On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.

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As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

For Love of English

One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.

Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.

I Am Legacy

The word “legacy,” I fear, is losing its meaning. Well, words really don’t having “meanings” as much as they have “usages,” but still you get my point. When I was young (before the Internet had been invented) a legacy was a time-honored contribution. Something that had, perhaps, been a family heirloom or a significant school of thought. Legacy today simply means something outdated. It’s a polite word for “old.” I’m reminded of this constantly in our computer age. I’ve never been a fan of lingo. In fact, I seldom use slang. (I think it was being raised with Holy Writ that said, “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.”) It’s not that I don’t hear slang frequently. I can even replicate it when necessary. It’s just my legacy.

The other day I attended a meeting about fonts. I never stop to think much about fonts. I’ve designed a few (on paper only, that most archaic of ancient mediums) and I enjoy the wonder of knowing that no matter how embellished or plain, an A is still an A, just as surely as a yea is a yea. When discussing fonts, however, “legacy fonts” kept coming up. Perhaps alone in the room I could recall the days before computers. The days when a font was a set of clearly defined green dots that you could trace with your eye as they appeared on the cathode-ray tube. The legacy fonts under discussion were much more recent than that. It was simply a way of saying fonts we no longer use. Old fonts. Outdated fonts.

Unicode, to be sure, is a thing of wonder. As a scholar who struggled to get Hebrew vowel points to line up correctly on the pages of his dissertation, I knew well the benefits of having a system to organize any sign we use in writing. Even as recently as my last book, published last year, I was still struggling to find transliteration symbols for some words in Ugaritic. I’m sure they must exist in Unicode, although I don’t know if Unicode Ugaritic is yet a reality. It’s barely a reality in biblical studies any more. So maybe I’m just feeling like the memory of ancient things has been devalued. We go after the new, the fresh, the simply coded. Meanwhile, I still prefer to write with pen on paper. I’m old-fashioned in that way. Those who are too kindly disposed might even say, although I would blush at the compliment, that I’m a legacy.

A legacy font? Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

A legacy font?
Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

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.

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TechnoFrazzle

Hebrew can be an obstinate language. And computer software companies can be immature. In a biblically inspired pulling out of the hair and rending of mine cloak, I am trying to submit an old manuscript for publication. You see, I have been a loyal Apple user from the beginning; Moses himself was one of my original teachers. This was back in the day when the processor took up proportionately about 90 percent of the space, and the screen was about the size of, say, an iPad. Monitors were black-and-white then, kids, and you had to save everything on devices called “floppy disks.” In any case, Macs died and Macs resurrected—actually, they never really die, as an attic full of aging, but document-rich Macs attests. Operating systems evolved at a frightening rate, and the document I want to submit was originally written *gasp!* about eight years ago. The Dark Ages. Before OSX. Before Keurig individual serving machines. When fax was still used.

The publisher made a simple request: send us a Word document. The problem, you see, is that Apple no longer runs software based on Microsoft platforms (Bill and Steve, play nice!). That means instead of Word I now use Pages. That’s mostly fine, but then Hebrew can be an obstinate language. It is written backwards. The vowels are above and below the consonants. It has letters that English doesn’t and most English speakers can’t even pronounce. So geeky font-makers came to the rescue and devised clever fonts to fill the gaps. In Word. I convert my old file into Pages so I can open it on a laptop that actually connects to the internet (the laptop on which it was written never could quite manage that) and guess what? Pages can’t display the fonts. I convert them, but like stubborn infidels, they remain the same on my screen. It is like driving through a blizzard with windshield wipers that don’t work. I can’t be sure what a PC reader, using that antique software, Microsoft Word, will see on the screen. I’m not sure what I’m writing.

I remember the rejoicing in heaven the day Apple announced that you could open a PC file in Word on a Mac. My life was easier, except for the fact that I was unfortunately working at Nashotah House—but that is a different story of archaic woes, for I could slip in a floppy disc (consult your dictionary) and share it with a less-sophisticated PC user. Now Mac OSX no longer supports Microsoftware and I can’t read my own fonts. I decide to copy the file onto a flash drive and submit it unchanged. My old laptop scratches its metaphorical head at this strange device I’m inserting into it and tells me this wondrous USB-deity is beyond its capacity to fathom. My Hebrew is stuck in the past. Along with my head, which, as you’ve been given to understand, is now bereft of hair.

In the beginning was Word...

