eye of newt

things loom out of the murk and paddling cautiously towards them, we read well the warps and bends of light in the rippling data-flow, we make conscientious use of the incidental lenses that bubble up past us to read the waters well, and we make our approach unerringly. we can retrieve a sense of the past that is evidence-based and credible from the old texts. but we have to admit that current models of pre-renaissance history just aren’t always evidence-based or credible, and learn which bits to keep and which to discard.

 

herman newt and the puddle metaphor

we newts understand nothing half so well as puddles. puddles are what remain when ponds evaporate. they are the result of the uneven distribution of mud, which results in little hills and valleys forming. water seeks its own level and fills valleys while leaving hills high and dry. first you have a pond. then as that evaporates you have small islands appearing above the water level. as the water level drops further the islands get bigger, and then several may become connected by an increasingly continuous stretch of highish ground between them. eventually the proportion of water to land does a reverse – first there’s more water than land, then more land than water. soon only very low areas still contain water.

any hermeneut must be exquisitely aware that metaphors are always a calculated shift away from reality and conclusions drawn from studies made through them must be drawn very carefully with this in mind. any lens distorts. a metaphor’s distortions must be carefully observed and accounted for. then and only then, metaphors are very useful lenses. this puddle metaphor can be profitably brought to bear on the geographical distribution of any old or ancient culture. high ground surrounding a puddle and islands within it represent locations that are less easily retained by the culture concerned than that represented by low soggy ground, pools and puddles. pools and puddles represent homelands, colonies and such.

it also applies to our beliefs, derived from texts, archaeological traces and legends and folk traditions, about the geographical distribution of cultures. concerning the ancient past, we have plenty of belief, precious little hard factual data. so we’re necessarily constrained to work with belief. when a belief contributes to the basis of a major conjectural construct, it gets called ‘a hypothesis’. ‘an hypothesis’ if you are american, or if your speech is influenced by american speech.

now i’m thinking of fionn mac cumhaill, the irish legendary hero. it’s usually pronounced mc cool these days. famed for his thumb-sucking to procure hallucinatory experiences upon the basis of which he prophecied, fionn was a warrior. what else he was is immaterial. the fact is he is known in ireland from some rather old texts which are only of real interest to historians, linguists and celtic revivalists, and to hermeneuts and faerie folk too ethereal to see.

not many would dispute though that, once upon a time, at least someone thought it was pronounced mac cumhaill. that’s using irish spelling conventions, but using current english ones, it would have been spelt mc cuwal, and only the irish would have worried about the slenderisation of the final ll. slender or broad, ll is ll to a pom. or an ozzie, and i daresay a yank. (i use these national nick-names with affection in every instance and am amazed to be told that anyone ever used any of them any other way. i’ve only ever heard them used with neutrality or affection, so that’s how i’m continuing to use them.)

but that hasn’t really satisfied, has it? you’d want to know how the u is pronounced, u for uh huh or oo for oops, or both. both are possible in irish as well as english, depending in both languages on which word this particular specimen of an u occurs in and where you live. but does it matter? cah-well or coo-well. or in irish also caw-well.

it could be any of these and because it is in the nature of speech to vary with location, and references to fionn mac cumhaill must have been made by all sorts of people in all sorts of places, all three were probably in use at some time or another in the pre-renaissance and renaissance periods, and a whole lot of other spellings and pronunciations not recorded in writing as well.

one good bet, because it happens so often in so many other words, is that, like the ll, the mh was sometimes slender and sometimes broad; i.e., sometimes a v and sometimes a w. but poms, yanks, ozzies, kiwis and other users of english would notice the v/w difference, while the –ill/ -all difference, which the irish make much of, would elude them.

so someone at least somewhere would have pronounced that surname ‘mc or mac caval or cuval’.

now wise and wonder-working witches have always been at play with the eyes of newts, always including a good handful in their alarmingest cauldrons, and muttering such spells as would mutate a whole oceanful of newts (if newts could live in oceans) with particular reference to their eyes, with the result that newts’ eyes have some seriously admirable abilities not found in the eyes of lesser beings. they can see round corners, through drifts of densely matted twigs, up twisty apertures in banks and through quite meaningful depths of gravelly murk and slimy silt. nobody knows better than an amphibian how to identify and compensate for incidental or regular distortions.

now this here newt espies not just one ‘caval’ here but a whole ‘cavalry’ and dares to set this against several decades of etymological research and rashly opine that caval means horse and that this is so even when you spell it cumhaill, and find it along with sheep, cows and linen sheets in a list of old irish units of currency, and even when you put a mac in front of it and find it storied and gloried as an irish legenedary hero. IT DOESN’T MEAN ‘A FEMALE SLAVE’. it is grossly insulting and culturally and psychologically damaging to the irish and all who associate with them to continue to produce academic text-books and books for the intelligent lay reader in which any such bizarre, horribly unacadademic assertion is made.

and merely noting here (and then dodging to evade hurled rotten fruit, addled eggs and other unspeakabilia from the academics whose dog-gone, ox-dreaming reasoning has brought them to other conclusions) that mac didn’t originally mean son of but something forgotten from which words meaning son (of), worker (with), student (of), soldier (for) etc, are derived. but i believe it orignated as something close to ‘work’ via mutation of the initial sound of a word ancestral to both work and make. both share a common ancestor with fac- the latin stem of words to do with making and doing. add in the vik or viking there, but don’t pick at it now, sandra, or it’ll go off in your face! believe me, it will! just keep it in your heart.

