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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Language is like architecture and art: the more modern it is, the uglier it tends to be. So it’s interesting to ask what the world would be like if the United States of America didn’t exist. What if North America were like South America: a patchwork of Spanish-speaking states? Or what if the US had been founded by Germans or Scandinavians?

I think the English language would be in a better state if any of that were true. English would be much less important, but also much less polluted. There would be less hype, bombast and pretension in it. The United States is the great engine of modernity, pulling the world into an ever brighter, ever drearier, ever less enchanted future. The engine would be running less powerfully, or even running in reverse, if America didn’t exist or didn’t speak English.

So I think, anyway. And there’s a lot of evidence in this short but entertaining book. A lot of bad British English comes from America. A lot comes from the Guardian too, but that’s partly the same thing. The Guardian is the main British outlet for the gas generated by the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But the whole of the British media is Guardianized now. Ironically, that includes the Telegraph:

Ironically Used as if it meant “oddly enough”.

The modern Telegraph is full of feminists, ethnicists and other narcissists, but the authors of this book, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, are evil white males and represent the dying tradition of Peter Simple:

Iconic The iconic Mulberry handbag. Anything vaguely recognizable.

Short and simple. But I didn’t like the entry for the Guardianista über-phrase:

In terms of Misused as though it meant “with respect to”. We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.

“With respect to” is bad too. “About” is the right word in that context. Often you can replace “in terms of” simply with “in”. It’s a linguistic parasite, riding in English like viral DNA in the human genome. The more often someone uses it, the deeper they are inside the Hive Mind. And this phrase is even worse:

Issues around We’re facing issues around MRSA targets. There are unresolved issues around health and safety compliance. A favourite of health workers and bossy officials.

It’s core Guardianese, in other words. If I ruled the world, using the phrase “in terms of issues around” would carry a mandatory jail sentence. So would using the words “mandatory” and “core” (as an adjective). But neither is in this book. Nor is “über-” or “vulnerable”. But many other irritants are:

Passionate about I’m passionate about salsa / stamp collecting / equal rights.

We’re bombarded by bad English and it’s hard to keep alert to all of it. If you’re not alert, you might start using it yourself. But I can’t remember ever noticing or using this:

Is is The thing is is that postal services need to diversify. The repetition of the verb is would be almost incredible if it was not heard daily on the wireless. It is sometimes introduced by the problem. The construction is probably an unconscious echoing of grammatically correct forms such as what the problem is is that.

Interesting. And endearing rather than endrearing. It’s something that might have occurred in English at any time. “Thing” is a very old word, even if “problem” isn’t. So “is is” doesn’t belong with “in terms of” or “passionate about”. (If I have heard it, I think I’ll have assumed it was a kind of stutter as the speaker paused and sorted his thoughts out.)

Fowler didn’t write about any of those, but it’s good that some of the bad English of his day is now gone. Alas, worse English has often replaced it, but some of the horrors here will pass in their turn. And maybe the Guardian will pass with them. I live in hope.

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Georgian by Nicholas Awde and Thea KhitarishviliGeorgian: Georgian-English, English-Georgian Dictionary and Phrasebook, Nicholas Awde and Thea Khitarishvili (Hippocrene Books 2011)

You don’t know it, but you’ve been reading Georgian all your life. Or at least: you won’t find it wholly unfamiliar if you try to learn it. Georgian words can look a lot like a number-plate or a random handful of tiles in Scrabble: zrda, zmna, zghwa, dzma, mtvrali, lghoba, mts’qemsi, grdznoba, chrdiloeti, aghdgoma, sadghegrdzelo, siskhlnak’luloba. An outsider needs courage to embark on an obstacle course of consonant-clusters when he wants to say (respectively) “grow”, “verb”, “sea”, “brother”, “drunk”, “thaw”, “shepherd”, “feeling”, “north”, “Easter”, “drinking-toast”, “anaemia”.

What accompanies the clusters is daunting too. The brief section on grammar mentions two “record-breaking mouthfuls”: gvprtskvnis and gvbrdghvnis (pg. 18). They mean, respectively, “he is peeling us” and “he is plucking us”. One word in Georgian can do the work of several words in English. Georgian uses prefixes and suffixes like English. But it uses infixes too. It is not an easy language to learn. But that’s part of its appeal.

