Lost Languages

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Kristin Burkholder):

Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World’s Oldest Continuously Run Libraries

Brigit Katz

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a sacred Christian site nestled in the shadow of Mount Sinai, is home to one of the world’s oldest continuously used libraries. Thousands of manuscripts and books are kept there—some of which contain hidden treasures.

Now, as Jeff Farrell reports for the Independent, a team of researchers is using new technology to uncover texts that were erased and written over by the monks who lived and worked at the monastery. Many of these original texts were written in languages well known to researchers—Latin, Greek, Arabic—but others were inscribed in long-lost languages that are rarely seen in the historical record….

Perhaps the most intriguing finds are the manuscripts written in obscure languages that fell out of use many centuries ago. Two of the erased texts, for instance, were inked in Caucasian Albanian, a language spoken by Christians in what is now Azerbaijan. According to Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura, Caucasian Albanian only exists today in a few stone inscriptions. Michael Phelps, director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, tells Gray of the Atlantic that the discovery of Caucasian Albanian writings at Saint Catherine’s library has helped scholars increase their knowledge of the language’s vocabulary, giving them words for things like “net” and “fish.”

Other hidden texts were written in a defunct dialect known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic, a mix of Syriac and Greek, which was discontinued in the 13th century only to be rediscovered by scholars in the 18th century. “This was an entire community of people who had a literature, art, and spirituality,” Phelps tells Gray. “Almost all of that has been lost, yet their cultural DNA exists in our culture today. These palimpsest texts are giving them a voice again and letting us learn about how they contributed to who we are today.”

More at the link


England does not really have counties – it has shires. The fundamental subunit of the English state was the brainchild of Alfred the Great, who reorganized his kingdom of Wessex to meet the threat of Danish invasion from the north. He defeated the Danes at Eddington in 878, and then proceeded to reconquer England from them, imposing his new system as he went. Eventually Wessex expanded to include all England, and reflecting this fact, the names of most English “counties” end in -shire, for instance Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Lincolnshire, or Hertfordshire. If a shire enjoyed an independent existence prior to Alfred’s conquests it might retain its old name, e.g. Kent, Essex, or Cornwall, but don’t be fooled, these too have been reduced to the status of shires. (This is why there is no County Wessex – England itself is Wessex.) 

I assume that the Normans started calling them counties after 1066, given that that was the name they were familiar with on the continent, a name that has stuck. But they are not counties in the French sense of the term, because they are not the private fiefdoms of nobles called “counts.” To this day there are no counts in England – the equivalent noble rank being an “earl” – an Anglo-Saxon term related to the Scandinavian “jarl” (chieftain). But the counties are not earldoms either – such English nobles may have been landowners, but their holdings were scattered here and there – they did not possess their fiefs in return for exercising governmental functions on the local level, as did the vassals of the French king. Instead, the (usually non-noble) shire-reeve, a royal appointee, was in charge of tax collection and law enforcement in his particular shire. William the Conqueror liked this setup and continued it, and the sheriff remained an important figure in medieval England. 

So “county” might have replaced “shire,” but “count” did not replace “earl” (although the wife of an earl is a “countess”). 

And if the word “county” is not really suitable to England, how much less suitable is it to America, where titles of nobility are forbidden by the constitution. But I don’t know what American state subunits should be called. Not duchies or satrapies! “Departments” would be nicely republican. Louisiana calls its subunits “parishes” but given America’s separation of church and state I’ve never felt that “parish” is appropriate either. 

Agincourt and the Middle Finger

From Facebook:

I admit that I bring this story up when I talk about the Hundred Years’ War – only to debunk it. The version that I tell explains the specific British custom of elevating two fingers as a rude gesture.

Singer Robbie Williams insults the viewer. Wikipedia.

The idea being that you need two fingers to draw a bow, which makes more sense, and thus links up a national custom with a triumphant moment in national history! But frankly, I suspect that the French would have done a lot worse to any captured English archers than chopping off their fingers. People who killed their social betters from a distance weren’t very well liked, and would likely have paid with their lives – as did all the French prisoners, archers or otherwise, whom Henry V had executed at Agincourt, in what some historians consider a war crime. 

