Transition to Alphabetical Grading

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 226-227:

For Panizzi, and the British Museum, alphabetical order was seen as a pragmatic, modern solution—in fact it was the pragmatic, modern solution.

These questions arose in American university libraries just as the institutions themselves were moving toward a grading system that used the alphabet. Yet universities had not naturally been a home to ordering by alphabet more generally. Even in the New World, supposedly freed from old caste systems by its revolution, society continued to be viewed hierarchically: the earliest surviving lists of students at Harvard and Yale Colleges show them ranked not according to their own merits, by examination results or by their conduct, but by their families’ social status. It was not until 1886 that Yale began to list graduating students in alphabetical order.

At the same time, many colleges had used descriptive phrases to indicate pass or fail marks. In the late eighteenth century, Yale had used “Optimi,” best; “second Optimi,” second best; “Inferiores (Boni),” lower (good); and “Pejores,” worse. In the nineteenth century this was replaced by a scale of 1 to 4. Harvard, on the other hand, switched from numbers to letter grades in descending order from A to C just as it was adopting an alphabetically ordered card catalog. The University of Michigan initially simplified its system to pass or fail, later replaced with P for passed, C for “conditioned” (presumably some form of conditional passing grade), and A for absent. Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, used A for excellent, B for good, C, fair, D, passed (“barely”), E for failed, before changing to pass grades A to E, with F becoming the new “failed.” With none of these changes does there appear to have been any discussion as to why A was almost always the best—it just seemed obvious that it was.

I don’t remember what grading system we used when my wife and I taught English in Zhongshan, China, in 1987-88, but I remember writing 努力 ‘works hard’ next to a few of the student names in the roster. The hardest workers tended to be students who didn’t have relatives in Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver, or Sydney who sent them allowances in hard currency that exceeded the value of the renmenbi we were paid each month. In any case, the grades we assigned didn’t matter. The graduates who got the best jobs were the ones who looked most attractive and/or had the richest parents.

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First Playing Card Catalogs

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 184-185:

The Abbé François Rozier (1734–1793), a botanist and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was commissioned by the Académie des Sciences in Paris to produce an index of its publications. Rozier did not think he was doing anything revolutionary; in fact, had he been asked, it is likely he would have described his method as traditional, even old-fashioned, following as it did Gesner’s description of how to create a bibliography. He organized his work, which he referred to in turn as an index, a dictionary, and a concordance—“the name doesn’t matter,” he wrote—in a patchwork of unwieldy systems that demanded substantial preliminary knowledge of anyone using it. He rejected pure alphabetical order in favor of keywords, although even then he indexed the members of the Académie chronologically by the date of their election to the society, with further subcategories based on their membership rank. To find, say, Leibniz in this work, the searcher needed to know the year the philosopher had joined the Académie; that, as a foreigner, he had been given only associate membership; and that he was indexed under the French variant of his name, Godefroy-Guillaume Leibnitz.    Despite this, the material on which Rozier wrote out his old-fashioned catalog was one that looked forward—was, indeed, path-breaking: “Playing cards are best for creating these tables,” he decreed.

Rozier’s choice of medium for his unwieldy jottings was a stroke of organizational genius. Eighteenth-century playing cards were printed with the suits and values on one side, as ours are today, but the reverse was left blank …. Nor did eighteenth-century cards have the shiny high finish of modern ones. Playing cards were also easily available, and inexpensive; they were designed for constant handling, and were therefore more durable than paper; they did not stick together, as pieces of paper often do, so they were easier to flick through; and they were a standard size, making storage simpler.

As with the librarians of the Josephinian, Rozier’s expectation was that these cards would serve as an interim measure to help him order his material before the finished indexes were bound and published, and in his case this is exactly what happened. But when, two decades later, the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution overturned the ancien régime, information concerning a defunct royal society was of little moment to a new republic. Nonetheless, Rozier’s choice of writing medium was adopted wholesale. A year after the nationalization of the clerical libraries, the government planned a nationwide survey of its new possessions, hoping to amalgamate all holdings into a single central catalog of all books in all libraries throughout France.

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Elusive Property Rights in Eastern Europe

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 160-161:

My own experience of private property and that of people I know leads me to understand that both “private” and “property” are vague and very relative categories in my part of Europe. There are many reasons for this, ranging from political and economic changes through social ownership and war to ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust.

Watching the Hungarian movie 1945, directed by Ferenc Török and released in 2017, is perhaps the best way to understand at least one aspect of this; good films sometimes make such things possible. It begins with two strangers, Orthodox Jews, disembarking from a train at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. They have two big boxes with them, almost like coffins. The railway station worker takes his bicycle and departs for the village in a great hurry to deliver news of their arrival. Meanwhile, villagers prepare for the wedding of a son of a local businessman who took over the local shop after the Jewish owners were transported to a concentration camp. As the two new arrivals approach the village on foot, the news spreads and people panic. They are afraid that the two Jews are coming back to reclaim the property of their relatives, who had been deported a year or two before. In the meantime everything has been stolen by the villagers—the shop, the tavern, the houses. Why are these two returning? And what is in their big boxes? Maybe the goods they want to sell once they have taken back the shop? Everybody took part in the plundering, so everybody has reason to fear the two strangers approaching. . . .