Another part of its appeal is the beauty and uniqueness of its alphabet. A page of Georgian is like a work of art. A sentence can look like an incantation. If Georgian didn’t exist, I would like to be able to invent it and read authors like Clark Ashton Smith and Théophile Gautier in it. Fortunately, it does exist. But I can’t read it yet and will never be able to read it fluently until serious brain-modification arrives and languages become as easy to don as clothing.

Will Georgian become fashionable in those days? Or will human beings become wireheads and care only about pouring electricity into the pleasure-centres of their brains? We’ll have to wait and see. Pleasure is certainly important in Georgia. The language is famous for its complexity and the people are famous for their drinking. Ghwino, “wine”, is an ancient word and an ancient passion. Food is very important there too and this book describes how “each region of Georgia has its unique cuisine with its own special flavor” (pg. 183).

The Caucasus is a small but very diverse region. It’s a tough and clannish region too: Chechnya is near Georgia. This helps explain how it has preserved its linguistic and cultural uniqueness in the shadow of giants like Russia, Turkey and Iran. Georgian has borrowed vocabulary from all its linguistic neighbours – often signalled by a glottallized plosive, as in t’elesk’op’i, “telescope” – but it retains its unique identity. And the influence has gone the other way: you can’t think of Georgia without thinking of Josef Stalin: “Born and raised in Gori, a market town northwest of Tbilisi, his real name was Ioseb Jughashvili – and he learnt Russian only as an adult” (Introduction, pg. 7).

I’m not sure about that and I know for sure that another claim in the introduction is wrong. Or misleading, at least: “Russia … invaded and occupied South Ossetia in 2008” (pg. 8). In fact, Georgia invaded Russia and Russia counter-attacked. That might sound wrong – midget attacking giant? – but Georgians are not shrinking violets and their then president thought he would have the backing of the United States. Fortunately, he didn’t get it. Even after Stalin’s passing, the Caucasus continues to produce more history than it can consume locally.

And Stalin is a reminder that it isn’t just pleasure that’s important in Georgia. So is pain. Take the Georgian word ts’ameba. It means both “torment” and “martyrdom”. Languages reflect cultures and one of the interesting aspects of this book is the way that, by saying less, it invites more. It’s not meant to be a extensive dictionary or a comprehensive guide to Georgian, so you have to notice patterns and work some things out for yourself. Kartveli means “Georgian person” and Sakartveli means “Georgia”. Mepe means “king” and samepo means “royal”. Sakhli means “house” and sasakhle means “palace”. Tsotskhali means “alive” and sitsotskhle means “life”. Twali means “eye” and satwale means “glasses”. And so on.

And no book on a foreign language can learn the vocabulary for you. The mnemonic technique described by Anthony Burgess in Language Made Plain (1964) is useful. Georgian for “cold” is tsiwi. To learn it, I imagined picking up a piece of sea-weed with a film of ice on it. “Sea-weed” almost rhymes with tsiwi and that initial ts– sounds like ice cracking delicately. One Georgian word for “rabbit” is k’urdgheli. I imagined a Kurd holding a rabbit with one hand. “Kurd” is a foreign word in Georgian, which is a reminder that the initial consonant is glottallized, and the Georgian for “hand” is kheli, which is almost like –gheli.

Kheli is easy to remember, but you could reinforce it by thinking of the English word “cheirography”, meaning “palm-reading”, from the Greek kheir, “hand”. Is that related to the Georgian word? It might be. The Georgian neprit’i, meaning “jade”, is certainly from Greek. It comes from nephritis, “jade”, from nephros, “kidney”, because jade was thought to protect against kidney diseases. So that rare word is easy to remember. But mnemonics for a Georgian word are sometimes hard to think of. Try rts’qili, “flea”, or tovlch’qap’i, “sleet”, or varsk’vlavi, “star”.

I don’t have a mnemonic for mgeli, “wolf”, and didn’t need one. It’s phonetically simple by Georgian standards, but it’s still unmistakably Georgian. The word looks and sounds primal and has a primal meaning. Tkha, “goat”, and zgharbi, “hedgehog”, are good too. Names for animals don’t appear just in the dictionary but also in one of the specialized sections that close the book: words for weather, food and drink, winter sports, parts of the body and so on. Words like mk’lavi, “arm”, ghwidzli, “liver”, and ts’weri, “beard”, are satisfyingly Georgian, but mnemonically challenging. Twali, “eye”, is simpler, but that’s a little disappointing. Mnemonically, you can think of the villainous one-eyed King Twala in King Solomon’s Mines (1885).

