Victorian Language and its Discontents

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jeidsath
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Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by jeidsath » Wed Oct 12, 2016 4:34 pm

The comment that got me thinking about this was from Timothée in the Cambridge Greek Dictionary thread:
Timothée wrote:To me it feels always weird when native English speakers complain that a work has an archaic Klang about it.
I have heard the same complaint that Timothée has from several sources. One person even told me that he had a constant dread that he was subtly mis-understanding Greek because of all the archaic 19th century words in the LSJ. As a 36 year-old native speaker of English, I don't personally find much ground for this. I grew up reading things like Burton's Arabian Nights, Kipling, and the Bible (in a translation with a fairly strong 19th century stamp). Shakespeare never gave me the slightest trouble growing up, and I read him with pleasure in school. As an adult, my reading probably dips into the 19th century as much as it does into the 20th.

In fact, I think that the "purge archaic language" movement is often socio-political wherever it is found. This is certainly true in the land of Bible translation. The war there isn't completely about making the Bible easy to understand for people with an 8th grade reading level. It never will be that. It's about the contests between fundamentalism, traditionalism, and individualism, which are all at loggerheads with each other. In the schools, something similar goes on in many subjects. Like new political regimes, professors establish legitimacy by differentiating themselves from and by dismissing the past. With the expansion of education to less elite parts of society, the necessity to prove legitimacy increased. The general tone becomes one of constant snark about the past. In fact, if I had to pick any one central feature about the 21st century media in general, it would be this endemic snark. The kids have been picking it up from an educational experience that makes it a constant feature. I can't tell you the number of classroom lectures that I have attended -- at all levels of education -- that follow the format of "here are the stupid things that we used to believe, and here are the smart things that we believe today, don't you feel smart too now?" The social sciences and humanities tend to have it the worst, because the crisis of legitimacy is greatest there. And you see a constant refresh of terminology and vocabulary every generation (which you don't see so much in physics or mathematics, where the language change is mostly additive instead).

If you can force the other side to adopt your terminology, you have instant legitimacy. You might think that the study of classical languages would be mostly immune to this sort of thing -- and in fact this unfiltered glimpse at the language of the past the best reason to study classical language, in my opinion -- but as subjects taught in universities, classical languages are not immune. The crisis of legitimacy is probably greater for classical languages than for any other subject. At one time the main focus of education was language acquirement, but it no longer is today.*** So there is a huge crisis of legitimacy for anyone teaching the classical languages, especially when all the fruits of historical learning are all free in libraries and on Google Books. How do you publish a book in that stifling atmosphere? Anything that can be done to demean the past has to be done. Criticizing "archaic language" is a fairly good line of attack. Of course, there is no subject where victory over the past can be more Pyrrhic than here.

*** Is this strictly true? All real education is language acquirement, whether in math or science or wherever. Facts are easy, technical language and vocabulary are hard. Pick out the useful parts of your education and they are the parts you spent learning some type of language or vocabulary. The useless parts were generally the times that you weren't doing that.

EDIT: Removed a few lines that weren't really on topic.
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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by bedwere » Wed Oct 12, 2016 4:47 pm

This is a good introduction to the evil of political correctness that helps put what you write into perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axyy2RZ7RoA

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by C. S. Bartholomew » Wed Oct 12, 2016 8:36 pm

Joel,

archaic language (English)

Publication of new Bible translations is very profitable. Billions of USD were made pushing the NIV. Convincing the costumer base that the RSV, NASB, don't really speak your language was a marketing technique which made the NIV a big seller. The generation targeted for first NIV was baby boomers. So the archaic language argument has an economic motive for thousands of NIV related products. Its a big industry.