I’m even more suspicious of the alleged transformation of “p” to “f”. First of all, the word “pluck” begins with the blend “pl,” which would logically become “fl” – if the voiceless bilabial plosive “p” has actually transformed into the labiodentalfricative “f,” which is by no means certain. (There is an Indo-European connection between the p-sound and f-sound – see the distinction between the Latin pater and the Germanic Vater/father – but that split occurred a long time ago.) The f-word itself is Germanic with early-medieval roots; the earliest attested use in English in an unambiguous sexual context is in a document from 1310. 

And where does the distinction between one and two fingers come from? If the one-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, as the graphic suggests, then at what point did it get transformed into two fingers in England? If the two-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, then at what point was it reduced to one finger in North America? You would think that anything English predating 1607, such as the language, Protestantism, or the Common Law, would have been a part of America’s patrimony….

It seems to me that the single upturned middle finger clearly represents an erect penis and is the gestural equivalent of saying “f*ck you!” As such, it is probably ancient – Wikipedia certainly thinks so, although apparently it became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century under the influence of Italian immigration, replacing other rude gestures like thumbing the nose or the fig sign. I suppose that the two-fingered salute could still come from medieval archery, even if it didn’t come specifically from the Battle of Agincourt, although the example that Wikipedia links to (the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter) is ambiguous. Maybe it means “five” and was a symbol of support for Henry V? 🙂 The fact that Winston Churchill sometimes made his V-for-victory gesture “rudely” suggests that it is of much more recent vintage. What it is supposed to represent I have no idea.

One final observation: any time some appeal begins with “here’s something that intelligent people will find edifying” you should be suspicious. It’s up there with “here’s something that they don’t want you to know.”

Myth or Truth?

Three items of local significance that I’ve heard about recently – although are they actually true?

Indian pointing trees. Wikipedia:

Trail trees, trail marker trees, crooked trees, prayer trees, thong trees, or culturally modified trees are hardwood trees throughout North America that Native Americans intentionally shaped with distinctive characteristics that convey that the tree was shaped by human activity rather than deformed by nature or disease. A massive network of constructed pre-Columbian roads and trails has been well documented across the Americas, and in many places remnants can still be found of trails used by hunters and gatherers. One unique characteristic of the trail marker tree is a horizontal bend several feet off the ground, which makes it visible at greater distances, even in snow.

Dr. Wheeler writes: “The trees are not a myth. But if anyone points one out to you, ask yourself whether the tree is reasonably close to 200 years old.”

Symbolic quilts on the Underground Railroad. From the Longview News-Journal:

Long before Navajo code talkers in World War II and the advent of secured phone lines and encrypted emails, some say, American slaves used quilts hung from windowsills and clotheslines as a signal to others to help them escape to the North for freedom.

“These quilts contained symbols sewn into them. For instance, the North Star signaled for a slave to go north, a sailboat represented safe passage and bear claws told slaves to follow the bear trails into the mountains.

From the comment thread:

This idea has been debunked by serious historians.

1. The quilts would have had to be out all the time, as one could never know when a runaway would be coming by. Neighbors would begin to wonder why a quilt was out all the time.

2. Enslaved people would have had to know about the codes. What is the old saying? Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Imagine a mother, husband, father facing his loved ones being sold away, and would they not be willing to reveal the secret to keep their loved ones close?

3. In his book The Underground Railroad, William Still, secretary to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery society, states that there are records of over 800 people escaping slavery. None of them mentions using a quilt as a map. Tubman makes no reference to use of quilts in her many trips to bring family members to freedom.

4. There were songs, the most famous being “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that are alleged to be from the period to help enslaved people escape along the Ohio River.

Appalachian English. Wikipedia:

One popular theory is that the dialect is a preserved remnant of 16th-century (or “Elizabethan”) English in isolation, though a far more accurate comparison would be to 18th-century (or “colonial”) English.

