Visit theallusionist.org/vestiges to read more about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, smear a thin layer of language over the lens so everything looks a bit nicer.
Just to warn you: there’s a category B swear word towards the end of the show, but it’s educational, if that helps.
Before we get into any of that, here’s a little etymology sponsored by Squarespace.com. With their simple drag-and-drop tools and 24/7 customer support, you can quickly and easily create a user-friendly, well-designed website for your podcast, writing, art, band, shop, political campaign… To start your free trial today, and to get 10% off your first purchase, visit squarespace.com/allusion.
Courtesy of Squarespace.com, here’s word history requested by listener Ryan, who has had his etymological curiosity provoked by none other than governor Mike Pence, running to be Donald Trump’s vice president - except now he doesn’t want to be vice president! Not because he suddenly realised who his boss would be; but because he is opposed to the word ‘vice’ on religious grounds. The Bible prohibits vice, in the sense of immorality and wickedness, and this has got Mike Pence in a spin: “That’s not who I am, and that’s not who I want people to think I am,” he said. “I can’t in good faith willingly condone a word I find deplorable without violating my Christian principles.”
Well, Mike Pence, let the dictionary be your spiritual saviour. ‘Vice’ is what is known as a homonym. Homonym: a word that looks and sounds like another word, but has a different meaning. Now, calm yourself down and think about it for just a moment: if ‘vice president’ had the meaning you, Mike Pence, think it does, it would mean you were in the running to be the president of depravity and naughtiness. So if you really thought that, Mike Pence, firstly, haven’t you been questioning what the other guy is doing there, and secondly, if you do have a problem with it, shouldn’t you have raised an objection before you accepted the position two months ago?
The ‘vice’ you’re worried about descends from the Latin ‘vitium’, a blemish either moral or physical, from the Proto-Indo-European ‘wi-tio’, fault or guilt. But, happily for you, ‘vice-president’ does not bear this etymological stain. It’s also not to do with the type of ‘vice’ that clamps carpentry projects together, which is from the Old French ‘vis’, a screw - no, Mike Pence, settle down! - that is from the Latin ‘vitis’, a vine or curly tendril, which spirals like a screw.
The vice-presidential version of ‘vice’ is from yet another Latin word: ‘vicis’, a change or succession, which gave the idea of being a substitute or deputy.
I’m glad to be able to put your mind at rest about this, Mike Pence, because I think you have more pressing things to be worrying about.
UPDATE: Since this episode was released, it has come to my attention that reports of Mike Pence objecting to the word ‘vice’ on hononymous grounds are FALSE. The etymology still stands. But listener Ryan, I can never trust you again.
On with the show.
In the last episode, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to hieroglyphics, by presenting them in parallel with Greek which enabled them to be deciphered. But languages aren’t designed to be deciphered. They were never supposed to be incomprehensible in the first place.
IRVING FINKEL: Undeciphered: it's a temporary state, in my opinion; I look at it optimistically, with the general guiding rule that anything that anybody over any period of time wrote should be decipherable by somebody else.
HZ: Irving Finkel is a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum.
IF: The fact is that none of the world's writing systems apart from codes are meant to be obscure. And this is crucial. Normal writing systems that we can't read just because we haven't deciphered them doesn't mean that they indecipherable; it means that we haven't done it. The fact is we haven't done it depends on various things. Sometimes it's a matter of extreme rarity, so there's hardly anything to go on; and sometimes it's a matter of a profusion of inscriptions which are all too short to be diagnostic.
HZ: All that remains of some languages is the ancient equivalent of a few ‘No Parking’ signs. Or sometimes lists of names - but trying to deduce a language from those would be like trying to figure out the whole of English from a phone book.
There’s also the issue of the evidence being mostly whatever was written on durable materials, which skews the known vocabulary of that language towards the official and formal. Paper or leaves or skins are less likely to have survived time and climates than stone or clay or ivory or tombs, but those aren’t usually materials people would use for everyday jottings.
NICK ZAIR: One problem is that you don't have a wide range, if you're looking at the lexicon, of what words exist in this language. If you want to learn how to say happy birthday, tough, because that kind of stuff doesn't doesn't survive.
