Monday, 23 January 2017

Toomas Karmo: Why Study Languages?

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo had time to do a reasonably complete and (within the framework of the version 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3,  .. process) reasonably polished job.

Revision history:

  • 20170128T0453Z/version 2.2.0: Kmo made some small repairs, for the most part more cosmetic than substantive (but one of them rendering his critique of English Novus Ordo translations a little fairer: not the good, recent translation alone, but also the shaky old one, correctly renders dicere as "say").  - Kmo reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.2.1, 2.2.2, 2.2.3, ... . 
  • 20170124T1817Z/version 2.1.0: Kmo added some remarks on the 1990 Estonian publication of the Novus Ordo, with an accompanying quotation from the Magnificat Companion (regarding the Novus Ordo in Swedish, German, and Italian). He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3, ... . 
  • 20170124T0513Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo finished converting point-form outline into coherent prose. He hoped now to embark on polishing. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic, tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 2.0.1, 2.0.2, 2.0.3, ... . 
  • 20170124T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo had time only to upload a point-form outline. He hoped to convert this outline to coherent prose in multiple successive uploads, finishing this process at some point in the coming four hours.

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger server-side software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears. - The blogger software has also shown a propensity to generate HTML that is formatted in different ways on different client-side browsers, perhaps with some browsers not correctly reading in the entirety of the "Cascading Style Sheets" which on many Web servers control the browser placement of margins, sidebars, and the like. If you suspect "Cascading Style Sheets" problems in your particular browser, be patient: it is probable that while some content has been shoved into some odd place (for instance, down to the bottom of your browser, where it ought to appear in the right-hand margin), all the server content has been pushed down into your browser in some place or other. - Anyone inclined to help with trouble-shooting, or to offer other kinds of technical advice, is welcome to write me via]

0. Prefatory Remarks

In the past few days, I have found myself in the position of advising a young member of our local Ontario Estonian community, "ABC", on Estonian-language studies. Our situation seems to me about to ramify, since

  • I am likely to meet ABC socially again this Friday.
  • In the course of meeting ABC, I am also likely to meet "DEF", with whom I have already discussed Estonian-language studies, and who seemed to me in a brief encounter ten days ago to have made progress.
  • It may well prove advisable to bring ABC and DEF together, perhaps suggesting that they additionally meet with me, to form a threesome, about once a month, say for forty-five minutes per session in the Tartu College foyer on Toronto's Bloor Street. 
  • I am continuing to ponder not Estonian alone but also three ancient languages. 
The time has come, then, for this blog to address Practical Philology. 

On 2016-12-05 or 2016-12-06, I did an upload under the title "Remarks for Mathematics Students and Teachers, Including Individuals Possibly Seeking Tutoring". I had to start my posting with something not fully agreeable - namely, with a discussion of what I would have to charge if, hypothetically, I were to be approached by someone desperately anxious to purchase tutoring. I shall have to start the present posting along the same lines. 

It largely suffices to recall my remarks from the earlier posting: 

An initial, mildly comforting, answer is that the question of fee need not come up. If I am approached by someone poor enough to be either homeless or verging on homelessness, or by someone who has not approached me before and needs just an hour's help, or by someone who can ask questions through e-mail or telephone in such a way that I do not in answering have to spend more than 20 minutes on any one day, then there is no point in my exacting a fee. 

What, on the other hand, if I am working with someone who does not meet any of the extenuating conditions just stated? In that case, I would, while resisting the temptation to be mercenary, nevertheless have to avoid going so cheap as to undercut other Greater Toronto Area (GTA) tutors. Those others need, no less than I do, to pay their rent, to buy their food, and to maintain their telephone and Internet connections. 

A good guide is provided by Saint Benedict of Nursia, in his early-Dark-Ages Rule for monastics: let the monastery charge for the things it sells to the wider community, even while charging a little under the usual rate. In my particular case, I would set a fee (were this some day to prove necessary) by first ascertaining the approximate median rate for mathematics tutoring of the particular level contemplated (is it at university-or-college level, or merely at K-12 school level?), and then subtracting 12 percent from the median. 

