Trilingualism & Beyond

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

I took the photo above during a 1998 visit to Switzerland. It’s a relatively typical scene in the villages of the Engadin region, with the Postbus trying to negotiate its way around a herd of cows just strolling down the street.

Visiting Switzerland is an interesting—even frustrating—experience from the linguistic viewpoint, because the country has four official languages (none of which is English). The languages are: French, German, Italian and Romansh, as shown in this map. Thus, many inhabitants of Switzerland are trilingual or more (they speak three or more languages). That’s fine for them, but for you as a visitor, it presents a difficulty. As soon as you want to speak to a stranger, the question immediately arises as to which language you should use!

In theory, the country is divided into linguistic regions, so it would be reasonable to choose the dominant language of the region in which you find yourself. (For example, in the westerly regions, French is the dominant language.) Unfortunately, as I discovered, that doesn’t always solve the problem.

Nonetheless, before arriving in Switzerland, I had naively thought that I was relatively well prepared for the experience, because I had learned two of those four languages at school…

Linguistically Prepared?

At the high school I attended in England, French was a mandatory O-level subject (along with Math, English Language and English Literature). The school was a typical British “comprehensive” and there was nothing particularly unusual about the O-level requirements. In general, pupils were expected to study at least one foreign language, and French was the usual choice.

We were also able to select 4 further O-level subjects based on our own preferences, of which one could be another language (but only one of those taught at the school: German, Russian and Latin). I chose to study German, and I passed my O-levels in both foreign languages.

At that time, I had no real idea about the direction that my future life might take, although the idea of perhaps working in Europe some day did appeal to me. Unfortunately, as things turned out, knowledge of French and German has proven to be of very limited usefulness to me, whereas knowledge of Spanish would have been very valuable!

In a Taxi in Zurich

As I mentioned above, I expected that my knowledge of French and German would be beneficial in Switzerland. The first night that we arrived in Zurich, we had to get a taxi from the airport to our hotel. I got into the taxi, and, figuring that I was in the German-speaking part of the country, I asked the driver to take us to the hotel in that language.

He returned my request with a confused look, so instead I tried English. Still no luck. Eventually I tried French, to which he smiled and nodded. It turned out that he wasn’t Swiss at all, but was in fact un colon from Morocco, where French is not an official language, but is widely taught.

Our driver seemed quite surprised that I was able to ask him in more than one language, and even accused me of being Canadian!

Arrival in Davos

Arrival in Davos Platz

Arrival in Davos Platz

We did eventually get to the hotel in Zurich, and stayed overnight before heading for Davos the following day. The photo above shows Mary and me on arrival in Davos, although we had actually traveled by Rhaetian Railway train, rather than the Postbus behind us.

Linguistically, I figured that Davos would be a “safe zone” for me, because surely now we were in the midst of the German-speaking portion of the country.

My relief turned out once again to be premature, because the version of German spoken in Switzerland was almost completely unintelligible to me. The people of that region speak Schwyzerdütsch, which is a very strong (unwritten) dialect, with substantially different pronunciation rules. Listening to a conversation between two locals, I could barely pick out more than a few words, and only then when I began to grasp the varying pronunciations.

Watch Your Gender

Nonetheless, most locals understood standard German, so I felt that at least I could ask for things in German if necessary. Unfortunately, that too turned out to have its pitfalls.

We couldn’t locate the main Post Office in Davos so, while buying gasoline, I asked the attendant for directions. I said to her, “Entschuldigen Sie mir, wo ist der Postamt?

The response was another very puzzled look (and if you speak German you’ll probably already have spotted my error). I then engaged in much hand-waving and explanations, along the lines of wanting to buy a stamp. Eventually, the attendant figured out my meaning, and, with a smile, explained that I should have said, “Wo ist das Postamt?”.

I’d got the gender wrong, which to me as an English speaker didn’t seem all that important, but clearly I was mistaken!

Don’t Learn Too Much!

At long last, just over a year ago, I decided to make the effort to begin learning (Latin American) Spanish, given that I’ve now lived for more than 30 years in California, which has a substantial Spanish-speaking population.

I called up a local tutor who was offering group lessons, and discussed whether she could help me. She asked whether I had ever learned any other foreign languages. I felt that mentioning my previous studies in French and German would be seen as beneficial, so I was surprised by the tutor’s negative response. “That’s going to confuse you”, was her claim.

