Tracing the coastline

Paging through my beloved Languages of Australia, I came across Dixon's mention of George Grey's "second great breakthrough in Australian linguistic studies", first published in Grey's 1841 Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, During the Years 1837, 1838, and 1839. As Dixon puts it:

Grey showed not only that there was a typological similarity between the languages of Australia, he also gathered enough cognates to suggest an historical connection between them: in effect, he suggested that the languages all belonged to a single genetic 'language family'. (p11)

In other words, that section of Grey's Journals represents the "no philologer could examine them all three, without believing &c." of Australian linguistics — and, since it's 2014, both volumes of the Journals are online and we can read the whole thing for ourself. It's in Volume II, under "RADICAL UNITY OF THE AUSTRALIAN LANGUAGE THROUGHOUT THE CONTINENT."

It has hitherto been very generally believed that the languages spoken in different portions of the continent of Australia are radically distinct; and as such a circumstance, were it really the case, would tend to prove that its inhabitants originated from several separate races, it becomes rather an important matter to set this question at rest, and to endeavour to show from what cause so erroneous an opinion originated.

The arguments which prove that all the Australian dialects have a common root are:

1. A general similarity of sound and structure of words in the different portions of Australia, as far as yet ascertained

2. The recurrence of the same word with the same signification, to be traced, in many instances, round the entire continent, but undergoing, of course, in so vast an extent of country, various modifications;

3. The same names of natives occurring frequently at totally opposite portions of the continent. Now, in all parts of it which are known to Europeans, it is ascertained that the natives name their children from any remarkable circumstance which may occur soon after their birth; such being the case, an accordance of the names of natives is a proof of a similarity of dialect.

That last argument is the shakiest, especially given that in chapter 11 Grey confuses part of a kinship/class system with the concept of a "family name," but the first two are supported by a couple of nice cognate tables, including one clearly showing what would later be viewed as Pama-Nyungan pronouns: "Nganya", cf proto-PN *ngay- (first person singular nominative); "Ngalee", cf proto-PN *ngali (first person dual), etc.

Under "CAUSES OF ERROR IN FORMER ENQUIRERS," Grey also bluntly recognizes some problems with the existing data:

Up to the present time we have had only very meagre vocabularies, collected by passing strangers, each of whom adopted his own system of orthography, and the comparisons formed from such compilations must necessarily have been erroneous in the highest degree. Moreover in many instances these strangers were grossly imposed upon. One gentleman published a vocabulary of the King George's Sound dialect which has been largely quoted from by other writers; in this the numerals as high as ten are given, although the natives only count to four; and the translations of some words which he has put down as numbers are very humorous, such as: What do you mean? Get out, etc.

And here's Grey's "no philologer" summary (also quoted in Dixon, naturally):

Having thus traced the entire of the coastline of the continent of Australia, it appears that a language the same in root is spoken throughout this vast extent of country; and from the general agreement in this as well as in personal appearance, rites, and ceremonies, we may fairly infer a community of origin for the aborigines.

This talk of "tracing the coastline" actually foreshadows the main contemporary amendment to Grey's thesis: it is precisely the north of Australia, the part of the coastline that Grey does not trace, that is home to the non-Pama-Nyungan families.

(Incidentally, in Dixon's account the first "great breakthrough in Australian linguistic studies" was Governor Arthur Phillip's realization in 1791 that Australia's indigenous population did not all speak the same language, ironically enough: "I now think it very probable that several languages may be common on different parts of the coast, or inland [...]" (quoted in Dixon, p10). Thesis, antithesis, synthesis!)



Something else at Archive.org: Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn, by his wife Koizumi Setsu (translated by Paul Kiyoshi Hisada and Frederick Jonhson). I don't suppose the fact that he really, really loved Japan will come as news to anyone reading this, but there is some interesting insight into his compositional process here and there. For example:

When I told him the old tales, I always first gave the plot roughly; and wherever he found an interesting place, he made a note of it. Then he would ask me to give the details, and often to repeat them. If I told him the story by reading it from a book, he would say, "There is no use of your reading it from the book. I prefer your own words and phrases — all from your own thought. Otherwise, it won't do." Therefore I had to assimilate the story before telling it. [...]

The story of "Yoshi-ichi" in the first part of "Kwaidan" pleased Hearn exceedingly. He made that story from a very short one, with great effort and determination. He wished to make one part of it sound stronger. He thought that "Mon o aké" (Open the door) was not an emphatic enough expression for a samurai, and he made it "Kaimon." (This latter word means "Open the door," like the former, but would be more fitting in the speaker's mouth.)