I would also have to charge for travel to and from my residence to any place beyond walking distance from my residence (i.e., more than 3 kilometres away), if the student did not wish to take tea or coffee in my own snug book-lined parlour, and if that travel could not be fitted into my normal pattern of movements. My normal pattern involves a weekly journey from Richmond Hill down to Toronto. My various Toronto errands are then normally confined to the 3-kilometre stretch bounded by Union Station on the south and the streets a couple of hundred metres beyond Bloor Street on the north. My normal stretch thus contains the University of Toronto St George campus, plus Ryerson University, plus the Toronto Reference Library.  

For members of my own Estonian-diaspora academic organization, to which ABC and DEF either belong or are likely soon to belong, philological tutoring must come free of charge. In their specific, and now looming, case the question of my limitations need not be troubling: if you get a service for free, you are unlikely to worry too much about deficiencies.  

But I do add cautionary remarks on my limitations in case I do some day find myself actually having to tutor for pay, and actually being therefore forced to deliver a professionally adequate performance, on pain of contractual breach: 
  • I speak my native Estonian either with no accent or with a very slight trace of a (probably Anglo) accent. I have three or so times in the past twenty-five or thirty years written in Estonian for the Toronto Estonian newspaper, without (I think) being subjected to significant copy-edit. But I know from the vigorous, disheartening, copy-edit of my essay Olen ma mõtlev loom või ainetu mõtleja? ("Am I a thinking animal or an immaterial thinker?", in Akadeemia nr 1, 1991, pp. 3-16) that my written language has not been what Tartu University would ideally want.  
  • Anyone using me for Latin commercially should be aware that I had two years of university Latin at Monash in 1980s Melbourne (the greater part of it under Prof. Gavin Betts (1932-2013): his unusually meticulous Teach Yourself Latin is in the big bookstores right here in Toronto). But on the debit side of the ledger, any such customer should be aware that I nevertheless huff and puff these days on the rare occasions of my opening Cicero in a 1960-vintage Ontario Grade XIII reader. Further, I tend to grasp only perhaps 50 percent or 60 percent of the rather ornate Latin in the hymns from Lauds and Vespers. (The rest of Lauds and Vespers is, to be sure, generally okay for me, since it is easy Latin - much of it from the familiar, and stylistically austere, Vulgate, and the rest of it comprising reasonably straightforward prayers-for-the-day, without stylistic tricks.)  
  • I should not be used at all as a tutor for ancient Greek. I am a mere 1973-through-1979 autodidact, with concentration on Aristotle and Plato, and with no exposure to Homer, to Herodotus, to the tragedians, or to that particularly challenging prose stylist Thucydides. I  use Greek nowadays only for occasional casual forays into the New Testament. That is mere koine Greek, standing to classical Greek rather as contemporary tabloid-newspaper English stands to the English of Ruskin and Newman.
  • I should not be used at all as a tutor for French. I converse freely enough. But surely I converse with syntax errors. And in 1972 or 1974, in France, I was told that my then accent was Irish. 
  • I should not be used at all as a tutor for German. I read German only jerkily, with heavy recourse to the dictionary. 
  • Anyone some day needing to approach me for tutoring in English should realize that my pronunciation, while by no means Estonian-accented, nevertheless is not quite clean. A commercial-tutoring approach to me, while now implausible, will become conceivable if I succeed, say late in 2018, in realizing my dream of moving to Estonia.  (In Estonia, as elsewhere in the EU, the universities, the government ministries, the  internationally oriented Estonian School of Diplomacy (, and the like find themselves using English heavily, and might on occasion need a "practical philologist".) Although my English speech is not by any means the flat, un-European studio shortwave Voice-of-America, neither is it at present  by any means correct studio BBC. I in fact rather grimace at having been forced, as one upshot of the Hitler war, to learn English  so early, at the tender age of five in 1958, in the Nova Scotia "Grade Primary". That was, I guess, from September through December. (At any rate I recall that I knew no English at all on the first day of school , and that at the Christmas concert I was reciting, while making sweeping gestures, a poem which somehow ran  "Welcome, welcome, everyone.") In a kind of rebellion, I have for decades taken the view that I will pronounce this wearisome Microsoft-of-languages in whatever way I happen for whatever flimsily temporary reason to desire - reserving even the liberty of changing my pronunciation as one stage in my life succeeds another. In practice, that means that I go BBC on lots of words, and yet turn "blast from our past" into the American  bläst fromm auer päst instead of into the BBC-correct blaast fromm auer paast. And I render "Land of Hope and Glory" as the American länd of houp änd gloori, rather than as the BBC-correct länd of hõup and gloori. It is hõup, as opposed to houp, that is correctly redolent of Pimm's-with-strawberries, of gaudy blazers, of punts on the river, and of cucumber sandwiches. - Here, I confess, I have been forced in my ignorance to write my phonemes in Estonian, rather than in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The real linguists would not use "hõup" at all, but perhaps something like  /həʊp/. 

