Monthly Archives: May 2021

Finding Classics in Other Alphabets

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-83:

Arabic dictionaries also used nonalphabetical methods of organizing. The Mukhaṣṣaṣ, or The Categorized, by Ibn Sīda (d. 1066), was divided, as its title states, by subject or topic, beginning with human nature and continuing on to physiology, psychology, women, clothes, food, and weapons. Al-Khalīl Ibn Aḥmad (d. 791), in his Kitāb al-‘ain, The Book of [the Letter] ‘Ain, used sounds to organize his work: he listed entries in an order of his own, where each sound group was followed by subcategories based on how many consonants a word contained. …

These mainly nonalphabetical developments contrasted with the works of Hebrew scholars, who tended toward alphabetical order simultaneously with (and occasionally a little ahead of) their Christian contemporaries. At the end of the eleventh century, Nathan ben Jehiel (c. 1035–c. 1110) produced his Sefer ha’Arukh, The Set Book. Ben Jehiel, who had been born in Rome, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Syriac, and he drew on his knowledge of these languages to produce an alphabetically ordered book of root words occurring in rabbinic literature. It became one of the best-known dictionaries of its type—more than fifty copies survive—as well as being one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, in Rome sometime before 1472.

Many of these works, both in Arabic and Hebrew, and the scholarship that had produced them, became accessible to scholars in Western Europe for the first time as these languages began to be more widely translated into Latin. … That so many of these works returned to the West via Arabic was significant, for earlier Arab scholars had frequently added substantially to the originals, including details of their own work, which was far in advance of much of Western thought at the time.

The Western rediscovery of the classics had two results, one somewhat abstract, one concrete. More generally, the awareness of how many great works had been entirely unknown before the lifetimes of these new readers, and of how many more had been permanently lost, produced a sense that the current generation needed to ensure that this recaptured knowledge, as well as all the works produced under its influence, were preserved for future generations. Further, it created a drive to ensure that the details contained in all these new works could be found easily—in other words, readers wanted not merely to read the books, but to refer to them: they wanted search tools.

These recently translated manuscripts also brought to the West other elements that are crucial for our story. Educated European readers now became increasingly familiar with foreign alphabets. In Italy and France in particular, Hebrew had routinely been transliterated into the roman alphabet when manuscripts were copied; in the rest of Europe, the Greek alphabet had sometimes been used, but less and less as time went on. In Europe, apart from Spain, where Arabic was in common use, Arabic too had been almost always transliterated into the roman alphabet. By contrast, some in the British Isles were familiar with Old English runes, known as futhorc, or with the Irish writing system known as Ogham. Many more would have recognized, and used in conjunction with the roman alphabet, the Old English runic letters such as thorn (Þ, þ) and wynn (Ρ, ρ). For these reasons, “foreign”-looking letters were more familiar and less unnerving in the British Isles, and so Latin and Hebrew letters were both used, as they were from the ninth century in Germany, a regular destination for highly educated monks from Ireland and Britain.

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Evolution of Early Glossaries

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 55-57:

In Europe, Isidore’s innovative use of alphabetical order to organize his work on vocabulary was instead proving influential in a parallel genre: glosses. Glosses had originally appeared in the manuscripts they were glossing, where they explained the meanings of difficult words in Latin or translated foreign words. In both cases, the gloss was written either above the relevant word or beside it, in the margin. Later, sometimes for clarity, sometimes to preserve a valuable manuscript, glosses began to be written out as a separate document, initially continuing to list the words in the order in which they appeared in the primary text, so tying a gloss to a single work, or even, because of the reshaping and reordering that we have seen in copied manuscripts, to one particular copy of a work. Gradually, however, the utility of a gloss that included vocabulary from more than one work became apparent, even if it meant it was no longer practicable to list the words in order of appearance.

And so experiments began with different ordering systems. One possibility was alphabetical order. Another was subject categories, particularly for glosses of technical vocabulary, grouping together words relating to hunting, for example, or words for military fortifications or for parts of the body. Other glosses relied on organizing principles that are far more foreign to us today. The Læcboc, or Medicinale anglicum, The Leech Book, or English Remedies, written in Old English around 950, was arranged, as were many medical texts of the period, with diseases and cures situated along the human body a capite ad calcem, from head to heel. In the Byzantine Empire, texts were generally organized by subject, sometimes geographically, or by name. Only the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary dating from the late tenth century, was an alphabetical compilation, magisterially ordering thirty-one thousand historical, biographical, and lexicographical entries into a single alphabetical order. But it was an outlier, both in Byzantium and in Western Europe too at that date.

Glosses, owing their existence to readers’ difficulties with Latin, were more common in countries where the local language had no etymological connection with Latin. Native English, or German, or Flemish readers had greater need of assistance with Latin vocabulary than did French or Italian or Spanish readers, and so it follows that some of the earliest glosses we know of, from the seventh and eighth centuries, were produced by English and Irish speakers. The Leiden Glossary was probably compiled in St. Gallen, but by someone who, judging from the English translations, probably came from what is now Kent, in England. He translated the Latin vocabulary into either Old English or Old High German, and arranged the entries, at least in part, in first-letter alphabetical order. By the eighth century one glossary, which defined nearly five thousand Latin words, ordered just under two thousand of them into fairly consistent first-letter alphabetical order. One extraordinary copy of another glossary, the Liber glossarum, The Book of Glosses, which may have been produced at a convent at Soissons and was based in part on Isidore’s Etymologies, was in almost absolute order, one of the very earliest examples.

