12 December 2008

How are YOUR language skills?

"I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes—not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a lesser degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal, & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenician to the point where it is left by Genesius."
The remarkable passage above is from a letter written by James Murray when he applied for a job at the British Museum Library. His application was rejected.

I found that interesting tidbit in The Meaning of Everything. The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester writes interesting and eminently readable books; I blogged and recommended his book on Krakatoa several months ago. I'm not going to tag this one in the "recommended book" category, because it's probably a bit too specialized to be of interest to the general reader. Unlike Ammon Shea's Reading the OED, which I recommended last month, The Meaning of Everything focuses not on the content of the OED, but rather relates a detailed history of the creation of the dictionary.

There are, however, lots of interesting items, such as the observation that the OED uses 350 pages just for the words that begin with the letters "Pa..." or the fact that editor James Murray carefully researched the meanings of words by writing to specialists:
"I write to the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew about the first record of the name of an exotic plant; to a quay side merchant in Newcastle about the Keels on the Tyne; to a Jesuit father on a point of Roman Catholic Divinity; to the Secretary of the Astronomical Society about the primum-mobile or the solar constant; to the Editor of The Times about a letter of the year 1620 containing the first mention of Punch [the beverage]; to a Wesleyan minister about the itineracy; to Lord Tennyson to ask where he got the word balm-cricket and what he meant by it..."
and that those letters were written in an elegant copperplate hand and each letter had to be written twice in order to have a copy to keep in the office (carbon paper had been invented but didn't work well for handwritten items). So if you're a lover of words and languages, or an owner of a copy of the OED, get the book from your library for a quick read; it's just a couple hundred pages and can be finished in an evening or two.

But even if the book is of no interest, one can still be in awe of James Murray's grasp of the world's languages.

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