1. The Forensic, or "221B Baker Street", Case

It is a truth not perhaps sufficiently acknowledged by students of the Canon that Sherlock Holmes is a polyglot. 

A priori, we would at least expect Holmes to be comfortable in French, as members of the British élite or near-élite in Victorian times were and today still are. (Et la masse de réserve? asks Mr Churchill, of Gamelin or someone, just before France falls. Or, again, says Oscar Wilde, of some glaring Gothic Revival pile in Oxford, such as Keble College, C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la gare ("Magnificent, but it isn't the Station") - I guess as a pun on C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre ("Magnificent, but it isn't War", as said by some Continental observer with reference to a Light Brigade charge).) 

The Canon supports this conjecture. At any rate (closer students of Holmes may be able to improve on the one piece of evidence I adduce here) there is Holmes's revealing account of protracted Continental organic-chemistry researches, in "The Adventure of the Empty House": 

The course of events in London did not run so well as I had hoped, for the trial of the Moriarty gang left two of its most dangerous members, my own most vindictive enemies, at liberty. I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigurson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum, the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier /... / 

So far as German goes, Holmes demonstrates a grasp of its high literature by quoting some standard poet, I think (so far as I recall tonight, without looking up the pertinent Canon passage) either Goethe or Schiller. 

Further, there is that successful deduction in the seventh chapter of "A Study in Scarlet", achieved by Holmes in advance of Scotland Yard's slower, less inspired, Inspector Lestrade: 

"/.../The cause of death was a deep stab in the left side, which must have penetrated the heart. And now comes the strangest part of the affair. What do you suppose was above the murdered man?"

I felt a creeping of the flesh, and a presentiment of coming horror, even before Sherlock Holmes answered. 

"The word RACHE, written in letters of blood," he said. 

"That was it," said Lestrade, in an awestruck voice, and we were all silent for a while. 

(One is here supposed to remember as a noun die Rache, "revenge, vengeance". On looking this up in my Brockhaus, I find a string of examples, including Rache fordern, "to demand vengeance", and nach Rache dürsten, "to thirst for vengeance".)

For Holmes's Latin, there is a little passage about two pages from the beginning of "The Red-Headed League": 

"Well, but China?"

"The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes' scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I seee a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple."

Mr Jabez Wilson laughed heartily. "Well, I never!" said he. "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all."

"I begin to think, Watson," said Holmes, "that I make a mistake in explaining. Omne ignotum pro magnifico, you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid. /.../"

It is unfortunate that I had to look this one up, even as I had, perhaps more pardonably, to look up die Rache.  The lapidary turn of phrase turns out to be from the historian Tacitus: "Everything obscure (unknown, not understood) is taken to be grand (impressive, imposing)." 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's passage, by the way, is well expanded in the Granada Television dramatization, starring Jeremy Brett (1933-1995), and readily locatable on YouTube:

HOLMES: Omne ignotum pro magnifico.

WATSON [in his kindly way addressing Mr Jabez Wilson, who as Holmes's prospective client is from only the lower middle class, and so will under the given unhappy Victorian social conditions have only an uncertain competence in Latin]: Everything becomes commonplace by explanation.

[Camera zooms out, disclosing Holmes standing before hearth, hands on hips, watch-chain prominent against black waistcoat.]

