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Fathoming the wine-dark sea

Gladstone found something very strange indeed in Homer, but the world was treating the future prime minister warily when he published his findings.

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

Through the Language Glass Guy Deutscher

Heinemann, pp.310, 20

Globish Robert McCrum

Viking, pp.310, 20

Gladstone found something very strange indeed in Homer, but the world was treating the future prime minister warily when he published his findings. It was 1858, the year he sailed off to the Ionian Islands as ruling commissioner, to address his puzzled Italian-speaking subjects in classical Greek. But even if Gladstone really was mad, as his political opponents said, he was undeniably right in noting that Homer’s use of colour was deeply odd.

It wasn’t just the ‘wine-dark sea’. That epithet oinops, ‘wine-looking’ (the version ‘wine-dark’ came from Andrew Lang’s later translation) was applied both to the sea and to oxen, and it was accompanied by other colours just as nonsensical. ‘Violet’, ioeis, (from the flower) was used by Homer of the sea too, but also of wool and iron. Chloros, ‘green’, was used of honey, faces and wood. By far the most common colour words in his reticent vocabulary were black (170 times) and white (100), followed distantly by red (13).

What could account for this alien colour-sense? It wasn’t that Homer (if Homer existed) was blind, for there are parallel usages in other Greek authors. Glad- stone’s radical conclusion was that ‘the organs of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age’. He was writing at a time when evolution was in the air, but had not yet been explained by natural selection, let alone genetics.

In 1867, Lazarus Geiger noted that in the ancient Vedic hymns there was (as in Homer) no blue sky, nor was there in the Hebrew of the Bible. A decade later Hugo Magnus suggested that the eyesight of ancient people resembled that of modern man in twilight, with limited colour distinction. Rapid physical development of colour vision was being proposed.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was the turn of anthropology to provide hypotheses, when W. H. R. Rivers found that the people of the Torres Straits had (like those of the Homeric age) well-used words for black and white, but none for blue, and a word for red that covered a variety of hues. It seemed as though culturally ‘primitive’ peoples shared the perceptions of tribes from previous ages.

Guy Deutscher’s purpose in tracing such explanations of colour names is to come closer to answering the question of whether nature or nurture, genes or culture mould language. Noam Chomsky imagined that a Martian would regard all human speech as dialects of one language, and that has led some to use the metaphor of the faculty being ‘hard-wired’ in our brains. To add perspective, Deutscher asks a useful supplementary question: does language fundamentally affect how we think? Along the way he notes the tendency of fashions of scholarship to give some ideas a bad name, or simple bury them through group amnesia.

Thus, in the 1930s, the new, subjectivist orthodoxy of the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield was: ‘Physicists view the colour-spectrum as a continuous scale, but languages mark off different parts of this scale quite arbitrarily.’ At the same period, in a different part of the forest, Benjamin Whorf asserted that a Hopi Indian

has no general notion of time’ because the Hopi language has ‘no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’ or to past, present or future.

Whorf emerges as a bad case of armchair anthropologitis, brought on by theoretical dogma. Deutscher quotes with comic effect a sentence from Hopi Time by Ekkehart Malotki (1983), who actually did fieldwork among the Hopi and noted down a sentence by a native speaker that explodes everything Whorf had claimed:

Then indeed, the following day, quite early in the morning at the hour when people pray to the sun, around that time then, he woke up the girl again.

So it is not that the Hopi know no time, or that Homer was unable to pick out a lapis lazuli bead from a bowl of coral, but that in the maxim of the linguist Roman Jakobson, ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.’ So, in English one may say, ‘I spent last night with a neighbour’, without specifying whether the neighbour was male or female. In French there is no such privilege of equivocation: one must say voisin or voisine. In Deutscher’s view, ‘no language — not even that of the most “primitive” tribes — is inherently unsuitable for expressing the most complex ideas’. Just add a few items of vocabulary, he suggests, and — hey presto!

It is a delight to read a book that probes the territory of semantics (which, like theology, is often used as a metaphor for pointless distinctions). The big objection, however, to the argument of Through the Language Glass is that the bulk of it discusses colour. As Deutscher confirms from the behaviour of his little daughter, colour (even surprisingly the recognition of the sky as blue), is mastered later than knowledge and articulation of things — Mummy, cats, bananas, water. Unlike philosophers who imagine that a basic thought is a patch or red, human beings know the essences of things, and express them in sentences. It is only because colour lends itself to empirical experimentation that linguists fancy its study to be more ‘scientific’.

The fashion at the moment is to write about the history of language communities, and, in Globish, Robert McCrum purports to tell the story of ‘how the English language became the world’s language’. It is well- covered ground, and the journey this time felt like listening to a tedious argument of insidious intent while walking through a wood by night, so that wet twigs slap you in the face unexpectedly. The level of the argument is indicated by this thought, which McCrum embraces: ‘Without the great English translations of the New Testament and the sonorous, deeply resonant Book of Common Prayer, it is difficult to imagine William Shakespeare.’

The annoying twig-slaps are the supposed facts marshalled in illustration. So, in the 12th century,

among Saxons, in extremis even educated French- and Latin-speakers would switch to the vernacular. In a contemporary account, on the life and death of Thomas Becket, written in Latin, the chronicler reverts to English to narrate a warning-shout to one of the murderers: ‘Hugh de Moreville, ware! Ware! Ware! Lithulf heth his swerd adrege!’. [Lithulf has drawn his sword.]

This is hopelessly confused and misleading. You’d think it was an episode from Becket’s martyrdom. In fact it does not concern a knight who murdered Becket, but his father, whose wife is betraying her lover, Lithulf, whom she has tricked into drawing his sword. She is not in extremis —  at the point of death —  nor is the narrator.

McCrum found that anecdote in Peter Ackroyd’s Albion, though he might have found it too, plainly explained, in A. C. Baugh’s History of the English Language, which he cites in his bibliography. His narration of the dissolution of the monasteries appears to be a garbled version of part of Simon Schama’s History of Britain.

McCrum combines this Little Arthur approach to history with a rejection of what he calls ‘academic voodoo’, which he exemplifies by the Great Vowel Shift in early Modern English, described by Otto Jespersen in 1909. ‘Every subsequent history of the English language has paid lip-service to this jargon,’ McCrum sneers:

All we can say with any certainty is that, approximately from the 1450s, increased social mobility and economic prosperity were encouraging a new literacy among new classes throughout the
kingdom, and a matching change in articulation

That is a fine slap of a wet twig in the dark, to be sure. If Jespersen’s perfectly intelligible description of a linguistic change is ‘voodoo’, and ‘all we can say’ instead is something about prosperity or learning to read causing a change in pronunciation, then it is the turn of zombie philology. The only thing this book has in common with Guy Deutscher’s is that both have red dust-jackets.

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