I’d never before heard of the idea that it might be possible to learn too many languages! And yes, while learning Spanish I have sometimes resorted to the use of French words, but only in cases where I didn’t know the Spanish equivalent anyway! If I didn’t know French, then I’d just have had to use the English word in those cases.

I did some online research to determine whether there’s really any evidence for this odd notion that learning more than two languages is potentially confusing, or conversely, as I had believed, beneficial. I found several articles on the topic, such as here, here and here. On the whole, the consensus seems to be that, while it can lead to temporary confusion, in general knowing two languages makes it easier to learn a third.

So, yes, I still believe that I can safely say that Trilingualism is not something to be ashamed of!

The Miracle of Literacy

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

The image above is an excerpt from one of my earliest attempts at writing (and illustrating). It’s a page from a book called “Stories of Mr. Wolf” that I wrote at home, at the age of six. I still have the book, which I’ve recently scanned because the paper is gradually disintegrating. I can’t claim that those stories would win any literary prizes, nor even hold the interest of anyone else, but I had to start somewhere!

I was always eager to learn to read and write, and was quite happy to practice at home when I felt so inspired. Perhaps unlike many children, I didn’t have to wait for my schoolteachers to insist that I must do it.

The Magical Skill

I can just remember back to the days before I learned to read and write, and I recall my amazement at the adults around me who seemed able to do it with ease. My grandfather, who was retired and lived with my parents, took a daily newspaper and several magazines (including the Dalesman, which is still in print today).

As it appeared to me, he would open the newspaper or magazine, stare at it for a few minutes, then tell me that he had read it! He didn’t seem to need to sound out the words, or follow the text with his finger, and yet, at the end of the process, he had clearly absorbed and understood the printed words that he’d been staring at. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever learn to do that!

Four Generations of our Family

Four Generations of our Family

The photo above was taken when I was about 2 years old, and shows 4 generations of my mother’s family. The group on the right consists of me, my mother, her mother, and my grandmother’s mother. The man at lower left is my grandfather.

My drawing below is from another book that I wrote and illustrated in 1966, but this was one that we were required to write in class at school, and it features one of my earliest “self-portraits”. Unlike most of my other school work, this book has also survived.

Self-Portrait, 1966

Self-Portrait, 1966

Based on the remaining evidence, a notable difference between the books I wrote at home and those I wrote at school is that the subjects I wrote about at home were generally more imaginative and adventurous! It seems that, at school, our teachers must have restricted us to writing about very mundane topics (perhaps because we all had to write about the same things).

The Basis of Civilization

It seems to me that literacy is the one critical skill that allows human society to advance, and in fact is the sole reason why we’re not all still living in trees or caves.

Anthropologists tell us how other species rely more instinct than humans, so newborns of those species already have many critical survival skills. Humans, as they tell us, have to go through a very protracted growth process, and must be taught almost everything by their parents.

The specifically-human ability to read and write, however, allows individuals to record and transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and that ability has been critical to our progress as a species. If each generation of humans had to restart “from square one”, learning everything from scratch, we would never advance. Instead, each generation is able to learn from the one before, and “stand on the shoulders” of its ancestors to make further progress. Most of this knowledge transmission has always occurred, and still occurs, via reading and writing.

It’s true that recent technological developments have provided us with other mechanisms for recording and transmitting information (such as video). While such systems offer a much richer and perhaps more engaging experience, our basic writing systems still offer vastly greater efficiency for disseminating information than any other recording system. I came to a forceful realization of this when writing my first multimedia title, Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets (mentioned in this article on my professional blog). I was faced with the choice of delivering information via onscreen text, or via audio, or even via video. In very rough terms, audio playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of text display, and video playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of audio playback.

A New Literary Revolution

At the present time, another literary revolution is actually occurring. All genuinely creative writers and artists should be excited about this revolution, but I wonder how many actually realize what is happening!

The invention of printing allowed written information to be disseminated to mass audiences. Previously, all written works had had to be hand-copied, which was such a laborious process that only a few copies of each book were ever produced.

Nonetheless, printed books still had to be produced and distributed physically, and this led to a situation where publishers became the dominant “gatekeepers”, controlling what could actually reach the mass market.

The image below shows the title page of the oldest printed book in my possession, which obviously I acquired secondhand! The book was published by the University of Cambridge in 1828, and is a collection of the surviving works of the Greek playwright Æschylus.

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1830

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1828

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught myself some Ancient Greek while studying in Manchester, but my fluency never became sufficient to read Æschylus’ work in the original! Nonetheless, my efforts led me to the purchase of this and a few other works in Greek.

