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.