HZ: Classicist Nick Zair has spent years working on translating the language of Oscan, which for several centuries was spoken all over southern Italy, but by around zero BC, it had died out.
NZ: But we're very well up on official terminology for approving things and commissioning, things for example.
HZ: It's like if in two thousand years’ time, people went back and the only sources they had for 21st century English were council documents about planning permission.
NZ: Yeah, exactly so. And maybe some graffiti. That’s another thing actually - graffiti written on walls.
HZ: How similar is that to modern graffiti where you wouldn't necessarily get a good grammatical phrase?
NZ: It's quite interesting, in a sense that, if all you had to go on was British graffiti, you would actually get a different lexicon. You might very well get things that are grammatical. They're not polite English; they're not correct standard English; but you'd learn something about the way people spoke on an everyday level perhaps. But it's also very easy to get carried away with that and assume you know - actually anything that's written down by definition not the same as speech and by definition isn't everyday, especially in a culture where illiteracy is much greater. You must have had some education to be literate.
HZ: So, again, the known vocabulary is not going to reflect the whole populace and how they used the language. Also, bear in mind that the 2,000-year-old graffiti Nick is talking about includes stuff we wouldn’t necessarily think of as graffiti now - there was quite a lot of business painted on walls, like electoral posters and official notices.
NZ: But actually in the ancient world, the equivalent of those kind of “Polite notice: please don't park outside here” is written on the wall as well. There's more or less no kind of public signage. There isn't a public body who goes around putting speed limit signs up and saying this is such and such road.
HZ: People have been studying Oscan for about 250 years so far, and considering they can’t exactly run it through Google Translate, they’ve made quite good progress understanding it.
NZ: The reason we can understand Oscan fairly well is because it was related to Latin. So, in the same way that Romanian and French, Spanish, Italian, are all related to each other, if you found another language all of a sudden in that family, you could have a reasonably good stab at understanding quite a lot of it. But sometimes we just come across things and we go, “We’ve got no idea what this is.”
HZ: How do you feel when you come up against an Oscan word you cannot crack? Determined? Frustrated?
HZ: What sort of size of lexicon do you have in Oscan?
NZ: Not huge. It's really dependent on what's on what's been preserved for us so we're pretty good on the names of gods; institutional vocabulary is quite good, things like magistracies, that sort of thing. We know how to sign something or to mark it because - this is actually a really lovely find - there is a quite a large roof tile that's been found that has four sets of footprints on it, two left and two right, as if someone has just walked across it. On one side it says in Latin, “The girlfriend of Horennius marked this or signed this with her foot while we were putting out the the tiles,” and it says more or less the same thing on the other side in Oscan, so we know the verb ‘to walk on someone's tile and an imprint in the cement’.
HZ: Egyptian got the Rosetta Stone; Oscan just has a tile with feet on it.
NZ: That's an interesting case because in Latin it says ‘the girlfriend of Horennius’; in Oscan it says ‘the debt-free of Horennius’. And we just don't know what this word means. It doesn't even look like a very good Oscan word. You'd expect it to have a different ending. And we don't know what it means - is it her name? Does it means slave girl? Does it mean ‘girlfriend’? We just don't know what it means.
HZ: Could it be bawdy slang for ‘girlfriend’?
NZ: It could be. It could it could really be anything.
HZ: This is the trouble when translating an extinct language. You can make educated guesses based on similar languages. You can study the samples of writing to find patterns that are clues to what the words might mean and how the grammar might have worked. But then you can discover something that doesn’t fit in with what you thought you knew - and you’re at a loss to understand it.
NZ: What really helps is when you have, like the Rosetta Stone, where you have a language you don't know, or a writing system you don’t know, that's translated into another language that says exactly the same thing. So that's a really important feature - if you have enough of those then that gives you a really good chance of cracking a language that you don't know.
HZ: What are the odds though?
NZ: Well, bilingual inscriptions are not uncommon in the ancient world, but you do still have to be have to be lucky to find them. It's not rare for people to be for people to be bilingual in the ancient world. We tend to think of a situation where one nation state equals one language, which is really not true of the modern day any more than it was the ancient.
