A kingdom in splinters
by Eric Ormsby
Traditional philology today is a shadow of what it once was. Can it survive?
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Papyrus of Callimachus's Aetia. via
What language did Adam and Eve speak in the Garden of Eden? Today the question might seem not only quaint, but daft. Thus, the philologist Andreas Kempe could speculate, in his “Die Sprache des Paradises” (“The Language of Paradise”) of 1688, that in the Garden God spoke Swedish to Adam and Adam replied in Danish while the serpent—wouldn’t you know it?—seduced Eve in French. Others suggested Flemish, Old Norse, Tuscan dialect, and, of course, Hebrew. But as James Turner makes clear in his magisterial and witty history, which ranges from the ludicrous to the sublime, philologists regarded the question not just as one addressing the origins of language, but rather as seeking out the origins of what makes us human; it was a question at once urgent and essential.1 After all, animals do express themselves: they chitter and squeak, they bay and roar and whinny. But none of them, so far as we know, wields grammar and syntax; none of them is capable of articulate and reasoned discourse. We have long prided ourselves, perhaps excessively, on this distinction. But on the evidence Turner so amply provides, we might also wonder whether the true distinction lies not simply in our ability to utter rational speech, but in the sheer obsessive love of language itself; that is, in philology, the “love of words.”
This abiding passion for words, cultivated fervently from antiquity into modern times—or at least until around 1800, in Turner’s view—encompassed a huge range of subjects as it developed: not only grammar and syntax, but rhetoric, textual editing and commentary, etymology and lexicography, as well as, eventually, anthropology, archeology, biblical exegesis, linguistics, literary criticism, and even law. It comprised three large areas: textual philology, theories about the origins of language, and, much later, comparative studies of different related languages. Two texts predominated: Homer, considered sacred by the ancient Greeks, and the Bible, a contested area of interpretation for both Jews and Christians. As for theories of language origins, these go back to the pre-Socratics and Plato; the controversy was over whether language was divinely given, with words corresponding to the things they named, or arrived at by convention (thenomos versus physis debate). As for comparative studies, these arose in the eighteenth-century, largely as a result of Sir William Jones’s discovery of the common Indo-European matrix of most European languages. Encounters with “exotic,” that is, non-European, peoples in the course of the Renaissance voyages of discovery were another important source; here American Indian languages in their variety and complexity offered an especially rich, if perplexing, new field of inquiry.
To follow Turner’s account of all this is akin to witnessing the gradual construction of a vast and intricate palace-complex of the mind, carried out over centuries, with all its towers and battlements, crenellations and cupolas, as well as its shadier and sometimes disreputable alleyways and culs-de-sac, only to witness it disintegrate, by almost imperceptible stages, into fragmented ruins, a kingdom in splinters. The remnants of that grand complex, its shards and tottering columns, as it were, are our discrete academic disciplines today with their strict perimeters and narrow confines. To illustrate the difference, take Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), one of Turner’s heroes (and the subject of his Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton of 2002): Norton was the first professor of art history at Harvard and, indeed, one of the founders of the discipline, but he was also, among many other things, an expert on Dante who “taught and wrote art history as a philologist, an interpreter of texts.” Nowadays a polymath like Norton would not be hired, let alone get tenure, at any American university; he would be viewed as a dubious interloper on others’ turf.
In fact, traditional philology nowadays is less a ruin than the shadow of a ruin; no, even less than that, the vestige of a shadow. Turner acknowledges, and laments, this from the outset; he notes that “many college-educated Americans no longer recognize the word.” He adds that, “for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?” Worse, “it totters along with arthritic creakiness.” With friends like these, we might ask, can philology sink any further into oblivion than it already has? But the unspoken question here—“shall these bones live?”—is one that Turner poses and resolves triumphantly. He breathes life back into philology. There is not a dull page in this long book (and I include here its sixty-five pages of meticulous and sometimes mischievous endnotes). He accomplishes this by setting his account firmly in a detailed if inevitably brisk historical narrative interspersed with vivid cameos of individual scholars, the renowned as well as the notorious, the plainly deranged alongside the truly radiant.