HOLMES: Watson, that is a very loose translation.

Here, then, is a so-to-speak Baker Street reason for practical philology: languages are of forensic utility. In particular, a knowledge of languages lets us correct the mistakes, and on occasion even the possible deliberate obfuscations, of translators. 

To illustrate the point in the case of koine Greek, I take the beginning of Luke 18 - quoting from the Authorized King James Version, and underlining the passage erroneously handled: 

And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; 2 saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: 3 and there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. 4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; 5 yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.

Here is the same passage, from the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, putting the same error into a contemporary idiom (again, with my underlining):

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"

At the underlined spot, the original reads hina me eis telos erchomene hypopiaze me. According to my old 1860s unabridged Liddell and Scott, the verb hypopiazo means (I quote their English) "to strike one under the eye; metaph. to discipline severely, mortify, vex or annoy greatly". 

British schoolboys are said not only to have referred to the Greek epics as The Idiot and The Oddity, but in addition to have had a rhyme: 

Two men wrote a lexicon, Liddell and Scott:
The first half was rubbish; the second was rot. 

Nevertheless, Liddell and Scott are authoritative. Twenty or twenty-five years ago I donated my good new unabridged Liddell-and-Scott to Tartu University, keeping only that old 1860s edition. Even the 1860s edition is unlikely to get simple things wrong. So no, not "she is going to weary me" or "she is going to wear me out," but something more like "she is going to hit me under the eye" (if hypopiazo is taken literally) or "she is going to totally bash me up" (if, as I suppose is equally probable, Luke instead intends his verb in its broadened, metaphorical sense).

What picture do we have of Our Lord from this parable? As is often enough the case, here He entertains even while teaching. If the judge is afraid of getting "bashed up", the situation becomes, I would suggest, at once clear and comic. The judge has already been petitioned by the importunate widow, again and again. Mere hysterical, womanly, entreaties he can shrug off. But what he cannot shrug off - for his is a gossip-ridden, and above all a patriarchal, male-status, society - is the prospect of physical assault, from a  woman. The judge's fear is that eventually she comes round at, as it were, noon, and really does somehow "bash" him - perhaps literally administering a black eye, and otherwise instead giving him a good hand-slap across the cheek, or a good kick in the shin, or a slap in the chest with bag or basket. By, as it were, five p.m., word has gone round the village, to the effect that poor, downtrodden Zipporah went to Scary Malachai's McMansion as so often before, but now got so far as to hit him. By, as it were, the evening of the next day, the news has percolated to the adjoining villages. By next week, it will be still farther afield, perhaps even reaching those particular high provincial authorities to whom Scary Malachai owes his appointment.

The judge will find himself swiftly becoming a laughing-stock, being within mere days, or even within mere hours, unable to command authority.

Our Lord is being lively here in the same way as He is being lively in urging people to "go the extra mile". The actual social context for that one is that a soldier of the Roman occupation was legally empowered to ask an Israelite to carry his pack, for a mile - but only for one mile. Our Lord is advising people to be rather nice with the occupation authorities. When asked to carry the pack for a mile, by all means do it, and then offer to carry it (in breach of Roman law) one mile farther.

One can picture the scene, as the Rabbi conjures it up for an appreciative crowd:

MARCUS POMPILIUS: Okay buddy, that's a mile. Now you can give me my pack.

YITSHAK: Oh no Sir, that's QUITE all right, do let me carry it just one more mile.

MARCUS POMPILIUS: Oh no, really, it's a mile now.

YITSHAK: Oh no no Sir, no trouble at all.

MARCUS POMPILIUS: No, no, I do insist; let's finish this now.

YITSHAK: Oh tut tut, such a pleasure to carry - DO let me go just ONE mile more.

MARCUS POMPILIUS [starting to panic, becuase he knows he is heading for legal trouble]: Look, no no no hercule o vae... lissen buddy, I got figs in there,I got nice flatbread in there, I got feta - don't you want to open my pack up and have figs with feta?

