THE LANGUAGE OF THE PAST.

A reference in Perry Anderson’s LRB review (which I recommend to anyone interested in “microhistory”) of Carlo Ginzburg’s new collection of essays, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, sent me off to The Historian’s Craft, by Marc Bloch, and its discussion of the importance for historians of knowing how to deal with the language they encounter in documents from the past. After a passage on “hierarchic bilingualism” (“Two languages are side by side, the one popular, the other learned”), he continues:

At any rate, this opposition of two necessarily different languages actually typifies only an extreme instance of contrasts common to all societies. Even within the most unified nations, such as ours, each little professional community, each group distinguished by its culture or wealth, has its own characteristic form of expression. Now, not all groups write, or write as much or have as much chance of passing their writings down to posterity. Everyone knows that the official reports of a judicial examination seldom reproduce the words just as they were spoken; almost spontaneously, the clerk of the court orders, clarifies, restores the syntax, and weeds out the words which he has judged too vulgar. The civilizations of the past have also had their clerks; it is the voice of chroniclers and, especially, jurists which has come through to us before all others. We must beware of forgetting that the words which they used, and the classifications which they suggested by these words, were the result of a learned elaboration often unduly influenced by tradition. What a shock it might be if instead of poring laboriously over the jumbled—and probably artificial—terminology of the Carolingian manorial scrolls and capitularies, we were able to take a walk through a village of that time, overhearing the peasants discussing their status amongst themselves, or the seigneurs describing that of their dependents. Doubtless this description of daily usage would fail of itself to give us a total picture of life, for the attempts at expression and, hence, at interpretation by scholars and men of the law also embody really effective forces; but it would at least give us the underlying feeling. What an education it would be—whether as to the God of yesterday or today—were we able to hear the true prayers on the lips of the humble! Assuming, of course, that they themselves knew how to express the impulses of their hearts without mutilating them.

I like very much his way of bringing the issue to life with a bit of imaginative time travel, and I should get around to reading the book one day. (Looking through it, I noticed a fine passage on coincidence, which, as Bloch says, historical linguists are at pains to rule out: “Quand on n’a pas soi-même pratiqué les érudits, on se rend mal compte combien ils répugnent, d’ordinaire, à accepter l’innocence d’une coïncidence. … Lorsque le hasard joue librement, la probabilité d’une rencontre unique ou d’un petit nombre de rencontres est rarement de l’ordre de l’impossible. Peu importe qu’elles nous paraissent étonnantes; les surprises du sens commun sont rarement des impressions de beaucoup de valeur.”)
But I must confess that what gave me the impulse to post about it was a simple misprint: on page 136 of the English translation, in the discussion of “hierarchic bilingualism,” we find the sentence “Thus, from the eleventh to the seventeenth century the Abyssinians wrote Gueze, but spoke Aramaic.” (The French: “Ainsi, l’Abyssinie, du XIe au XVIIe siècle, écrivit le guèze, parla l’amharique.”) “Aramaic” for “Amharic” is not only an easy slip, it was made almost inevitable by the next sentence, where the word is properly used: “Thus, the Evangelists reported in Greek, which was then the great language of Eastern culture, conversations which we must assume to have been originally exchanged in Aramaic.” One can picture a harried proofreader who had never heard of Amharic clucking his tongue and substituting the clearly correct word. Just as Bloch said, “almost spontaneously, the clerk of the court orders, clarifies, restores the syntax, and weeds out the words….”


I should also mention that the reference to Bloch in the review was in the context of “Ginzburg’s beautiful recent lecture ‘Our Words and Theirs’,” which was inspired by Bloch’s discussion of language; it “has not yet been published but there is a video of Ginzburg delivering the lecture at video.ias.edu/ginzburg.” I look forward to watching it when the press of work permits.

Comments

  1. “Aramaic” for “Amharic” is not only an easy slip
    Actually, it happened to me yesterday in the LL Prometheus thread 🙂

  2. Heh. (I won’t read your comment yet, as I’m avoiding spoilers for the movie.)

  3. ? The sentence about the Abyssinians is on p. 164 of my edition (Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam [New York: Knopf, 1953; rpt. Vintage/Caravelle, ISBN 0394705122]) and does not have the error (it reads: “wrote Gueze, but spoke Amharic”). Does this count as lectio difficilior?

  4. Isn’t guèze usually Ge’ez in English?

  5. Stanford Golob says:

    Sad to realize what was lost when we learn that Bloch, a few years after writing the book, was captured, tortured and subsequently executed by the Germans for his role in the Resistance. He was 58.

  6. The sentence about the Abyssinians is on p. 164 of my edition … and does not have the error
    Ah, I should have checked Google Books to see if the error had been corrected in later printings; I’m glad to see it has.
    Isn’t guèze usually Ge’ez in English?
    Yes, indeed; the “Gueze” took me aback as well. (And why didn’t they correct that when they were fixing the “Aramaic”?)

  7. Talking of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (and here is a hippopotamus!), the English for “le guèze” is not the barely recognizable “Gueze” but “Ge’ez”. Or ግዕዝ if you want to get extreme about it.

  8. dearieme says:

    “Everyone knows that the official reports of a judicial examination seldom reproduce the words just as they were spoken”: forgive me if I’ve told you this before, but when he questioned me after I was mugged a police detective enquired about the mugger’s accent. “The usual South East of England whine” was my reply. That appeared in his notes as “The mugger had what I took to be a local accent.”
    Well done him.

  9. John Emerson says:

    Even within the most unified nations, such as ours, each little professional community, each group distinguished by its culture or wealth, has its own characteristic form of expression.
    In an earlier thread I mentioned Rabelais’ orality. Another thing that he does is to take words, phrases, and sentences from every lexicon he knew (formal, informal, technical, dialect, latin) and set them right next to one another. His “orality” isn’t his duplicating ordinary speech at all, it’s a sort of jolly looseness and carelessness.