This black-and-white movie, in a style close to that of a documentary, shows the collective fear of the return of rightful owners, and how it destroys a community built on lies, denunciations and theft.

But this happened all over Eastern Europe and not only to Jews. Some three million ethnic Germans were expelled or had to flee their homes during the aftermath of World War II from the part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Hitler in 1938. Of course, local people promptly moved into those vacated houses. When thirty years later, two strangers suddenly appeared in a local tavern in a small village there, they were met with an awkward silence and suspicion. Perhaps these two men came because they wanted their family’s property back? But they were only two journalists in search of a good story, who, as it happens, got a unique chance to experience firsthand the mistrust of those living in and from stolen property.

When do wars really end? It seems that wars continue to live on in property documents, in doubts, nightmares and fears for generations.

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Same Brand, Different Food Quality East and West

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 14-15:

In 2017, Slovakia’s consumer association tested a selection of food from supermarkets in eight EU member states: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In some products they found small differences—in any case, the products were not identical—but there were much bigger differences in others. They tasted different and the content was different as well, from Knorr soup to Iglo fish sticks (the latter had 58 percent fish instead of 65 percent). Slovakia’s Ministry of Agriculture drew similar conclusions when comparing twenty-two same-brand products bought in Bratislava and in two Austrian towns across the border. Half of them tasted and looked different and had different compositions. For instance, a German orange drink purchased in Bratislava contained no actual juice, unlike the same product sold in Austria, which had some amount of juice.

When other countries followed suit, they found roughly the same differences. Hungary’s food safety authority examined twenty-four products sold in both Hungary and Austria. It found, among other things, that the domestic version of Manner wafers was less crunchy (and crunchiness is just about the most important “ingredient” they offer!), and the local Nutella not as creamy as the Austrian one….

In Poland, Leibniz biscuits contain 5 percent butter and some palm oil, while those sold in the company’s home market of Germany contain 12 percent butter and no palm oil, a cheap alternative to butter. The Slovene consumer association examined thirty-two products sold in Slovenia and Austria and identified ten where there was a difference in quality. The point is that the inferior version of the product was always placed in an Eastern European country and never in a Western country.

Drakulic doesn’t mention the different currencies still used in most of the Eastern European countries, nor the relative price differences between countries inside and outside the Eurozone.

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Gastarbeiter Legacy in Croatia

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 184-187:

After six decades and yet another world war, the late sixties and early seventies were a time for another wave of mass emigration. From the same territory but not the same state. Now citizens of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia departed for Sweden and Germany. Around a million people left on buses and trains to become temporary guest workers, or Gastarbeiter. This resulted from an extraordinary measure taken by the communist government to cover up the failure of the planned economy. The money these workers sent home kept their families and the whole country going for quite a while. In return, Yugoslavia opened up the country to German tourists—despite the fact that we had learned to hate Germans, because they were the enemy in World War II; there was even a town where they were forbidden to visit. But suddenly they were okay. Every summer more and more of them came to the fishing villages and beaches, and local kids were supposed to be nice to them and not laugh at their funny habit of walking in the sea with plastic shoes on. They brought money, deutsche marks, or DM. Soon DM became an informal local currency. If you wanted to buy a car, an apartment or land, you would pay in DM. How was that possible in the country where there was no legal way to exchange the local currency, the dinar, into DM? This was one of many mysteries of life under the specific Yugoslav type of communism.

Many children grew up largely without their fathers, who would visit only twice a year, for the Christmas and Easter holidays….

None of my relatives left in the seventies. People from the islands or the Adriatic coast no longer left to find a job far away. They lived well as more and more tourists visited, not only Germans. First the locals would rent a room in their old house, then extend the old house, then build a new house, all the while offering not much more than sun and sea.

Then, because of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Croatia became an independent state in 1991. Two decades after independence, it was time for new emigrants, who were also migrants because they moved for economic reasons within the EU. This time they mostly left inland regions with rich soil that used to grow wheat and corn, and where there were farms with pigs and cows. But corrupt privatization schemes and the switch from public to private ownership meant that solid enterprises disappeared, while others had been destroyed in the war during the nineties, and private farming no longer paid off. There were fewer and fewer jobs and people in the region of Croatia stretching from Zagreb toward the east had to move either to towns or abroad in search of work. Ads for houses for sale give a realistic insight into the situation. For example, in the region of Slavonia one could find a house in good condition for seven thousand euros, the price of a secondhand car. In the last eight years, prices have dropped by 50 percent. Only old people remain there now and when they die, the property is usually sold for almost nothing.

