), meaning “oil-press”.

12. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon.

13. In full, apo- or anakekylistai, the prefix apo- or ana- supplying the sense of “away” or “from”.

Read Full Post »

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Here’s something I learned only recently: the Liddell of the Lexicon was the father of the Alice of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass fame. I knew her surname was Liddell and that she lived in Oxford, but the possible connection never occurred to me. Partly it must have been that the Lexicon is so soberly academic and Alice in Wonderland so surreally imaginative. But the connection is appropriate, because classical Greek would be the perfect language to translate Alice in Wonderland into. It has all the necessary richness and subtlety:

Sample from the Lexicon #1 (click for larger)

And the Greek script in its fully developed form, with minuscule letters and diacritics, is much more beautiful than the Roman alphabet. This lexicon is a bibliophile’s delight and it’s easy to download PDFs of the full edition. But I also own a physical copy of an abridgment of it. A real book has advantages over an electronic text. You don’t make happy discoveries by accident as easily with an e-text and you’re cut off from history when you’re reading from a screen. Liddell and Scott worked with paper:

Sample from the Lexicon #2 (click for larger)


Paper was also the medium for most of the poets, historians, philosophers and novelists whose words they define. But not for the most famous of all: Homer’s two great epics were originally composed and transmitted without pen or paper. They were products of the pre-literate Bronze Age, when poets and storytellers relied on memory, not manuscripts. A lot was lost with literacy, but civilization depends on it and this lexicon is one of the great monuments to the influence that Greek civilization still has on the world.

But rich and interesting as this book is, it has one big disadvantage: it’s bilingual (or trilingual if you count the Latin). As I pointed out in my review of a Larousse de Poche, monolingual dictionaries are best for learning a foreign language. If a word in Greek is defined in Greek, then “no officious English word intrud[es]”, as C.S. Lewis put it in Surprised by Joy (1955). Liddell and Scott were good enough scholars to have written entirely in Greek and I wish they had done so. There could have been two Lexicons, one translating Greek into English and one defining Greek in Greek.

No Latin dictionary is so famous as Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which probably and partly reflects the earthier and more utilitarian nature of Latin. But a Latin lexicon defining Latin in Latin would have been good too and something that Victorian scholars could easily have created.

Read Full Post »

The Voynich Manuscript: the unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill (Orion paperback 2005)

Many things that fall under the Fortean label – they’re supposedly strange, anomalous, mysterious – dwindle under further investigation. There’s less to them than meets the eye. The Voynich Manuscript isn’t like that. It’s a hand-written book, heavily illustrated and annotated, that is genuinely mysterious and interesting. What is it about? Who wrote it? Why? After decades of analysis, we’re no nearer answering those questions.

Even if there’s no real language behind the script it uses, as statistical patterns seem to indicate, it’s still a fascinating object. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create it, whether it or not it’s full of gibberish, and a completely mad creator might be even more interesting than a rational one. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, the authors of this detailed study, look at all the main candidates for authorship, from the friar Roger Bacon to the occultist John Dee and the bookseller Wilfred Voynich.

Voynich gave his name to the manuscript because he discovered it. Or so he said. Some have claimed that he created it instead, but they’re certainly wrong. It really is centuries old, as proved by both carbon-dating and provenance, and it’s been defeating the best efforts of cryptologists for centuries too. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher seems to have been baffled by it in the mid-seventeenth-century. In the early twenty-first century, cryptologists are still baffled. Is there a real language there, artificial or otherwise? Probably not:

[S]ome very unusual patterns of words … can be found in the manuscript. On most pages of the manuscript strings of the same words are repeated up to five times, or on other occasions, even longer strings of words with only the odd change to individual letters. This would be like writing the word that five times in succession in a phrase in modern English, or producing a sentence along the lines of Brought bought bough, though tough, through trough. It is almost impossible to conceive of a language where this would happen regularly, if at all. As Mary D’Imperio says, reporting the words of several Voynich researchers, “the text just doesn’t act like natural language.” (ch. 5, “The Cryptological Maze – Part II”, pg. 155)

But why would anyone write gibberish for so many pages and accompany that gibberish with so many strange drawings? There are plants, charts and naked women in baths. Is it a botanical text or an alchemical treatise? Or did a hoaxer want people to think that it was? Most researchers think that it was created with a serious purpose. I agree, but in one important way that doesn’t matter. The Voynich Manuscript may never be deciphered, but it’s already given us some valuable lessons in wishful thinking. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which Kennedy and Churchill also discuss, researchers have claimed successful decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript that turned out to be nothing of the kind. William Newbold saw microscopic variations in the symbols that weren’t really there; James Feeley thought they were Latin shorthand.

