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Julia Cresswell - Is philology pointless?

Julia Cresswell - photo writer author

Is Philology pointless?

Philology, or the study of the history of language, was once thought of as the key to all sorts of otherwise lost knowledge.  In the 19th century it was thought that by working out the relationship between different languages, deducing the rules that governed the gradual sound changes that turned one language into another and by looking at the vocabulary of languages and how meanings changed we would be able to uncover some of the lost history of pre-literate societies.  To some extent this happened.  Painstaking comparison of different languages established the existence of the Indo-European and other families of related language.  English belongs to the Germanic sub-branch of the Indo-European languages, which spread from Irish in the west of Europe, and includes the majority of languages spoken in Europe, encompasses a good number of the languages of the Middle East and India, and until they died out about ad 1000, even included languages spoken in Western China. (Those who want to know more about the technicalities of this might like to look at the University of Texas’ excellent http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/general/IE.html where they can even take lessons in ancient Hittite) While there is general agreement about the basic facts of the relationship between all these different languages, just about everything else is hotly debated.  However, the majority of academics think that the original language, Proto-Indo-European,  which has not survived, was being spoken some 5000 or more years ago somewhere in the area around the Black Sea.  And by looking at the words that have a common origin (often called a root) that are in most Indo-European languages and at those that differ between languages we are indeed able to reconstruct something about their civilization.  One of the reasons the homeland of the language is thought to have been quite far north is that ‘snow’ usually comes from a common root in Indo-European languages (although the fact that the word for ‘rain’ does not is a warning that the evidence cannot be relied on that firmly).  Further evidence for climate can be found in evidence such as the common roots for northern trees such as the birch and beech, but not for trees that grow in more southerly climates.  We can tell something about their levels of technology – they would appear to have had copper, and perhaps bronze, but the word for iron differs in different sub-groups so it was probably discovered after they emigrated from their homeland. We can even guess at their religion, as the world for ‘god’ and ‘sky’ are closely related, and the concept of ‘God the Father’ seems widespread, appearing in names such as that of the Roman god Jupiter.

However, everything we know about the Proto-Indo-European culture from the language is hedged about with ‘seems tos’ and ‘mights’ and philology, that could once pack public lecture halls, began to fall out of favour.  This was in part because the new science of archaeology seemed to offer much better hopes of unveiling hidden secrets.  In the later  20th-century the study  of the subject in universities declined rapidly, replaced by the smart new subject of linguistics which took a different approach to language study and claimed to be not only modern, but a true science. And it does indeed offer many new insights, although not all as dispassionately scientific as they claim.  The course of philology I studied was the result of a last-ditch effort by J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis to keep the subject alive at undergraduate level.  One of the problems of the subject was that it demanded not only a natural ability to absorb languages and see their structure – something Tolkien had in spades – and immense patience and diligence in comparing vast amounts of data in detail: but the whole methodology and way it was taught was based on the assumption of a long schooling in Latin in Greek, before you moved on to studying other languages.  This of course no longer happened, and much teaching of the subject was very bad, and reduced to learning rules about sound changes established by such 19th-century scholars as the Grimm Brothers of fairytale fame.  This was very boring and seemed rather purposeless, as there was always the implication that the subject had been studied to completion, and that there was nothing more to be done.  This was, of course, not true.  There is still plenty that is debateable, and new material is constantly appearing, and the combining of academic fields such as linguistics, archaeology or anthropology with philology is producing some fascinating results.  One very exciting new field is the attempt to see if it is possible to go back even further in history.  Now that the ‘out of Africa’ theory of the origin of mankind is widely accepted, along with the view that the people inhabiting the rest of the world descend from just a small group of Africans who left the continent, it seems logical to suppose that all the different languages spoken in the rest of the world must descend from a language they spoke.  With that goes the idea that somewhere in Africa are languages which might preserve evidence of the earliest languages of man.  The enormous amount of data that needs processing to come to any conclusions about this has gone way beyond the careful hand-written charts of the Victorians, and the work is only possible using number-crunching computers.  It is still early days yet, but links have been established between some major language groupings, and it seems possible that some evidence may be emerging for early word forms.

However, there is much more to studying the history of language than establishing vocabulary or grammar  from the past.  The simple question ‘why do we say that?’ leads to all sorts of interesting answers.  I have written books in two different areas of the field that try to answer this question.  The first is the Guinness Book of British Place Names written with Fred McDonald.  This is long out of print, but still a standard text for those studying local history, as it is one of the few non-technical introductions to the subject, and if anyone is interested in putting it back into print, please contact me.  Here Fred and I show how an understanding of the meaning of place names helps to trace British and local history.  To understand place names you need to go back to the earliest recorded forms; then work out which language they come from, which in this case could include Anglo-Saxon, one of the Celtic languages, Latin, French or English.  You can then try to establish the earliest meaning of the name.  The language will tell you something about who was living there – they may not have founded the place, but at one time they at least had enough power to impose their name on the place.  Sometimes you even get the name of the person who founded a village – many Anglo-Saxon villages are named after their founder or his followers.  Another common form of name gives you information about the geography of a place as seen through the eyes of our ancestors, or tells us something about the plant or animal life or the area.  An example of this is names with ‘cran’ in them, such as Cranfield, which often record the presence of cranes which used to migrate to England but no longer do.  Even broader areas of  otherwise lost history can be deduced from place names.  For example the proportion of British (Celtic) and Anglo-Saxon river names varies from east to west of Britain, and has been used to track the pattern of early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the country.  More information about English place names can be found at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/ins/kepn/#


The other field I have published in is the history of clichés.  This first book I did on the subject was The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés. This was a straightforward dictionary dealing with a large number of clichés, giving their origins, history and examples of their use.  There is an awful lot of nonsense about the history of phrases published, both on line and in books, and I worked hard to be as accurate as possible and was not afraid to say we don’t know where something comes from if that is the case, for there is much research still to be done.  Writing this got me thinking about the aspects of society that we draw our everyday expressions from.  Since phrases I classed as clichés were one way of selecting from the vast array of phrases we use in English, I used the dictionary material, with significant additions, to write The Cat's Pyjamas, also published by Penguin, which looks at just this.  Each chapter examines some of the expressions used in everyday life divided up by source, showing how fields such as domestic life or warfare are a source of the expressions, how they are used and how they preserve past ways of life.  The way in which our past is preserved in our present language and the way it can reflect out modern life, something only accessible through careful philological research, is, I think, once of the most exciting fields of philology.

See also Let’s hear it for clichés

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