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Early Alphabetical Mnemonics

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 46-47:

In Europe, … where alphabetical order was used, in many cases it was considered not as a tool of reference but as one of recall, a way of imprinting a series of items onto the memory in a culture that continued to rely heavily on oral transmission. It may be for this reason that the second-century Sentences of Sextus, 123 maxims on how to live a philosophically good life, were arranged in alphabetical order. Or it may not have been: once again, all we have are later copies, which might well have been reordered. (And, in addition, the named author, Sextus the Pythagorean, is unlikely to be the actual author of the work.) We know this type of reordering was routine. Fables by an author named Babrius, some of which are today collected under a generic authorship as Aesop’s Fables, survive in copies that were organized by the first letter of the opening word of each fable. Yet an Oxyrhynchus fragment of the same fables, dating from the second century, shows that at least one earlier version was not in this order. The purpose of the reordering may well have been to help listeners remember the stories so that they, in turn, could retell them. For memory was a recurring component of alphabetization: the Greek grammarian Athenaeus listed eighty-one species of fish in first-letter alphabetical order, “in order that what is said may be easier for you to remember.”

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Early Chinese Dictionary Orders

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 45-46:

On the other side of the globe and in an entirely nonalphabetic writing system, in China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–221 CE), organizing principles were well in advance of the West’s as far as government administration was concerned. Emperor Cheng (51–7 BCE) commissioned an inventory and catalog of all documents in the imperial archives. Three imperial libraries were built and catalogs were drawn up, organized into subject categories: general summaries, the Confucian classics, philosophy, poetry, warfare, divination, and medicine. Dictionaries were also compiled. The Cangjie Primer (c. 220 BCE) was intended as a textbook to teach children their Chinese characters. It has not survived, but was said to have categorized the characters by meaning and by their structure. So “madness,” “blemish,” “sore head,” and “burn” were grouped together, all being related to the character for “illness.”

This was followed by the Erya (c. 200 BCE), which has been called the first Chinese dictionary. It too was divided topically, by subject, with linked words grouped together within each category, although the connections are not necessarily ones we recognize today: roads and bridges were considered to originate from the court of the emperor, and thus they appear under the heading “Interpreting the Court”; warfare too was the province of the ruler, who was divinely ordained, and thus it fell into the section dedicated to “Interpreting the Heavens.” In around 100 CE the Shuō wén jiě zì dictionary, containing some 9,500 characters, originated a sorting system based not on meaning but on the manner in which a character was written. Each was defined as either a single unit or a compound character, and then categorized by 540 elements, called radicals, which might be semantic elements of the character or might be graphic ones—the direction of a stroke, for example. Each character was then listed under a single radical, which came to define it for lexicographical purposes.

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Neutrality of Alphabetical Order

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-19:

This alphabetic predominance makes it hard for us to remember today that the phrase “alphabetical order” has two parts, and that they might be of equal weight: “alphabetical,” yes, but also “order.” And that all order, and ordering, is not of necessity alphabetical—indeed, for centuries the idea of ordering by random chance, by the letters of the alphabet, was considered less useful than a multitude of other sorting methods—geographical, chronological, hierarchical, categorical. Sometimes things had, and continue to have, no visible organizing method, their innate order being so essential that it is simply remembered. For a medieval clergyman, what would have been the point of putting the books of the Bible in alphabetical order? To him, it was obvious that Genesis comes before Exodus, just as, to us, it is obvious that Monday comes before Tuesday, September before October. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to put the days of the week or the months of the year into alphabetical order, because the days and months have a “natural” order, one that is not alphabetical.

Other types of categorizing and sorting that were natural to generations past today seem as peculiar to us as April heading a list of the months of the year because it begins with A. Yet in a world more stratified than our own, sorting things hierarchically was once a natural impulse. The Domesday Book, that summary of land occupancy in England and parts of Wales produced for William the Conqueror in 1086, assessed the values of 13,418 places, organizing them first by status, then by geography, then by status again, and finally by wealth. The king came first, followed—broken down by region—by the great clergy, the powerful barons, and, lastly, each district’s most humble tenants.

But of course, for the information in the Domesday Book to be accessible to later readers, they had to know the regions of England and Wales, and the orders of hierarchy—who outranked whom. For, in all the millennia of reading and writing, only one major sorting system has evolved that requires no previous knowledge from the searcher: alphabetical order. To use it, the only thing searchers need to know is a list of approximately (depending on the language) two dozen characters, in an established order. They do not need to know on what continent a city is located to find it in an atlas, nor if a bishop outranks a cardinal to find him in a list of participants at a clerical summit. Neither do they need to know whether the English Civil War preceded or postdated the American Civil War to locate it in an alphabetical list of “Wars Through History”; nor, indeed, do they need to know whether a pumpkin is considered a vegetable or a fruit to search for it in a seed catalog.

Alphabetical order is in this way entirely neutral.

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