That book contains another strange and phonetically challenging language: Zulu. But I don’t think it would be a good book to read in Georgian. It’s too straightforward and vigorous. Runes would be better for Rider Haggard. And for Robert E. Howard. I don’t think Lovecraft is a writer for Georgian either. The Armenian alphabet would better match his prose. It’s strange but not beautiful. As I suggested above, the writers ripest for Georgian are Gautier and Clark Ashton Smith. And if they’d learnt the language, they would have been worthy translators of its most famous literary work: Shota Rustaveli’s “national epic poem” The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (c. 1180-1205).

I hope I’m able to read a little of that in the original one day. This book is a good first step on the journey: an inexpensive but well-produced introduction to one of the world’s strangest, most complex and most beautiful languages. You could call Georgian an angelozebis ena, a “language of the angels” (if that’s right). If you did, you’d be reminded that Georgian words can sometimes be very simple: ena literally means “tongue”. It doesn’t challenge the outsider’s tongue. If you want words that do, look no further than this book. Look no lovelier too: Georgian may sometimes martyr the tongue, but it always blesses the eye.

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The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit FoxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, Margalit Fox (Profile Books 2013)

I remember starting an Agatha Christie book and being delighted by the simplicity of her style. But I’d got bored long before the end. The Riddle of the Labyrinth was the opposite. I found it dull at the beginning, but was delighted by the end. I look forward to reading it again. Margalit Fox weaves a compelling story out of three complex people: the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the American classical scholar Alice Kober (1906-50) and the English architect Michael Ventris (1922-56); and the complex problem they all worked on: the decipherment of a forgotten script found on the island of Crete.

It’s a story of clay in two ways. There’s the literal clay on which the script was recorded:

It took fire to give us Linear B. In about 1400 B.C., the final conflagration at Knossos destroyed most of the palace [of Minos] and its contents, marking the end of the great civilization that had been rooted there for centuries. But the blaze had one completely beneficial effect: It preserved for future generations the clay tablets that recorded the palace’s final year. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 3, “Love Among the Ruins”, pg. 67)

There’s also the metaphorical clay of humanity and its frailties, physical and psychological. Sir Arthur Evans died at ninety, laden with honours, but Alice Kober died at forty-three, probably of cancer, and Michael Ventris at thirty-four, possibly by suicide. Evans and Ventris have long been famous in the Linear B story, but I’d never heard of Kober until I picked up this book. According to Fox, she was central to the decipherment and made the critical breakthrough: explaining the relationship between two known facts about the unknown script and unknown language of Linear B:

Kober had shown that the Minoans spoke an inflected language. Now came the real payoff from that demonstration: In a discovery that would have enormous implications for the decipherment, she now homed in on precisely what happens when an inflected language is written in a syllabic script. (Book 2, “The Detective”, ch. 6, “Splitting the Baby”, pg. 134 (emphasis in original))

The language of Linear B was infected because it added suffixes to stems, as English still does a little and Latin does a lot. Where English says “I love, you love, he loves”, Latin says “amo, amas, amat”. It’s easy to spot stems and inflexions like am-, -o, -as, and -at in an alphabetic script, which uses single signs for single sounds (generally speaking). But Linear B was syllabic, using single signs for single syllables. For example, ka, ke, ki, ko, ku were all written using entirely different signs, as was every other combination of consonant and vowel. Inflectional patterns are harder to spot in a syllabic script.

But syllabicity itself isn’t hard to spot: the number of signs used by a script is a good indication of whether it’s an alphabet, a syllabary or an ideography. You might say that the decipherment of Linear B rested on three C’s: counting, comparison and compulsion. Counting and comparing the signs established the relationships between them, but it took compulsive people to do that, because it was hard work. And “work” is the word:

Because she [Alice Kober] was under pressure to copy as many inscriptions as possible in her brief time in Oxford, she spent the weeks before her departure training for the task like an athlete preparing for the Olympics. Using the inscriptions in [the Finnish scholar Johannes] Sandwall’s new book as test material, she put herself through rigorous time trials at the dining table. “I’ve timed myself,” she wrote Myres in February 1947, “and think I can copy between 100-125 inscriptions in a single day.” (ch. 6, pg. 133)