Here I should disclose a distant interest. I once flirted with the idea of devoting myself to philology. I was soon dissuaded by my encounters with philologists in the flesh. The problem was not that they were dry; in fact, their cool, faintly cadaverous aplomb was a distinct relief amid the relentlessly “relevant” atmosphere of the 1960s. Dry but often outrageously eccentric, they were far from being George Eliot’s Casaubon toiling, and making others toil, to leave some small but significant trace in the annals of desiccation. No, it was rather their sheer single-mindedness coupled with a hidden ferocity that gave me pause. When I first met the late Albert Jamme, the renowned epigrapher of Old South Arabian, this Belgian Jesuit startled me by exclaiming at the top of his voice, “I hate my bed!” When I politely suggested that he get a new mattress, he shot back with “No, no! I hate my bed because it keeps me from my texts!” And the undiluted vitriol of Jamme’s opinions of his colleagues (all three of them!), both in conversation and in print, was scary; from him and others I learned that nothing distills venom more quickly than disagreement over a textual reading. At times there was something decidedly otherworldly about other philologists I met. In the 1970s, when I studied at the University of Tübingen and had the good fortune to work with Manfred Ullmann, the great lexicographer of Classical Arabic, he startled me one day by excitedly brandishing a file card on which was written the Arabic word for “clitoris” (bazr) and exclaiming, “Kli-tO-ris! What do ordinary folk know about Kli-tO-ris?” (More than you imagine, I thought.) Needless to say, it was the word—its etymology, its cognates, its morphology—that captivated him.
As for philological single-mindedness, when a celebrated German Assyriologist of my acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) got married, he rose abruptly from the wedding banquet to announce “Jetzt zur Arbeit!” (“Now to work!”) and headed for the door, a volume of cuneiform texts tucked under one arm; only the outraged intervention of his new mother-in-law kept him from leaving. Such anecdotes about philologists—their pugnacity, their obsessiveness, their downright daffiness—could fill a thick volume. Such anecdotes taught me not only that I wasn’t learned enough to become a philologist, I wasn’t unhinged enough either.
Happily, there is venom aplenty in Turner’s account. As he remarks, “the Republic of Letters could make bare-knuckle boxing look civilized.” His adversaries lampooned Erasmus as “Errans-mus” or “roving rat.” The seventeenth-century cleric the Reverend William Wotton was described as “a most excellent preacher, but a drunken whoring soul.” And A. E. Housman could write of Benjamin Jowett’s monumental translation of Plato—a translation that helped to dislodge Aristotle from his pre-eminence in the Oxford curriculum—that it was “the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek.” Turner too bares his knuckles when he describes the celebrated eighteenth-century English classicist Richard Porson as “an alcoholic and a slob on a Herculean scale.” While such sallies enliven Turner’s account throughout, they don’t detract from the genuine magnificence of the philological tradition as he describes it. The venom was the unavoidable by-product of that all-consuming passion for words.
Turner is predictably excellent on such prodigies as the truly amazing Richard Bentley (1662–1742), a kind of Mozart of philology, or Sir William Jones, whose precocious research led to the discovery of what is now known as “proto-Indo-European,” as well as on a host of other luminaries, who range from Petrarch, Scaliger, Grotius, and Gibbon to both Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and well beyond. But he is also superb on the many obscure or forgotten figures who teem throughout his account. He gives a vivid portrait, for example, of Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756), the so-called “Saxon Nymph,” who had eight languages at her command and whose pioneering studies of Anglo-Saxon established it firmly in the grand philological tradition. And then there is Alexander Bryan Johnson, a banker from Utica, whose Treatise on Language went through three editions, from 1828 to 1854. Even in the nineteenth century, philology was still capacious enough to encourage “amateurs” like Johnson to make substantial contributions.
In several of his most intriguing asides, Turner discusses Thomas Jefferson’s abiding fascination with American Indian languages. On one occasion, in June of 1791, Jefferson and James Madison “squatted in a tiny Unquachog village on Long Island” to compile a wordlist of the now-extinct Quiripi language from the three old women who still spoke it. Jefferson sought to discover the origins of American Indians; he wondered whether they were ultimately of Asian origin or, less plausibly, whether they had originated in Wales, his own ancestral homeland. In any case, the image of two future American presidents hunkering down in a freezing wigwam on Long Island, driven purely by intellectual curiosity, seems to come from some alternative universe now forever lost to us.
While Turner excels at pithy profiles, he is also quite superb at illuminating certain recurrent debates in the history of philology, such as the “Transcendentalist Controversy” in 1830s Massachusetts in which Ralph Waldo Emerson disputed Andrews Norton, his former teacher of divinity. The disagreement was over the age-old question of whether language developed by convention, Norton’s view, or was inherent in the things it denoted, as Emerson argued. It isn’t really so surprising that such a dispute would crop up in nineteenth-century New England: the very nature of discourse, let alone consensus on the interpretation of Scripture, depended upon its resolution. The most compelling such clash, which Turner describes at length, occurred between Friedrich Max Müller, the German-born scholar of Sanskrit who became Oxford’s first professor of comparative philology, and William Dwight Whitney, the first Yale professor of Sanskrit—both eminent authorities even if Müller had become a kind of academic superstar through his public lectures. (But Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar of 1879 is not only still in use, but still in print.) The dispute, yet again, centered on the origins of language. Müller had made fun of Darwin’s idea that language developed when humans first began imitating animal cries, calling it “the bow-wow theory.” Müller believed instead that language exhibited “natural significancy” and that its origins could be uncovered by a search of Sanskrit roots. Whitney argued for its basis in convention: “the fact that an American says ‘chicken’ and a Frenchwoman ‘poulet’ to refer to the same fowl is purely arbitrary: ‘gibbelblatt’ and ‘cronk’ would work just as well.” Though this was a trans-Atlantic debate, it might as well have been between Plato and the Sophists; such questions were perennial just because they were unanswerable.
