maandag 15 juli 2013

The Uses of Snobbery

How leaving out explanations kicked historical linguistics upward
Previously on Shells and Pebbles

How many people could read Arabic script in Germany around 1800? The question struck me in 2006 as I was making my first steps in intellectual history with a paper on Friedrich Schlegel’s Über Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808). Schlegel’s book – now considered a groundbreaking work in comparative linguistics – includes samples of untranscribed Persian, to show that Persian is part of the same language family as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and German and has the same “organic” system of conjugation. You don’t really need to know Arabic script to get that point, and for all we know Schlegel had at best a very limited grasp of Persian. But if you want to test and elaborate Schlegel’s ideas, well yes, then you need to. The use of Arabic script in a book for German readers is unmistakably snobbery, but the real question is whether that snobbery was also useful.

Seven years later I still don’t know the answer to my initial question, but I can make an educated guess. There was Arab printing type. Professor Michaelis in Göttingen (actually Schlegel’s uncle-in-law) was teaching Arab to generations of theology students. The Austrian mission to the Sublime Porte included a school for translators – the so-called Sprachknaben – among whose pupils was Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. (At that point Turkish was still written in Arabic.) Knowledge of oriental languages was an asset, if far from mandatory for theologians, and many learned pastors dallied in Hebrew and Aramaic. Wilhelm von Humboldt knew the basics of 33 languages; Adelung and Vater made a compilation of Paternosters in all the 500 known languages; a decade later, Goethe wrote West-Östlicher Divan. Still, there could have been hardly more than a thousand people capable of reading Schlegel’s Persian at the time, and these need not have been Schlegel’s readers.

Pagina uit Schlegels Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier
Page from Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (source:

Schlegel is far from unique in that kind of snobbery. Jakob Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik and the Deutsches Wörterbuch require substantial work and training to even make sense to the reader – for me, several courses in German historical linguistics under the eminent Dr. Quak were not enough. The important thing is, Grimm’s contemporaries were in the same fix. The work of the Grimm brothers does not “reflect” the state of learning in the early 19th century. Rather, they were intentionally upping the standards so as to require others to keep up and finally turn Germanistik into a hard science. In his reviews, gathered in Kleine Schriften, we can see Jakob Grimm asserting a gatekeeper role: the editorial work of others (most others, with the exception of Lachmann) is rejected in downright brutal terms as “sloppy”, “useless”, and “outdated”. E.F.K. Koerner and Joep Leerssen have it that Grimm only became so severe after his own first work, the Altdeutsche Wälder, had met with a similar crushing review from August Wilhelm Schlegel,  the less original but hard-working Schlegel brother.

We could call this phenomenon the performative use of snobbery.  (“Performative” is a term of art from speech act theory; it means to bring something about by saying something, or more widely by performing some symbolic act.) Just as composers like Liszt, Rachmaninov and Ligeti have been upping the standards for pianists by writing “unplayable” scores, scholars have been kicking the discipline upward not merely by writing programmatic texts but also by leaving out “unnecessary” information. The learned and wealthy public of Europe could gloat over the magnificent prints from the Description de l’Egypte, but the Monumenta Germaniae Historica are absolutely useless and unappealing to the lay reader. (By contrast, one of Grimm’s reviews takes the British parliamentary archives to task for publishing all their medieval charters in prestigious folios without any consideration of scholarly relevance, “made to gather dust”.) In doing so, the Grimms and Schlegels and others have introduced a new “paradigm” in the original sense of the term: an example for others to emulate. That “paradigm” does not per se include a Gestalt switch of different world views, but it does include a new way of ordering and presenting findings, of transforming information into knowledge. To get that founded, a little snobbery is indispensable.

Performatives can also fail. If people do not acknowledge your act or follow suit, then the attempt is (Austin’s term) “infelicitous”. For instance, the Grimms and Lachmann also felt that Fraktur was a barbaric alphabet and that capitals were a pedantic rudiment. So they published their works in Latin letters, without capitals. Unfortunately for them, the rest of Germany went on printing in Fraktur until Hitler finally abolished it. In spite of the Grimms, German nouns still start with caps.

Even works that are widely acknowledged as groundbreaking can still fail to break ground. John Horne Tooke’s Epea Pteroenta; or The Diversions of Purley (2 vols, 1785-96) was like Schlegel’s Über Sprache und Weisheit in many respects. It was an idiosyncratic, slightly bizarre work which presented a sensible idea supported by some samples in an opaque script and a spurious overall argument. In Horne Tooke’s case, the sensible idea was that language is not entirely representational; only nouns and verbs stand for things and events, and all other words are “abbreviations” that etymologically derive from these two. To make this case, Horne Tooke presents a set of etymologies bad enough to be called Heideggerian, and supports them with samples of Anglo-Saxon and Old Gothic. Now Anglo-Saxon is relatively easy to grasp. Old Gothic is not. Its script is an artificial alphabet modeled on Greek, created in the 4th century AD by bishop Ulfila to translate the bible to the Ostrogoths. The language and the whole branch of Germanic to which it belonged are now extinct. The main source we have for it is the 6th-century Codex Argenteus, now in Uppsala. Apart from the few dozen members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, few people could be expected to be able to read that.

Pagina uit Tooke's Diversions of Purley
Page from Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley (source:

Horne Tooke’s initial success was greater than Schlegel’s. For a few decades, The Diversions of Purley was generally regarded as the best work in the study of language in England, only to be superseded by William Jones’ posthumous fame when the work of the Asiatick Society had sparked off a real revolution among German scholars. The problem was not that Horne Tooke’s etymologies were spurious; so was Schlegel’s idea of “organic” declination as a sign of “divine revelation” as the source of Indo-Germanic languages. But Schlegel’s original idea – systematically comparing roots and declensions – could easily be replicated and elaborated by more sober scholars, such as Bopp, Rask, Humboldt and his boring brother August. Horne Tooke may have grasped, in hindsight, the essentials of a structuralist approach to language, but etymology is not the way to do that. His work continued to be reprinted well into the 1850s for the delight of the learned; Über Sprache und Weisheit was not, because it was devoured by its offspring.

For a closing note, let’s press the analogy further. How many people could read Old Gothic in late 18th-century England? Less than a thousand, for sure. Anglo-Saxon still had some use in the study of charters and local inscriptions; Old Gothic was only of very remote antiquarian interest. But it had a print record. The text of the Codex Argenteus had been published in Oxford in 1750, with a grammar and Latin translation. There are samples of it in several issues of Archeologia, the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries; in Thomas Astle’s The Origin and Progress of Writing (1784), actually a field guide to deciphering medieval manuscripts; and even in the works of George Hickes a century earlier. In short, if you wanted, you could find out. The use of Old Gothic type in such works was not meant to make them completely arcane, but to make them more interesting for those willing to make an effort. It was that level of scholarship which Horne Tooke hoped to align with in putting his etymologies in untranscribed Old Gothic. And that, indeed, is snobbery.

There is a moral to this. When old books seem hard to understand, it need not be because the past is a foreign country, or because we lack a shared set of assumptions. It can also be because they were meant to be difficult.

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