January 13, 2008

The Decline of Classical Languages

On the way back from the LSA meeting, having finished the light reading that I had brought with me, I bought Steve Berry's The Alexandria Link. At pp. 418-419 we read:

These words were chiseled into the granite below.
"Prudence is the guardian of things," he said, translating, but his Greek was good enough to know that the first word could also be read as "wisdom". Either way, the message seemed clear.

Now, I don't expect very many people actually to understand Greek, or even Latin, but is it asking too much for at least one of the people involved in the production of a book, if not the author perhaps an editor or proofreader, to know the difference?

Actually, there are quite a few linguistic oddities in this book. The author thinks that the original text of the Old Testament was in a language he calls "Old Hebrew", which was so different from the Hebrew familiar to the scholars who produced the Greek translation known as the Septuagint that there was much that they did not understand. Actually, the Hebrew of the time of the Septuagint scholars, who worked from the third century through the first century BCE, is considered to be merely the latter stage, sometimes called the "Silver Age", of Biblical Hebrew, characterized largely by influence from Aramaic, which would eventually replace Hebrew as the spoken language. I am unaware of any evidence that the Hebrew of the two periods was so different as to produce serious difficulties of comprehension.

The author also has the idea that St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote at the end of the 4th century CE, wrote in "Old Latin" an alternative term for "Archaic Latin", which refers to Latin prior to 75 BCE. Augustine's Latin is actually of the late Classical variety and has none of the characteristics of Archaic Latin.

Perhaps even odder is the idea (p. 370), that Augustine's Confessions is required reading in most universities. That is surely false. It may be required reading in a few seminaries and other religious schools, but I doubt that it is required in many other universities. Not only do most universities have no reading that is required of all students, but the Confessions is of importance only for students of the history of Christianity, hardly the sort of fundamental subject that finds its way into core requirements.

Update: I've modified the last paragraph slightly to reflect the fact that a few schools with fairly intensive Western Civilization core courses do require Augustine's Confessions; it isn't entirely restricted to seminaries. Even so, the percentage of universities that require the book is quite small. Also, I'm told that it is read in some courses not for its religious content but as an autobiography.

For those completely unfamiliar with Latin and Greek, the words "CVSTOS RERVM PRVDENTIA" are in Latin, not Greek.

Further update: 2008-01-14: Reader Quodlibet points out that there is a further problem with Berry's description of the word that could also be read as "wisdom" as the "first". It is, of course, actually the third word that means "prudence" but could possibly be translated "wisdom". The first word, CVSTOS, means "guardian". I initially gave Berry the benefit of the doubt, thinking that he was referring to the English translation, but on reflection, it doesn't make any sense to do so since the reference is to a word that might have more than one English translation, which is necessarily a word in the Latin text, not the English translation. This suggests that Berry and his editors do not know the meanings of the individual Latin words, the order of which is: guardian - of.things - prudence.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 13, 2008 01:56 AM