From a paper on Scribd:

After leaving Appalachia for school in Louisville I learned that Appalachians use Elizabethan English. Unfortunately that isn’t true. It has, however, become a cultural myth. Michael Montgomery says, “The idea that in isolated pockets somewhere in the country people still use “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” speech is widely held and is one of the hardier cultural beliefs or myths in the collective American psyche.”

The idea arose in the late nineteenth century and has often been associated with the southern mountains—The Appalachians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. At one extreme it reflects nothing less than our young nation’s yearning for a stirring account of its origins, while at the other extreme the incidental fact that English colonization of North America began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I more than four centuries ago. Two things in particular are responsible for its continued vitality: its romanticism and its political usefulness. Its linguistic validity is another matter entirely. Linguists haven’t substantiated it, nor have they tried very hard to do so, since the claim of Elizabethan English is patently based on very little good evidence. But this lack of support is a secondary, if not irrelevant, matter for those who have articulated the Shakespearean English idea in print—popular writers and an occasional academic—for over a century. It has indisputably become a powerful cultural belief and acquired mythic status.


Flag of the Faroe Islands. Wikipedia.

From BBC Travel (hat tip: Pam Wilson):

The Faroe Islands’ 500-year-old fight to save its language

Situated between Iceland and Scotland, the isolated Faroe Islands are in a unique position. For years, their remoteness kept locals out of reach of their Danish rulers.

“The people of the Faroe Islands have been raised in the belief that we can manage our own destiny,” said Magni Arge, Faroe Islands MP in the Danish Parliament.

A long struggle for independence

The Faroes are an archipelago of 18 verdant, volcanic islands jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean between Scotland, Iceland and Norway. With a Celtic and Viking heritage – and a population of about 50,000 – they’re semi-autonomous but still a Danish dependency, having been ruled by both Denmark and Norway for centuries.

The Faroese have had a long struggle for self-rule, which had a turning point during World War II. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, and it was Britain that provided protection from German invasion due to the islands’ proximity to the Shetland Islands and UK mainland. With no contact with Denmark for five years during the war, the islanders began to forge their own path.

Over the last few decades, many Faroese have been building towards a new wave of independence, including the struggle to not only hold on to their native tongue, but also to help it flourish.

The fight to keep a language alive

The Faroese people have been fighting to keep their language alive ever since it was suppressed by the Danish, when the islands became part of the Dano-Norwegian Kingdom in 1380. With the Reformation, that stronghold was reinforced and Faroese was completely banned in schools. People had no choice but to succumb to the vernacular of the law courts and the Danish parliament.

While Danish dominated official realms for centuries, the wider community continued to speak and sing in Faroese. The written language they use now only formally came into being in 1846, and over the next few decades an upturn in the Faroese economy, caused by sloop fishing and the end of the Danish trade monopoly, further increased national confidence.

With greater links to the outside world in the late 1800s, people began to assert the integrity of their own tongue, and oral Faroese became a school subject in 1912, followed by the written language in 1920. After the establishment of Home Rule in 1948, Faroese was recognised as the official language of government; however, Danish is still taught as a compulsory subject, and all the Faroes’ parliamentary laws still need to be translated into Danish.

Read the whole thing – which is a slideshow; make sure you watch the fourth slide, which is a short video proposing why Faroese, which is related to Icelandic, survived Danish proscription:

“Our own language was very much tied into the way we lived. So each and every bit of a boat has its distinct name, and each tool has its name, and each walk path. Everything had its name tied into the old Faroese language. And if they lost that they probably would lose the ability to live here as well.”

The Faroese passed on their stories through kvæði, ballades that accompany the chain dance.

“Our language has lived through these stories, that have been told from generation to generation. Now we have around 17000 verses. And I think that’s a lot because we should remember it was only 5000 people on these islands at the time. It’s been verses that they have remembered in their heads.”