and no, simon, we’re not dealing with PIE yet. we’re not that far back in time by a long shot, and neither is almost anyone, as you soon shall see. it is high time enlightened historical linguists found the medieval patois (pathways) which, in diversifying during medieval times, not later, gave us most of the preserved written (i.e., school) languages, as distinct from the unpreserved, unrecorded local languages of the illiterate and native languages, often despised and forgotten, of medieval school children.  PIE simply cannot be revealed through the analysis of the surviving derivatives of this patois.

i just want to share with you my newt’s-eye view of fionn mac cumhaill’s surname, because i’ve got one or two shocks for you faoi. well, i mean i’ve had one or two shocks faoi. faoi is one of my favourite irish words. it means all sorts of things, but here it means ‘concerning it’.

for now, note the horse theme. caval belongs to that whole array that opens out nicely and means horse or other large herbivorous mammal. i’ll just list them; you’ll know how to imagine their distributions through time and space on a map of the world, stopping when knowledge becomes hypothesis, because the PIE hypotheses can’t be trusted and we have to revise our sense of how language correlated to location in the olden days of elves and withces and cavaliers called fionn mac cumhaill.

here’s a partial list to get you started: caval, cheval, capall, cob, camel, gimel, gavar, chevr(on), capri, gabhair…

for homework, class, i want you to add at least a dozen more to the list, and write, say or just think750-850 words on the implications of this list with reference to the main means of conveyance of the scandinavian god thor, bearing in mind that he was a biggish chap and goats are tough but not that tough, and there were lots of little closely related but divergent cultures merging in marriage and working together exchanging words and modifying ways of using them.

that might get a lot of otherwise useful souls out of their goat carts and into some more appropriate conveyance!!!!!

blessed be, humans!

herman newt.

hermeneutical championships: the rosetta stone challenge

good morning class. the subject for today is the rosetta stone. the rosetta stone is every bit as important as they say, as it is exciting hard evidence of a linguistic situation in the past. but to the consternation of any fastidious post-modern-and-beyond hermeneut they’ve gone beyond that evidence and look what a pickle they’re in.

we hermeneuts are oh so suave and heavens don’t we snuggle up close to our spirit guides and try earnestly to lift our games for the advancement of learning, oh yes, we do. chompy won’t mind if we drop the formalities.

chompy was a bright boy, and more than that he was a very privileged newt. he would probably have been all right if he’d kept to his proper ponds, but ambition, and not only his own, piled laurels upon him and he was, they say, awfully good at coptic, no really, SERIOUSLY PRODIGIOUSLY GOOD AT IT, back when NO ONE ELSE COULD  SPEAK A WORD OF IT to check whether he was or not, except copts but they were safely not in on the academic process, so weren’t much consulted except by chompy himself who being still at the dewy-eyed stage of growth, nevertheless found himself to be the only world expert, far above the steadying reach of peer review, the other contenders being of course, not only very inferior people, but also considerably less expert.

we know he spoke excellent coptic, flawlessly comprehending rapid speech and ingesting huge slabs of grammar and vocabulary every night before he went to sleep –  because he and his tutors tell us so. from Wikipedia at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Champollion cometh thith:

he was a bright boy

he was a bright boy

i personally haven’t seen his test results, so i’ll do the hermeneutically punctilious thing and not regard these unsupported assertions as facts. that would be a bit slovenly wouldn’t it? they go back to 1808 when academic standards were naive and we-e-e-ell, fibby in bits, and well let’s face it, daft, or more than half daft anyway. they were worse than modern day students of old stuff, who still haven’t loaded the idea that going beyond the evidence is UN! ACA! DEMIC!!! they were worse than the worst of the romantics in fact they were the fountainhead the romantic lips leeched to. and they could get away with it. they were almost as bad as the king of greece in tirant lo blanc who judged debates by the most whimsical criteria. they were worse than the dear rev. skeet.

chompy

chompy in full battle array

well now, there he is for you, and a handsome lad if you can believe the artist. of course, some artists are paid to flatter, and he might have had patches of rough skin, dandruff, pimples even, while still mastering (???) his first fifteen languages or twenty languages. i mean wow, he was a charismatic boy, but as a hermeneut (interpreter of texts) he wasn’t taking the cake;  and let me tell you why.

he went beyond the evidence

he was competing for the honour of being the first to interpret the rosetta stone with others not making quite the same prodigious claims (clearly VERY INFERIOR SCHOLARS to our chompus) and was given the prize for filling in the most gaps. most of the others weren’t willing to go THAT far BEYOND THE EVIDENCE.

one day when i find my pencil i’m going to devise a test that corresponds precisely to the one that fate set for chompollion. it will feature a text written in a well-known classical language, say, sanskrit, of the exact same length as the rosetta stone texts, to be equivalent to the greek, and a translation of it into a known extinct language such as old english, for the coptic with its transliteration into a hieroglyphic or similar script of my own devising known only to me.  it will be fragmented with the same area of the pictographic text removed. i will make available an amount of writing in my pictographic text known only to me equivalent to the egyptian corpus that chompollion and his colleagues had to work with.

then, if anyone can from my schmossetta stone  decode my pictographics well enough from the 400 or so words to read the entire corpus with anything like accuracy i’ll bake them a cake, with icing on, and ball bearings and jubes, and pale blue piping round the edges, and champion hermeneut emblazoned across the top in your choice of lime green or fair-trade chocolate. and i’ll even pay the postage.