Abstract Language

On October 19, 2013, on my other site, HistoriaObscura,com, I published what I consider an important paper dealing with the basic issues concerning authentication of the Journal of Jean Laffite.

Was the Journal of Jean Laffite an Original, a Copy or a Forgery?

The issue of the authentication of the Journal of Jean Laffite, because the only manuscript we have of it is probably just a copy, brings up a more general issue, not only in the study of history but also in the study of language:

  • What makes two texts identical? Is it that they look the same? Or is it what they encode?
  • What makes language work? Is it the physical distinctions? Or is it that there is a one to one correspondence between subcomponents?

I go for the more abstract interpretation of language, and I have very good reason to do so. At home and with my family, I use a language that had been dead and was revived. It was not transmitted in an unbroken line from mother to child like most living languages. A dead text intervened and preserved the language until people were ready to use it again.

And what is more, we have no original copies of that text and no copies that even remotely look like the original. The Old Testament was was passed down by copying word for word and letter for letter. There are some scribal errors, and there are also some passages which have obviously been altered, if we do a good internal analysis, but largely it came down through the generations more or less intact.

But the copies that people now have and are using to study that text are written in a different looking set of symbols from those that were most likely used when the text was first written down.

Hebrew writers adopted the Assyrian alphabet symbols after an exile among Aramaic speakers. Today, and in the past two millenia, when we read the old testament, the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not murder” looks more or less like this: לא תרצח

But at the time of the composition or first writing of the text, it looked more like this:

Does it matter what it looked like? Absolutely not. It is letter per letter the same. But do you know how many people have developed an attachment to the Assyrian form of the letters and think there is something holy or special or undeniably Hebrew about them? These are the same people who would not recognize their friends if they had a new hairdo.

Today, when I communicate by email in Hebrew with family members, if I want to write “thou shalt not murder”, I just type “La trzh.” It’s the same six letters, and it does not matter what they look like, as long as those of us communicating realize what they stand for.

So here is the moral: when looking for your friends, don’t judge by appearances. When identifying a language, don’t base it on what the letters look like. Yo soy una mujer is Spanish. I am a woman is English. I didn’t have to switch fonts to do that. I can do it in Hebrew, too: Ani ase. You judge the code not by the symbols it is encoded in, but by the correspondences. I could use morse code or smoke signals and it would still be the same.

When judging a copy of a copy of an older manuscript whose original no longer exists, we need to be able to do the same thing. Put aside our prejudices of what it should look like and ask ourselves: who could have written this? What language or dialect is it in? What were they trying to say?

Copyright 2013 Aya Katz – – Words and Images

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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6 Responses to Abstract Language

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    Hebrew and Aramaic have very similar characteristics. The type of Arabic my grandpa spoke seemed to have retained more of the Aramaic words, which is only spoken by a few Christians in places like Syria and Iraq today. I think it is wonderful people resurrected Hebrew and started reading and writing in this language again.

    • Aya Katz says:

      Hi, Julia. Thanks for your comment. I think it is very interesting that your grandpa used a type of Arabic that contained many Aramaic words. Did he ever speak to you in his native language?

      • Sweetbearies says:

        Yes, he spoke Arabic to me, and wrote our family name on a piece of paper, which I sadly threw away. I knew a few words, but that was about it. I suspect maybe everyone spoke more of an Aramaic language since he always said the type of Arabic he spoke was not exactly Arabic, but closer to Aramaic. Maybe a local dialect, but I will have to do more research.

        • Aya Katz says:

          Do you have any recordings of your grandpa speaking Arabic? That would be very interesting, especially if it wasn’t exactly Arabic. Language is a treasure we ought to pass down from one generation to the next.

          • Sweetbearies says:

            I actually do not have any recordings of him speaking Arabic at all. I would have recorded something for posterity if I had thought about it at the time. What I treasured the most were some books about the Druze he showed me from his library, but I believe my aunts and uncles gave all these away when he passed away. I do not know, maybe they kept a few. I tried to reach out to them about some of my genealogy findings, but they never answered back.

  2. Aya Katz says:

    The Druze are a very interesting people, and it’s too bad you did not get to keep those books. I am glad you had a deep relationship with your grandpa. That is something to treasure.

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