Both of them announced their decipherments with great confidence; both of them were completely wrong. No-one else has been any more successful and the Voynich Manuscript has defeated researchers with much more expertise and much more powerful analytical tools. This book is an excellent introduction to a genuinely mysterious object. Theories about it will continue to multiply, but it may never reveal its secrets. Perhaps that would be for the best.

Read Full Post »

ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Georgian is the most difficult language I’ve ever seriously studied. Phonetically it’s probably the most difficult full stop. But I continue to plod away at it and bought this Bible to help me. I wanted to encounter Georgian in the wild, as it were. Not that this is truly wild Georgian: it’s a translation, not something composed by a native speaker from scratch. But Bibles are usually strong influences on the language of a Christian nation and the Georgian Bible, like Georgian Christianity, is among the oldest in the world.

This is modern Georgian, though. Or fairly modern: I can notice some archaic plurals and I’ve been told that there are old-fashioned verbs. If my Georgian were better, I would notice more of what’s archaic, but I don’t think it’s as far from modern Georgian as the King James Version is from modern English. I’d been having even more difficulty with it if that were the case, I suspect. I would have preferred just a New Testament, because it would have been smaller and less intimidating, but perhaps one day I’ll be able to dip anywhere into this full Bible and understand what I’m reading.

At the moment, I can’t do that. I still find Georgian verbs very difficult, but that’s one of the good things about the Gospels. They’re repetitive and use a limited vocabulary. And I’m already familiar with the stories. Even so, I have to prime myself by reading each section in another language before I try the Georgian. Not English: that would be too simple and no good as linguistic exercise. Instead, I use the Latin of a Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, with occasional glances at the Greek that flanks it.

Latin is easy next to Georgian and although I can’t read Tacitus or Cicero in the original, the Latin of the Gospels is very straightforward. But I still need to think harder than in English, which makes the meaning grow more slowly and powerfully in my brain. I didn’t appreciate the Gospels properly until I read them in Latin and Greek. There are some strange things going on and the Last Supper and Crucifixion are moving stories.

But I’m not moved or awed in Georgian: I’m still reading too slowly and understanding too weakly. The stepping-stones in Latin are close together and dry underfoot. I can walk across quickly and confidently, enjoying the sound and sight of the river:

Et recordatus est Petrus verbi Iesu, quod dixerat: Priusquam gallus cantet, ter me negabis. Et egressus foras ploravit amare. (Matthaeus 26:75)

In Georgian, the stepping-stones are far apart and slippery. I’m too busy trying not to fall off to appreciate the river:

და გაახსენდა პეტრეს იესოს ნათქვანი სიტყვა: სანამ მამალი იყივლებდეს, სამჯერ უარმყოფ მე. გამოვიდა გარეთ და მწარედ ატირდა. (მათეს სახარება 26:75)

Da gaakhsenda P’et’res Iesos natkvani sit’qva: Sanam mamali iqivlebdes, samjer uarmqop me. Gamovida garet da mts’ared at’irda.

In English, that verse is:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

One word is almost identical in all three languages: “me”. And the Georgian genitive of Iesos uses a suffix much like the one in English. The suffix Georgian uses on nouns in the past tense – ეს თორმეტი იესომ დაარიგა, Es tormet’i Iesom daarigi, “These twelve Jesus sent forth” (Mth 10:5) – is strange to speakers of English, French or German, but it’s like the -ne used not so far off in Hindi. Georgian isn’t an Indo-European language and has resisted the influence of its giant neighbour Russian with surprising success, but it’s not as alien as Chinese or Arabic.

Except in its phonology and phonetics. That’s part of what attracts me to it: as I said in an earlier review, Georgian torments the tongue even as it pleases the eye. The alphabet is one of the most beautiful ever created. I was disappointed at first by the font used in this book, but I’ve got used to it now. It’s minimal, distinguishing ხ and ძ, შ and წ only by orientation, and perhaps that suits the simplicity of the Gospels better.

But I would prefer a more decorative font for იოანე ღმერთისმეტყველის გამოცხადება, Ioane Ghmertismet’qvelis Gamotskhadeba, or the John Prophet’s Revelation. I’m not ready for that final book of the New Testament yet, because I’ve not even reached the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament. But I hope to be ready one day. I might even be able to read parts of it without a Latin crib. That’s where the მეძავთა და დედამიწის სიბილწეთა დედა is waiting: the medzavta da dedamits’is sibilts’eta deda, the “whores’ and earth’s abominations’ mother”, is waiting. Revelation in Georgian will be even stranger than it is in Greek, Latin and English.