The original Living Bible, started out with the Living Letters was much more radical than the NIV. I remember as teenager receiving Living Letters as a gift. I had been reading the RSV all my life and found the Living Letters offensive. This isn't an isolated phenomenon. A major problem for bible translations projects in isolated cultures is having translation accepted by the native speakers of the target language. I have heard this over and over again. A Russian Orthodox scholar who was the translation consultant for CIS projects in Siberia and the -istan region told me that their #1 hurdle to get over is acceptance of the translation. Bilingual people who have previously known the Russian Synodal Version were not always thrilled about this "new" bible in their native language.


New/Old meta-language

Totally different topic. I have made a lot of use of 19th century reference works. I just finished a six month study of 2Cor using everything from Alford, Meyer to Harris and Guthrie spanning roughly 150 years. What I find most annoying about the recent work is proliferation of obscure meta-language which is borrowed from classical grammars and perpetuated in works like Wallace GGBB 1996. The use of meta-language in H. W. Smyth is not a problem. But in Harris 2Cor 2005 meta-language has reached a level of totally saturation. You can't hand this book to a bible student and expect them to make any progress with it. The books is essentially written in code. I know most of the code but it is useless to cite Harris because you cannot assume that anyone else will know the code.

archaic (English) 19th Century lexicons

I don't think the the LSJ suffers much from this. The LSJ is a traditional dictionary which works in print. Bible translation has been moving away from print technology for several decades. The new language tools are designed to be some combination of databases and networks. This is whole different question from new and old language. It is a different way of doing lexical semantics. Different theory and different implementation.

social "science" and language

A former student of SS as an undergraduate, I have built in prejudice against all things related to it. Bible translation into isolated ethnic cultures over the last half century has been dominated by social science. Just go look at the SIL bibliography or read early work by K. Pike or E. A. Nida. Linguistics is an insanely diverse field including everything from anthropology to symbolic logic. But it is dominated by social science.
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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by Pros » Thu Oct 13, 2016 5:19 am

bedwere wrote:
This is a good introduction to the evil of political correctness that helps put what you write into perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axyy2RZ7RoA
Thank you for posting this video. I never heard of the Fabian Society. Scary stuff!

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by ailuros » Thu Oct 13, 2016 11:25 am

if you squint a bit at the beginning of this reptilian video you'll notice what appears to be one african-american woman at the far side of this audience of oppressed caucasians. in case anyone hasn't noticed there's a candidate running for president of the u.s. who is also inflamed by the terrors of political correctness and the havoc it has wreaked against our society. beware the fabian society!

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by jeidsath » Thu Oct 13, 2016 1:30 pm

I don't know, but I think that it would be hard for any society, of whatever wealth and influence, to seriously affect the Zeitgeist. Nor will it be possible for the next President of the United States to do so. History sweeps us all along.

I should go through and clean up my above post. It's too loose and not really supposed to be about politics. My main concern with this thread really is Victorian language and legitimacy. It's a common claim that the students don't understand the language of a hundred years ago and need something new. Is this claim a real description of students? Maybe it's true. I'm willing to accept that most people aren't like me. And everyone, young and old, read more ephemeralities than they read books these days. We're less anchored in older forms of speech than we used to be.

But whenever I see a claim about Victorian language -- usually in a new book declaring itself delightfully free from anachronisms -- I have to wonder what sort of student will be able to learn a 3,000 year old language after having failed a 100 year old language almost the same as his own.
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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by swtwentyman » Thu Oct 13, 2016 1:56 pm

I don't think it says anything about the students' now or future reading ability; anyone who self-selects to study a classical language is highly literate to begin with and either knows grammar well or is about to*. But some terms are clearly outdated, the military in particular (though not exclusively). I don't remember which work it was in but I tried to look up evolutions (in respect to cavalry) and couldn't find anything (now that I write this it occurs to me that I could just Google "cavalry evolutions" but my first instinct was to go to the dictionaries, Latin and English).

In any event I'm sure more conservative Victorians as well (at least those of the era we're talking about) themselves complained that their contemporaries were perverting the work of 18th-century Latinists. I do myself prefer the turn-of-the-century language but that's probably because it's what I'm used to.