Books Without Paper

During the past few years, eBooks have started to become popular. Instead of being printed on paper, eBooks are distributed electronically and are read on digital devices. In fact, in many cases purchasers cannot print their eBooks on paper.

Although eBooks have several pros and cons relative to printed books, a remarkable situation has developed whereby major booksellers such as Amazon are actively encouraging authors to self-publish their own eBooks, instead of being forced to follow the traditional routes via established publishers.

In view of this development, I think we’re living at a very exciting time, when the potential for writers (and artists) is greater than it has ever been. There’s really now nothing to prevent those with real talent from being able to publish their works to the world.

And yes, just as with the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the 1980s, the democratization of book publishing will inevitably mean that vast amounts of dross will get published along with the masterpieces! Nonetheless, I think that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, and the world will soon see a whole new publishing landscape. For a skill that has been so critical to the development of our species, that has to be a good thing!

Old Money & LSD

British Ten Shilling Note

British Ten Shilling Note

If you’ve concluded from the title of this post that I’m going to discuss illegal psychedelic drugs, then you may be in for a disappointment! What I’m actually going to discuss is the old British currency system, which has now vanished, but was still in use for much of my childhood.

The image above shows the front of the old “ten shilling note”. Until I scanned this image, I hadn’t handled one of these notes since they were withdrawn in 1969!

As a result of the arcane symbols used for its 3 denominations (explained below), the pre-decimal British currency came to be known as the LSD System.

In a previous post on my professional blog, I discussed some of the illogical and inconsistent spelling conventions of the English language. The old British currency system seemed equally illogical and arcane! Some have even suggested that whoever concocted the LSD System must have done so after taking a significant dose of some psychedelic drug!

By the time that I was born, in 1960, this system had been in use for many hundreds of years, so that acquiring fluency in it was accepted as a necessary and natural part of our education.

The LSD System

Under the LSD System, the primary unit of currency was the pound, but one pound was subdivided into twenty shillings, and each shilling was further divided into twelve pence.

1 Pound = 20 Shillings

1 Shilling = 12 Pence (Pennies)

There was a half-penny coin (called a ha’penny, and pronounced hayp-ny), and a quarter-penny coin (called a farthing) had been withdrawn only in 1960.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, in view of the actual names of the 3 currency denominations, the currency system would have been known as the “PSP System”, but that would have been far too obvious! Instead, obscure non-English terms were used, as follows.

LSD = Livra, Solidus, Denarius

Livra

The symbol used for the pound was “£”, which (my father assured me) was in fact an upper-case letter “L” with a cross through it!

One might have been forgiven for expecting that the symbol for pound would be some variation on the letter “P”, but that would have been too obvious. Why use pedestrian English, when there are so many other languages from which words may be borrowed? In this case, the “L” was derived from the Latin word livra, meaning “pound”.

Solidus

The symbol used for “shilling” was the refreshingly straightforward “s”, although it would be naïve to jump to the conclusion that the symbol was merely the initial letter of that word.

On the contrary, the “s” was the first letter of the Latin word solidus, which had been a Roman coin denomination, worth 1/72nd of one pound of gold.

Denarius

The symbol used for penny, or pence, was “d”. Why so?

If you think back approximately two thousand years, to the period when what is now England was a province of the Roman Empire, you may just recall that the Romans minted a silver coin that they called a denarius. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the kingdoms that sprang up to fill the power vacuum continued to mint denarii of their own.

Around the year 755, King Offa of Mercia (a kingdom that later became part of England) introduced a new silver coin, the penny, as an equivalent to the Frankish denier.

British pennies ceased to be minted from silver after 1795, but the “d” symbol stuck.

LSD Arithmetic

The arithmetic of the LSD system involved carrying twelves from the pennies to the shillings column, and carrying twenties from the shillings to the pounds column.

As students, we accepted the difficulties associated with working with bases of twelve and twenty, if only because we had already been taught time computations, which did, and still do, involve base-sixty and modulo twelve calculations.

The Cryptic Codes

Having learned the cryptic symbols used to identify the currency denominations, we might have expected that an amount such as, for example, one pound nine shillings and six pence would be written as ‘£1 9s 6d.’

Such a representation was acceptable, but there were also many other possible configurations. The same amount could also be written as £1-9-6 or £1/9/6.

In certain price lists, to save space, there was no ‘pounds’ column, so the same amount would be written 29/6. See the Dinky Toys catalog example below.