“Myres” was the archaeologist John Linton Myres, a former assistant to Sir Arthur Evans who both helped and hindered Kober in her work. He gave her access to a lot of material, but he also made unreasonable demands on her time by asking her to help with his own writing on Minoan archaeology. Kober put up with a lot in her short time on earth, facing obstacles that would have daunted or deflected a less determined woman. But “The Detective”, as Fox calls her, forged on, straining both brain and body in her pursuit of the decipherment. It’s hard in 2014 to imagine having to copy inscriptions by hand, for example. And having to analyze them by hand. Kober used “cigarette-carton card files” and “index cards”:

What she had created, in pure analog form, was a database, with the punched cards marking the parameters on which the data could be sorted. But for all their rigor and precision, the file boxes also “reveal a gentler side to Alice Kober,” as Thomas Palaima and his colleague Susan Trombley have written. On one occasion, they note, Kober “took extra care in cutting a greeting card used as a tabbed divider, perfectly centering a fawn lying in a bed of flowers.” (Book Two, ch. 4, “American Champollion”, pg. 108)

Kober might have had a gentler side, but it’s no surprise that she also had a broad, masculine face and wore her hair short. Her task was a masculine one: systematizing and implicitly using mathematics. In fact, her hand-copying and “analog database” remind me of the enormous labours expended by nineteenth-century mathematicians on calculating the digits of pi or hunting for primes. What then took months and years can be performed in an instant by a computer. The same, I’d guess, is now true of Linear B. If it were discovered today and the necessary data were computerized – unknown signs, known neighbouring languages – its mask would probably be lifted very quickly.

Kober spent years on the task and died without completing it. Would she have beaten Michael Ventris if she’d lived? It’s easy to think so. But work on Linear B was, in effect, her hobby: she had a full-time job as a lecturer in classics at Brooklyn College. With more time, more help, fewer distractions, perhaps she would have solved Linear B in the 1940s.

As it was, the labyrinth was mastered by someone else: “The Architect” after whom the third and final section of this book is named. Unlike Evans or Kober, Michael Ventris wasn’t a professional classicist. And he went astray in a way the more cautious Kober didn’t, because he hypothesized for a long time that Etruscan was the language behind Linear B. It was a “position … to which he would hold fast until only weeks before his decipherment” (Book Three, ch. 10, “A Leap of Faith”, pg. 225).

If he’d been more cautious, might he have made faster progress? Probably, but he still beat all the professionals and deciphered Linear B, which turned out to be not Etruscan but a dialect of classical Greek. Ventris lifted the linguistic veil, but he found no literary treasure beneath:

There are no grand narratives lurking in Linear B – no epic poems, no romances, no tales of gods and their derring-do. Arthur Evans knew as much from the start, as did every serious investigator after him. They were all aware, as Alice Kober reminded her Hunter College audience that June evening in 1946, that “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 B.C.” And that, of course, is precisely what they did find: records of crops harvested, goods produced, animals tended, and gifts offered up to the gods. (“Epilogue: Mr. X and Mr. Y”, pg. 269)

But there’s a kind of poetry in the prosaic, especially when the prosaic is many centuries old. And it’s not just the gifts that are named: so are the gods. This means that if Kober had achieved her ambition, she would discovered an appropriate title waiting for her on the tablets. The names of familiar Greek gods and goddesses appear

with more curious ones, many of them pre-Greek, long-forgotten by Classical times. Among them are various female names – most likely those of local deities – beginning with the word potnia, “mistress”: Mistress of Wild Beasts, Mistress of Horses, Mistress of Grain, Mistress of Asia, Mistress of the Labyrinth. (Ibid., pg. 282-3)

Kober would have been “Mistress of the Labyrinth”, the one who solved Linear B. As it was, the Labyrinth had a master instead. So this book tells the story of three: the master, the mistress manquée and the man who supplied the materia of their obsession. That was Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered the tablets and began the work of deciphering them. His story contains one of the briefest but most memorable images in The Riddle of the Labyrinth. The story of Linear B isn’t all about concentrated effort and mental toil: there are moments of spontaneity too:

Over years of excavation, the palace emerged as a vast, increasingly complex organism. As each section was revealed, Evans gave it a name. Beside the Throne Room, these included the Queen’s Megaron, or great hall, with its elaborate bathroom and graceful mural of leaping dolphins; the Domestic Quarter, with artisans’ workshops in which traces of the goldsmith, the lapidary, and the ceramicist could still be still be discerned; and the Grand Staircase, down which, in 1910, a visiting Isadora Duncan danced an impromptu dance to the horror of Evans’s straitlaced Scottish assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. (Book One, “The Digger”, ch. 2, “Love among the Ruins”, pg. 77)

Dancing Duncan, dour Duncan and dogged decipherment. I like the contrast and it’s another reason to like this book. But will it ever be matched by one about the decipherment of Linear A, another lost language found on Crete and written in a related script? Perhaps not, because the language of Linear A seems to be an isolate, without living or ancient relatives. Barring some big scientific or linguistic breakthrough, Linear A may remain a labyrinth no-one ever masters. But perhaps Margalit Fox will be telling the story of its decipherers one day too. I hope so.

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Front cover of Granite and Grit by Ronald TurnbullGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

For a small country, Britain has had a big influence on the world. Like a lot of other things, modern geology started here. There are several reasons for that and one is very simple: pioneering geologists had mountains of material to work with. According to the author, “Britain has the most varied geology of any country in the world.” This is an excellent introduction to the rocks of the realm, from gneiss in the Outer Hebrides to granite on Dartmoor. I like the way Turnbull discusses not only how rocks affect your eyes – their colour, texture and contours – but also how they affect your boots. He’s a hillwalker, not a professional geologist, so he conveys a strong sense of place and of how Britain’s landscape varies. But there’s more than geological variation here: Britain isn’t just rich in rocks and its landscape is shaped by more than physics and chemistry. This is the caption to one spectacular photo of a misty mountain:

Bwlch y Saethau, where according to legend King Arthur battled his nephew Mordred; behind, Y Lliwedd stands at the centre of a far greater act of violence, the Lower Rhyolite Tuff event. (ch. 10, “Redhot Flying Avalanches: Ignimbrites in Snowdonia”, pg. 98)

Britain’s varied mountains are named in Britain’s varied languages: Welsh, English and Gaelic give different flavours to the landscapes they describe, from Carnedd Dafydd to Eskdale, from Ingleborough to Stuc a’ Chroin, from Ardnamurchan to Mynydd Mawr. But English names split into Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which have different flavours too. Underlying all these languages is a common ancestor, just as some very different rocks have common ancestors too. Heat, compression and erosion change rocks; time, separation and mutation change languages. So Turnbull is writing about two kinds of history as he discusses different parts of Britain: geological history and linguistic history.

Linguistics dwarfs geology in complexity, but geology dwarfs linguistics in time. To understand why Britain looks the way it does, you have to go back billions of years and trace its movement over many thousands of kilometres. You also have to study seemingly exotic things like volcanoes, glaciers and tropical botany, all of which are central parts of Britain’s geology. Turnbull is a relaxed but knowledgeable guide to some big events and some big transformations and because he isn’t a professional he knows how to write for a general reader. He doesn’t just inform, he re-orientates: you won’t look at Britain in the same way:

Black pointy islands of volcanic ash rise above the sea, the water around them a froth of falling ash. The shores of the new islands get washed away by tsunamis as chunks of other islands fall into the sea. Lava slides down and then runs level, to form black land made of glass. The glassy ground crackles as it cools, and then quickly weathers to orange shards and gravel. Showers of sharp-edged volcanic rubble fall into the sea, forming seabed layers 300m deep which will eventually be the summit of Snowdon itself. (ch. 10, pp. 103-4)

Geology is like cuisine in reverse: from the cooked dish you have to work out the recipe. Landscapes that seem inert can have cataclysmic pasts, full of fire and thunder or flood and frost. There are centuries of ingenious deduction and painstaking observation behind the chatty text and attractive photos in this book, but there are still mysteries to solve. More maths will be needed, because matter obeys mathematical rules in all its transformations, whether geological or culinary. And those material transformations have immaterial parallels in linguistics and sociology, where maths is the key to understanding too. And science itself has metamorphosed and mutated. Geology is an important subject not just for its contemporary research but also for its influence on other fields. It made scientists realize the vast age of the earth. Charles Darwin used that idea to transform biology. Like the pioneering geologists, he was British. That isn’t a coincidence and it’s something else that increases the power of this book. The planet starts here. So does the universe.

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