Kaimon 開門 is a fully Sino-Japanese parallel to mon wo ake[ru] 門を開ける, even using the same characters, as you can see. The effect of Hearn's change was to make the samurai character more commanding and aristocratic, not deigning to share even the language of the common folk.

Someone once asked me why Japan had any interest in Hearn's work; couldn't they just read the original versions of the stories he was retelling? This is why. He wasn't just repeating what he heard — he was actively reshaping it into the forms he brought with him from overseas, almost recreating the tales in collaboration with his wife so that he could find and bring into focus things that local tradition had not. (Sometimes because those things were not actually in the stories until he put them there, of course; radical recomposition is not compatible with strict field-recording-style authenticity.)

No posts next week, incidentally! I have a few things to take care of here...


The totality of reason

A. R. Orage's Readers and Writers (1917-1921) contains a rather intriguing piece on pp48-50 entitled "When Shall We Translate?" I will quote it rather liberally as it is not in copyright in the US or Japan (book published in 1922, author died in 1934).

There is nothing particularly "masterly" from the modern English point of view in Hobbes's translation of Pericles's Funeral Oration. His period of English prose appears to have been ill-adapted for the translation of the Greek idiom of the time of Pericles. To the usual cautions against translations in general, we ought to add the caution against translations made in dissimilar epochs. It is not at any time in the history of a language that a translation from a foreign language can safely be undertaken. In all probability, indeed, the proper period for translation is no longer in point of time, than the period within which the original itself was written. If the Periclean Age lasted, let us say, fifty years, it is within a period in English history of the same length that an adequate translation can be made. Once let that period go by, and a perfect translation will be for ever impossible. And equally the result will be a failure, if the translation is attempted before its time has come. I do not think that the Hobbesian period of English was in key with the period of Periclean Greek; nor, again, do I think that our period for perfect translation has yet come.

The idea that each generation should have its own translations is a pretty common one (if impractical for most source texts). The idea that only one or two generations can translate a given text properly is much rarer.

But I am confident that we are approaching the proper period, and in proof of this I would remark on the superiority of Jowett's translation over that of Hobbes. [...] Hobbes was a great pioneer, a creator of language; Jowett was only a good writer. Nevertheless, the idiom in which Jowett wrote, was more nearly perfect (that is, fully developed) English than the idiom in which Hobbes wrote. And since, in point of development, the correspondence between Periclean Greek and Jowett's English, is closer than the correspondence between Periclean Greek and Hobbes's English, Jowett's translation is nearer the original than Hobbes's.


To a mere student of comparative values in Periclean Greek and idiomatic English, some of the errors in Jowett's translation are obvious. Such a student needs not to refer with the scholar's precision to the original Greek to be able, with the approval of all men of taste, to pronounce that such and such a phrase or word is most certainly not what may be called Periclean English. It stands to the totality of reason that it is not so. We may be certain, for instance, that Pericles, were he delivering his Oration in English, with all the taste and training he possessed as a Greek of his age, would never have employed such phrases as these: "commended the law-giver," "a worthy thing," "burial to the dead," "reputation ... imperilled on ... the eloquence," "who knows the facts," "suspect exaggeration." Pericles, we cannot but suppose, both from the man and his age, spoke with studied simplicity, that is to say, with perfect naturalness. The words and phrases he used were in all probability the most ordinary to the ear of the Athenian, and well within the limits of serious conversation. But such phrases as I have mentioned are not of the same English character; they are written, not spoken phrases, and approximate more to a leading commemorative article in The Times than to a speech we should all regard as excellent. It would be interesting to have Lord Rosebery's version of Pericles' speech, or even Mr. Asquith's. Both, it is probable, would be nearer the original than Jowett's, though still some distance off perfection. In another fifty years perfection will be reached.

I suppose "commended the law-giver" is unlikely to come up in regular conversation, but "a worthy thing"? "Who knows the facts"? ("Burial to the dead" sounds dubious, but it's actually just a non-constituent: "... given at their burial to the dead who have fallen ...")

Also note the lack of hedging in the final sentence. Not "may be reached," but "will be reached." By my calculations, this means that we English-speakers achieved Pericleity sometime in the 1970s — we don't have much time left before the period will be over and Pericles's Funeral Oration will never be properly translatable for us again. I hope someone struck while the iron was hot.

(I personally read Jowett's translation, apparently to my detriment, although looking through it now I still find it quite acceptable; "not riches, as some say, but honor is the delight of men when they are old and useless" has stuck with me since.)