How living languages reshape dead languages

You have traveled back in time to the year 200 BC with the aim of taking over the world. You brought with you a solar-powered Kindle to which you have downloaded the contents of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and WebMD. You are confident that only you can read its contents, since you alone in the world are fluent in modern English (even the Middle English of Chaucer is centuries away); you know that you can communicate with the locals, since you have prepared for this journey by studying Latin. So far, so good; depending on your strategy for world domination, you can converse with local rulers in the rhetorics of religion, philosophy, governance, and empire; of I am a powerful sorcerer, I have been sent by the gods, I am from the future, I come in peace, and I can help you wage war. The question is what words you use to explain to the locals what the Kindle is.

Fortunately, in our own time, lexicographers have been happily working for decades to expand the lexicons of ancient languages with words for modern concepts. Speakers of Yiddish can consult dictionaries that offer words for e-mail, binge watching, and designated driver. Latin aficionados can find a number of glossaries, such as the Vocabula computatralia, that devise new words and phrases for the world of computing. (The Kindle, you might tell your new patrons, is a computatrulum.) By such means, modern languages quietly reshape ancient languages, and living languages dead ones.

Metaphorical extension

The interesting part of this alchemy is when new terms in the ancient language preserve figures of speech or metaphorical extensions that originated in the modern one. (Metaphorical extension is a kind of semantic change in which a word broadens its meaning to apply to a new domain. For example, surfing used to be something you do in California with a surfboard; now it’s something you do in California with a keyboard.) As a Latin term for a computer window, the Vocabula proposes fenestra—literally, window. Ancient Romans would likely find the usage puzzling, though not wholly unintelligible. (As the historian Anne Friedberg notes, the ubiquity of the window as a functional metaphor for pictorial space goes back to Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century. However, classical artists sometimes used trompe l’oeil effects, which can entail ‘looking through’ the surface of an image.) The cursor pad, however—muris tabula, or mouse tablet, according to the rules of the glossary—would probably create the wrong impression.

Latin spam, computers, and keyboards

Forget about explaining spam; the English verb for sending junk messages online, which derives from the toxic combination of Monty Python and first-generation trolls, Latinizes as saginare, that is, to make fat. The Latin word for keyboardclaviatura, or instrument for the act of keying—relies on a sense of the word clavis, or key, that would not emerge until the proliferation of musical instruments with keyboards in the 14th century. Even the English word computer—which derives from the Latin computare, or to count—took a wayward path through metaphor to reach its present meaning. In the early 20th century, computer was a job title referring to someone who did mathematical reckoning for a living. (In fact, it was a job that, like secretary, tended to belong to women.) Digital computers received their name because they could perform the work of human computers. The antique equivalent might be servus, servant.

The role (and death) of metaphor

What do these back-formations on the level of metaphor tell us about the interaction of language and culture? In the case of this specific example, they remind us of the active role that metaphor has played in shaping computing technologies and making them comprehensible to users. “[W]hereas other technologies may be said to have a nature of their own and thus to exercise some agency in their design,” writes the historian Michael Mahoney, “the computer has no such nature. Or, rather, its nature is protean; the computer is—or certainly was at the beginning—what we make of it (or now have made of it) through the tasks we set for it and the programs we write for it.” Metaphors helped us to make and share blueprints for what we wanted to do with computing technologies and then market those technologies to a skittish public.

On the level of language, this phenomenon highlights the profound place of metaphor in all language production. As the OxfordWords blog has previously discussed, ordinary language use abounds with buried metaphors, even when we are not explicitly using figurative language. We reserve the term dead language for tongues that no longer have native speakers, but even living languages take many of their words and expressions from metaphors that are dead in the sense that they refer to ideas or ways of life that have no living adherents. New metaphors emerge, grow, and die too quickly for us to sweep away the old husks; we always speak in a conspiracy of the present and the past, although the juxtaposition is more noticeable in the case of Latin. Living languages reshape dead ones for the same reasons, and in the same ways, that living languages reshape themselves.

Making the past modern

Ultimately, this phenomenon may help to remind us of the difference between making the traditional modern and really modernizing tradition. The classical distinction between de facto and de jure, for instance, may need augmentation in an era in which software code regulates our activity as a power separate from convention or the courts, as Lawrence Lessig has summarized with the phrase ‘code is law’. (De facto, de jure, de codex.) Adding our own words—or words that embed our own mental models—to the lexicon of antiquity is fun. Figuring out how the mental models of the past can adjust to the present day is a more challenging task, as we see, for example, in the case of the U.S. Constitution. Though everything changes, nothing perishes, even on the World Wide Web—or rather, the Tela Totius Terrae.


Elyse Graham January 4 2017

Elyse Graham is an assistant professor at SUNY Stony Brook. She is writing a book for Oxford University Press on the history of the English language in New York City.

Categories: Other languages
Tags: Latinmetaphorpopulartranslation
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