YITSHAK: Oy veh, VOT can I say... [puts pack down, sharing the offered figs and cheese with the soldier; now the Occupation is a little less dignified than it was a moment ago]

It will be asked: are all the translations of Luke 18 this hopelessly sanitized? No, not all. The New Jerusalem Bible - fruit of careful labour at the École Biblique right in Yerushalaim - does get it right: I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face. 

A second New Testament example is similarly troubling. The Roman-occupation officer who comes to Our Lord asking Him to cure an ailing member of the household over a distance, since "I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof," in fact implores the cure of a pais. "Pais" could mean "servant", as in "serving boy". However, this tricky word does literally mean "boy", and so could be read "boyfriend". I dunno about you, Gentle Reader, but I for one like to dwell on the earthier readings, while admitting that more respectable readings are also possible. It does make some sense, after all: here we have a (in today's idiom) "lifestyle" quite frankly unacceptable in polite Jewish society. It is nothing less, on this reading, than a bit of ahem-ahem , or - if I may be permitted to make my meaning brutally clear - nothing less, on this scandalous and yet possible reading, than a little slice of what got the already-mentioned Oscar Wilde into such trouble at the Old Bailey in the spring of 1895. On this juicy possible reading, the Roman officer indeed does well to spare everyone's sensibilities, by suggesting that the Rabbi perform His healing ministry without stepping inside.


And then we have Latin.

Through the kind help of a generous Toronto priest, I am as of last week in possession of the Magnificat Roman Missal Companion. I believe that particulars on this roughly 140-page pamphlet can be had from On studying the Companion, I see how the new (circa-2010) English translation of the Novus Ordo mass gets the meaning right - bringing it correctly close to the 1990 Estonian translation of the Novus Ordo I was given by paater Vello Salo (1925-) - where the old translation was in phrase upon phrase, on page upon page, sanitized. I will tonight take just one example, out of many that I have in the last few days to my alarm noted.

In the duly careful, duly revised, translation, the Communion Rite contains the following, just before the communal "Our Father":  At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say... This is philologically correct, adequately mirroring the Latin Praeceptis salutaribus moniti, et divina institutione formati, ademus dicere... The earlier English Mass, at least in my old Canadian mass book, offers two alternative forms of words, neither of them clearly conveying the notion of command, and neither of them conveying the additional dramatic idea that we have been "formed" (pulled into shape, by an agency outside ourselves): (1) Let us pray with confidence to the Father in the words our Saviour gave us...; (2) Jesus taught us to call God our Father, and so we have the courage to say....

The 1990 Estonian Novus Ordu is fine, being still closer to praeceptis salutaribus moniti, et divina institutione formati, ademus dicere than the duly revised English is: Õndsakstegevatest käsusõnadest manitsetud ja jumalikust juhatusest õpetust saanud, julgeme paluda... This is very literal indeed ("Admonished by the salvififying words-of-command, and having received instruction from divine teaching, we dare to ask..." - except that dicere is strictly not "to ask", but, as in the English versions, "to say").

The point I have just made with reference to Estonian is well made by Prof. Anthony Esolen on p. 15 of the Magnificat Companion, with reference to Swedish, German, and Italian (the emphasis on "their" is Prof. Esolen's):

Thus, when the priest says, "The Lord be with you," the response in the vernacular languages has simply translated the Latin "Et cum spiritu tuo," "And with your spirit," so that in Sweden the response is just that, "Och med din ande," as it is in German, "Und mit deinem Geist," as it is in Italian, "E con il tuo spirito." The new translation in English, then, is meant to bring our prayers closer not only to the original Latin, but to what our brothers and sisters throughout the world have long been saying in their languages. 

This propensity to sanitize, in other words to water hard teachings down, is an outright spiritual malady, calling to mind a North American homily I once heard or read: So with whom in our society might we compare those lepers, those outcasts? What is our modern-day leprosy? I know - it's like the way we today look on cancer.

Things would have been okay if the speaker had mentioned any one of a number of obviously taboo maladies. AIDS would more or less fit his bill, although that disease is less a cause of ostracism now than it was when it first came to widespread notice, in the early 1980s. Still better would be one of the various emerging forms of drug addiction. Father, change "cancer" to "crystal-meths addiction", and your homily will have the force of the New Testament on which you are commenting.