I'm not about to wade into politics.

* - the real problem with latter-day pedagogy is that English classes don't teach grammar anymore so students have to take foreign languages to learn it. I fell behind in French at the beginning because I wasn't aware that "to be" was a verb.

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by C. S. Bartholomew » Fri Oct 14, 2016 3:36 am

I watched the whole thing, the video. I had buddies half a century ago quoting Marcuse and worse while I was reading Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Somehow I missed the point of the original post since I don't see any connection.

Postscript:
Decades ago I read Dinesh D'Souza The End of Racism and went to hear him speak just off campus at SPU (Seattle) since the school didn't want him on campus. He has been a very vocal critic of O'Bummer. I noted that the county library system had about 50 copies and 400 people waiting for the book and I drove out to SPU library and found their only copy sitting on the self. It was pristine new. Like it had never been opened. Perhaps there is something to what this woman was saying in the video about university censorship. When Barn's and Noble were buy the book by the case load a single copy was sitting unopened in the SPU library.
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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by Ahab » Sun Oct 16, 2016 1:14 pm

bedwere wrote:This is a good introduction to the evil of political correctness that helps put what you write into perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axyy2RZ7RoA
She lost me when she pulled up a quote from Stalin to support her position.

Interesting how the ultra conservative wing of the Republican party keeps complaining of the left's reliance on 'political correctness' when they are equally guilty. A nice example was their claim to know the true meaning of the word "marriage" in the fight over gay marriage.

C. S. Bartholomew wrote:He has been a very vocal critic of O'Bummer.
Difficult to take your views seriously when you engage in such childish insults of President Obama.
Why, he's at worst your poet who sings how Greeks
That never were, in Troy which never was,
Did this or the other impossible great thing!
---Robert Browning

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by Ahab » Sun Oct 16, 2016 1:21 pm

jeidsath wrote:I don't know, but I think that it would be hard for any society, of whatever wealth and influence, to seriously affect the Zeitgeist. Nor will it be possible for the next President of the United States to do so. History sweeps us all along.
History sweeps us all along through the actions of individuals. Do you really think that if Hitler or Stalin or Lincoln had died early in their political careers that history would have been the same?
Why, he's at worst your poet who sings how Greeks
That never were, in Troy which never was,
Did this or the other impossible great thing!
---Robert Browning

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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by jeidsath » Sun Oct 16, 2016 4:41 pm

Speaking of Victorian literature, Carlyle's lectures on Heroes and Hero-worship are worth reading on the subject of the Great Man in history. Just don't get carried away by his prose, which is tremendous. See War and Peace for the other side (feel free to get carried away by Tolstoy's prose).

At one time the Athenians bet everything on a Great Man theory of history. They were sure that everyone's problems with the Macedonian military machine were going to be over once Philip died.

And as far as your question goes, I think that a middle 20th century that included a war that would kill tens of millions, and the Soviet Empire establishing itself into Eastern Europe, became more likely than not years before Hitler came to power. Similarly with the American civil war and its results. But to really make a judgement would take a much closer study of German and Russian sources and literature in the 20th century, and of American sources and literature in the 19th, than I can pretend to.
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Re: Victorian Language and its Discontents

Post by Ahab » Mon Oct 17, 2016 1:28 pm

Thanks for the reading suggestions. Have not read Carlyle. Have read War and Peace and also Norris' The Octopus which takes a similar approach to history as Tolstoy.

Wonder what would have happened to the Macedonian military machine without Alexander?

Anyways, I think there is something to be said for both Carlye's and Tolstoy's respective positions.

I think there would be merit to studying how likely it was for a WW2 to have taken place without Hitler. Given HItler's fanatical views and his resolve to fight to the end it would I suspect have taken a quite different form. In any case, it would be the assumption that it had to take place that I find really troubling.
Why, he's at worst your poet who sings how Greeks
That never were, in Troy which never was,
Did this or the other impossible great thing!
---Robert Browning

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