notes on the hermeneutics of early irish texts

Notes on the Hermeneutics of Irish texts

In reading translations of ‘old’ and ‘middle’ texts which are no longer intelligible to native speakers of the modern forms of the language it’s believed to be in, when you read of a character who needs “twelve heroes to lift up the hair about his eye with iron forks”? you should question the translation (imo it means someone had reaped a meadow and needed a dozen stout lads to toss the hay onto the wains with iron pitchforks hair = (ir) fear and appears to be a kenning. words for school and similar institutions are mistakable for words for eye where english and irish mingle.).

Currently accepted translations of texts in what scholars classify as Irish for example were made long after the language in which they were written had become unintelligible to existing Irish speakers, so they were sometimes done not by native speakers of old or middle Irish, but by scholars using the techniques of their times to reconstruct the extinct language, and not all of these were even native speakers of an extant Irish dialect. It was a very difficult undertaking, which could only ever be experimental. Much of it was done when there were so few scholars working in the field that they had few critics – their work was never tested or checked over at the time, and still hasn’t been, except tautologically (and therefore not validly), using the lexicography and grammar derived from the translation itself, not from any outside source.

Their methodology – the way they went about working things out – would not get them a pass at undergraduate levels in this day and age. Academic methodologies have advanced greatly since the promotion of scientific enquiry to academic levels in the 19th century.

These days, in any piece of research, a single experimental attempt and its results should have to show repeatability before it could be awarded the marks, or get funding. But the old texts of many languages that came to light during and after the Renaissance including the Irish texts, were translated long ago by methods that would no longer be considered sound in any other discipline. Where more than one translation was attempted, the winner prevailed in an academically insane one-only knock-out competition. Then chronologies have been got up for these texts on the basis of what would be now considered to be inadequate evidence. These have never been revised in the light of modern advances in hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics = the interpretation of texts.) Subsequent retranslations almost invariably use the lexicons and grammars derived from the established ones, which of course, tautologically ‘confirm’ not that the earlier translations are correct (such retranslations don’t test them at all), but only that their dubious lexicography and grammars are internally consistent.

A typical translation, usually done more than a century ago or based on work done then, proceeds more or less as follows:
• A text is selected for the attempt and a methodolgy devised.
• It is identified, dated, and contexts are noted, since data of this kind can shed light on the possible meanings of words.
• The language it is written in is identified as accurately as possible – this is based on observations of similarities its vocabulary and grammar might have with extant languages to which it may be related.
• An attempt to translate it is made.
• During this process, the words that most resemble words in extant relatives of the text’s language are considered to be close in meaning (usually), and these are entered into the lexicon. It should be noted that this process is not simple translation, but is already dependent on the comparative philology (as it was then called) of the time. Comparative philology assumed that if a word in one language resembles a word in another in both sound/form and meaning, they are probably related. As a corollary, the assumption can only be that if a word in one language resembles a word in a language that is thought to be related, it’s is possibly the same word and may have a similar meaning. As you can see there is considerable room for error here.
• Words that bear no clear resemblance to any words in any closely related languages are examined for resemblances to words in less closely related languages. Thus the translator must use the comparative philology of the time to find possible meanings and the scope for error takes a quantum leap! (The comparative philology of the 19th century was very naively done from a very unrealistically restricted database, by scholars who were still forging the rules, and even now, historical linguistics as it is now often called, has not responded to advances in linguistics made since De Saussure in the twentieth century. Much 21st century historical linguistics is still based on academically unsustainable assumptions about language change made before then. These educated guesses go into the lexicon. All this is nevertheless okay, as long as no one loses sight of the FACT that this is all hypothetical (i.e., controlled, educated guesswork.)
• Affixes and regular initial letter mutations etc (including grammatical inflections) are sought and examined and from observations of them a grammar is deduced. If the lexical guesses are accurately recorded, and this deduced grammar is accurately described, any attempt to translate the text using that lexicon and that grammar should produce (or be able to produce) the same translation every time. If it does, then the work is internally consistent and therefore a good attempt – provided that the translation makes sense. So such an experiment is good in itself, but it can only provide us with one scholarly opinion. Before it can be claimed as knowledge, it must be validated – it must be checked for repeatability by other scholars. Later, more modern experimenters must see whether, using modern methods, they obtain the same lexicon and the same grammar. To use the lexicon and grammar derived from an earlier experimental translation to check that translation is tautological – it will always prove it correct, but it will not tell us whether the lexicon itself is correct, nor the grammar.

This independent checking has NOT been done in the case of most of the Irish texts, as far as I know. If it had been, the Dictionary of the Irish Language and Thurneysen’s Grammar would no longer be in use.

For best results, double-blind conditions should apply. That means that those who make other attempts should not consult the work of those who have made previous attempts.They must start with the same equipment as the other experimenters: the text and all the academic resources of their own time, and a mind as untainted as possible by the existing dogmas. Those who gave us the translations we have now compiled their own lexicons and derived their own grammar, and those who check their work must likewise build their own without referring to that of their predecessors in the field.

Perhaps a 21st Century test for repeatablity would look like this.
• The text is selected given to six teams of experts in the field. (In double blind experiments these teams do not consult each other’s work at all, or the work of previous workers in the field.) These experts must know well all extant dialects of Irish (native speakers should be chosen, and must also have a good knowledge of all languages that may be related to the text – I would consider other modern Celtic languages, English, Dutch, Danish, Icelandic, German, French, the Spanishes, Moorish and Portuguese to be essentials. They don’t have to speak them all, but should have closely examined their vocabularies and grammars. They should be well acquainted with other old texts, bearing in mind that their previous translations, lexicons and grammars are the result of unrepeated, therefore unverified guesswork, and so cannot be used to support their own guesses as that would be a violation of the double-blind. They may however use their own interpretations of them, done under similar double-blind conditions. These would include the old English mss, the Gothic, Flemish, Icelandic, etc texts and even Sanskrit and Hebrew would be relevant. They must also have had sound training in postmodern hermeneutics, which keeps a sharp look-out for personal biases, political assumptions, subtle ‘spin’ and other distortive psychological factors. The translations we have are imo badly distorted by political, cultural and ecclesiastical assumptions held by the translators and the dominant culture of their day.
• A 21st century methodology is devised – each team builds its own. Advances in methodology since the existing translations were made have been very considerable. Hermeneutical training these days teaches the translator to identify and eliminate their own personal, political, ecclesiastical and cultural biases (or at least declare them). Not revising the old translations in the light of those advances is like insisting that the world is flat on the basis of 12th century church dogmas.
• Its identity is checked carefully, an attempt is made to decide on the age of the MS, and all relevant contexts are noted, since data of this kind can shed light on the possible meanings of words. Strict veracity must be maintained. This has not yet been done. The science of dating mss is a bit of a vicar’s egg – very good in parts, but most of us would forgo the egg. In 21st century work, sometimes the correct answer is ‘we don’t yet know’. A translation with a lot of gaps in it is sometimes a more truthful and accurate one than one without – especially when the meanings are odd or meaningless. Similarly, where a team of experts work together on a single text, whenever their opinions differ, the final translation should show all the opinions of the group, along with their reasons for them.
• The language it is written in is identified as accurately as possible – this is based on observations of similarities its vocabulary and grammar might have with extant languages to which it may be related.
• An attempt to translate it is made: where there is disagreement within a team, these should be declared in the final translation.
• During this process, the words that most resemble words in extant relatives of the text’s language are considered to be close in meaning (usually), and these are entered into the lexicon. It should be borne in mind that modern Irish speech has been contaminated by the introduction of words from the lexicon, which has been derived unscientifically. These words are usually easily enough recognised by sensitive scholars. Errors are possible here, but usually not too bad.
• Words that bear no clear resemblance to any words in any closely related languages (dialects of modern Irish) are examined for resemblances to words in less closely related languages using the comparative philology of the time. (other celtic, then english, icelandic etc . Errors are more likely here, and can be minimised by leaving gaps (when the translator has no idea) or offering several opinions (when the translator considers several possibilities, or when two team members disagree). These educated guesses go into the lexicon.
• Affixes and regular initial letter mutations etc (including grammatical inflections) are sought and examined and from observations of them in the light of a deep and detailed knowledge of the way such indicators of grammar are used in other languages, a hypothetical grammar is deduced.

Now we have not one scholarly attempt at a translation, but seven, one done in the past when the hermeneutical sciences were in their infancy, the other six using state of the art hermeneutics.

Now comes the test. Compare the results. Where all seven agree as to the meaning of a sentence, it might be safe to say that they are probably correct – but not that they are correct. When most of them agree but one disagrees, the certainty is less – more research needed – and gets less the more they disagree. Perhaps they all agree fairly well on the words that occur also in Irish, but you could expect an array of opinions, even within a group, on words not recognisable as Irish, and these should all be declared.

To put it simply, if all six teams come up with a lexicon that exactly resembles that which is included in the DIL, plus an exact replica of Thurneyson’s grammar, they might have a case for maintaining that the existing translations are accurate. Otherwise, they have not. And they have not until such a test has been done. All such conscientious, academically sound attempts must be given equal credence the old ones, done according to out-moded methodologies, using 19th century comp.phil (or older) should be regarded with acute skepticism.

It doesn’t stop there. Once you have a good variety of opinion, swarms of scholars working over them all  comparing them minutely, observing where they all agree (probably right) and where they split into two, three or more camps (any or none could be right) would make dramatic progress towards a much more realistic translation: decades of work could be done. Where difference of opinion occurred, more research might resolve the problem. New translations working from their own lexicons would continue to arise, and my guess is that opinion would soon begin to converge on much more realistic interpretations of the old texts than we now have. But while a highly trained Oxford scholar ( I name no names) can say blithely, ‘There is only one opinion in Celtic Studies’ we may as well all pack up and go home!
(In an article this short there are bound to be some over-simplifications, but I believe I am making an essentially valid statement.)

The Ogham Day: Bathe, Lays, Farin’…

Traditionally, since the Auricept na N-eces came to light, the so-called tree ogham has been foregrounded from all the ogham lists in it, and it is asserted in that text that its list of words associated the letters are the old Irish names of trees.

However, there’s a lot of confusion over which trees (luis= rowan or elm), and not all of them are trees, (ivy, fern) and there seems to be no evidence that any except a few were ever called by these names in any language, let alone Irish, so there’s a reason to doubt the accuracy of the Auricept. Nobody knows who the contributors to it were, but they don’t appear to have been consistent in their evidence about it.

I suspect that no Irish person ever called a birch tree ‘beith’ until those who (mis)translated the Auricept put it into their lexicon – nor was the Irish word for an oak tree ever dur, dara or dor.Informed by scholars, native speakers from each area assumed that such tree names must have been current in some other area and so accepted them as valid, because there it was in the dictionary.

So what if they’re not trees? The key will be not in the spelling, which in old texts is likely to be idiosyncratic, culture specific and sometimes arbitrary, but in penetrating the spelling to reach the pronunciations that they’re attempting to represent. What if the ogham Beith were pronounced as it’s spelt: ‘B-ei-th’, like the English word ‘bathe’ and actually meant ‘bathe’ as in wash? After all, it’s very likely that where no hard and fast spelling rules apply (and they don’t seem to in the Auricept) people are spelling phonetically.

You could object that the Auricept predates the formation of the English language from Germanic dialects by a good few centuries. I would reply that the actual age of the Auricept is not known, any more than the exact age of our only remaining examples of the Germanic dialects of old English, but has only been guessed at by scholars who used unintelligibility as a measure of age, without considering that a text may simply have been in a dialect not known to the scholars concerned, separated from known dialects not by time but by contemporary linguistic difference that had more to do with geographical distance than temporal. The actual text is not that old, and the current dating of its content is highly suspect.

So what if you found that, by assuming the spelling to be practically phonetical, almost all the other words in the beith luis nin list also spell English words – albeit  archaic ones, except for two that spell Irish words? Then you’d probably want to object that this is a text from Ireland, the text it’s embedded in is in Irish and wouldn’t have included lists of English words, but however hard you wished, there they’d still be, not able to be interpreted successfully or convincingly as a tree list, but deliciously happy to be construed as a list of mainly English words with a couple of Irish ones, and not just a random list, but a list denoting a sequence, undeniably a logical one, representing nothing more nor less than a children’s school-day timetable – or in olden day English, an Hour Receipt.

You might argue that the similarity of these words to English words, while undeniable, is pure coincidence; and that’s okay, except that they form a list of activities and they occur in a logical sequence, making a viable time-table. The probability that this could happen by sheer coincidence is vanishingly small. The odds against it are vast.

Since the universal phonetic alphabet is practically unintelligible to lay readers, and anyway tends to obscure relationships between words rather than illuminate them, and is overkill at best where languages that are now extinct are concerned, I’m using my own simple techniques based on English spellings (for English words), which will be intelligible to English speakers anyway. I apologise to non-English speakers, but most people will be able to follow me.

When I was five years old I learned to spell using a system called Phonics, in which each letter of the alphabet was named according to its usual sound: ‘A’ was called ‘Ae’ as in ‘a-pple’, ‘b’ was ‘b@’ where @ represents schwa. U for umbrella was called ‘Uh’, which sounded like the vowels of aha! It was pretty loose, but it works so I’m using it. After all our sense of how extinct languages or forms of languages were pronounced is necessarily ‘pretty loose’, and this naïve kind of phonics is after all, pretty much like what the writers of the Auricept used..

This system works well for describing the probable pronunciation of the ogham names as I understand them, so I’m using it here. There’s a lisp to take into account, a glitch associated with the P- Q- problem, there’s a glottal stop, and g’s and h’s are sometimes dropped, and there are some small inconsistencies, but nothing that can’t be accounted for without much trouble. And for reasons that will become clear as we go along, I start with Ailm and her five, not Beith and hers.


AILM is the first two syllables of aliment, pronounced as in aliment, and meaning aliment. The children’s day starts with breakfast.

ONN is Iron (some people still pronounce it like that in rapid speech). It’s the only puzzling one, so bear with it. I suspect it is an iron oven. The breakfast fire has heated the oven and the bread is put in.

UR is ‘Hair’. Perhaps it was brushed and plaited.

EADADH is a variant of the Irish ‘Eadach’ meaning cloth or clothing. The children get dressed.

IOHO is another Irish word: DHEOCHA, a old plural form of Deoch (a drink), meaning drinks. The modern plural is deochanna. It’s initial letter is lenited (mutated) here, perhaps because it is feminine and followed the definite article when first transcribed. The H is a soft version of the Gaelic ch. In Irish, Dh is pronounced as Y for Yellow before an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. So DHEOCHA woud be pronounced very like YOHO, here spelt IOHO. Gives new meaning to ‘Yoho ho and a bottle of rum’ doesn’t it! But let’s hope our little ógs had hot milk and honey, perhaps with an egg in it – an egg n-og?


BEITH now means Bathe – that’s what the children do next.

LUIS according to the phonics method is ‘L-UH-I-S’ which we would pronounce somewhere between ‘Lies’ and ‘Lays’. That’s interesting because both mean stories that are not (necessarily) true or are not believed. From the ‘Lays’ of the Minstrels (which may have been true but declared false by a dominant culture) we get the word ‘lies’ meaning falsehoods. While waiting for the time of departure, the children are kept warm and out of mischief singing over their school songs perhaps for the entertainment of their younger siblings.

FEARN is ‘Farin’ ‘, which means travelling, in this instance, to school.

SAILLE is these days usually pronounced as if Irish: S- O- L- Y- A. According to the phonics method it would be pronounced SA+I+LL+E, close to SALLY as in SALLIES AND JESTS. That word is related to the English words ‘soldier’ and ‘sailor’ and is probably derived from a word ancestral to both. The best translation might be ‘sallies’, as in ‘sallies and jests’ where ‘jests’ retains its original meaning ‘jousts’ – in other words, military training.

NUIN is pronounced N-UH-IN, with a glottal stop between the vowels: Nu’in’. That’s ‘Nothing’ with the ‘g’ dropped. Rest after strenuous exercise.


HUATH. This one comes to us from a different speaker, a lisper, and uses a different phonetic, but the logistics of the day are becoming clear and it’s fairly obvious that it’s a lisped ‘horse’. After a rest, equestrian training follows foot quite logically.

DUR is ‘door’, using the same phonetic as the above. Perhaps the children lined up outside the door to wait for the teachers as they still do in modern schools.

TINNE is the Irish ‘Tine’ meaning ‘fire’. It is derived from the English word, TIN, meaning sheet metal, not specifically the mineral tin iteself. A large tin stove served as a fireplace – still often does in some situations. As soon as they got inside they lit a fire in the tin to warm the class room, just as they did in winter when I was a child, before most schools had central heating.

COLL is ‘school’. It’s the base of the English College, the Irish Coláiste, and the ‘chool’ part of ‘school’.

QUERT: This one is caught up in the P-Q- wrangle. There is already a hard ‘c’ in the ogham and so there’s no need for a ‘q’; but there’s no ‘p’ whatsoever. The ‘u’ is there only to support the ‘q’ as it would be in modern English. ‘QUERT’ should obviously be ‘PERT’. And that’s a variant of ‘part’, meaning ‘part company’ or ‘depart’ – which is just what the children would do after school.


MUINN is ‘m+uh+inn’ with a glottal stop between the vowels (see NUIN): ‘mu’inn’ meaning ‘mutton’, denoting a substantial dinner of cooked meat.

GORT means ‘garden’ in some variants of old English. Perhaps they put in an afternoon’s work or so after dinner working in the community garden.

NGETAL is an eclipsized ‘getal’ which is really ‘gcetal’, itself an eclipsized ‘cetal’ meaning ‘kettle’ – a large cooking pot or cauldron in the olden days rather than the familiar tea-kettle for boiling water in of today. No doubt the children’s supper was served from it, and again, it’s in logical sequence with the previous activities.

STRAIF is not ‘strife’ but ‘straw’. This is an old form of the word, retaining evidence of its kinship with the word straight, the gh having evidently once been pronounced ‘f’ as in ‘enough’, not ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’. (It’s also related to strap, stripe and strip.) It’s the straight part of a cereal plant. Straw was used for bedding, so these children, having had their supper, ‘hit the straw’, or in other words, they go to bed.

RUIS is ‘r-uh-is’, which rhymes with ‘luis/lays/lies’ and means ‘rise’, again the most logical next activity of the ogham school child’s day.

I realise it presents a few challenges to orthodox views of the evolution of the English language, in implying that chronologies might be askew but I can’t see that justifying not giving it careful consideration. The chronologies are after all, decidedly askew.

More important to many people will be the implications for the use of the ogham as a divinatory tool. If the ogham names are not the names of trees, the trees have been dragged in by mistake, and that will have magical implications. If the collective will of many diviners has a magical force, and surely it will have, then the tree ogham as a divinatory system is in no danger, being independent of historical fact. My insight is that it is a firmly established, reasonably effective, fully functional magical system that needn’t fear the research that inevitably reveals the erroneousness of its origin.

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herman newt getting restless

The first person to assume the title Rex Anglorum (King of the English) was Offa of Mercia.

ahem, morning everyone. emerging from my silurian slime is getting easier since the drought broke, and i’ve been noticing that more and more, the historians and interpreters of old texts both long and short, (texts and interpreters come in all lengths and widths), both in the past and the present, and yes the future too, all seem to be needing a bit of help with it and that’s what i’m here for.

so you can all heave a great sigh of relief that the really murky problems of history have been taken out of the sticky fingers of the homo sapiens and handed to us newts, who are bound to do less mischief with them. this we amphibious axolotlene neotenites undertake for the good of all earthlings out of the pure goodness of our hearts. so take your pencil out of your ear, michael, and don’t chew your nails in class please susan.

today we’re going to look at the above quote which comes from wikipedia’s beautifully crafted web-page at where it appears about four lines down from the top after the bit that warns you about not counting ethelreds, egberts and things. good advice it is too and i’d strongly advise you all not to take any of it too seriously until i’ve written things in the margins as a guide.

for now we’re going to look appalled, gaze aghast, if you like, upon the horrific mess the experts are making of english history because of a simple oversight which we shall find revealed in all its gaspworthy shockingness when i part the murky waters for you with my spatulate fingers to show you the true meaning of the quote above and to trace for you some of the implications of it.

offa was a king back in the eighth century ad, or so they say, though i wouldn’t trust ’em. before the renaissance, during the renaissance and right up until after the renaissance, there were more calendars than you can shake a stick at, and they had to be reconstructed anyway from entries in tomes, and you couldn’t always tell entry numbers from year numbers nor could you tell page one of a given book from year one of the founding of the city, monastery, tower or school that kept it, nor could you be sure you had the first book of a series or the fifth, seventeenth or zillionth. then even when the calendars were sorted out, historians and recorders of events were undisciplined in their attempts at chronology, and were often ambiguous or made errors. in other words, all english dates before round about the first of the georges are suspect. yep, even right up to elizabethan times.

furthermore, even when you know the date of a book, you don’t know when the entries carefully copied into it were first written. many a beautifully bound book of gloriously prepared parchment was made at the capture of a castle or monastery, country house or church, and all the papers and parchments in it gathered into a neat pile, translated and often quite freely edited, often ineptly by people who did not know the language well and were too proud to admit it, (see keating’s account of this in the history of ireland and the coming of the cruel false st patrick who replaced the earlier beloved one) and sometimes even sarcastically (see cervantes accounts of this in don quixote). i mean, o ye earnest questers after truth, trust not the chronologies. however, for now they’re not relevent to today’s discussion.

nor the spellings neither. they hadn’t learnt the rules yet, and they also hadn’t learnt that bbc english as we find it in the oed is the (only correct) way to go and all the rest is bad english, or unlearned or rough english, or very very ignorant english, so spellings were everywhere and any which way, with even the sloppiest speakers thinking their way of saying fings was right and finking it was all right to spell it like it sounded and as you can expect, even respectable monks were making the most godawful mess of it and look, if you will – jane and anthony i’ll talk to you after class and if you don’t mind i’ll confiscate that astrolabe right now you can have it back at the end of term – look if you will, i say, at the consequences and no, james, they aren’t funny, it’s just a pity that a few have to spoil it for the rest of us.

all right, now, take out your exercise books and we’ll do a little experiment. i’ll adopt a really really cute english accent of the sort where a simple ah for artichoke is pronounced just like an o for otter, quite posh really, and then i’ll add in the little quirk we often see among poms in their own land who seem unable to pronounce a th and so say f instead. ve very fought of it might bovva some, but uvvas will be fomiliar wiv ve occent i mean. i fink it’s extont somewhere in london. now i’ll give you all a spelling test. i want you to write down the words i say in your best bbc english.


what have you written felicity? mother? good girl.

next, fovva

paul? father? good boy.

next. offa.

geoffrey? stocks what stocks? who would put you in the stocks?

charles? don’t be ridiculous, there is no rack any more.

no, maureen, they don’t burn heretics at the stake anymore – this is a perectly safe exercise. you would not be burned for a truthful try.

ouch, that hurt, nigel! those are very heavy objects you are hurling! ouch! i say, sit down everyone please. please, get back to your desks. hey, drop that gun! stop, i say! all right, you asked for it: hand me the capsicum spray, etty. thank you. there! and there! and there! gaynor, run and get nurse to look at phillip’s head, it looks nasty – who did it now? gloria, is this your ipod? i’ll see you after.

now sit quietly and answer my question. did anyone even try? amanda? yes, correct arthur!!!!!!!

now for homework write a fifteen hundred word essay on ‘how trustworthy are the chronologies relating to king offa of mercia aka king offa of england, and why would anyone even care?’ have on hand a large box of tissues for crying into, and remember there’s a helpline available for if you get dizzyings and swoonings or a fit of the vapours from staring into the turgidity of it at all. i recommend a sprig of parsley behind the ear for those with weak constitutions.


newt on arthur

Hallo, me darling ones. Here at last is a photo of me, Herman Newt, with Axol O’tl, who spoke to us last time so memorably. I am here alone today to talk of fairies and elves, and despite the slander and defamation of character, I’m adopting a fairly newt-ral stance on it, tiny amphibious fingers clinging to the bark of a partially submerged branch, body flat, tail dragging in the ooze.

In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
of which the Britons speken greet honour,
al was this land fulfild of fairye
The elf-queene with her joly compaignye
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede,
This was the old opinion, as I rede…
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

That’s the start of the Wife of Bath. It tells us newts a lot about Chaucer’s times and his view of what was then to him, Britain’s past; and however distant or recent the past described, it might as well as well have been ancient, so strange the people and scenes described in the written and oral traditions of the time seemed to the Normanised English people of his day. As the Wife of Bath points out, elves were no longer to be seen in her day in England. These days, most people take this to mean that elves, along with fairies, never really existed, although some believers in parallel universes might believe that they were ‘supernatural’ beings viewed sometimes when the magic was right, and now in occultus. Yet although I have not checked every instance of elves in texts, so far nothing disturbs my sense that all references to elves in the pre-Renaissance texts and the oral traditions were to real solid flesh and blood human beings. Periodic reworking of texts as their language became old-fashioned, quaint and sometimes inaccessible, introduced hermeneutical errors which were woven into the fabric of the tales giving them a magical or miraculous atmosphere that they did not have for their original authors.

If in a song the ‘elf-king’s daughter did appear…’ an ambiguity arises for some listeners accustomed to eerie tales – ‘did appear’ can mean ‘appeared suddenly’ or ‘became briefly visible’ implying ‘out of thin air’. So a magical attribute is imputed to the elf, which then is said to have the magical power to appear and disappear at will. This makes it a supernatural being, and for those who don’t believe in such things, throws doubts on the possible value of the entire document dealing with elves, fairies and the like. I shudder to think how often such judgments have deprived us in the centuries following of truthful historical texts that could have told us so much discarded to be lost or burnt because a conqueror did not believe them…

Let’s imagine that the authors of these old texts that mention elves did not think of them as supernatural beings, but as real flesh and blood people with the ordinary powers of mortals. How does that song go? Steele-Eye Span used to sing it, and very nicely too, with eerie, supernatural wailing music in the back ground… I think it was on ‘All Around My Hat’.