I am trying these days to learn Biblical Hebrew. It is slow, it is painful, it feels at this stage (with my big Pratico-and-Pelt book roughly at the halfway mark) significantly worse than Greek - and dramatically worse than Latin. Yet without it, how can I trust anything?

Gentle Reader, if you find yourself in this same philological position, then do remember that you can when necessary get cheered up with a 2014-12-11 YouTube upload entitled "I Am the Very Model of a Biblical Philologist", from YouTube user Josh Tyra. In my corner of the Internet, the URL for this gem is The lyrics can be had from I hasten, however, to transcribe them here, thereby doing my own small bit tonight to help secure them for posterity:

I am the very model of a biblical philologist.
I’m quite the Semitician and a passing Hittitologist.
My articles are free from all grammatical iniquity.
I rank Semitic cognates in their order of propinquity.

I am very well acquainted, too, with matters exegetical.
I side with all the orthodox, and censure the heretical.
In print, I wrinkle brows of any liberal who wrinkles mine,
[bothered for a rhyme]
Wrinkles mine, wrinkles mine... got it!
And counter all the theses of that vigilante Finkelstein!

Then I can give a lecture on the logic of Leviticus
And tell you every symbol in the apparatus criticus.
In short, in matters lexical, semantic, and homologous,
I am the very model of a biblical philologist!

I know my St. Jerome and all his Vulgate Prolegomena.
I’ve memorized, in order, all the known hapax legomena!
Then I can tell the age of every patriarch in Genesis
And tell the daghesh fortés from the shureqs and the lenéses.

I dream in Aramaic and interpret it in Syriac.
I’ve posited that Esau was a possible porphyriac.
Then I can parse at sight a polal, hithpolal or hishtaphel
[bothered for a rhyme]
Hishtaphel, hishtaphel... oh, that’s a hard one... got it!
And topple any argument it happens that I wish to fell!

Then I can date a sample of Arabian calligraphy
And tell you what the scribe was wearing, based on the epigraphy!
In short, in matters lexical, semantic, and homologous,
I am the very model of a biblical philologist!

Then I can write a shopping list in classical Sumerian,
And tell you whether peoples were nomadic or agrarian.
I know the Jewish festivals, Purimic and Kippurian.
I mumble in Mandaic, I can hum a little Hurrian.

Then I can sing the alphabet in Hieroglyphic Luwian,
And catalogue the animals, both pre- and postdiluvian.
Then I can tell a surplice from a chasuble or maniple.
[bothered for a rhyme]
Maniple, maniple... got it!
And reconstruct the library of ancient Assurbanipal.

I wrote my dissertation in a flowery Akkadian
And proved the Philistines were almost certainly Canadian.
In short, in matters lexical, semantic, and homologous,
I am the very model of a biblical philologist!

2. The Depth-Psychology, or "Viennese Couch", Case

A second reason for studying languages goes deeper than the merely forensic. We now forsake 221B Baker Street for the Viennese couch.

In the Baker Street sitting-room: Holmes, is it raining? 

In Vienna, at the dreaded Couch: You ask me, is it raining? Would you like it to be raining? Vood you LAIK it to be reinink? Look, I cannot help you unless you are willing to put at least some effort into these sessions - what would it for you MEAN for it to be raining? Was  für eine BEDEUTUNG, darlink: ZAT is vot I am askink, you see...

There are thoughts which cannot be thought in all languages. One of my biggest beefs with English is its sheer, perverse, inability to say things, despite its unusually extended vocabulary.

I gather that in Finnish a tough guy is praised for having sisu. If you have sisu, then you will pull an all-nighter on your physics problem set, and you will then heat the sauna to 105oC, and upon leaving the top bench (where the heat is at its most suffocating, burning the lungs) you will roll naked in the snow. Or else, wrapping up your physics all-nighter, you will go join the French Foreign Legion, or something.

In Estonian, sisu, alas, means simply, and drably, "content" (as in "That politician's tweet has interesting content") - so I suppose someone who has sisu might be praised, weakly, for not being an airhead.