The roll-call of major figures who contributed to philology, or were deeply influenced by its methods and insights, includes Plato and Isocrates, the Alexandrian poeta doctus Callimachus (whom Turner somewhat harshly calls “a heroic grind”), Dionysius Thrax, who composed the first grammar book, and his pupil Tyrannion, who settled in Rome around 67 A.D. and “made a bundle as a chic teacher”—to mention only a few of the Greeks discussed here. There follows a consideration of the Jewish community of Alexandria who translated the Torah into Greek sometime in the third century B.C., the version known as the Septuagint (or “LXX”) because its seventy-two translators supposedly completed their work in seventy-two days. This inaugurates a theme that will sound, rather distressingly, throughout the book for Christian exegetes turned to rabbinic authorities for help in elucidating the Biblical text even while contemning them. As Turner nicely puts it with reference to the eighteenth-century English exegete Benjamin Kennicott, “Without Jews, Kennicott was helpless. With them, he was high-handed.” Some Christian scholars even went so far as to strip the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible of its ingenious vowel-signs (Hebrew, like Arabic, originally used a consonantal script: vowels were later indicated by special diacritics above or below the letters); this “unpointed” text, liberated from rabbinic exactitude, simply offered more scope for free-ranging interpretation.
In successive chapters, Turner moves from the Church Fathers through the Middle Ages, on to the Renaissance and Reformation. But though he handles these periods expertly, his “true subject,” as he states it, is “the modern humanities in the English-speaking world.” The nine chapters he devotes to this are almost impossible to summarize in a review; they are packed with detail and are simply enthralling. His careful account of the implantation of philology in nineteenth-century America, its steady rise and subsequent decline—or rather, its disintegration from a comprehensive realm of learning to an array of scattered and loosely connected disciplines under the aegis of “the humanities”—is at once sobering and compelling. The grand aspiration, the colossal energy, that propelled philology for almost two millennia passed to the sciences; the scientific model of research and learning ousted the philological.
The erudition of early philologists was staggering. Sir William Jones already had mastered eleven languages, with a good smattering of fifteen others, before he even arrived in Calcutta in 1783 and took up Sanskrit. The formidable German scholar Franz Bopp, whose studies in comparative grammar “revolutionized Indo-European philology” considered not only Greek, Latin, and German in his investigations but Sanskrit, Avestan, Old Slavonic, Lithuanian, and Gothic as well. Another nineteenth-century German scholar, Wilhelm von Humboldt, took on Basque, American Indian languages, and Malayo-Polynesian dialects. In a way, though, their polyglot accomplishments are only part of the picture. The philologists were also passionately interested in the realia of antiquity and the Biblical world. Richard Bentley made expert use of numismatics in his research. Others were antiquarians, a term now associated with the fussy sniffing out of ephemera, a sort of Pickwickian pastime; but it was antiquarianism in its loftiest aspects—the study of inscriptions, of classical architecture, of topography, all the shards of a lost past—that gave rise not only to such fields as scientific archeology, but also to such ancillary disciplines as Assyriology and Egyptology. The point is not simply that philologists were both single-minded and obsessive but that they were virtually omnivorous in their pursuits. No vestige of the past was inconsequential in their eyes.
Turner devotes some of his best pages to Edward Gibbon, to whom his own book owes much. Though he writes not in eighteenth-century cadences but in a lively, elegantly colloquial prose without a smidgeon of barbaric academic jargon, his approach seems modeled on Gibbon’s. As Turner points out, Gibbon was both a philosophical historian and a philological historian, one of the first; he drew on documents, on texts meticulously recovered and edited, to support his narrative. This is Turner’s approach as well.
Though Turner deplores “the monoglot, narrowly focused scholarship increasingly common in the humanities during the past half-century,” he seldom indulges in tirades. He doesn’t need to; his subject speaks for itself and tells us unmistakably what we have lost. Earlier I compared the philological tradition to a palace only the fragments of which remain. But I wonder whether it might be better described as a kind of invisible banquet at which we still unknowingly feast. It may be a feast with ghosts, but given the ghosts at the table, it’s all the more sumptuous for that.