The young are leaving because there are no jobs, and if you do not have a job you cannot afford a mortgage, not even for a cheap house. Young people in this part of the world, especially men, live with their parents for lack of money and the opportunity to earn it—no less than 84.6 percent of young people in Croatia. On average, they leave their parents’ home when they are thirty-three years old. “There is simply nothing to live on here,” says a real estate agent in Đakovo, a small town in Slavonia.

Bus stations in these towns are very crowded on Sunday evenings, especially after the holidays. Buses leave for Germany and Austria daily; there are special charter lines for migrants—or are they Gastarbeiter once again? Passengers hug and kiss the family they are about to leave behind; many people are crying. The tearful goodbyes distinguish them from ordinary passengers. The next time they will see each other is Easter.

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Early Printed Pages in Europe

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 127-129:

It is easy to assume that standardization, organization, regularization—and alphabetization—followed hard on the heels of the arrival of printing, but the reality was less tidy, as reality usually is. It took some time even to arrive at what we think of as a standard page of text: black ink on white paper, a centered text in roman type, intermittently interspersed with italic or bold, broken up into paragraphs by indented spaces, surmounted by running heads and page numbers. Nor were other elements of the book—chapter headings to mark text divisions, tables of contents, title pages to announce the book title, the author, publisher, and date and place of publication—any more formalized at this date. Instead, in the fifteenth and well into the sixteenth centuries, texts were designed to resemble manuscripts, often with no title page, and with red initial letters, headings, and glosses underlined. Paragraphs or other breaks in the text were rarely used, and most frequently unknown, although paragraph marks—¶—were sometimes used as marginalia, to give an indication of the text’s structure. Indented paragraphs would not become commonplace for another half century.

The Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449/52–1515) was an innovator: in his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Dream of Poliphilus, printed in 1499, he used the paragraph indents we would recognize; and two years later, he introduced italic typefaces. Other symbols that we take for granted appeared more gradually. In manuscripts, a diple (which resembles our mathematical symbol meaning “less than”: <) had often hitherto been used as a marginal notation to guide readers’ attention to something important in the text. In the sixteenth century, the symbol moved into the text itself, indicating those lines of text that included sententiae, or citations from the authorities. And then, around the 1570s, the diple migrated again, to the beginning of a citation, to indicate direct speech or quoted material: it had become an inverted comma, or quotation mark.

Pagination—numbering each page with consecutive Arabic numerals—came relatively swiftly, although it was not originally a matter of marking first page 1, then its reverse page, and so on to the end of the work. At first, printers used these numerals to guide themselves, not their readers. From the early days of printing (and still today), the technology of the printing press was such that eight, sixteen, or thirty-two pages were printed together on a single sheet, which was then folded to produce pages 1 to 8, 1 to 16, or 1 to 32 of a book. That folded section was, and is, called a signature (the equivalent for a manuscript was a quire, which was usually made up of between four and six folded sheets), and multiple signatures were gathered in order and bound together to produce a book. These gathers can best be seen today along the top or bottom edges of most hardback books, where the pages meet the spine. To ensure the signatures were kept in the correct order during the binding process, printers gave each signature a number, or, today, consecutive letters of the alphabet, printing them inconspicuously at the bottom of each signature’s first page. The signatures could then be dispatched to a bindery in any order, and by following the progression of the numbers or letters, the book, even without numbered pages, would still easily be bound in the correct order.

Printed books were originally bound in plain paper covers, with the expectation that their owners would have them rebound in different styles or qualities of leather according to their resources and tastes. To ensure that the order of the signatures was maintained during this second binding, printers included a “register,” or list, of the first words of each signature, placing it at the beginning of the text in the position that a table of contents later came to occupy. And not long after the establishment of printing houses, some began to do more than give each signature a numeral for internal use. In printers’ technical vocabulary, a folio is the sheet of paper consisting of two sides, or pages, the front and reverse. Once the sheets have been bound into a book, the right-hand, uneven-numbered page is called the recto, the left-hand, even-numbered page the verso. (This page, for example, is a verso.) At first, it was the folios themselves that were numbered, followed by an “r” for recto, or “v” for verso.    Whichever style was chosen, the numbers were no longer internal printers’ indicators, but were there for the convenience of the readers.

In 1450, fewer than a tenth of manuscripts used any system to indicate pagination. In 1499, a reference work to the epigrams of the Roman poet Martial, Cornu Copiae, The Horn of Plenty, by the Italian humanist Niccolò Perotti, may have been the first book to include numbering on every page, a novelty highlighted by the accompanying explanation at the head of the index: “[E]ach word that is sought can be found easily, since each half page [that is, each recto and verso] throughout the entire book is numbered with arithmetical numbers [meaning Arabic, not roman, numerals].” A century later, most printed books included page numbers as a matter of course.

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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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