  10. Jeffry House says:

    A client in a criminal proceeding, when told he had allegedly stolen some credit cards, said, according to police notes: “I am innocent of this charge.” As it happens he could be overheard responding to the officer on a video-audio surveillance system in the police station carport. He could be heard saying: “No fuckin’ way, asshole.”

  11. Jeffry House says:

    In the Canadian Parliamentary tradition, when a Minister is not forthcoming in question period, and the answer is unsatisfactory, quite vigorous catcalling usually follows. Several Parliamentarians are likely to shout “b.s.!” “who let him out of the zoo?” “Your pants are on fire, Tommy boy” and suchlike.
    Invariably, the official record of proceedings in Parliament, called Hansard, records such insults as :
    ‘Some Honourable Members: “Oh! Oh!” ‘

  12. marie-lucie says:

    dearieme: a police detective enquired about the mugger’s accent. “The usual South East of England whine” was my reply. That appeared in his notes as “The mugger had what I took to be a local accent.”
    There is now a discipline called “forensic linguistics”, which deals with (amont other things) this very problem. Policemen make notes of what they understand the person to be saying in reply to their questions, then write their report according to those notes. In the process they omit the questions they asked, rearrange things, paraphrase what the person said in typical police jargon, etc, then they swear that what they wrote is a “verbatim transcript” of what the person said. I knew a linguist couple who had been helping lawyers deal with such reports, when defendants adamantly denied that they had uttered the words attributed to them. Quite often the linguists’ intervention had resulted in a defendant being cleared of all charges.
    About accent identification, there was an American case in which the linguist Bill Labov, who pioneered the study of urban accents, cleared a man accused of leaving a threatening phone message about a bomb in the Los Angeles airport. The California police listening to the message heard an Eastern seaboard accent and arrested Prinzivalli, an employee originally from New York, but Labov was able to demonstrate to the judge in court that the bomb caller’s vowels were unmistakably Bostonian, and Prinzivalli was released without further ado. (See Labov’s description of his interesting career by Googling “Prinzivalli” and clicking on “Do you speak American” – this episode comes almost at the end).

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    This English practice seems peculiar – why isn’t it to the advantage of law enforcement to be able to report (within quotation marks) that the suspect used colorful/vulgar/insulting/obscene language? I certainly know some US lawyers who love the opportunity to insert vulgar/obscene words in their court filings when they can be placed in quotation marks and attributed to the other side, thus coloring the reader’s perception about the sort of person your client’s adversary is.

  14. Australian courts seem to report things literally, no matter how offensive. Here (PDF format) is a hilariously filthy transcript from the Queensland Supreme Court, which I found at Tim Blair’s site.

  15. P.S. A college student at office hours once idly opened my copy of the updated Loeb edition of Martial’s epigrams and said “I’ve never seen so many F-words on one page!” (she must have opened it to Book XI). If she’d read the transcript linked in my previous comment, she wouldn’t have been able to say that.

  16. Speaking of the police and offensive language, one Massachusetts town is getting tough.

  17. dearieme says:

    “There is now a discipline called “forensic linguistics”, which deals with (amont other things) this very problem. ”
    What problem? The rozzer said what I meant more precisely than I did.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    The problem is the restatement by the police. In your case, you were perhaps glad of it, but there is often considerable distortion.

  19. An interesting subject for a forensic linguist would be the proceedings of the Inquisition at Montaillou, which is one of the few records of more or less direct speech from medieval peasants (c. 1320). The surviving version is in Latin, but presumably the original proceedings were in Occitan.
    It is an interesting read even in translation.

  20. Yes, I read it many years ago and found it quite gripping.

  21. I had a patient* some time ago who, when I asked him how he was feeling, responded, “Pretty fucking awful.” He saw a copy of the note and was upset, not because he was ashamed of his language, but because he was taken aback that a doctor would use such language in a note. I explained to him that I always try to record what a patient says to me, since that conveys useful information. He was mollified.
    *details changed to de-identify

  22. H Klang says:

    It is an interesting read even in translation.
    Especially to see how freely the lovers philosophized under the night sky, before they were caught and forced to confess their heresies.

  23. Speaking of the police and offensive language, one Massachusetts town is getting tough.
    Surely they can’t get away with that, isn’t it unconstitutional? Say the selectmen of Happyville vote to bring back slavery, does it still need to be argued in a Federal court?

  24. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Apparently it has been against the law since 1968. The status of the offense has now been diminished to the level of a traffic ticket. So I’m thinking there hasn’t been any change to its constitutionality; that is, it may be unconstitutional, but if so, it was last week too.

  25. Your Majesty, the selectmen ain’t a-going to vote slavery back in; it cost them plenty to get rid of it the first time.
    More seriously, the Supremes have said that government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions ‘are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.'” So the question is, is swearing content, or is it manner? As usual in legal questions, the answer is a firm maybe.

  26. They obviously need a linguist on the Court.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    Linguistics is a very useful subject to take if you are considering going to law school, as so much depends on the interpretation of written laws as well as oral and written statements and questions.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Alternatively, law school was a plausible next step for those of us who were too dilletantish and unfocused in our undergraduate linguistics classes to be strong candidates for a Ph.D. program in the subject . . . (But got it together to do well on the LSATs.)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: QED.

  30. Not so far from us than medieval peasants, but still for a ‘forensic linguist’ approach of history, Arlette Frage works on the Parisian police archives of the XVIII century, before the French revolution. Her books deal precisely with the question of popular language (of women, children, homeless, petty thieves…) and convey their voices as they appeared in the police examinations.

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