Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Something resembling Scholarship

If you are here for the witticisms, skip this one. I have a couple of serious thoughts and I have no place else to put them, so I'm writing them up here because they broach on a topic which I have been pursuing for years and I want written record of my having thought them. This way, when somone else gets famous saying this stuff, I can sue him and pay for a little place next door to my medium sized place.

One area of study which has kept me thinking has been about the evolution of English as a language. I realized, a number of years ago, that the electronic form of English, as expressed in emails, chatrooms, IMs, tweets and such is a separate branch of English (not simply a subdialect or local jargon) which rivals written English and spoken English in its validity. In fact, I found that this electronic form is often a strange hybrid -- the attempt to capture vocal and speech patterns, plus the other inflective or super-linguistic aspects in the form of the written word. This accounts for so much of the variety of presentation not so much breaking the written rules, but redefining those rules and writing new ones. As I see new technologies emerge and coopt English, I get to watch the evolution of English as it happens, and I can try to be astute enough to spot the changes, influences and mutations as they happen. Then I pat myself on the back and move off into the corner thinking that I'm really on the cutting edge of something.

(end part I)

At certain points, my religion creeps up on me and says "hey, I'm useful for something." This time of year is one of those points where I have the chance to study study study and when I finish a particular tractate of the Talmud, I can have a party. Not just any party, mind you, but one that involves meat. Now, sure, I could do this at anytime, but according to Jewish tradition, I can have meat at most any time also. But during a 9 day period over the summer, there is a custom to refrain from eating meat as a show of self deprivation and sadness as we mourn the loss of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. So I'm learning because god is holding a steak on the end of a string tied to a stick. Just so happens, I like steak.

So I'm sitting in my office, reading a book (trust me, this all comes together during part III). The book is unimportant. Not because it isn't famous, but I can't see how a book can be important while I'm still sitting all alone in my office. It just isn't fair. So I'm reading and in comes a co-worker. We get to chatting about canonical literature and hifalutin stuff like that and he brings up a trip he took to Carvel (trust me...). Apparently, working in that Carvel is a guy who speaks Armenian. OK, I think, big deal. Well, apparently, this guy does not speak Armenian at home, only at Carvel (that connection still does elude me, I admit) but at home he speaks Aramaic! Apparently, so he says, he is Assyrian. So we have a good laugh at this (not maliciously...) and the co-worker starts talking about the Aramaic they speak and that they use Hebrew characters, and that the talmudic reference to what we call Hebrew is actually Ashuri/Assyrian, so in fact, we are using THEIR characters. I point out that the word "Ivrit" in the Talmud that I just happen to be learning is a reference to another language all together. Crazy, huh.

(end part II)

I get to thinking -- if this Carvel guy (I can't really pretend to know what an Assyrian name would sound like) can read the modern Hebrew script, he can, theoretically, read a Talmud and he could have a real easy time explaining what is going on. I look back into my text and then it hits me.

The text of the Talmud is not linear -- Rabbi this and Mister that argue about 7 different things and the redactor then puts in other somewhat related stuff and comments about all of it in a stream of consciousness kind of way. But that isn't all. The sentences are incomplete. The student has to be able to fill in the gaps of the logic by knowing what the word means, what it refers to in a technical rhetorical way, and then what the context demands that it must be talking about. So a single word "where" would actually mean "from where do you learn that this case is different from that case". Someone who is fluent in English still has to work at Hemingway's dialogue or Faulkner's description. Simply knowing the words isn't the way to know what something MEANS. The talmudic text, it seems, is a sort of shorthand...a way to capture the oral patterns and give and take of the original arguments in the written form.

It almost seems like the writing of the talmud was done in a branch of language which was neither written nor oral, but that same strange hybrid between the two. [Maybe this middle ground was one way that the rabbis who codified the talmud and approved its being transformed into writing rationalized their decision -- it wasn't put into a written form like the written law, but simply written down in its oral form.] This transformation into a separate branch of language is not then unique to English and is not attributable uniquely to technological innovation.

I can't even say that the technology in each is writing (because the Electronic English has its precursor in the kind of note taking (and passing) in class that students do -- simply being able to write at speed during an intellectual exercise demands a shorthand which captures the essence of a lecture and the running commentary) because writing existed in the talmudic times before this component of the Jewish biblie was written down. Is this shift an inevitability in each language, simply looking for an opportunity to express itself?

I do not know, but it seemed like an interesting parallel between languages which developed many years apart.


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