For amounts less than one pound (such as the prices of groceries), it was usual to write, for example, one shilling and nine pence as 1/9, read as “one and nine”.

In cases where the price was an exact number of shillings, a further quirk was deployed. Instead of writing, for example, 3/0, the accepted formulation was 3/-.

Needless to say, it took me as a child some considerable time to master these peculiar shorthand forms.

Dinky Toys 1966 Price List

Dinky Toys 1966 Price List

The image above shows part of the price list from the 1966 Dinky Toys catalog. The conventions used for displaying prices in shillings and pence can be seen on the right. Note that for items costing more than £1, the price is still shown in shillings and pence only. For example, the “Holiday Gift Set” costs “37/6”, which is actually £1/17/6.

Strange Names

The colloquial name for a pound was a quid, and you can still use that term for the modern pound today.

Most British coins had acquired names (either officially, or as slang) in addition to their values. I’ve already mentioned the ha’penny and farthing (whose name was derived from “fourthing”), but there were many other colorful epithets.

Tanners, Bobs & Florins

The slang term for the sixpence coin was a tanner; that for a one shilling coin was a bob; while the two shilling coin was officially named the florin (because it had originally displayed a floral design). In fact, the florin was a rather late introduction, having been created during Queen Victoria’s reign (in 1849), ostensibly as a first step towards decimalization (the florin being worth one tenth of a pound). If indeed it was the first step towards decimalization, then it was also the last during Victoria’s reign!

The Last British Florin Design

The Last British Florin Design

Thruppenny Bit

There was also a three pence coin, which was colloquially referred to by the relatively obvious name of thruppenny bit. The inconveniently small silver thruppenny bit was withdrawn in 1942, and replaced by a twelve-sided nickel-brass coin.

This enforced a change in Christmas tradition. It had been the practice to cook a silver thruppence in each Christmas pudding, the lucky finder of which kept this small treasure trove. However, the new nickel-brass coin reacted with the pudding’s ingredients, to produce an unpleasant taste. Therefore, inflation took its effect, such that it was now necessary to cook a silver sixpence in Christmas puddings!

Half-Crown

Moving on up the value scale, the half crown coin was worth two shillings and six pence. There had, in earlier days, been a crown coin, worth five shillings, but, by the time that I came into the world, the crown was no longer in general circulation, and was minted only for special occasions. (The occasion of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, in 1965, was the first time that I saw one.)

Sovereign

During my lifetime, there was no pre-decimal coin in circulation having a higher value than the half crown. The denominations of bank notes were ten shillings, one pound, five pounds, and so on upwards.

When first introduced (in 1489), the pound had been a gold coin, called a sovereign (because its design depicted the King—in the person of Henry VII—at the time). Gold sovereigns are still minted today, but, if anyone should offer to sell you one of these for a pound, don’t expect it to be real!

Guinea

As if all the above were not sufficiently complex, the British managed to add a further layer of intricacy by adding elements of the class system to the currency system!

Minted alongside the pound, there had, for centuries, been a gold coin called a guinea (primarily because the coins had originally been minted, in 1663, using gold obtained from “Guinea” by the West Africa Company). Because of its intrinsic value, the equivalent in shillings of a guinea varied over the years, from twenty shillings when first introduced, up to thirty shillings in the 1690s, and then finally settling at twenty-one shillings.

By the twentieth century, however, the guinea coin had been long withdrawn, and the guinea was not an official currency denomination. Nonetheless, an attitude had developed among the upper classes that dealing in mere pounds was the grubby necessity of those who must work for a living. The leisured classes should never be seen to debase themselves with such proletarian considerations! Therefore, those who considered themselves as belonging to the “professional” class, or higher, always dealt in guineas (one guinea being worth twenty-one shillings), rather than in pounds.

A satirical example of this practice appears in Lewis Carroll’s tale: Through the Looking Glass. One character in the story, the Mad Hatter, always wears a top hat, in the brim of which is affixed a label stating; “In this style: 10/6”. The ‘10/6’ is the price—ten shillings and sixpence, or half a guinea, indicating—via the additional sixpence—that the hat is intended for a “professional” clientele.

The class distinction implied by the use of the guinea was satirized for perhaps the last time in the 1960s television show The Avengers.

In the episode entitled The Morning After, the hero, Steed, has captured a double agent called Jimmy Merlin. As they walk along, handcuffed together, Merlin decides to try to buy Steed off.

Merlin: “Any chance of making a deal?”