Read Full Post »

Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

Read Full Post »

georgisch-worterbuch-bei-michael-jeldenGeorgisch Wörterbuch, Michael Jelden (Buske 2016)

My German is weak, my Georgian is weaker, so I decided to improve both by getting this German-Georgian dictionary and using it with a German-English dictionary. My plan is working, but the dictionary wasn’t as comprehensive as I hoped. For example, if you look up Gott in the Deutsch-Georgisch section, you get ღმერთი ghmerti, but you aren’t told that the irregular genitive is ღვთის ghvtis. Nor does that appear in the Georgisch-Deutsch section under ღმერთი ghmerti.

You could spot it from the entry for Gottesmutter, “God-mother”, which is translated as ღვთისმშობელი ghvtismshobeli (literally “God’s-bearer”), but you won’t get help like that with many other irregular words. The entries and definitions are minimal and sometimes the dictionary only works one way. Ketzer, or “heretic”, is translated as მწვალებელი mts’valebeli and ერეტიკოსი eret’ik’osi, but those words don’t appear in the Georgisch-Deutsch section. And although the Georgisch-Deutsch section has წალდი ts’aldi, translated Axt or “axe”, if you look under Axt in the Deutsch-Georgisch section, all you get is ცული tsuli.

Beside that, there are no verb tables or entries for morphemes (like “un-” or “-less”), as opposed to full words, and you won’t get much help with the subtleties of verbal prefixes. But a minimal German-Georgian dictionary has advantages over a comprehensive English-Georgian one. It’s more mental exercise, more fun and doesn’t have space to transliterate the Georgian, so you get more practise in reading it.

And physical dictionaries have advantages over electronic ones. You spot things by chance in a real dictionary and you make connections you might not otherwise make. For example, if you look up the Georgian for “night”, you might get a small but interesting insight into the spirit of the language:

ღამე, Nacht f […]

ღამურა, Fledermaus f

Georgian for “night” is ghame and Georgian for “bat” is ghamura. And Fledermaus, “flittermouse”, is an insight into German, if it isn’t your mother-tongue. So is Feuerstein, “fire-stone”, for “flint”. I learned Feuerstein from a German-English dictionary, but I was using that book only because I was using this one. I’d now like to get a Russian-Georgian dictionary too. Using one would be a bit like playing chess with chopsticks, but you can learn better when you make things harder for yourself.

Read Full Post »

Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

Read Full Post »

The Invention of Science by David WoottonThe Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, David Wootton (Allen Lane 2015)

I picked up this book expecting to start reading, then get bored, start skimming for interesting bits, and sooner or later give up. I didn’t. I read steadily from beginning to end, feeling educated, enlightened and even enthralled. This is intellectual history at nearly its best, as David Wootton sets out to prove what is, for some, a controversial thesis: that “Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks” (introduction, pg. 1).

He does this in a clever and compelling way: by looking at the language used in science across Europe. If there was indeed a scientific revolution and science was indeed a new phenomenon, we should expect to see this reflected in language. Were old words given new meanings? Did new words and phrases appear for previously inexpressible concepts? They were and they did. “Scientist” itself is a new word, replacing earlier and less suitable words like “naturalist”, “physiologist”, “physician” and “virtuoso”. The word “science” is an example of an old word given a new meaning. In Latin, scientia meant “knowledge” or “field of learning”, from the verb scire, “to know”.

But it didn’t mean a systematic collective attempt to investigate and understand natural phenomena using experiments, hypotheses and sense-enhancing, evidence-gathering instruments. Science in that sense was something new, Wootton claims. He assembles a formidable array of texts and references to back his thesis, which is part of why this book is so enjoyable to read. As Wootton points out, the “Scientific Revolution has become almost invisible simply because it has been so astonishingly successful.” Quotations like this, from the English writer Joseph Glanvill, make it visible again:

And I doubt not but posterity will find many things, that are now but Rumors, verified into practical Realities. It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661)

Glanvill’s prescience is remarkable and he’s clearly writing in an age of pre-science or proto-science. He wasn’t just a powerful thinker, but a powerful writer too. So was Galileo and Wootton, who has written a biography of the great Italian, conveys his genius very clearly in The Invention of Science. You can feel some of the exhilaration of the intellectual adventure Galileo and other early scientists embarked on. They were like buccaneers sailing out from Aristotle’s Mediterranean into the huge Atlantic, with a new world before them.