Nevertheless, other good things do come up in Estonian, which cannot be said or thought in English. A schoolchild, for instance, is praised for being tubli. To begin to say this in English, you need lots of words, and with the unavoidable verbosity the effect gets unavoidably blunted: if little Tõnis or little Maie is tubli, then (s)he always finishes all the maths problems, and is always fair on the playground, and never snitches on fellow pupils, and so on and so on (and is perhaps also diligent in learning Finnish, and perhaps grows up to spend quite a lot of time in the Arctic, racing out of the sauna into deep Lappish snowdrifts - but all the same, there is this subtlety, that being tubli is a somewhat juvenile matter, in contrast with possessing Finnish rifle-and-hunting-knife sisu).

And there is the end of a party. In the Estonian Kalevipoeg epic (our weaker equivalent of the Finnish Kalevala; I have read only Kalevipoeg), the phrase for this is Lõpetatud lustipidu. How can one possibly put this into English? A lustipidu is a reasonably decorous social gathering full of lust, with "lust" used in the same polite way as (I think) in German, for "delectation, delight, uplift". As when my dear maternal Grandma explained to me in Estonian how she liked picking my Mum's gooseberries in Nova Scotia, in one summer of abundance: "They are so thick here, you get an absolute lust reaching for them." So the lustipidu, or lust-party, is "over". Too bad, it's getting late, people say politely, as the hostess turns the lights up full, and people pick up their coats and scarves, remembering where necessary to write a couple of cheery sentences in the big guestbook.

Well, perhaps the American "Party's over," or better the American "Wake up and smell the coffee," conveys an approximation to the idea. But the American idiom misses a necessary literary-epic resonance. Everyone knows that Lõpetatud lustipidu is poetry of a specially archaizing kind. It is in fact poetry from the same seldom-used metre as Longfellow employed, I gather to strong quasi-archaic effect, in Haiawatha, under the inspiration of the Kalevala, and which our neighbours' Kalevala shares with our own Kalevipoeg: 

Aga üks kord algab aega,
Kus kõik pirrud kahel otsal
Lausa löövad lõkendama,
Lausa tuleleeki lõikab
Käe kaljukammitsasta /.../ 

This is from nearly the final lines of Kalevipoeg, as I write them from memory. The meaning is, "But one day there will come a time at which the glow-splints will at both ends altogether burst into burning; then will the flame cut the hand free from its stony prison." (Glow-splints were used on farms for lighting, in default of the ruinously expensive candles.) Everyone knows this prophecy of the folk-hero's liberation by heart, as all Americans know by heart "He hath loosed the fateful lightning/ Of his terrible swift Sword..."

Or there is my own imaginary branch of the civil service, the Asjade, Lugude ja Värkide Ministeerium. Government in Estonia is to be pictured as intricate, tedious, and humourless, with the Whitehall "Yes, Minister" exactly mirrored either by  - depending on the given Tallinn Minister's gender  - Just nii [just so], proua minister or by Just nii, härra minister.

To a local Russian друг, I say on the phone, in my nearly-nonexistent русский язык, "Сдес Госплан, говорит комиссар Кармо" ("GosPLAN here, Commissar Karmo speaking"). On the transatlantic phone, however, with family, what is appropriate is the Estonian Siin Asjade, Lugude ja Värkide Ministeerium ehk ALVM. How on earth to translate?

French does seem to convey the thought of an elegant, empty bureaucratic formalism, within Tallinn's Hanseatic-League ramparts: Allo, ici le Ministère des Trucs et Machins, le MTM... .

The best I can do in English is "Hullo, Ministry of This and That, the MTT..." But it is a stretch. The unexpressive, wooden English words perhaps require supplementation with body language, in the manner of the late Marcel Marceau (1923-2007). And yet in that sphere Anglosaxonia is once again deficient.

This will have to do as a general discussion of Practical Philology. At some future stage, I hope to blog on some nuts-and-bolts practicalities (recommending books, Web resources, and the like), at least with reference to one or both of Latin and Estonian.

[Perhaps I can even embark on some of that next week. Progress will depend in part on what I hear on Friday, from the above-cited Estonian-language students ABC and DEF.] 

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