Steed: “I shouldn’t have thought so, but keep talking.”

Merlin: “Twenty thousand, in a Swiss bank account? No names; no strings?”

Steed: “Pounds?”

Merlin: “Yes.”

Steed: “Very sorry, old chap, only deal in guineas.”

Winds of Change

That was the way things were, and they had been that way for centuries. But no sooner had I learned the arithmetic of the LSD system, when, during the mid-1960s, someone announced: “You know that money system that we’ve been using for hundreds of years? Well, we’re not going to do that any more!”

Between 1968 and 1971, adjustments were made to the existing coinage, to bring it more closely into alignment with the planned decimal system.

In 1968, the minting of shilling and florin coins was terminated, and instead were minted, respectively, five new pence and ten new pence coins. The replacement coins were of the same size, shape and weight as their predecessors, but displayed the new values. During the next few years, various withdrawals occurred of denominations that would not convert conveniently to decimal values.

D-Day

Then came “D-Day” (the “D” standing, in this case, for “decimalization”). On February 15, 1971, the entire nation changed over from the official usage of one currency to the other, literally overnight.

On ‘D-Day’, all the surviving old coin denominations were called in, and the half new pence, new penny, and two new pence coins were issued for the first time. This vast changeover was achieved efficiently, by the expedient of placing the burden of the conversion upon sellers!

Sellers were to display their prices in the decimal currency as from D-Day, and, when purchasers wished to pay using the old currency, the seller would have to convert the amount for them. The seller accepted the old currency equivalent, paid back any change in the new currency, and then turned in the old coinage to their bank in the normal course of events.

The Chaos Caused by New P

In the decimal system, the pound was retained, with the same nominal value as the LSD pound.

There were to be one hundred new pence to one pound, with no denomination equivalent to the shilling. This implied that one new penny would be equivalent to 2.4 old pennies. The symbol for the decimal pound was retained as “£” (the crossed “L”), since this would cause no confusion, but the symbol for the new penny was to be “p”. This led to the practice of referring to, say, ten new pence as “ten pee”, to avoid the ambiguity that would arise from the use of the phrase “ten pence”.

Nonetheless, the requirement to specify ‘new pence’ played havoc with the colloquial terminology that had been commonplace until then.

The half new penny coin, for example, was never referred to as a “new ha’penny”, but initially as a “half new pence,” and later, when the word ‘new’ was dropped, a “halfpence.”

The nation’s Boy Scouts, who had traditionally undertaken their annual “Bob a Job” week, whereby they offered to perform chores for payment of one shilling, now found themselves forced to offer the less linguistically satisfying “Five New Pence a Job” week.

Goodbye to Ten Bob

As I mentioned above, the ‘ten bob note’ was withdrawn, and replaced with the seven-sided fifty new pence coin, in 1969.

Other than that, however, no changes were made to the paper money denominations as part of the decimalization plan.

Sing a Song of Two Sixpences Only, Please

I have not mentioned the withdrawal of the pre-decimal sixpence coin, because, in fact, this survived in use for some years following decimalization, but under the extremely quaint constraint that these coins be used only in pairs!

It was acceptable to pay an amount of five new pence using two sixpence coins, but it was illegal to use one sixpence coin to pay two and a half new pence!

Fading Memories

For those Britons who did not live through the decimalization era, the details of the LSD system described above fall very firmly into the category of rapidly receding ‘ancient history’.

That fact was brought home to me when my nephew, on seeing a reproduction of a 1930s travel advertisement stating, “Return Fare: 1/9,” asked me, “What does it mean: ‘Return Fare: one-ninth’?”

Yorkshire Day

Mulberry Hall, Stonegate, York, 2010

Mulberry Hall, Stonegate, York, 2010

Tomorrow (August 1st) is Yorkshire Day. The photo above shows Mulberry Hall, which is a medieval building on Stonegate in the center of York.

In the background of the photo you can just see part of York Minster, covered in scaffolding at the time of my 2010 visit.

Mulberry Hall was built in 1434, as attested by the date above its front door, although the building has been extended and refurbished several times since then.

For many decades, the building contained a china and glassware shop (which was also called Mulberry Hall). My wife and I always made of point of visiting that shop when we visited York, and we also had gifts sent from there to friends and family in Britain. Sadly, the business closed in 2016, but the building remains, and hopefully will one day again house a prestigious merchant.