Wootton also emphasizes the importance of Galileo’s original speciality:

The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers. The philosophers controlled the university curriculum (as a university teacher, Galileo never taught anything but Ptolemaic astronomy), but the mathematicians had the patronage of princes and merchants, of soldiers and sailors. They won that patronage because they offered new applications of mathematics to the world. (Part 2, “Seeing is Believing”, ch. 5, “The Mathematization of the World”, pg. 209)

But there’s something unexpected in this part of the book: he describes “double-entry bookkeeping” as part of that mathematical revolt: “the process of abstraction it teaches is an essential precondition for the new science” (pg. 164).

He also has very interesting things to say about the influence of legal tradition on the development of science:

Just as facts moved out of the courtroom and into the laboratory, so evidence made the same move at around the same time; and, as part of the same process of constructing a new type of knowledge, morality moved from theology into the sciences. When it comes to evidence, the new science was not inventing new concepts, but re-cycling existing ones. (Part 3, “Making Knowledge”, ch. 11, “Evidence and Judgment”, pg. 412)

Science was something new, but it wasn’t an ideology ex nihilo. That isn’t possible for mere mortals and Wootton is very good at explaining what was adapted, what was overturned and what was lost. Chapter 13 is, appropriately enough, devoted to “The Disenchantment of the World”; the next chapter describes how “Knowledge is Power”. That’s in Part 3, “Birth of the Modern”, and Wootton wants this to be a modern book, rather than a post-modern one. He believes in objective reality and that science makes genuine discoveries about that reality.

But he fails to take account of some modern scientific discoveries. The Invention of Science is a work of history, sociology, philology, and philosophy. It doesn’t discuss human biology or the possibility that one of the essential preconditions of science was genetic. Modern science arose in a particular place, north-western Europe, at a particular time. Why? The Invention of Science doesn’t, in the deepest sense, address that question. It doesn’t talk about intelligence and psychology or the genetics that underlie them. It’s a work of history, not of bio-history or historical genetics.

In 2016, that isn’t a great failing. History of science hasn’t yet been revolutionized by science. But I would like to see the thesis of this book re-visited in the light of books like Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (2007), which argues that the Industrial Revolution in England had to be preceded by a eugenic revolution in which the intelligent and prudent outbred the stupid and feckless. The Invention of Science makes it clear that Galileo was both a genius and an intellectual adventurer. But why were there so many others like him in north-western Europe?

I hope that historians of science will soon be addressing that question using genetics and evolutionary theory. David Wootton can’t be criticized for not doing so here, because bio-history is very new and still controversial. And he may believe, like many of the post-modernists whom he criticizes, in the psychic unity of mankind. The Invention of Science has other and less excusable flaws, however. One of them is obvious even before you open its pages. Like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid Madge Allsop, it is dressed in beige. The hardback I read does not have an inviting front cover and Wootton could surely have found something equally relevant, but more interesting and colourful.

After opening the book, you may find another flaw. Wootton’s prose is not painful, but it isn’t as graceful or pleasant to read as it could have been. This is both a pity and a puzzle, because he is very well-read in more languages than one: “We take facts so much for granted that it comes as a shock to learn that they are a modern invention. There is no word in classical Greek or Latin for a fact, and no way of translating the sentences above from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] into those languages.” (Part 3, “Facts”, pg. 254)

He certainly knows what good prose looks like, because he quotes a lot of it. But his own lacks the kind of vigour and wit you can see in the words of, say, Walter Charleton:

[I]t hath been affirmed by many of the Ancients, and questioned by very few of the Moderns, that a Drum bottomed with a Woolfs skin, and headed with a Sheeps, will yeeld scarce any sound at all; nay more, that a Wolfs skin will in short time prey upon and consume a Sheeps skin, if they be layed neer together. And against this we need no other Defense than a downright appeal to Experience, whether both those Traditions deserve not to be listed among Popular Errors; and as well the Promoters, as Authors of them to be exiled the society of Philosophers: these as Traitors to truth by the plotting of manifest falsehoods; those as Ideots, for beleiving and admiring such fopperies, as smell of nothing but the Fable; and lye open to the contradiction of an easy and cheap Experiment. (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654)

The Invention of Science is also too long: its message often rambles home rather than rams. If Wootton suffers from cacoethes scribendi, an insatiable itch to write, then I feel an itch to edit what he wrote. It’s good to pick up a solid book on a solid subject; it would be even better if everything in the book deserved to be there.

But if the book weren’t so good in some ways, I wouldn’t be complaining that it was less than good in others. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished it at all and I wouldn’t be heartily recommending it to anyone interested in science, history or linguistics. But I did and I am. The Invention of Science is an important book and an enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it and look forward to reading it again.

