Getting the jokes

In the Diary of the latest LRB (which I won’t link to because access is subscriber-only), Barbara Graziosi describes how her husband (who “does not read anything much AD”) learns dead languages:

a quick read through the grammar … then hours and hours and days and months and years reading through the extant texts, muttering phrases while making tea or walking to work … an immersion in the ancient language, until you get the jokes. The past did not seem a matter of covering ground, but of finding some ground, in the first place, on which to stand.

This is different from learning modern languages (those regularly encountered) which are in a sense not really foreign at all, to the extent that we share a global culture. Getting under the skin of the ancient Hittites or Hebrews is another matter, calling for patient mulling and pondering. The fascination and reward lies in the very difficulty and difference overcome through bridging such a vertiginous chasm cutting across the continuum of human experience. Translation is useless. Just before the above passage, Graziosi quotes W.G. Sebald on another gifted language learner whose method involves “making certain adjustments to his inner self”. That still seems to me an essential part of a full education, as was generally the case till quite recently. As one territory is abandoned others may open up; but I’m glad someone still gets the marginal jokes of Sumerian accountants.

It’s perhaps worth emphasising that the shared culture is not the product of TV and internet, but colonialism and Latin. Europe spoke many vernaculars but shared a classical culture, and that is what makes French or German, in literate mode, feel more akin to dialects or even modes of style than languages — not their much more distant common Indoeuropean origin. Our ancestors were terrorised by the same Roman soldiers.

That reminds me of a scene in Life of Brian where John Cleese makes an insurgent graffitist correct the grammar of his call for the Romans to go home — which should of course be “Romani ite domum”.

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