York: Two Thousand Years of Adaptation

I was born in Yorkshire, and, during the period 1979-81, I lived in Scarborough but visited York (by train) nearly every Saturday. I can’t think of any other city where there’s so much to do and see, packed into such a compact space. (There are larger cities with many attractions, but they’re more difficult to walk around.) That’s partly because York is a relatively small city that has fulfilled so many roles for the past 2000 years. The earliest recorded settlement was a Roman fort, which eventually became a town. In medieval times the city became a wool trading center and the northern archbishopric of the Church of England. During the nineteenth century, the coming of railways transformed York into a major rail hub and manufacturing center. While still retaining remnants of all those former roles, the city is now a world-class tourist attraction.

If you’re in the area, York is definitely worth visiting, but you’d probably have to spend many months there to see and do everything that is available!

Ye Olde Misspelling

In my photo above, further down Stonegate, you can see a sign over the street advertising Ye Olde Starre Inne. The Starre Inne is almost as old as Mulberry Hall, dating back to 1644, but what’s interesting about the sign is that includes a corrupted Old English letter. The word “Ye” in this context actually means “the”, and is pronounced “the” (although even many Britons are unaware of that).

As I mentioned in a post on my professional blog, prior to the Norman Invasion in 1066, English used two special letters to represent the language’s “th” sound. One of the letters was called thorn (þ), and that letter was sometimes misinterpreted (and mispronounced) as a “y”. Hence, “þe” is often misspelled as “ye”, as in the sign over Stonegate. I doubt that the Inn’s owners will want to change it, however, because you can imagine the difficulties associated with telling customers that they must type “Þe Olde Starre Inne” in their Google searches!

French Place Names

 

Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Happy Bastille Day (for the 14th)!

I took the photo above in Paris, one rainy evening in October, 2014. As most of you will probably be aware, it shows the cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Île de la Cité. Mary and I were staying nearby on the Île Saint-Louis at the time, and I was out for an evening stroll after the rain.

I just learned that the father of the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, is an expert on cat sneezing! During our visit, we spotted this Parisian resident, not sneezing, but gazing out over the River Seine from a balcony on the Rue Chanoinesse.

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

On that occasion, we visited not only Paris (unlike President Trump’s seemingly imaginary friend Jim), but also southwestern France, and stayed for a while in the Dordogne, which is a beautiful and fascinating region that I’d never previously seen.

We stayed in the village of Bézenac, and visited several nearby locations. One of the best known of those is perhaps Beynac, which has been nominated as one of the world’s most beautiful villages. Perched on a cliff high above the village is the Château de Beynac, as shown in my photo below.

Beynac from below, 2014

Beynac from below, 2014

The opposite view, shown below, shows the scene from the walls of the Château de Beynac, looking down towards the Dordogne River. Incidentally, at one time in the Middle Ages, the near side of the river was in France while the far side was English territory!

Beynac from above, 2014

Beynac from above, 2014

Langue d’Oc & Langue d’Oïl

The South of France is often referred to as the “Languedoc”, and the origin of that name is linguistic. In medieval times, there were two major dialects of French, which were named according to their respective words for “Yes”.

  • In the North, the Latin expression for “yes”—hoc ille—had evolved into “oïl”.
  • In the South, the same Latin expression had become “oc”, hence the language was the “Langue d’Oc”.

All Those “Acs”

I was naturally curious as to why so many of the place names in the Languedoc end in “ac”. I assumed that it must refer to some characteristic of the settlements so-named, as for similar recurring endings in British place names, such as “ham”, “thorpe”, etc.

After we returned home, I bought a copy of a book that explains the origins of place names in that region: Origine des noms de villes et villages de la Dordogne (Cassagne, Korsak).

NomsDordogne

The book explains that the “ac” ending refers to the existence of a villa at the location during Gallo-Roman times. The Gallic names for such places ended in “acos”, which the Romans Latinized as “acum”. For example, the village we stayed in, Bézenac, was originally Bisenacum (the “villa of Bisenus”).

However, the Latin “acum” place name ending morphed into a modern ending differently, according to the region. For example, in parts of the North, “ac” became “ai”, such as in Cambrai, while in areas near Paris it became “y”, such as in Orly.

In a previous post, I described how the Roman name Eboracum evolved via several contortions into the modern place name York, in Northern England.

Perhaps I should have spotted that all those “ac” place names in Languedoc were really just that same “acum” ending that I’d already encountered in Yorkshire as a child!

Poem: The Ruin

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

In previous posts, I’ve published some of my own efforts at poetry. This time, I’m publishing a poem by someone else, called “The Ruin”. However, I’m not worried about copyright infringement issues, because not only is the work very long out of copyright, but in fact nobody knows who wrote it!

