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