I was also interested in their attempts at updating their language while avoiding Anglicisms and other loan words:

“We Faroese are a bit puristic, so we like to have our own words, like Icelanders. We think, ‘Why should we all take the English words? We should all make something ourselves! I speculated, ‘What should we call a computer?’ ‘Tel’ is a number. So ‘telda.’ Everybody called it ‘telda’ – computer!”

“When we were kids, we were always thinking this sounded a bit weird. But nowadays, you think it’s weird if anybody says ‘helicopter’ or if anybody says ‘computer’ instead of ‘telda’ and such.”

I applaud such efforts, which you can also see in Quebec and Israel. I actually don’t like how internationally influential English is. The great thing about making up words self-consciously is that you can control for euphony and brevity as well as meaning. “Telda” is just a nicer word than “computer”!

Slide sixteen addresses Faroese political nationalism. I guess that the Faroe Islands are a few steps behind Iceland on this front, which won home rule in 1874, “extended” home rule in 1904, sovereignty in 1918, and compete republican independence in 1944.

The Faroese have a long history of discussion, democracy and government, and Tinganes (pictured) in the capital Tórshavn is claimed by the Faroese to be one of the oldest parliamentary meeting places in the world. The current building inhabits the site of the first Viking parliament that met here sometime after 900AD.

The current drive to write their own constitution is the next stage in the movement towards what many Faroese hope will be self-governance, though it’s a controversial issue for some, given how much financial support is received from Denmark.

Nevertheless, the Faroese are keeping a close eye on how Catalonia’s bid for independence progresses, as well as Britain after Brexit. Separatists feel that independence is long overdue, though for many, the spike in taxes if they were to lose Danish support is more than enough reason to keep some of the ties that bind them. Whatever does happen in the future though, the fight to keep Faroese as a living, breathing language will endure.

Looks like I’ve got another place to add to my bucket list!

Hierarchies or Networks?

An interesting observation by Niall Ferguson, from The Square and the Tower (2018):

Professional historians have until recently tended to ignore, or at least to downplay, the role of networks. Even today, the majority of academic historians tend to study the kinds of institution that create and preserve archives, as if those that do not leave an orderly paper trail simply do not count. My research and my experience have taught me to beware the tyranny of the archives. Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.

By the way, it only just occurred to me that “hierarchy” literally means “rule by priests,” parallel to monarchy (rule by one) or anarchy (rule by none). The Greek hiero- may be seen in such English words as hieroglyphics, hieratic, or hierophant. Presumably our sense of “hierarchy” derives from the Roman Catholic Church, whose hieroi really are organized in a top-down command structure.

Adjectives, Classical

Teaching Classical Civilizations again this semester has inspired me to compose one of my Lists – in this case, English adjectives that derive from classical places, people, mythology, or other phenomena. Of course, any noun can be made into an adjective, with “of or relating to [noun]” as a definition, but I was getting at something a little different: adjectives that have entered into English referring to a specific quality, like “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque,” to pick two modern examples.

I would wager that there is a Wikipedia page listing these and all the other ones that I have missed. But I have deliberately avoided looking for one – what’s the fun in that?!

If you can think of any more I’d be pleased to know them!


draconian – from Draco, Athenian ruler in the seventh century BC, whose laws were especially harsh.

Pyrrhic – from Pyrrhus of Epirus, opponent of the Roman Republic during the Pyrrhic War of 280-275 BC. He scored two victories against Rome, but they were so damaging to his own forces that he is alleged to have said “one more victory like that and I’m finished.” Thus a “Pyrrhic victory” is a victory so costly that you might as well not have had it.

thespian – from Thespis of Icaria, a famous actor.

Petronian – from Petronius (d. AD 66), author of the Satyricon. Often used to describe a gaudy, ostentatious nouveau-riche style, after the wealthy ex-slave Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon (I guess “Petronian” is easier to say than “Trimalchian”).

pharisaic – more biblical than classical, but the Pharisees were certainly active in the Roman Empire. According to the New Testament, the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism characterized by strict adherence to the Torah and to the oral tradition that surrounded it, were self-righteous and hypocritical, which is somewhat unfair to them. But they’re no longer around to take offense, so I guess we can use this word in good conscience (unlike, say, “jesuitical”).