A knight he rode his lonely way
Thinking about his wedding day
As he rode by a forest near
the Elf-king’s daughter did appear
Out she stepped from the Elfin band
smiling she held out her hand,
Welcome sir knight, why such speed
Come with me the dance to lead…

So far nothing magical at all, but the word ‘appear’ does become a little ambiguous when we hear that it’s an elf doing it. But watch what happens in the refrain:

Dance dance, follow me,
all around the greenwood tree
Dance dance, while you may,
tomorrow is your dying day
Dance with me, Dance with me…

Is this elf prophecying (a magical act but one that quite real prophets can do) or is she threatening (implying that she could bring about his death ) ? If it’s an elf, you can accuse it of anything, and any reconstruction of its song undertaken in the past when elves were feared would make the sinister worst of it. If it were not an elf, it might be easy to believe that his dying might be her intention from a quite unmagical murder, ‘dance with me and/or I’ll kill you’, but it’s also possible that it’s not a dying at all. There are I believe many instances of ritual and ceremony that are referred to in words that subsequent historians have mistaken for words for death and killing, because of semantic shifts that we now have no records of. We talk of ‘gilded’ youths, but no longer remember that gilding was the same as schooling. For some people the only instances of attention from the guilds they belonged to was at their birth and at their death, so for them any guild ceremony was likely to be a funeral. Think of Kells, Cille, and Kil-, all meaning ‘church’. Think of the Irish ‘bas’ death and compare with imbas, the Cornish abbas words to do with religion that changed meaning as they travelled. So it’s possible that this song records that in the two languages of the knight and the elf, the elfin word for a wedding was like the knight’s word for dying. (I see linguistic confusion like this in The Taming of the Shrew, where the bride is forced to learn to call the sun the moon just to please her husband.)

In the song this elf offers the knight spurs of gold, a shirt of moon-bleached silk, and a crown of gold, which may have been wedding gifts (in which case it’s a garbled wedding song, in which a fatal misunderstanding between bride and groom resulted in a murder, or a gift of recruitment – the elf trying to recruit a knight whose loyalties are elsewhere. She lives in the forest, she has all the trappings of high and courtly civilisation and she wishes to enlist a knight. I believe it might be an initiatory ceremony, in which the traditional three gifts are tokens: the spurs signifying a horse and a place in her cavalry, the shirt her livery or uniform, and the crown a series of intitations amounting to an education, with a crown to certify him a leaned knight. Our knight refuses to dance and refuses the first two gifts, but he wants the crown, and therefore she proclaims that ‘a plague of death shall follow’ him. Now that’s a fairly nasty accusation to make about someone who isn’t here to defend herself. Maybe it was a ‘series of ceremonies’. Here’s how it was carried out anyway:
‘Between his shoulders a blow she dealt,
such a blow he never felt’
Now if he couldn’t feel it, it didn’t hurt him, did it. So maybe she wasn’t dealing death, just ‘killing’ him softly (ie, initiating him) with a ritual stroke in preparation for his marriage.

There’ll be more on this subject soon.

Newt’s eye view: Nicholas Ostler on Moteukzuma’s speech of surrender

I hope you’ve all read Nicholas Ostler’s, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.
Published to much acclaim was this book, and certainly he’s put a lot of work into it, but he’s made a mistake or two and it is surely incumbent upon every newt astute enough to perceive them to mention them to anyone who, without the many benefits of eye-of-newt hermeneutical techniques, might be seduced by the hype and claim to high authority of this extraordinarily well-written book, into believing that it is academically adequate. My darling little efts, eggs and variously educated and mis-educated entities, it absolutely isn’t. And the way it fails of academic excellence has some, er… interesting political implications.

It begins with a Preface which gives us a laudably post-modern (at long last) glance at an idea of ‘language’ as distinct from ‘languages’, and then in the Prologue he bids a cavalier farewell to Commonsense, and with it 20th/1st Century hermeneutics and along with them both all claim to credibility as a scholar. Yes, in the very next pages he gives a poignant account of the meeting between Hernán Cortés and Moteukzoma (Montezuma) on the causeway across the lake to Tenochtitlán that has never been subjected to rigorous, academic scrutiny, but its sources are always treated as impeccable eye-witness accounts not ever to be doubted in any detail on any account whatsoever.

Now I doubt not that this man Ostler is a well-loved person making valued contributions to the saving of threatened languages, and no doubt he is personally charming and good-natured – I would hope so. I know he is a real, warm, honourable, loving, caring person, and I wish him health and prosperity in all his good dealings and kindly correction in all others, as I would wish for myself, and it is his relative merit that has brought his prologue under the lens today. I find fault with it, and I shirk not.

Any real hermeneuts among you will not fail to notice the many grand and glorious ideas for PhD theses to be plucked from the many hermeneutically astounding, rich and myriad-faceted details and levels as we flick the sludge from our gills and enter this exquisite little text. Accompanying us today will be Axol O’Tl, famed neotenous newt of the luminous lake (willing to answer any questions, and even if we ax a lot’ll answer ‘em all 🙂 )! There’s bags of stuff about the who, what, when and where that we could detail and mountains more that we have yet to get articulate about, and that’s only in locating the current publication and its author and his informants and their sources. And every step of the way there’s politics, religion, and other forms of vested interest at every turn. Not just baggage – there’s some hard-driving stuff in there, and some of it impacts powerfully on peoples lives. Whether for good or ill, let’s look…

First, let’s cut through the heavy hermeneutical work without too much attention to detail, lifting it gently out of the matrix, chipping off the rust and coral, wiping away the muck. Here we have a text (the prologue) within a text (the book) which discusses a text (a written account of a dialogue between Cortés and Moteukzuma taken from a text (the contemporary encyclopaedia of Aztec culture, General History of the Affairs of New Spain ) which was selected from many other contemporary texts which also record, it after having been taken down by a recorder from bilingual utterances a portion of which are interpreted. Ostler is writing in English from sources including many key sources originally in Spanish, except for the Nahuatl sentences attributed to Moteukzoma.

Now the Prologue itself is a simple account purporting to be factual of the meeting of two cultures whose languages, Spanish and Nahuatl, were mutually unintelligible. The meeting was mediated by a Nahuatl speaker from Coatzacoalcos, a good deal more than the length of England from Tenochtitlán, who had been ‘traded’ as a child to Xicalanco 200 miles west Tenochtitlán, and so understood Yucatan Maya, and a Spanish priest who had lived for eight years in a Mayan village after being ship-wrecked. Moteukzoma spoke in Nahuatl, the Yucatan speaker translated it into Yucatek Maya and the priest translated from the Mayan to the Spanish. The Mexican chieftain welcomed Cortés as a god, or at least a mighty Lord, and yielded his authority to him without hesitation. And without so much as an academic qualm, Ostler believes it, O ye beauteous ones, totally unhermeneuted as it is. (Yes, Elaine, I did, I coined that word, but you may use it free of charge if you wish, just mention this url when you do.)