In the beginning was Word…

Divine Sex Change

One of the greatest problems in reconstructing ancient religions is the ambiguity of the evidence.  Most ancient artifacts are not labeled (they probably didn’t need to be for the original viewers) and few have textual materials explaining them.  This became clear to me when studying the famed inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the mid-1970s.  The most (in)famous aspect of this artifact was that an inscription overlapped a doodle, and due to the urgent desire to interpret the inscription a particular way, the line drawing was supposed to be an illustration of the inscription.  The inscription is commonly translated as something along the lines of “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah.”  Many scholars took asherah to mean Asherah, the goddess, despite no evidence for pronominal suffixes on personal names in classical Hebrew.  The doodle shows three figures, perhaps related, of which two were said to be Yahweh and Asherah.  Despite the very clear resemblance to the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes (Kuntillet Ajrud is between Israel and Egypt), it was argued that the figures in the “foreground” should be considered Yahweh and his main squeeze, Asherah.

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The artistic analysis of these doodles has always been torturous. Tiny, perhaps insignificant, details were ascribed great importance—particularly those indicating the gender of the figures.  For the Yahweh-Asherah connection to work, one had to be male and the other female (with the male preferably in front).  The problem was that both figures seemed to have penises (in keeping with Bes’s typical representation).  In order to make it clear that the right-hand figure was female it was claimed that she was wearing a lion skin and the “penis” was literally a tail, the leopard’s tail, seen between “her” legs. The problem seemed to be a possible scrotum appeared to be present.  The left-hand figure, larger (therefore, in front) had a clear scrotum, and that sealed the case, in a manner of speaking.  Little chestal circles were said to be breasts on the right-hand figure, but male nipples on the left-hand figure were lacking.  Oh, and they were dancing, as shown by the woman playing the harp in the “background.”  Believe it or not, seriously scholarly debate raged over this—nothing short of the discovery of Yahweh’s wife seemed to be at stake!  A colleague recently emailed me to tell me the final report of the archaeologists concludes that the “scrotum” on the right-hand figure was a mere dust smudge and so, aha!, she is a female after all!


I argued years ago that this drawing was clearly a representation of Bes. The connection with the inscription is accidental (the jug on which the inscription occurs is full of doodles); if someone wanted to illustrate an inscription, they would not draw figures that actually obliterate part of the caption. Assumption is built on assumption here, however, making for a very shaky foundation indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I would like to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity. It is not good for the god to be alone. Still, it is going to take more than a divine sex-change operation to transform Bes into Asherah. If nothing else this divine gender-bender ought to serve as a cautionary tale for scholars, yet somehow I doubt that it will. We see what we want to see.

Babel’s Gate

Up north past Edinburgh, beyond the Cairngorms, on the shores of the chill North Sea lies the village of Cromarty, Scotland. A death occurred in Cromarty, according to CNN earlier this week. And why would CNN be concerned with a single death in a small village in a remote corner of Scotland? Because with Bobby Hogg’s death, his language also died. Hogg was the last speaker of Cromarty. Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I heard many an impenetrable accent, but even as I strained to understand, I loved it. The loss of Cromarty is part of an on-going, world-wide extinction of languages. Sure, the big ones survive, thrive even. The small ones pass away, often forgotten. Those who unabashedly champion “progress” take no time to mourn the passing of the idiosyncratic, the individualistic, the non-conformist languages. Dominoes are easier to stand, after all, if they are all a uniform size and shape.

I taught Hebrew to my students for many years. Those who wish to be clergy should be able to read God in his original tongue, it stands to reason. As complaints began to simmer, as they always did, at the difficulty of learning a semitic language, I liked to remind students that a language is far more than a collection of vocabulary and a smattering of grammar and syntax. Languages are worldviews. We don’t know who invented language, but we do know that it evolves more rapidly than biology, once human populations are separated. As in the case of Cromarty, languages often reflect lifestyles—they preserve the words and phrases necessary for distinct ways of life. Automation, however, prefers one-size-fits-all. Those who can’t understand are less efficient players in the colonialization of the world by capitalism. Languages allow for diversity and specialization. Cromarty was the language of fishermen.

Yes, multiple languages reduce efficiency. You don’t have to read too far into your Bible to discover that. Yet even efficiency comes with a price. Year by year, the cacophony of human expression becomes more uniform. Yesterday there were a thousand languages, today only nine-hundred-ninety-nine. Yarns were spun in Cromarty, just as surely as they were in Hebrew. Young ears will never hear that ancient language, and with it a way of looking at the world also died. Yawn if you will, but if all the minor languages disappear the one remaining worldview will be all the poorer for it. Yiddish to Aari, languages reflect who we are—and Mr. Hogg’s passing is a loss to all humanity.

Do you hear what I hear?