Philistine – “a person hostile or indifferent to the arts,” although apparently this sense dates from the early nineteenth century, when in the midst of a town-gown conflict at the University of Jena, a sermon was preached on Judges 16, which includes the line “The Philistines are upon you.” Thereafter the uncultured townies were tarred with the epithet “Philistine.”

Sapphic – From Sappho, the most famous Archaic-age lyric poet of all, a woman who expressed love for other women. So “Sapphic” is another way of saying “Lesbian” (q.v.).


Lesbian – the metaphoric use of this word is so common in English that people forget that it’s actually a demonym, referring to an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. But since Sappho lived there, “Lesbian” has become synonymous with “female homosexual.”

sybaritic – Sybaris, a Greek colony on the instep of Italy, was so wealthy and its inhabitants so self-indulgent that “sybaritic” became a byword for hedonistic.

Corinthian – from Paul Fussell, BAD (1991), 20:

For years Chrysler has been unloading its troubling surplus inventories by insisting that its leather upholstery is not just any old leather, of the sort you might make a volleyball or lederhosen out of, but “Corinthian Leather.” The company finally confessed in the Wall Street Journal that the leather comes not from Corinth but from Newark. The name was chosen because a reference book suggested that Corinthian connotes rich desirability, appealing to people who are, if “dissolute,” at least lovers of “luxury, as the people of Corinth were said to be” – which is why, by the way, Saint Paul selected them to receive one of his loudest moral blasts. He told them, “it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you….” Pressed, the Chrysler Corporation would have to admit that Corinthian Leather is just words and never saw Corinth at all.

But according to the dictionary widget for my computer, “Corinthian” means “involving or displaying the highest standards of sportsmanship.” Wiktionary claims “elaborate or ornate” (as in the Corinthian architectural order – see below).

Chrysler should have called it “sybaritic leather.”

spartan – the citizens of the Greek polis of Sparta were famously tough and eschewed luxury, thus the modern meaning of this word.

laconic – the area around Sparta was called Laconia, and because the Spartans valued using as few words as possible, “laconic” has come to mean a personal style that is extremely economical in speech.

Olympian – the gods lived atop Mount Olympus, as Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. “Olympian detachment” thus indicates some combination of superiority, aloofness, or disinterest.

roman – denotes a number of things, including the alphabet and by extension non-italic typefaces.

alexandrian – from the schools of literature and philosophy of ancient Alexandria, which were apparently “derivative or imitative rather than creative; fond of recondite learning.”

byzantine – overly complex, opaque, and/or treacherous, as the court of the Eastern Roman Empire allegedly was.


The three main schools of popular philosophy in the Hellenistic era were those of the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, which have given us adjectives cynical, stoic, and epicurean, which are not quite accurate representations of the spirit of these philosophies.

Platonic (love), Socratic (method), Aristotelian (logic), Hippocratic (oath), Pythagorean (theorem), and Ptolemaic (universe) are similarly reductive.


Sisyphean – Sisyphus was punished in Hades by being forced to roll a stone up a hill; when he got it to the top it slipped out of his hands and rolled back down, and he had to start again. Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus found in this myth a metaphor for the human condition. In everyday English it refers to a never ending task, like grading or picking up the trash on our road.

tantalizing – from Tantalus, who suffered an inventive punishment: tortured with hunger and thirst, he still could not take a drink of water of the river he was standing in (it would instantly lower itself if he bent down), or help himself to the fruit of a branch hanging above him (which the wind would blow out of his grasp).

promethean – “rebelliously creative and innovative,” like the demigod Prometheus who stole fire and bequeathed it to humanity.

herculean – from Hercules, who had to perform twelve seemingly impossible tasks as punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. “Herculean” is usually paired with “effort.”

oedipal – Oedipus killed his father and married his mother – quite unwittingly, which is why Freud’s use of this myth to describe a stage of childhood development is somewhat inapt. From this use, though, “oedipal” has come to indicate a rebellious attitude against one’s father or forebears, for deep-seated psychological reasons.

terpsichorean – Terpsichore was the muse of dance, and thus “terpsichorean” is an adjective referring to dance.

