The Importance of Being Published

AtlanticThe crowd over at The Atlantic Monthly magazine are a formidable lot. Even with a Ph.D. and a modicum of writing ability, I’ve been frightened off from ever submitting to such an intellectual periodical. These are people whose opinions count. When The Atlantic named, in last month’s issue, the fifty most important inventions since the wheel how could I not peek? Especially when number 39 included a picture I recognized from my childhood in the cradle of the oil industry: Col. Edwin Drake standing outside a fledgling oil derrick in Titusville, Pennsylvania—just the next town up route 8. I felt like I might be somebody, by association. We all know that number one is best, so I wondered, as I flipped through the pages, what the most important invention was, although I suspected I already knew. The printing press, dating back to the 1430s, is certainly a contender, and was Atlantic‘s winner. Those of us historically inclined tend to think in regressions. The internet has forever changed our lives, but what is the internet without reading? (Okay, well, it is lots of funny pictures of cats and pornography, but you still have to be able to type in “cat” or “nude” or whatever, to bring you there.) It took the printing press to catapult reading from the academy to the hearth, and to reach that critical mass so that the Kindle could surpass the printed book.

My interest in studying the Hebrew Bible for a doctorate actually included an ulterior motive. You see, the Bible was among the first books printed. As much as western civilization owes to the New Testament, my regressive thinking insisted that the New Testament was based on the Old. As I learned in seminary, the Old was based on an older, and that on an even older, in a pleasing kind of regression. I ended up in Ugaritic, the earliest known alphabetic language. The alphabet, I might contend, vies with the printing press for most important invention since the wheel. Before the alphabet writing was so cumbersome that only very skilled specialists could read written languages cobbled together from signs that represented letters and symbols and entire words and entire classes of words. But, ah, it was writing! Mesopotamians seem to have brought the idea into existence, specifically, those of ancient southern Mesopotamia that we call the Sumerians, who, incidentally, also invented the wheel.

Those of us in the book industry feel a constant worry in our stomachs when we look at book sales figures. Even in the most highly literate of social periods a very small percentage of people would actually purchase books (especially in the New World). With electronic media, that number has declined alarmingly. Still, the internet—number 9 on The Atlantic list—owes its life to good old paper (number 6) and pen (which failed to make the list at all). And paper wouldn’t have evolved without clay—the very substance of which early written myths claim that humans are made—and stylus. Thoughts locked in our clay heads cry out for expression. Some of us are compelled to put them in the form of written words for others to see. It’s just that we know our place and wouldn’t presume to send them to The Atlantic Monthly, or any other magazine, where they would be certain not to make the cut.

Secret Life of Language

I recently met with a friend to catch up on several years of silence. Increasingly I’m discovering the wisdom of those I’m privileged to know—perhaps it is the shedding of a purely academic way of learning. We all share in this very human voyage of discovery. This particular friend presented me with an idea that I just can’t dismiss: what if language is a living entity, existing in its own world but intersecting with ours? In a symbiotic relationship, we use words and they help us to survive and advance. This friend is a writer, and like all of us who attempt the art, knows the joys and frustrations of dealing with words that can elude but also fall subtly into place forming a poem or story of sublime beauty. We haven’t fully tamed language, but it defines us. Even my feeble attempt to replicate his fascinating idea is fraught with difficulty, for language won’t be relegated to the page, whether of paper or of electrons.

Language evolves along with us, helping us to express concepts that defy explanation. I recently read of the disappearance of three of our alphabetic letters in English. Alphabets, beginning with the earliest complete exemplar in Ugaritic, contain roughly thirty members that may be combined to replicate, in facsimile, the sounds we make. Different cultures use differing sounds; letters that represent those sounds require symbolic representation. Not all alphabets are created equally. One of English’s missing letters is “ampersand.” I always wondered why when I learned the alphabet the song ended with “W, X, Y and Z”—why the “and”? “Ampersand” was part of the alphabet in the early 1800s. Students sang “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” “And per se (‘by itself’) and” eventually ran together into “ampersand.” Over time it fell out of our rank of letters. As the runic Anglo-Saxon that gave us English was absorbed into Latin characters, the Teutonic “thorn,” or th sound, went extinct in our alphabet as well. As any student of German knows, “th” has distinct pronunciations in Germanic languages. It has its own letter of the alphabet in both Arabic and Greek. Since the Latin “y” resembled “thorn” the letter was replaced by ye olde “y.” The archaic letter “wynn” looks like a flattened “p” but was pronounced as “w.” As Latin superseded runic forms “wynn” was written as a doubled “u,” literally “double-u,” which, in Latin was scripted with a “v” shape. This gives us the anomalous W written with what looks like two “v”s.

