15 December 2006

It's Nothing to Sneeze Through

I have heard that flight magazines presage important trends, especially among the executive and wealthy classes.

That is why, on a recent flight with United, I was interested to see an article in Hemisphers Magazine which was an apology for learning ancient Greek. The article is "Greek to Me", by Tom Mueller, a freelance writer. (He describes himself: "Tom Mueller speaks six languages fluently but wishes ancient Greek were his mother tongue.")

"A year ago I began to learn a dead language," the piece begins, "and it has subtly changed my life. Yet no one seems to believe me." Mueller continues:

When I say I'm studying ancient Greek, people usually respond, with a cocked eyebrow and a heavy diphthong of mistrust, in one of three ways. "Building your vocabulary?" Or: "Why don't you just read a translation?" Or, most damning of all, "A dead language?"

These are all fair questions, and at times, caught in a bruising clinch with Attic grammar, I ask them of myself.
Mueller at first turns the complexity of the language into a reason for studying it. After mentioning the dual, the middle voice, accentuation, and the optative mood, he remarks:
Some of the best Greek of all is still denser and stranger. The reason I started learning the language in the first place was to read The Illiad ... in the end, these oddments and complexities are precisely what fuel my efforts.
He concedes Greek has given him a "new X-ray view of English, which reveals the Greek bones under the skin of familiar friends like psychology ... and helps me understand lingo in medicine and natural history that I'd never encountered before"--even thought that was not the reason why he studied it.

But then, citing traduttore traditore, he rejects the idea that translations are sufficient, because the translator must pick just one strand from among the complex of meanings of a term. "Each word has a whole series of associations, a vast bubble chart of interesting meanings shimmering in the mind as one reads. When the translator makes his fatal choice--one word only, please--all but one of the beautiful bubbles burst." Mueller's example is congenial:
Of course, this impoverishment happens in varying degree, every time one language is forced to flow into the conduit of another. Last December, in a German-speaking village in the Swiss Alps, I bought a packet of paper tissues emblazoned, in German, with the proud marketing boast Durchschnupfsicher! As often happens in Switzerland, the package was multilingual, and the term was variously rendered in English, Italian, and French, as "three-ply," assorbente, and résistent; the English stressed the product's structure, the Italian its absorbency, the French its toughness. But the German term contained all three: Compounded of three separate words, it literally means "sneeze-through-proof". A concept of singular power.
Mueller next turns to the charge that the Greeks were unenlightened, or that their thought has since been superseded:
Call me a dupe, but when I read Aristotle's Physics or Poetics I'm not focusing on the fact that he defended slavery, any more than I reject the U.S. Constitution because the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves and would have been thunderstruck by women's suffrage, or allow memories of Mozart's smutty letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla to sully the pleasure of his horn concertos.
Now that's a great sentence, one that perhaps only Frank Lewis and few others could truly appreciate! Aristotle and horn concertos all in one.

At the end of his piece, Mueller once more turns an apparent argument against into an argument for. The antiquity of the Greeks, he says, far from making them irrelevant, provides the best proof of their worth:
Not to belittle contemporary writers--I wouldn't give up my Banville and Proulx and Hamsun and Heaney for any money. They may even turn out to be among the Greats. Just that it's too early to say. Only with time will we see whether their works age like a legendary Bordeaux vintage or like cheap plonk. Jane Austen, whose writing has held up marvelously for more than two centuries, we can be a little more confident about. Dante, with another 500 years of fame under his belt, is a safe bet. Virgil is a sure thing. Homer is a lead-pipe cinch.
And here we find, in Mueller's own aspirations, the reason why classics and ancient philosophy will not fade away, even if it seems sometimes that they might:
And the closer I can come to meeting them on their home turf--to conversing with them in their native languages--the more I may be able to learn from them. Or so I believe. Which is why I labor over my flash cards and conjugations, seeking elusive communion with Homer and the Greeks. For 25 centuries now people have turned to their writings, 75 generations of readers with vastly different expectations and outlooks, who have found there something pure and profound, a new way of seeing the world that streams by them. It's time I saw for myself.


Ocham said...

[I've moved this comment to here, which is where I think Ocham intended to place it. -MP]

An interesting piece. He touches on the reason why I study Latin logic and philosophy. It gives you a new X-ray view of philosophy. From the 14C onwards we see Latin words being imported wholesale into English. Presumably because English in its unlatinised form had no words for dealing with the ideas corresponding to the imports. This is particularly true in logic and philosophy, where almost the entire vocabulary is Latin (with a sprinkling of Greek). For example,

Existence and essence, concept, universe, species, genus, quantification, subject, predicate, class, contingent, necessary, modality, implication, inference, negation, affirmation, assertion, proposition.

We start studying philosophy as though our variety began with Locke or Descartes. But I'm not sure you could have philosophy at all without those 'dead' languages.

Another thought – I can read Aquinas or Boethius or even Scotus 'straight off the page', rarely having to consult a dictionary. Ovid or Catullus by contrast I find particularly hard because I am looking at dictionary every other word. Why? Perhaps because all the words like shepherd, beard, river-god have no obvious equivalents in English. By contrast, Scotus "omnia genus et species et individua et omnes partes essentiales generum, et ens increatum includunt ens quiditative" is easy to translate. It means "every genus and species and individual and all essential parts of genera, and increate entity, include entity quidditatively". Translating Latin philosophy requires only understanding the 'glue' words of an argument, like et, ergo, itaque, autem, item, ideo & the others, plus elementary schoolboy word-endings.

Yet another thought is that we have translated a meaningless sentence in Latin to a meaningless sentence in English, but let's not go there today.

Michael Pakaluk said...


To my mind those words are familiar more in the way that letters are, rather than words. That is why we think we understand the sentence from Scotus, when we do not.

Yet I think it would be hasty to conclude from this phenomenon, that the sentence is meaningless, anymore than the fact that we might deceive ourselves into thinking, from our merely saying the formula, that we actually understood E = mc^2, is a sign that the formula is meaningless.

The statement from Scotus is ostensibly the expression of a judgment of an 'expert'; it can't be made intelligible simply by translation.