Apollonian/Dionysian- if Apollo represents order and rationality, Dionysus represents disorder and irrationality. I think that the Greeks realized that you needed both to be fully human. “Bacchic,” from the god Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of Dionysus), is a synonym of Dionysian, especially with regard to the consumption of wine.

Adjectives from other gods:
mercurial – from the Roman god Mercury, referring to a person “subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind.”
venereal – from Venus, which becomes Veneris in the genitive. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, so “venereal” relates “to sexual desire or sexual intercourse,” and especially to a disease you can contract from this activity.
martial – from Mars, the god of war.
jovial – from Jove, a variant of Jupiter, the chief Roman god. “Jovial” means cheerful and friendly, but not because this was an attribute of Jupiter. It is an attribute of those born under the sign of the planet named after Jupiter.
saturnine – from the Roman god Saturn, father of Jupiter. Again, Saturn was not himself slow and gloomy, moody and mysterious, but people born under his planet were.

Finally, there are the three orders of Greek architecture: Corinthian (already mentioned), Doric, and Ionic. And there are a number of musical modes that take place-names, among them Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Language and the Invention of Writing

From Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (hat tip: Ken Wheeler):

In late December I recommended one of my favorite recent books off my reading list – recent in this case meaning when I read them, not necessarily when they were published. That was Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster. (You can see my review and recommendation here.) I’ve been casting about since and in the last week I’ve finally found a book on a related topic that has captured my interest: The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan. But what really prompted me to write this post was this poster I saw on Jason Kottke’s site.

(You can purchase the poster here from a place called usefulcharts.com.)

As you can see, the poster traces the evolution of our modern Latin alphabet back to what is known as Proto-Sinaitic. All of this is prologue to my current fascination with the history of writing.

Language is not an invention. As best we can tell it is an evolved feature of the human brain. There have been almost countless languages humans have spoken. But they all follow certain rules that grow out of the wiring of the human brain and human cognition. Critically, it is something that is hardwired into us. Writing is an altogether different and artificial thing.

Since we live in a highly literate culture, it can be a bit hard not to think of writing as just a different version of language – there’s the sound version and the written version. But again, there’s nothing natural about it or inevitable. Indeed, the invention of various scripts that can encode virtually all the potential meaning of human speech and as well as it sounds is one of the most fascinating stories of human history.

More at the link. Marshall is right. A recent question on an exam asked students to identify and state the importance of language. The correct answer is that language allowed Homo sapiens a massive competitive advantage over other hominins (indeed, over every other living creature, and over the elements as well). Language is more than, e.g., a particular shriek that indicates the presence of a snake. Language is a particularly complex system of communication that allows its possessors the ability to imagine counterfactuals, e.g. what would happen if we tried this? As far as we can tell, no other creature can do this, certainly not to the extent that Homo sapiens can. Animal behavior might be sophisticated, but it is generally instinctual, evolved over millions of years.* It would never occur to a bird, for instance, to put a roof over its nest.

Most of the answers on the exam, however, spoke of language being invented in Sumeria c. 3000 BC, and impressed into clay tablets, which allowed good record keeping and as a bonus gives historians today some idea of what ancient Sumerian society looked like. But as I wrote in the margins more than once: “Language ≠ script!”

If I correctly recall the material from an undergraduate anthropology class, the linguist Noam Chomsky is largely responsible for the notion that language is a part of us in the same way that our livers are. There is a language module in our brains (a “Universal Grammar,” in Chomskian coinage) that gets turned on at a certain age based on whatever an individual happens to hear.** This theory makes a great deal of intuitive sense, even if we haven’t yet located any language center. Encoding language phonemes as writing, however, is not at all natural – it is an achievement of civilization and must be taught to people at great effort over many years. And it’s not just learning what letters represent what sounds, or combine to make what words: keep in mind that as much as 70% of face-to-face communication involves intonation, facial expression, or body language, little of which gets represented in writing (one of the reasons why, historically, people were suspicious of it). This is why a transcription of a conversation or an impromptu speech often reads so awkwardly, and why polished literacy usually involves the mastery of certain prose conventions that help to overcome the inherently limiting qualities of script.***

In the Middle Ages, as Michael Clanchy states in his well-known book From Memory to Written Record (1993), literacy was a technical skill, like IT might be today – you need people to do it, but there’s no reason why a manager should have to set up his own computer network; he has better things to do. And if literacy was technical, then medieval people tended to distrust documents in a way that we don’t anymore. A document was often just as a disembodied text that anyone could have written. It was much better to hear something from someone trustworthy, who heard it from someone trustworthy, who heard it from the source. The line of human transmission guaranteed the authenticity of the information. Along the same lines, there is a famous story about how John de Warrenne, earl of Surrey, when asked by King Edward I to justify by what warrant he held his estates, drew a rusty sword and declared that:

My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.

In other words, no document needed here! Clanchy himself warns against being biased in favor of literacy, if for no other reason than non-literate people tend to have much better memories than any of us do (or even just linguistic skills – I met a man in Egypt who could not read any language, but who had acquired the ability to speak fluent English by talking with tourists). Literacy can also be a tool of centralized coercion, when you teach people how to read, and then make sure they read only things you approve of.

Finally, and to return to the theme of Marshall’s post, the Roman alphabet actually doesn’t fit English all that well. One wishes that we could have an alphabet in which every phoneme gets its own unique character, or at least a standard combination of characters – and that our eccentric English orthography could finally be rationalized. But I suppose on another level that it’s good that we share an alphabet with so many other languages, and that in each case the letters represent more or less the same sounds – it makes learning French, German, Estonian, Welsh, or Turkish that much easier (that is, if you’re like me and have become addicted to script).

* I am aware of stories about how corvids can bend a wire and then use it to extract an object from a bottle, or how octopi can figure out how to open screw top lids on jars, or even how pods of killer whales can invent adaptive behaviors and then communicate them to their young, demonstrating a form of animal culture. But as I read once, in response to the claim that man is not the only tool-making animal: “Using a blade of grass to extract ants from an anthill is not a tool. The internal combustion engine is a tool.”

** Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech (2016), his last published book, deals with the possibility that Universal Grammar might not be entirely universal. The missionary-turned-linguist Daniel Everett claims to have discovered, in the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest, a language that does not include recursion (e.g. the Pirahã are incapable of formulating a sentence like “he said that she would come”), thereby undermining a key feature of human language as understood by Noam Chomsky. Being Tom Wolfe, he focuses very heavily on the status to be won by defending one’s own theory or exploding someone else’s, but one question that he doesn’t seem to consider is: is it possible that recursion fell out of use among the Piranã people due to their isolation plus genetic drift or even revealed maladaptability, in the same way that penguins lost the ability to fly or certain cave dwelling creatures lost the ability to see? That is, Universal Grammar might indeed exist, it’s just that some people don’t need it and so have lost it – it’s not that UG never existed in the first place. Snakes are considered tetrapods even though they don’t have any limbs – their ancestors did once upon a time, but in the meantime the animals evolved a different means of locomotion. (Or they were cursed to crawl about on their bellies, if you adhere to Genesis 3.14.)

*** This is parallel to how filmmakers use all sorts of tricks – like panning, cutting, or zooming – to overcome the fact that their medium imposes a frame on and flattens one’s experience of reality.

Appalachian English

From Appalachian Magazine (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

Appalachian English: Why We Say “Warsh Rag” & “Low Tar”

The world that I knew as a kid was far different than that of most other children; however, at the time, I had no idea.  I thought that every child had grandfathers who were coalminers, a father who bucket fed orphaned calves, a grandmother who spoke about Jesus as though she knew him personally and a mother who wasn’t above forcing her disobedient son to snap a green branch from the willow tree out in the front yard.

I grew up Appalachia and Appalachia was all I knew.

It was not until I reached the golden age of 18 and moved away to college in a distant city that I slowly began to realize just how unique and wonderful my life’s experiences had been compared to so many others.

My first day of living in a freshman dormitory, I evoked the laughter of the entire floor when I used the word “warsh rag” to describe the newly purchased wash cloths my mother had included in my bag of necessities.

In the world that I came to age in, that’s what they were called and that was the only thing they were called.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, I would one by one learn that the way we spoke as a child was far different than how most others talked.

To my astonishment, I discovered that a “mountain holler” was actually spelled an pronounced as “hollow”, I also faced criticism for pronouncing wire as “war”, fire as “far”, and tired as “tarred”.

Through the years, my classmates, teachers and employers have all attempted to either correct my pronunciations or berate me for speaking this way; however, I have since learned to be proud of my Appalachian-English and that there are many linguistic experts who have come to our defense in recent years.

Read the whole thing.

Speaking of the Funk, I’m looking forward to a presentation there this week:

“Archaeology of the Cherokee Heartland”

Join us this Thursday, Feb. 7, at 2 p.m. when we host Dr. Benjamin Steere of Western Carolina University. Dr. Steere, author of “The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast,” will introduce participants to the world of the prehistoric Cherokee who lived in the Southern Appalachians. Reserve your seat by calling (770) 720-5967. The cost is $10 (or $5 for members).

Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp

Both the French and German languages feature a discrete set of intransitive* verbs, largely dealing with motion, that require the verb “to be” (not “to have”) as their auxiliary in the perfect. Thus:

• J’ai fait, j’ai marché, j’ai mangé but je suis venu, je suis allé, je suis arrivé
• Ich habe gemacht, Ich habe spatziert, Ich habe gegessen but Ich bin angekommen, Ich bin geganen, Ich bin gefallen

I recently realized that this feature was operational in English as late as the King James Bible (1611), in which we read things like:

• I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes (Ps. 119:83)
• The end of all flesh is come before me (Gen. 6:13)
• Behold, the whole family is risen against thine handmaid (2 Sam. 14:7)

So when did this use of “to be” fall out of common usage? I asked my colleague Graham Johnson of Reinhardt’s English program what he knew, and he provided some helpful commentary:

The answer is similar to the question you asked several years ago about when “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” (second person singular pronouns) dropped out of common English usage.

The verb form in the example “Christ is risen” is known as the present perfect tense, which now in Modern English uses a form of the verb “to have” (in the present tense) rather than “to be” (in the present tense) combined with the past participle: “Christ has risen.”

We find both of these (1. “thou” and 2. perfect present using a form of the verb “to be”) still in common use in Early Modern English – so, early- to mid-1600s.

We also see some poets even in the mid 1800s occasionally using both, but by then it seems to be rare, with the writers doing it for dramatic results (using old-fashioned forms), rather than because either is in common usage. We even will find a more literary author use a present perfect in the 1900s either to make a line sound more “old-fashioned” or arguably to sound more biblical, i.e., echoing the KJB (this is rare indeed).

So, without delving into the material enough to pin down an exact decade or two (which may be impossible to do with certainty anyway), one could say that both these changes happened after Early Modern English and before Late Modern English – basically still being used but less and less over the mid- to late-1700s, and by the mid 1800s not much at all, except for artistic reasons (to sound a little archaic).

Interesting – thanks, Graham! 

(The title of this post is a mnemonic device.)

* They have to be intransitive verbs, because in all three languages the auxiliary verb “to be” normally signals the passive voice (“I am eaten”). Intransitives cannot take an object, thus they cannot be made passive.