Read Full Post »

Rok 1984 by George OrwellRok 1984, George Orwell (MUZA SA, Warszawa 2001)

It’s an odd experience to pick up a famous book in an unfamiliar language. I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times in English and also tried it in French, Spanish and Italian. Reading it in English is like picking up a perfectly ripe apple and biting into it. I don’t have to think, I just have to experience.

It isn’t like that in French, Spanish and Italian. The book isn’t a ripe apple any more: it’s an exotic fruit with a tough skin that has to be peeled and cooked. I have to think about what I’m doing and it takes much longer to eat much less.

In Polish, Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes a coconut with an exceptionally tough and hairy shell. And I don’t have any way of getting inside. All I can do is pick it up and shake it, hearing the swish of the milk inside and feeling its solidity. I know there’s good eating in there, but I can’t get at it.

Of course, to a literate Pole Rok 1984 is a ripe apple, ready to be experienced without conscious effort. Languages aren’t like ordinary phenomena. A knife is a knife. A bird is a bird. A cloud is a cloud. Billions of human beings for thousands of years have perceived those things in more or less the same way. But human beings haven’t named them or talked about them in more or less the same way. Language both defines humans and divides us. No-one can be familiar with all languages, so everyone can have the experience of picking up something familiar that is suddenly encased in something impenetrable.

Here’s the opening line of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English:

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And here it is in some other languages:

• Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece.
• C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures.
• Era una luminosa e fredda giornata d’aprile, e gli orologi battevano tredici colpi.
• Był jasny, zimny dzień kwietniowy i zegary biły trzynastą.
• Был холодный ясный апрельский день, и часы пробили тринадцать.

English suddenly looks anomalous: “and” in all the other languages is represented by a simple vowel and “thirteen” starts with “tr-”. You see English differently when you look at other languages and you realize that English doesn’t have a fixed form. It changes when you look at from the perspective of another language.

So does every other language. To a speaker of Russian, Polish is partly familiar. To a speaker of English, Polish seems almost wholly unfamiliar, although English and Polish have a fairly recent common ancestor and have a lot of words in common, beneath the disguise of orthography and historic change.

One of those shared words is readily apparent in the opening chapter of Rok 1984 (which I assume means “Year 1984”):

Była tak namalowana, że oczy mężczyzny zdawały się śledzić każdy ruch przechodzącego. WIELKI BRAT PRATZY, głosił napis u dołu plakatu.

Most readers of the English version will remember that Winston sees a poster and a slogan at the beginning, so the meaning of WIELKI BRAT PRATZY isn’t hard to guess. Wielki Brat must mean “Big Brother” and pratzy must be “is watching” or some equivalent. Brat is closer to “brother” than French frère, from Latin frater.

But brat behaves like the Latin word. A little further into the book, you’ll see this:

PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM
PRECZ Z WIELKIM BRATEM

Which must the part where Winston repeatedly writes “Down with Big Brother” in his new diary. Wielki Brat has become Wielkim Bratem. So Polish inflects like Latin. And the last line of the book (before the “Aneks”, or Appendix) is: Kochał Wielkiego Brata – He loved Big Brother.

Then there are phrases like Policja Myśli, Dwóch Minut Nienawiści and Ministerstwie Miłości, where Winston is asked what he thinks of Wielki Brat and replies “Nienawidzę go” – “I hate him.” “Nienawidzisz go,” O’Brien says. “You hate him.”

So you could gradually work out a lot of Polish vocabulary and grammar using simply your memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English. With an actual copy of the English version, you could compare and contrast line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. In short, you could learn Polish from Rok 1984.

There’s a much simpler way to do that, of course, but I can imagine a story about a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an unknown language falling into this universe from a parallel one. Then linguists would have to use the Rosetta stone technique.

But what if the book from a parallel universe were in a wholly unfamiliar script too and didn’t have any images? This Polish copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is instantly recognizable as such. It’s called Rok 1984, names the author as “George Orwell”, and one edition has the face of Stalin on it. In Russian, “George Orwell” becomes Джордж Оруэлл. It’s stepped away from English. What if it stepped a lot further? What if an unknown version of Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t use an alphabet but an ideography like Chinese or Japanese?

I still think it would be identifiable, given sufficient computing power. In fact, I wonder whether any sufficiently long text in any conceivable human language might be comprehensible to a sufficiently powerful computer, based simply on the relationship of the patterns within it. I don’t mean that the computer could identify it as related to a known text in a known language: I mean that any text at all might be comprehensible, because there are only a limited number of things one can say about the world, even if there are an infinite number of ways of saying those things.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »