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If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

policePolice are entrusted with the power and authority to protect the innocent. That very power provides them with the opportunity to abuse that trust.

Recent events in the United States have drawn to the world’s attention the fact that human beings are incapable of providing perfect law enforcement. That should come as no surprise since, due to our fallen nature, we can do nothing perfectly.

C.S. Lewis never wrote a treatise specifically about law enforcement, but he did refer to it on a number of occasions. This week I thought it might be beneficial to consider a number of his insights. The final quotation relates a specific experience Lewis had with responsive police and a rather unresponsive judiciary.

Lewis had an impressive knack for using familiar images to illustrate biblical principles. In the following example he uses police, an occupation recognized by all, to display the absurdity of the logic of skeptics of Christianity.

If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation.

If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-productd in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever He does will be used in evidence against Him. (“Dogma and the Universe”)

Let us now consider a few of the principles easily gleaned from Lewis’ writings.

Law Enforcement is a Normal Occupation

In that sense, police are no different than any other member of the community. C.S. Lewis illustrates that truth by including them in a list of “regular” occupations.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

Law Possesses a Vital Function

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. (Mere Christianity)

In his essay “Vivisection,” Lewis mentions in passing the role of law enforcement in society. We have assigned to them the responsibility of investigating suspicious behavior to determine whether it conforms to the law of the land. And they do so according to whatever guidelines or restrictions the government (presumably of by and for the people) levies upon them.

In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice. You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that it is for the police to discover what is already being done.

In Democracies Police are Generally Trustworthy

Lewis acknowledges that there are places where the police are frequently corrupt and perhaps even brutal. But he reminds us that we who live in democratic nations should be grateful for the normal behavior of those who serve in law enforcement.

The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.

But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone. (“The Decline of Religion”)

Is it inappropriate to note how prophetic Lewis’ observation was that the secularization of Western culture would also erode political civility?

“Police States,” by Contrast, are Evil

In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis divulges where he found some of his images for his infernal milieu.

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

C.S. Lewis’ father was an attorney. But not just any sort of solicitor. He was a Police Court Solicitor, an important role which had as one of its purposes allowing a person who was arrested on suspicion of a criminal offense to consult with a lawyer while in initial police custody.

Lewis describes in his autobiography how his father regaled him and his brother Warnie with stories about curious police-court happenings. At the same time, Lewis confesses to his father’s struggle to relate to his boys after the loss of his wife when they were still young. Confessing that he frequently found his father’s conversations with his young sons confusing, he writes:

The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humorist, even on occasion, a wit. (Surprised by Joy)

Corrupt Governments Corrupt the Police Force

One of the characteristics of police states is that they have extensive networks of “secret police,” who are often imbued with extraordinary prerogatives. One such malevolent presence plays just such a role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Searching for Mr. Tumnus, the Pevensie children are discovered by Mr. Beaver. When they inquire of Lucy’s friend, the faun, he says:

“Ah, that’s bad,” said Mr. Beaver, shaking his head. “That’s a very, very bad business. There’s no doubt he was taken off by the police. I got that from a bird who saw it done.”

That explains the note the children had discovered at Mr. Tumnus’ ransacked home.

The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies and fraternizing with Humans.

signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!

One more passage reveals how quickly the deceitful captain can vacillate between threatening and gracious poses. Edmund has arrived at the Witch’s castle is been confronted by Maugrim.

“If you please, sir,” said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, “my name is Edmund, and I’m the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day, and I’ve come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia—quite close, in the Beavers’ house. She—she wanted to see them.”

“I will tell Her Majesty,” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile, stand still on the threshold, as you value your life.”

Then it vanished into the house. Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch’s Secret Police, came bounding back and said, “Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen—or else not so fortunate.”

The Police Can Solve Problems

Yes, the example below comes from his novel The Silver Chair, but it is too good to overlook. Lewis is skilled at teaching through his fiction as well as in his essays.

This excerpt come from one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Aslan has just returned Jill and Eustace to England, where there was a “corrective” encounter with some school bullies. The headmistress calls the police, and we join the scene . . .

When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts, and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled.

After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

Police are Not Soldiers

In the following passage, Lewis shows an astute awareness of the actual role of the Roman soldier in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. They were certainly an occupation force, but their role in garrison was not to be “soldiers,” but rather to be “peacekeepers.” They were to maintain law and order, the so-called Pax Romana.

And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ [Jesus] chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. (Mere Christianity)

Lewis does the same thing in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible,” where he compares the common* nature of the Greek used to write the Scriptures with the Incarnation.

The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language . . . It is a sort of `basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary literary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

C.S. Lewis’ Experience with the (In)Justice System

In 1957, Lewis wrote an essay** about a personal experience with the British judicial system. I choose to close with this selection because it is quintessential Lewis. He uses a fine critique of the treatment of criminals to also acknowledge his personal sinfulness. In this true story, the police do their job admirably. The judge . . . not so much.

Not long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects—curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given.

But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.” I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The—let us call her—Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold.

The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents. But what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks.”

Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as [Athenian sophist] Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger,” she was very just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I.

But if her intention was—and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones—to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank”—a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of.

A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.

This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy. But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite.

According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him.

Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

And so we see that Lewis shared a concern that has only become accentuated among many today. When the State abuses its prodigious power, and especially when it revises the role of those in law enforcement, transforming them into “enforcers,” we are in dire straits.

Thankfully, that has not yet transpired in most democratic lands. Still, the possibility of such decay has not been eliminated, and wisdom suggests that we remain vigilant should we see things sliding in that direction.

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* On the subject of the commonness of the language God uses to speak to us, you may wish to read my column on “Vulgar Christianity.”

** “Delinquents in the Snow” is included in the readily available collection, God in the Dock.

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

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The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.

dictionary 1Most “word people” like dictionaries. Some writers go so far as to love dictionaries, but I don’t wish to quibble about where one rests on the affection spectrum in terms of these repositories of words.

This guy, though, has to be pegged on the extreme (idolatry) end of the meter. Ammon Shea wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages after having done just that. The Oxford English Dictionary, you may know, comprises 25 volumes, and Shea warns that reading it at such a rapid pace took a toll on his eyesight. It’s not surprising, that he admits he is not your typical reader.

One could say that I collect word books, since by last count I have about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries. . . . I do not collect these words because I want to impress friends and colleagues with my erudition. . . .

My friends know that I read dictionaries for fun, and have come to accept this proclivity with relative good grace, but they are not terribly interested in or impressed by my word collection.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier advised his fellow poets to read the dictionary. No better way to enrich one’s language, he claimed, although he also read cook books, almanacs and the like. In fact, his biographer offered this fascinating observation.

He found pleasure in the most indifferent novels, as he did in books of the highest philosophical conceptions, and in works of pure science. He was devoured with the desire to learn, and said: “No conception is so poor, no twaddle so detestable that it cannot teach us something by which we may profit.”

C.S. Lewis indicated that so-called “definitions” offered outside the ordinances of the dictionary must be approached warily. “When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust” (Studies in Words). He offers a very sensible reason for such precautions.

It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote. The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism.

Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so (Studies in Words).

Dictionaries are, of course, their own genre. Lectionaries, collections of words and meanings, are different than any other type of written composition. For example, glossaries may draw together specialized vocabulary—say for medical or theological purposes—but by their very nature they are not intended to blaze any new literary pathways.

There is, invariably, an exception to this rule. Some “dictionaries” are creative exercises. They are works of fiction, and some are entertaining indeed.

The most famous of these satirical works is Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book). The volume is not expressly irreverent, although people of faith will encounter some offensive examples in its pages. However, a number of the entries are brilliant.

Kilt

  1. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.

Rank

  1. Relative elevation in the scale of human worth.

He held at court a rank so high

That other noblemen asked why.

“Because,” ’twas answered, “others lack

His skill to scratch the royal back.”

Emancipation

  1. A bondman’s change from the tyranny of another to the despotism of himself.

He was a slave: at word he went and came;

     His iron collar cut him to the bone.

Then Liberty erased his owner’s name,

     Tightened the rivets and inscribed his own.

Goose

  1. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird’s intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an “author,” there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl’s thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.

Another Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, composed his Dictionary of Received Ideas, which found humor in peculiarities of common understandings.

Absinthe

Extra-violent poison: one glass and you’re dead. Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouin.

Archimedes

On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what it is.

Omega

Second letter of the Greek alphabet. [Note: this would only apply to biblically literate societies.]

The earliest such example of a satirical dictionary was that by the Persian writer Nezam od-Din Ubeydollah Zâkâni. I have not located a copy of his 14th century lexicon, but it apparently includes entries that are still understandable in our modern world.

Thought

What uselessly makes people ill.

Orator

A donkey.

Word lovers can easily get caught up in conversations like this. In fact, I’m certain more than one Mere Inkling reader has contemplated compiling their own creative dictionary! It’s not an insurmountable project, since it’s accomplished one word at a time.

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For those desiring to create their own dictionary “entries” such as the one that graces the top of this blog, there a free meme generator you can use online. Available here, it’s a fun little tool. It’s also suitable for creating a little self-deprecating humor.

dictionary 2

Our Common Tongue

May 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

Bruegel BabelThe ancestors of Europeans and Asians spoke a common language 15,000 years ago, as the ice age was ending.

That “discovery” sounds remarkably familiar to those acquainted with an ancient story about a colossal edifice erected in the ancient past. The Hebrews preserved a record of the achievement in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. At the time of the tower’s construction, all of humanity consisted of “one people [sharing] one language.”

The argument for just such a common language is made in a detailed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After finishing this column, you may wish to read the original journal article, which is available here.

The mechanics of the study will be of great interest to all logophiles (word lovers).

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers identified 23 different words that have remained recognizable for fifteen millennia. These “ultraconserved” words include some of the fundamental building blocks of basic communication. They include: not, mother, man (i.e. male), we, this, hand, old, fire, ashes and (rather oddly) worm.

The study identifies “proto-words” that underlie common terms in extremely diverse languages. It is no accident that these universal words are the ones that are the most concrete, frequent and essential for human communication.

The Languages of the World Etymological Database, part of the Tower of Babel project . . . records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.

These words are reconstructed by first identifying cognate words among the languages of a given family and then, because cognate words derive from a common ancestral word, working back in time to reconstruct the probable features of that shared ancestral form.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, and his abiding love of languages provided the impulse for the creation (and intricate history) of all of Middle Earth.

C.S. Lewis was one of the twentieth centuries greatest writers. He was also a scholar—one with an outstanding grasp of literature. Lewis acknowledged that words describing immediate, touchable concerns can be distinct and firm, just like the realities they connote. However, when language moves farther from such elements, it invariably grows more abstract.

All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a “Force” (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. The difficulty is not peculiar to theologians. Scientists, poets, psychoanalysts, and metaphysicians are all in the same boat. (God in the Dock, “Horrid Red Things”).

The linguistic study described here notes that frequency of usage exerts a stabilizing influence on words. Whereas less common (and more abstract) vocabulary “evolves” more rapidly.

A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families; this might equate to around 16 uses per day per speaker of these high-frequency words.

Throughout history various languages have vied with one another for precedence. In the Mediterranean world Greek, for a season, and then Latin for another, were the “universal” tongues. The phrase lingua franca (literally, the “Frankish language”) has now come to refer to any language that is extensively used as a common bridge between speakers of different tongues.

Such languages, of course, enhance communication. That is not to suggest, however, that the development of these “dominant” languages is without critics. It seems, for example, that France was delighted in their language serving for many years as a standard for international diplomacy. Today however, France continues to staunchly resist the advances of English. (In 1994 the initial version of the Toubon Law overreached in requiring the extensive use of French in nearly all contexts. You can read about some implications for international businesses here.)

Even C.S. Lewis regretted some of the negative influences of American English on the mother tongue. In his book Studies in Words, he mourns:

I have an idea of what is good and bad language. . . . Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.

It was better to have the older English distinction between “I haven’t got indigestion” (I am not suffering from it at the moment) and “I don’t have indigestion” (I am not a dyspeptic) than to level both, as America has now taught most Englishmen to do, under “I don’t have.”

It remains to be seen whether any single language will come to truly dominate the world scene. Being able to communicate freely across all political borders sounds like a noble goal. It is ironic that should that day ever arrive it will mark a return to how things once began.

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The painting reproduced above was painted circa 1563 by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Roman Realism

April 14, 2012 — 10 Comments

There are many things about ancient Rome that fascinate me. My love for the era finds its roots in the wonderful books of Rosemary Sutcliff and the spectacular cinematic epics like “Ben Hur” that were released during my childhood.

Over the years I’ve studied the Roman world in great depth. I shifted my numismatic interested to coins of the Constantinian era. (You can still purchase the genuine articles relatively inexpensively. Thanks to the tragic individuals who buried their hoards during troubled times and never returned to recover them.)

One of my favorite things about the Romans was their realism which manifested itself even in the busts they carved. Unlike the Greeks who strove to idealize everything, the Romans were pragmatic. If the honoree’s face lacked character (or suffered from an excess of the same), then the artist was expected to reflect that fact.

Just look at all the character in the face of the unknown Roman portrayed above. Or, how about this one. So vivid. Imagine just how difficult life must have been for this thirty-two year citizen.* Yes, they did an impressively faithful job portraying the subjects of their artistic studies.

I’m not naïve enough to think that the emperors’ likenesses weren’t “airbrushed” just a tad. But take a look at the image to the left. It was made of an extremely important person, Pompey the Great, and it’s obviously intended to be a true likeness. This image always reminds me of a troubled chaplain assistant who served with me during my isolated tour in Korea. That sergeant’s tussled coiffure witnessed to a nasty hangover. I cannot attribute Pompey’s unruly mane to the same cause.

C.S. Lewis said the first requirement of art is to engage, to connect in some fashion with the interests of the viewer. He wrote this in his essay “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem,” which he wrote in 1942.

To interest is the first duty of art; no other excellence will even begin to compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this, as by charity.

If I lined up a dozen beautiful and stylized Grecian busts against one wall and the same number of Roman examples against another, I have no doubt which would merit and receive the greatest attention. Idealized portraiture can be appreciated. But realistic likenesses, that celebrate the uniqueness of each human being, these are truly engaging.

Oh, and in closing let me say that I’m just vain enough—should anyone undertake to create a bust of me—to want it crafted in the Greek style, rather than the Roman . . .

* True age unknown . . . but you already knew that, right?