Hmmm. Well, questions do arise in the hermeneutical mind, and not least among them, why haven’t the academics asked any of them? Let’s ask that miracle of neoteny, Axol O’Tl Axolotl.

Herman Newt: Welcome to our tasteful little blog on the edges of Academica here, ah, Axol O’Tl. Has anyone got a clear account of the linguistic situation back then, late 15th, early 16th century?

Axol O’Tl: Well, I can’t explain why no-one’s asked until now, unless they’re still too enchanted by Cortés’s account of himself, or complicit in his fraud, but since you ask, nope. The information we have is very, very sketchy. There’s been a lot of sickness, genocide, social disaster and cultural collapse since then, and the Nahual that survives has evolved. And the languages of Central America, like those of southern North American and Northern South America were always very fluid and complex, with most people belonging to several linguistic groups at various stages of their lives. Political boundaries have never coincided with linguistic boundaries, and within any geographical area uniformity and immutability of a speech is rare, even when languages remain clearly distinguished in the minds of most speakers. Most population centres would have several languages. There were lots of lineages, all proud and competitive and mixed marriages wove them together, along with their languages. So while most people spoke more than one language, many individual languages came into being and died out within a generation. Some of these were prestigious and others had great local or widespread influence on other accounts.

Herman Newt: How easily would native speakers of Nahuatl from centres six or seven hundred miles apart have understand each other at a first meeting?

Axol O’Tl: Well it’s bloody obvious isn’t it, I mean, how likely is it? Hmmm? They’re further apart than London and Scotland, for example, and a good rural Scotch burr takes some getting used to if say, rural Somerset’s your English, though they’re both ‘English’. Even some old dialects much closer to London were impenetrable until you’d lived with them for a while. And this Yucatan speaker, now how old was she when she was ‘traded’? Had she but fading memories of infantile Nahuatl? Or had she been traded as part of a group, for wives maybe, in which case she may have been able to keep it up pretty well. Obviously, with the information we now have, we’re left guessing. But since nowhere else in the world does it occur that two diverging forms of a language that distant in a culture that various and changeable remain mutually intelligible for long, it seems highly unlikely that she’d have been much help.

Herman Newt: How likely is it then that her Yucatan would have been identical with, or intelligible to natives of the village in which the priest had lived for 11 years?

Axol O’Tl: How would anyone know? How well did the priest learn Yucatan during his stay? Was he alone among them, in which case he’d have picked up some, or was his whole crew there, in which case the pressure to learn to speak it well would have been a lot less. No-one knows.

Herman Newt: The speeches attributed to Moteukzuma have been recorded in Spanish by scribes almost perfectly unacquainted with the Nahuatl language then?

Axol O’Tl: Yes, almost perfectly unacquainted.

Herman Newt: And were taken down from the dubious translation of a dubious translation?

Axol O’Tl: Yes.

Herman Newt: And this translation is the one still being offered to us as the correct one! Does this agree with the modern Nahual?

Axol O’Tl: Nobody’s ever asked. They take Cortés at his word.

Herman Newt: No! No historian would! No scholar would!

Axol O’Tl: You’d think, wouldn’t you.

Herman Newt: So, is tot¬eukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih really what was said? And does it really mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Axol O’Tl: No, Herman it doesn’t. The second two words are a pair, variants, in fact, of a single sentence. Observe that otikm__iy_wiltih are identical in each. Vowels only have to be unstressed to vary a lot. Where one spelling gives o and the other i, you can posit an unstressed schwa. It’s a Spaniard writing it, and there are several Spanishes now, and there were more back them. Z and th and h are confusable in the old ship-board creoles. So otikmihiyawiltih is the same as otikmoziyowiltih. The scribe recording this was evidently trying out different spellings, which a recorder of rapid speech eye-witnessing a historic first encounter between two civilizations would have been most unlikely to have time for. So no, it doesn’t mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Herman Newt: So what does ‘toteukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih’ really mean?

Axol O’Tl: Who can guess? They’ve had to make something up. Nobody really believes that Moteukzuma really surrendered to Cortés believing him to be a superior being. Cortés was in a position to lie  and get away with atrocities. No one knew enough to contradict. By the time a ‘Nahuatl’ had been practically reinvented to accommodate fraudulent translations like this, it was impossible to tell how what words got into which lexicons and entered the language that way, as a contaminant. And the normally fluid Nahuatl language went on evolving, and now just shakes its head, same as the native Irish speakers with old Irish. But while they have something, anything, to support it they can get away with it.

No record at all exists of what was said there. The only texts they have are no more transcripts of real conversations between people up against seriously daunting linguistic barriers than my back foot.

Herman Newt: Thank you, Axol, for your time.

Axol O’Tl: My pleasure!

Well, everybody, that’s eft us with some questions: Lynn Gwyst’d be the one to ask. Maybe next time. For homework, read Four Masterworks of American Literature: Quetzalcoatl, The Ritual of Condolence, Cuceb, The Night Chant. Edited by John Bierhorst. University of Arizona Press / Tucson 1989 ISBN 0-8165-0886-0. Write a nine and a half thousand word essay on why you think Quetzalcoatl sailed from Cornwall in a ship, showing your hermeneutical workings out in the margins and lots and lots of foot-notes and bibliogs, and what has any of it got to do with Penn Bran yn y Gyst (Head of Bran in its chest). Mention evidence of race-memory-trace links to the folk-song, The Irish Rover: ‘She was an iligant craft, she was rigged fore and aft/and how the tradewinds drove her…!’


Herman Newt introducing Lynn Gwyst

H: Hallo again, it’s me, Herman. I’m back.
Etty Moloji who spoke to us once or twice a while ago would like to introduce us to her good friend and colleague Lynn Gwyst, who wants to talk to us today about sex.

E: Hallo everyone. I and my partner Dorian Hiss email: have had some wonderful intercourse with Lynn concerning the politics and sociology of language evolution, and what she doesn’t know about the ins and outs of tongues is nobody’s business. It’s fascinating stuff, so I’ll get out of your way.

L: Good day, Herman and Etty. I’m very pleased to be here today. I’m interested in general linguistics. I want to look at three words in particular: sex, gender and the other one’s too rude. Um, sorry Herman, I don’t think I can go on.