My watercolor painting above, showing the ruins of a fictitious Roman temple in what’s now England, was partially inspired by the poem. However, the poem I’m discussing here is thought to refer to the city of Bath, while, for various reasons, my ruin was supposed to be in Silchester.

Before discussing the history of the poem, and some thoughts on Roman ruins in Britain, here is the poem itself in the original Old English. (In a previous post on my professional blog, I discussed some of the letters used in Old English, and which appear here.)

Of course, English has changed so much during the past thousand years that no speaker of Modern English can read this without treating it as a foreign language. Nonetheless, the original poem has a beautiful flow and structure, which can be appreciated even if you don’t understand what it actually says.

Unfortunately, the surviving manuscript of the poem is damaged, such that some of the text is either unreadable or missing. In the rendering below, the ellipses show where text is illegible. The punctuation is modern.

The Ruin (Old English)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;

burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

 

scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,

ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað

waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,

heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea

werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad

 

ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,

ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.

Wonað giet se …num geheapen,

fel on …

grimme gegrunden …

 

scan heo…

…g orþonc ærsceaft

…g lamrindum beag

mod mo… …yne swiftne gebrægd

hwætred in hringas, hygerof gebond

 

weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre.

Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,

heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,

meodoheall monig mondreama full,

oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe.

 

Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,

swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;

wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,

brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon

hergas to hrusan. Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,

 

ond þæs teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeð

hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong

gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig

glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,

wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;

 

seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,

on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,

on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.

Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp

widan wylme; weal eall befeng

 

beorhtan bosme, þær þa baþu wæron,

hat on hreþre. þæt wæs hyðelic.

Leton þonne geotan …

ofer harne stan hate streamas

un…

 

…þþæt hringmere hate

…þær þa baþu wæron.

þonne is …

…re; þæt is cynelic þing,

huse… burg…

The Waters of Sul

As I mentioned above, it is frequently suggested that the poem describes the remains of the City of Aquae Sulis (“the Waters of Sul”) — the modern City of Bathbut that’s simply an educated guess. The manuscript provides no helpful footnotes nor explanatory detail, so the actual subject of the poem will probably never be known for sure.

Aquae Sulis probably succumbed to a similar fate to that of other conurbations, falling into disrepair some time soon after the empire’s legions were withdrawn from Britannia in 410 CE. After the Roman engineers departed, their Anglo-Saxon replacements were either unable or unwilling to maintain the complex stone buildings, and so either left them to disintegrate, or else removed the materials for other uses. Very little is known regarding the process of this decay, during the period called (for that very reason) the “Dark Ages”, so the existence of this poem offers a rare insight into the conditions of that time.

The Exeter Book

The book containing the only surviving manuscript of the poem is so-called, not because it was written in or about the City of Exeter, but because it forms part of the collection of Exeter Cathedral. The book consists of a sequence of unrelated literary works, including everything from epic poetry to risqué riddles. Its contents appear to have been copied out, by a single scribe, in about 975 CE, although most, if not all, the works contained in the book seem to have been created at earlier dates.

It is known that the book was owned by Bishop Leofric of Exeter until 1070, when he donated it to the cathedral’s library. However, there’s no evidence that the book was held in particularly high regard. Indeed, there is evidence that its front cover was used, at various times, as a cutting board and a beer mat! Some folios are missing, and the fourteen surviving pages nearest to the back have been burned.

The folio containing the poem itself is damaged, which has rendered portions of the middle and end of the poem illegible. Nonetheless, the remaining text provides an extraordinary description of the awe in which the Anglo-Saxon community must have held the crumbling remains of the Roman cities around them.

The Structure of the Poem

The poem exhibits characteristics typical of Old English verse, which distinguish such works from later poetry.

Perhaps the most obvious feature is the caesura in the center of each line (marked by commas or periods above), which imposes a syntactical structure leading to the enjambment of many of the lines.

Another typical feature is the lack of the use of rhyme, which is ironic when one considers that, due to its inflected nature, it was much easier to find rhyming pairs in Old English than in its modern equivalent.

Conversely, very heavy use was made of alliteration (e.g., “weallwalan wīrum” for “iron bonds”), although it is almost impossible to retain this feature in any modern translation.

It’s a real stroke of luck that this remarkable example of historic literary description has survived for us to read, although it makes you wonder how much similarly wonderful literature must have been lost.