The alphabet, second to writing itself, is perhaps the most important invention that humans have devised. The alphabet made writing much easier to learn and with writing ideas could be preserved for centuries and could be sent vast distances without changing. Writing allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants. As the school year is beginning again and kids everywhere feel the strain of losing the freedom of summer, I think back to the purpose of education—teaching our young to read, write, and calculate. Language has been guiding us all along. It may evolve, shed a letter or two, frequently grow by taking on entire new words, but it still cradles us as we struggle to find the perfect expression. We should take a little time to get to know our own language better, for without it we are merely biological entities.

An Ugaritic abecedary

Oh, Eye

As a frequent user of dictionary.com, I note the daily blog-post headlines as I look up my various words throughout the day. Yesterday’s article promised to be a good fit into this blog as well: “Why are zero and the letter ‘O’ both circles? The answer involves both science and mysticism.” The title is a bit wordy, but this is a dictionary site, after all. Each semester I briefly encapsulate the history of writing for my students. Since the Bible is a written document, it stands to reason that its origins reside within the sphere of writing. Many letters of our alphabet are pictographic in origin. Often as the initial letters of a word beginning with their sound, our letter-forms are mostly borrowed from the Greeks, who, in turn, borrowed most of them from the Phoenicians. The pictographic origins of all current ciphers in the alphabet are not known, but some have stories behind them. O is one such letter. As the article explains, O derives from the Semitic letter Ayin, a consonant that has no regular English equivalent. My late doctoral advisor at Edinburgh, Professor J. C. L. Gibson, delighted in saying it was the sound a camel made when overloaded. I have never forgotten how he rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue while trying to replicate it. The shape seems to derive from ayin’s original meaning of “eye.”

The zero is more metaphysical. As the article at dictionary.com states, its premiere was attended by philosophical and religious arguments. The concept of nothingness still disturbs many people, and its early history was filled with debates about the divine implications of nothing. (Some things never change.) How could such an abstraction fit into a divinely planned and ordained world? Does it not imply that God left a few cracks in the joinery? Debate as they might, eventually the utility of zero was forced upon human thinkers. Its shape, apparently, derived from either the sun or the moon, but not the eye.

In ancient Egypt, however, possibly where the round ayin shape originated, the sun and moon were sometimes equated with the eyes of Horus. Horus is a benevolent god, overseeing the fortunes of the king, and thereby the nation. His wounded eye, damaged in his combat with Seth, has the power to heal as it cycles through its stages as the moon. His solar eye, necessary for life, can be harsh and unblinking. Today O is the fourth most used letter in our alphabet. It has its origins among the powers attributed to eyes in the ancient world. Perhaps if we learn the art of truly seeing, along with Horus, we might discover how to bring peace to those who gave us the gift of writing.

Somebody's eyes

Blessed Bovines

In perhaps one of the greatest ironies of history, throughout the Ancient Near East, cattle were currency. The entire system of fair exchange is based on what humans deem to be valuable — gold is not inherently of more worth than iron. We choose to agree on such value systems and the chosen material becomes a means of trade. In the Bible, before coinage evolved, wealth was measured in animal possession. The rancher with the largest herd was the richest person around. This should be familiar to readers of the Bible, and it is attested in the surrounding cultures of the Near East as well. Even in Egypt, which has the reputation of looking down on cow-pokes (see Genesis 46), bovines were sacred. The apis bull and the usual representation of the goddess Hathor attest to that.

Wikipedia's prized gnu cow

In reading the Iliad over the last few days, the value of cattle among the ancient Europeans also stands out. War prizes from Troy and other conquests are often valued in terms of how many cattle they are worth. Even captured human prizes are symbolically weighed against their worth in moo. The sacrifice that gods appreciate most is that of the beefy variety, although the small-scale farmer may only be able to spare a caprid; when the gods are showing temper, throw another steak on the divine grill and all will be well. It would be difficult to find a stronger religious continuum in antiquity than the pacifying value of bovine sacrifice.

Bovine worship gone crazy

One of the lesser recognized features of our ancient ancestors’ bovine-fixation is found in our own alphabet. Writing began with pictographic symbols representing their referents. Since cattle were so important, their characteristic visage made up a frequently utilized symbol. As cuneiform developed, drawing was replaced by wedge-shaped writing on clay, and the bovine head was represented as a series of wedges and lines. When the inhabitants of ancient Aram (very roughly our Syria) devised their non-cuneiform alphabet, the very first letter was an ox head. The Greeks turned our abstract cow onto its horns and gave the world its alpha, a form that survives in Western scripts today as a Latin capital A. In this industrialized age when, unless they go to the 4-H fair, many people never even see a real cow, every time we tap out messages on our keyboards, we still acknowledge the sacred bovine.

Michael Jackson, Isaac Newton, and the Alphabet

Here is my second podcast, complete with musings about Michael Jackson and the alphabet, neither of which I’m an expert on! I find the linguistic aspects less interesting than the big picture of how this whole wonderful enterprise of writing got started.