H: Ahem, a euphemism, perhaps, Lynn?

L: Oh, I couldn’t, not in all honesty, Herman. A euphemism is a kind of lie.

H: Well, yes, but sometimes they’re warranted.
Euphemism, me for use ‘em!
You-know-what you-know-who’s-‘em!!!
How about: “Sex, Gender and Rolling in the Hay?”

L: Well, really now, Herman, what are you suggesting? Euphemisms do terrible things to languages – like runs in stockings. You’ve got a good stout word for – erm, you know – and you suddenly declare it obscene, taboo, illegal. This is because what it means is too rude. So you replace it with a word that means something else that only indirectly alludes to it until that gets the same meaning, which is too rude so that gets killed too, so you replace that too with some innocent word that gets contaminated, until someone thinks up a way of saying it (or not saying it in the case of words like coitus = a going together) in Latin, because nothing is obscene if you say it in Latin. Which is just as well because until then it’s just a running sore in the language, contaminating and morbidifying word after word. Think of all the words for toilet, and what they originally meant, if you know.

E: Rut’s all right, I think, Lynn.

L: Oh yes, certainly, Etty. Rut’s all right, if you’re ungulates. But as you go north in England, the vowel alters, and so does the meaning, and you’re not talking about deer anymore, you’ve got humans in mind and well, that’s vastly too rude. Unless you mean a plant’s feeding organ, which isn’t quite as bad.

H: Well, what about a Latinisation…

L: All right: Sex, Gender and Erotica. Howzat?

H: Mmmm, what do others think?

E: Erotica? Why. The e is obviously an old definite article, and rot is probably originally pronounced just like its too-rude English equivalent, and the -ic just adjectivalises it so that you can make a noun out of it bu adding –a; and the noun, EROS EROTIS (m) has been commandeered as a name for a god. Why not just call it rut?

L: Well, all right. Ah hmmm. I’d like to talk to you all about Sex, Gender and Rut.
Now to begin with, sex is whether an animal, flower or flower part is male or female – boy or a girl – a daddy or a mummy. It is not rut. Rut is the reproductive act in its many and varied contexts, from flirtation to – erm…

C: Try to keep it clean, please, Ms Gwyst.

L: Who are you?

C: The censor.

L: Oh. Well, all right, there’s really no need for it to be disgust. I mean discussed. You see, I’m really eager to get at this Gender. Shall we?

H: Oh yes, do please, Lynn.

L: Gender is a grammatical term. It is not a biological term. It doesn’t mean sex.


L: Oh, look, if you’re all going to be beastly…

H: No, no, no, Lynn. Etty’s only teasing you. Tell us all about Gender.

L: Honestly, class, Gender started out as a grammatical term. Do you think French tables are girls while Irish tables are boys? Do you think a spear reminded the Romans of girls, while a flower looked manly to them? And did they denote a lack of either masculine traits or feminine ones in a building, a column of soldiers, or a javelin, or were these felt to be more neutral in some way? No, of course not. Yes, girl at the back? Yes, you are quite correct. We don’t know what native speakers of Latin thought about it at all. We don’t know whether they thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain ideas or things had – proof of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages (which aren’t really all that old if they’re honest about it). But it’s highly unlikely in view of the fact that an altogether more mundane and relatively modern circumstance sexualised the innocent genders of the pure and simple words that became Latin, French, Irish, or whatever. Can anyone guess what it is? No Robert, not reconstructionist time-travellers from the 22nd century. No, Sylvia, nothing to do with the animistic nature of words driving the evolution of words such that they trying to become life-forms and reproduce like animals, although it’s worth a glance, that idea, now that you come to mention it. No one else? Give up? All right, I’ll tell you. It was – erm…

E: Oh, Lynn.

L: …well, you know.

H: Do you mean…

L: Yes, Herman, I do. You see, males and females er…

H: Marry?

L: Yes, that’s the word. And they have children. And if they’re inbred, their off-spring become small and infertile. So communities distant enough to be speaking different languages arrange to marry each others’ merry merry maids to each others’ merry merry men and set up a new colony in a convenient place. Husbands speak one language, wives speak another. Wives rear children to age seven or so, so they grow up fluent in their mother-tongue. Fathers take the sons at age seven and they learn the father-tongue while the girls stay with their mother-tongue. The original husbands can’t understand the women, but their sons grow up speaking both languages well. You still have two distinct languages for a few generations, but after a while, many structural features would coalesce. But you’d still have a memory of which words came originally from the women and which words came from the men. (Also treatments of words, case-endings etc.) Yes, Edwin, I’ve thought of that too, of how the neuter came into being in languages like Latin, German and Greek, and why it isn’t there in French, Irish, and Spanish (well hardly at all). A neuter is added when large amounts of vocabulary enter the language through some means other than by inter-marriage – through mercenaries and other military allies, educators, priesthoods etc for example.

H: Well, the idea’s ridiculous of course, Lynn – you won’t mind me saying that, will you. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language doesn’t mention it anywhere, so we can safely dismiss it, can’t we?

E: Yes, Herman’s right, I think, Lynn. In fact I think we should, straight away, before it gets mistaken for a useful insight leading to really worthwhile discoveries about the linguistic situation of pre-renaissance europe, and thence to understanding of the social and political forces driving language evolution in those times, and from there all the way to new insights about the mind and manners of our ancestors. That would spoil it for those who like their history deep, dark, and mysterious,which is to say unintelligible, so as to remain free to fantasise about it at great public expense.

H: Thank you Etty, for those thoughts, and thank you Lynn Gwyst for your illuminating chat. For homework, class, I’d like four and a half to five and a half thousand words on ‘whether ancient Romans thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain things or ideas had – and whether or not this is evidence of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages. (HINT: try to avoid facts, since there aren’t any which support this theory and there are several which gravely endanger if not vanquish it.)

