Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

Confusion_of_Tongues

Material Whirled

With the moon and Jupiter waltzing slowly so high in the sky, radiating such brilliance early in the morning over this past week, it is understandable how ancient people came to see the gods as material objects. The course of progression seems to have been physical gods to spiritual gods: the earliest deities ate, drank, made love, fought. They were of the same substance as humans, or at least of the same psychological makeup. The Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Greeks all toyed with ideas of beings of “spirit”—non-corporeal entities that did not participate in our material world, but were able to influence it. In the world but not of it. The tremendous gulf between great goddess and material girl was born. Today that concept is taken for granted, especially in western religions. We are locked into physicality while God is free to come and go.

Many religions respond to this by suggesting that we should look beyond the physical to the majesty hidden from biological eyes. And yet, physical creatures that we are, we are drawn back to material means to demonstrate our spirituality. One of the perks of working for a publisher is the constant exposure to new ideas. At Routledge I have been learning about the rising interest in material religion: the manifestation of religion through physical objects and rituals. This aspect of religious life easily devolves into a cheapening of faith into mass-produced, religious knickknacks and kitsch. Some mistake this for the real thing. While living in Wisconsin, my family used to visit the spectacular Holy Hill, the site of a Carmelite monastery atop a large glacial moraine. On a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the church tower. It is a large tourist draw.

No visit to such a shrine would be complete without the obligatory stop at the gift shop. Even the non-believer feels compelled to buy some incredibly tasteless artifact to keep them grounded in reality. Many of the items—giant glow-in-the-dark rosaries, maudlin mini-portraits of the blessed virgin Mary (BVM as the insiders call her, not to be confused with BVD) and the crucified Lord on all manner of crosses, line the walls and shelves. This commercialization is not limited to the Catholic tradition. Evangelical groups realize the importance of branding as well, passing out cheap merchandise (or better, selling it) with Bible verses emblazoned on it. These signs of faith sell themselves, but they blur the sacred distinction between human and divine. Does religion point to a reality behind the physical? This is its claim, but what is the harm in making a bit of cash on the side, just in case?

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.