IF: And it's very easy in England to think that, you know, you really need to know one language, and if you speak English and people don't understand it, you just speak louder; you don't need to bother with other languages. And so there's a kind of common idea that knowing one language is natural. But in point of fact, it's not natural.
JULIE TETEL ANDRESEN: Monolingualism is an aberration - most people have been multilingual.
HZ: This is the linguistic historiographer Julie Tetel Andresen. She has been studying how and why languages vanish.
JTA: The human body and brain is quite well adapted to multilingualism. So the ideology of monolingualism is a fairly new phenomenon, only the last couple of hundred years. It’s such a distortion.
It is when the nation state came into being - late 18th century political theory. Think of the language situation before the mid-18th century. There were empires, multilingual conglomerations, whose borders waxed and waned with marriage and war; nobody cared about linguistic diversity, the great threat to unity was religious diversity.
When the state decided to mobilise language as a resource for creating the nation, you got the ideology of the monolingual nation state, where we want linguistic borders to coincide with national borders. But of course they never did.
HZ: And part of the fallout of this process is that, as one language dominates, the smaller, more regional languages die off.
JTA: People only give up their native language when it’s in their best interest - their economic or health interest. It can be slowly, over time, but usually it’s a wholesale dropping of your native language and acquiring the language of power. So you lose your solidarity language; it has no more in-group effect for you, you can’t get a job, you can’t do anything. So you may maintain it yourself among your friends, but you don’t pass it down to your children. It can happen in a generation, two generations.
HZ: And this is probably how Oscan got wiped out.
NZ: In the course of the first millennium, the Romans stomped all over Italy and take it over. But when you get beaten up by the Romans, basically you have to sign a treaty with them which says you will send men to fight in their armies and that you won't fight against them. The Romans don't really care what language you're speaking. But they do found Roman colonies over Italy, and the official language there is Latin and all the colonists are Romans so they'll speak Latin. So basically it's a bit like the reason English is so widespread today. There's a lot of soft power. So if you want to get on in the world you have to be able to speak Latin; if you want to be a player in the Roman state, if you want to make money, if you want to have power, you have to speak Latin.
JTA: What gives language prestige? A long written tradition, often it has something to do with religion, the language of government, the language of politics - that gives language a prestige, and any language with those resources is going to have a better chance of survival. If it has prestige, that is almost the determiner of its fate. If it’s considered prestigious, people are going to learn it; if it’s not prestigious, people aren’t going to learn it. It seems like a distinctly non-linguistic feature; but language is a social product. Money talks; what language does it speak?
Julie Tetel Andresen is a linguist and author. Her latest book, co-written with Philip Carter, is Languages In The World: How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language. All proceeds will go to the Endangered Language Fund, which works to preserve languages around the world.
Nick Zair’s book Oscan in the Greek Alphabet is out now, and you can find out more about the research project he is part of at greekinitaly.wordpress.com.
And thanks very much to Irving Finkel, and Sian Toogood and Nick Harris of the British Museum for facilitating these episodes.
This episode is sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go toilet spray. Listener Gareth tweeted me to ask, “Can we have the etymology of "shit" on the next show, with Poo-Pourri?” Shit, and the Old English ‘scitte’, and the German ‘scheissen’, all come from the Proto-Germanic root ‘skit-’, which meant to cut or to separate. And although they are not etymologically related, there’s the same sense of separation in the roots of ‘excrement’ and ‘turd’. That waste is separating from your body, and if you spritz the bowl with Poo-Pourri beforehand, you won’t leave behind a noxious odour when it happens. Visit poopourri.com to see all the available scents - there’s even Shoe-Pourri, for fragrant feet - and you can get 20% off your next order at poopourri.com if you use the discount code ‘WORDS’ at checkout.
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jugulate, verb, archaic: kill by cutting the throat.
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The Key part II was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Devon Taylor, Cheeka Eyers and Martin Austwick, who also did the music. Find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow and at theallusionist.org.