Modern English Translation

Although there are no copyright concerns regarding the original Old English version of the poem, most modern translations of it are, of course, subject to copyright restrictions. However, the Wikipedia article about the poem offers one translation:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruin

Stumbling on Silchester

At the time that I first learned about this poem, I was living in Andover, UK, and commuted to my job in Wokingham, about 40 miles away. I took several circuitous rural routes between the two locations, depending on traffic and weather conditions. One such route took me past what is now a tiny hamlet called Silchester.

Unlike Bath, Silchester was never repopulated as a city after the post-Roman abandonment. At Silchester, the only remains above ground are portions of the huge city walls, which now surround an empty field. I plan to say more about Silchester in future posts.

Sketching the Great Comedian

The Great Comedian, 1986

The Great Comedian, 1986

Back in the days when I used public transport to get to work, I found myself with a substantial amount of “down time”, spent waiting for transport or traveling on transport. I wanted to do something useful with that time, so, one summer, I decided to try to teach myself Classical Greek.

I had learned French (which was mandatory) and German (optional) at high school, but Greek wasn’t even offered at my school. I was inspired to try to learn the language by having read some of the surviving works of classical authors (in English). Unfortunately, many people seem to assume that all those works are heavy tomes of philosophy, or else harrowing tragedies, because that is frequently the false impression given in pop culture. In fact the range of surviving work is much greater.

They Really Are Old Jokes

I was most impressed by the surviving comedies of Aristophanes, who wrote his plays at around the time of the fall of Athens. Naturally, the theme of many of his plays involves the Peloponnesian War, and possible ways to bring it to an honorable end. Nonetheless, many aspects of his plays seem astonishingly modern, and even include the first recorded instances of what would now elicit groans as “old jokes”.

Isn’t it a Whimsical Francis?

Living in Britain in those days, the plays of Aristophanes naturally reminded me of the recent bawdy television comedy series, Up Pompeii, starring Frankie Howerd.

The basic premise of Up Pompeii, that of a cheeky Roman slave who managed the intrigues of his masters, had been inspired by an earlier stage play (which was later made into a movie), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That play in its turn was derived from the Roman plays of Plautus.

My knowledge of Classical Greek never quite rose to the level of being able to read Aristophanes in the original, but it did inspire me to draw a sketch that was intended for eventual reworking as a painting. The sketch was titled “The Great Comedian”, and was supposed to depict an author whose appearance was inspired by (but deliberately not the same as) Frankie Howerd. I’m also aware that my drawing does not accurately depict an Ancient Greek man, since, for example, all adult males wore beards. A man who did not have a beard would have been thought of as very effeminate.

Learning Sketches

When trying to draw someone with a particular appearance, I find it helpful to do some initial sketches to “get a feel” for the anatomical structure of the person. This is a motor skill, and as such is an intuitive process, which I cannot explain in process terms, any more than you can explain the steps to learning how to catch a ball.

For “The Great Comedian”, I drew some sketches of Frankie Howerd. The drawing below shows him performing in the stage version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

On Show at the IEE

The pencil sketch of the Great Comedian, and his female partner, was as far as my project ever got. Nonetheless, my drawings were exhibited at an Art Show at a very unusual location: the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), Savoy Place, London, in 1986. I was a member of the IEE at the time, but, having viewed the exhibits at the show, I was left with the feeling that they expected that the exhibits would be created by the spouses of their engineers. The notion that an engineer might himself be capable of producing competent artwork seemed never to have been considered a possibility.

Legacy of Greek

A hundred years ago or more, most British schoolboys were forced to learn Latin and Ancient Greek. (Most British girls at that time simply didn’t get any education beyond the age of twelve!) The “classics”, as they were called, were later pushed aside for subjects that were considered more modern and with more practical applications.

Personally, I felt that, even though I never became fluent in Classical Greek, learning it was a worthwhile endeavor. I learned the Greek alphabet, and came to appreciate not only the complexities of that ancient language, but also the amount that it has contributed to modern Western culture.

No Religion Please

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d had a “bellyful” of religious fairy tales from a Church of England school during my childhood, so the fact that the New Testament is written in a demotic form of Greek called koine was not a motivation for me to learn the language. Nonetheless, my knowledge of the language came in unexpectedly handy later on, when a Christian proselytizer falsely tried to claim that something in the Bible had been “mistranslated”. To his dismay, I was able to bring out a copy of the book in the original Greek, and demonstrate to him that he was either ignorant or lying!