Herman Newt: getting nitty-gritty critical

getting nitty-gritty critical

my compliments of this very fine morning to mr christopher snyder, who is a very highly qualified historian, and a writer of history books.
as an undergraduate (a mere eft, indeed, had he been, like me, a newt) he collaborated on a book about king arthur which was successfully used as a university text book. which is a terrible pity because if it was anything like his second attempt (and one likes to imagine that scholars evolve with age) it helped to perpetuate the shabby traditions of bad history. pollutes the pond, so to speak.
he’s a busy academic. in 2000, when he published ‘exploring the world of king arthur’, he was a fully metamorphosed specimen, chair of a virginian university’s history and politics department and doing all sorts of other very learned things too, such as serving on editorial boards and being a fellow of one society or another of the sort that takes a deep interest in antiquities. i mean, he more than gets away with it.
no, peer review just isn’t quality control, amanda, it just isn’t, when any ‘peer’ is in effect ‘peer-reviewed’ as ‘unsound’ if they disagree too much with the hegemony. so he not only gets away with it, he’s promoted for it, and if he did anything else but proudly perpetuate the pollution of the ponds of popular and professional perceptions of the past he’d be promptly punished and possibly even persecuted with professional peremptoriness by his powerful peers and put into the pits where he’d be hard put to procure a publisher.
now i’m a fair-minded newt and it is no wish of mine to single out one scholar among so many who are all participating in the producing of such vast vistas of such simplistic pseudo-knowledge that keeping track of it all is a full-time highly paid job for our most highly educated scholars. but it happens that he sometimes writes books intended for the intelligent lay reader, not for scholars, although perhaps they might be thought useful for serious students as well. so he is paid to produce a packaged product, and i’m appalled that there’s no quality control in academic offerings to the public who pays them at all.
so okay he is a professional historian with a high reputation and i am but a humble amphibian. but many things are seen through the eye of a newt that are not visible to the eye of a professional historian, and that is why i feel it encumbent upon me that i should save you all, oh my valued readers, yes, john, you, and even, raymond and alison, you two, who would learn more if you listened and didn’t dandle each others handies in the back row, from the dangers of falling for the frauds and errors that he, poor chap has fallen for.
what is wrong with his work? here’s my assessment.
epistemology: no marks.
hermeneutics: no marks.
yes, anthea? what is epistemology? phyllis? that’s right, good girl! epistemology is the theoretics of knowledge; that is, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, studies its premises, considers deeply the veracity of its parts, and regulates with simple sanity the tousling out of the implications of known facts. it distinguishes with great nicety between fact and theory, and deals with the production of academically sound theory by valid logic from sound bases. that is to say, basises. ahem.
and what is (or are) hermeneutics, other than the study of newts called herman? look it up in your dictionaries, yes, that’s right, simon – the methods by which scholars interpret texts. and no, murray, not specifically ‘sacred’ texts, and it is nothing to do with the extracting of abstruse ‘sacred’ sense out of all but unintelligible texts which make no sense at all to non-specialists – what did god mean when he said ‘all flesh is grass? for example. reading a text is a hermeneutical act. the words have meanings, the meanings are interrelated according to the logic of the sentences as indicated by the grammar. so it matters a lot. i don’t believe snyder has done his own translation, so i can’t hold him personally responsible for the errors of his sources, but i did take a mark off for his indiscriminate use of tricky and treacherous translations more titillating than truthful, in the face of glaring evidence of their inaccuracy.
for example, if you turn to page 80, where he is introducing us to geoffrey of monmouth, he notes that that learned author of a history of the kings of britain described himself as a PVDIBVNDVS BRITO which means, christopher has the face to assert, ‘a modest briton’. PVDIBVNDVS BRITO. a glance at that tells the average 1st former of forty odd years ago, when latin was a compulsory subject for all matriculants, that this guy wasn’t speaking classical latin. they’d’ve learnt by chanting, like i did, that BRITANVS –I (m) is the word for a briton. but all right, we might perhaps allow that there’s a reasonably high probability that BRITO (presumably) BRITONIS (m) is a dialect form of BRITANVS –I (m), but PVDIBUNDVS –A –VM means humble?
well of course he’s supported – and kept erroneous – by the lexicography, and the less we look at that the less we start to grin and giggle. i mean, julia, it is in dire and drastic need of wholesale radical revision. it is the major tool of hermeneutics, and since hermeneutics is ‘understanding’ and that’s what we’re after, let’s start rejecting what our remote ancestors bequeathed us in the way of a lexicon. lexicography must leap into the 20th century without fear or favour, and learn the art of itself, before presuming to slither it’s perverse and deviant way into the 21st. having glanced but once, or made ourselves quite queasy with looking, let’s politely look the other way.
you can of course see the reasoning behind this translation. anyone who knew good classical roman latin but not much of the other sorts, would be given pause by this little oddity and would immediately resort to good old-fashioned comparative philology as it used to be called, and they’d see its resemblance to PVDENDA, which we all know (and we doubt at our peril) means ‘requiring to be rePVDiated’. after all, it’s all about about PVD, and that of course is something too shameful to go into here. so it follows that PVDIBVNDVS would mean an abundance of PVD, i.e., shameful stuff.and ashamed of one’s abundance of PVD would equivalate approximately enough to humble, so humble is what it means. hmmmm. perhaps he even had a consciousness of having PVVD.
hey look, there’s nothing wrong with resorting to comparative philology, or historical linguistics as it is trying to get called these days – and succeeding in some circles – as long as it’s quality comp phil you’re doing. and there’s no professional historical linguistics being done on the ancient texts that isn’t based on the comp. phil. of the early twentieth and nineteenth century and earlier, when all scholars were required to swallow whole and without a murmur of protest the lexicography of the middle ages, especially that pertaining to the interpretation of ancient greek and latin texts. the need to believe that they are clearly understood, despite readily findable evidence to that they are not, has served as a kind of neurotic retarder of progress in history doing.
i mean, young efts and elvers and everyone listening to me today, current lexicography even manages to sustain some passages of the bible if – and only if – you squint and look sideways, and take the word of the copious note providers that it doesn’t look as if it means what they say it means because you just haven’t learnt enough greek – the really hard stuff that only really really learned beings know, to wit: the stuff that is totally at variance with what you learn in the first six forms of school and thereafter the next three to six years at university, in other words, they’re lying in their gills – i mean teeth!!!
and it’s the likes of them who write those lexicons, popping geoffrey of monmouth’s little gem confidently and unresponsibly in with all the good stuff with fine medieval panache. we have to go back and look at it all with very great care. imo, as they say on the message boards, of course!
fair question, samuel, what does PVDIBVNDVS mean? up until now i’ve been reserving the roman alphabet for the latin language, using an cells (uncials) only for english and other modern languages. but now i’m (exceptionally) using it to shout. NOBODY HAS THE FAINTEST I-BLOODY-FAHKEN-DEA! now that’s, epistemologically speaking, a fact.
and it is because you haven’t penetrated the enchanting mystique of the lexicography of the past, christopher snyder, that you lost one of the two marks for hermaneutics. you lost the other for jumping to silly conclusions and then stirring up the mud around you so that no one could see that that was what you’d done. we’ll talk more about why you lost the other mark some other time.
for homework, re-read nicholas nickleby, for a fine description of a yorkshire boarding school that faintly recalls its medieval origins just as it reaches its 19th century demise. it’s fascinatin’ stuff.