Thursday, December 15, 2016

I like learning things.

As the year cruises to a close, I am fast approaching 100 books for the year. Those are what I finished (that being the only reasonable metric: I read many books at once, so the start date means nothing), and only one book (The Vorrh) that I actually regret reading. The latter is nearly unique; I've read any number of middling-and-below books, but I never really regret the time spent. Except for this one.

I am still reading The Iliad to the boy in small bits, seated on his floor, leaning back on his bed, with my phone in night-mode. I picked up a book titled Understanding Classics: Homer, which is basically a book-length college essay, but has all this great context for the Homeric epics.

As mentioned earlier, I'm also reading Through the Language Glass, wherein we learn that William Gladstone, that remarkable son of British politics, was also a full-bore classicist who wrote the 3-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone was a Homer geek, and among more conspicuous observations, he noted that Homer doesn't have a word for "blue," and the colors he does have come from some world-view where "violet" is the flower, the ocean, and sheep. "Green" is twigs, olive wood, and honey. It goes on like that for a while.

It's no fun writing a book about language, in English, without talking about English's long-ago ancestor Indo-European, whose mother language Proto-Indo-European is such a fun illustrative example of comparative linguistics that language geeks just say "P-I-E" for short.
[I say "fun," but I'm actually not 100% sure why it's the go-to case. It may be the breathtaking pre-colonial geographic range, from India to England, or the 3 billion-ish people speaking its daughter languages; it's also highly accessible to we phonemically-impoverished users of Roman script. It's hard for us to see the commonalities between Hebrew and Arabic when they use scripts that might as well be Greek (except that Greek is more familiar), written in a direction we're not used to (right-to-left), leaving out elements we tend to consider vital (vowels), using sounds we probably had no idea existed (what's up, Arabic?).]
Funny enough for a language from 6,000 years ago that was never written down, linguists have  reconstructed about 1,500 words of PIE by exhaustively mapping out the differences between the daughter languages. (Comparative linguistics usually takes authors a couple chapters to explain, which is when you find out that some of its foundational work was done by--and I cannot make this shit up--Jacob Grimm, of Grimm's Fairy Tales.) We have enough words to tell a short story:

(Related: languages generally tend to simplify over time, which is why most of us had no idea those sounds could come out of human mouths.)

The obvious next question is "who were these people?", and the gods only know how many dissertations and even more graduate seminars have lived and died on that question. I don't think it had ever occurred to me to ask, except that one or two ancient-history podcasts mentioned The Horse, the Wheel and Language, a fine book, despite its flaunting of the Oxford comma--though really, what should we expect from Princeton University Press? It's as accessible as a university-press book gets, which means skipping over details only relevant to the dozens of other people on the planet who think the author is absolutely over-extrapolating the dates of Tripolye C(3) from the available horse molars, leading to an error of at least a few hundred years

Computers are sometimes so predictable by comparison.

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