Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe

Toledo-Spain

Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

Continue reading

Geneticists say they’re closer to solving mystery of the Basques

freedom to choose the basque language

To say that the Basque are enigmatic is a bit of an understatement.

Theirs is the only Western European tongue that does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Written Basque features an extraordinary number of x’s and relatively few vowels.

There is a legend that says the Devil tried to learn Basque by listening behind the door of a Basque farmhouse. After seven years, he mastered but two words: “Yes, Ma’am.”

In addition to the language, the genetic makeup of the Basque has also puzzled researchers.

Now, it appears a team of geneticists have made progress in solving the mystery behind the Basques, who reside in northern Spain and southern France.

A study in PNAS journal suggests they descended from early farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming isolated for as much as five millennia, according to the BBC.

Continue reading

I came, I saw, but there was no Latin to be conquered

veni vidi

Unlike my parents and grandparents, I never had the option of studying Latin while in high school.

Mind you, the decidedly uninspired worth ethic I demonstrated in my teens perhaps ensured that I wouldn’t have taken Latin had it been offered, but the fact that California’s public school system was well in the crapper by the time I was enrolled in high school in 1980 made it a non issue.

Indeed, the Language of the Caesars was considered passé by the lightweights who had taken control of the Golden State’s education system beginning in the 1960s.

Instead, I squeaked my way through a couple of years of French – which in no way prepared me for the two years of college French that was required for me to graduate.

Years later I regret not having studied at least a smattering of Latin at some point in my schooling.

To be able to read Cicero, Cato or Tacitus in the original would have given me the chance to view their world through a wholly different lens, rather than one distorted, even unintentionally, by translation.

Fortunately, after a decline of several decades the study of Latin is increasing in popularity once again. Perhaps, common sense is returning to a segment of the education community, and the greatness of literary giants of past millennia are again being recognized on a wider basis.

Latin may not be for everybody but as Cicero once stated, “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”

(Above: Cartoon from The New Yorker and likely the only time the words “mani” or “pedi” will ever appear in this blog.)

Native American tribe strives to save language from extinction

omaha language 1

Imagine your native language has but a few fluent speakers. An even dozen, to be exact, and none under the age of 70.

That’s the situation sisters Glenna Slater and Octa Keen of Macy, Neb., find themselves in.

The pair is among the few certified to teach the language of the Omaha Indian tribe, called Umónhon. They keep a tally of people who still speak their language.

That list is now on a single leaf of notebook paper, complete with names that have been crossed out, representing speakers who have died, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

“The sisters fear a day may come when the last name is scratched out,” according to the publication.

“It just tears part of your heart out,” Keen said, “because you know it’s never coming back.”

Umónhon is among approximately 2,000 languages around the globe that are classified as “severely endangered,” according to the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages.

Continue reading

France’s regional languages fight for parity

Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

Continue reading

Once-extinct Cornish shows signs of comeback

cornish language

It’s estimated that half the world’s 6,000-plus languages are in danger of disappearing.

Many have become victims of progress and development that has aligned speakers of endangered tongues with a more dominant culture that relies on a handful of principal languages, such as English, Russian or Mandarin.

A vast number of the world’s endangered languages haven’t even been set down in written form, which further hinders efforts to keep them alive as older speakers die off.

Yet, a glimmer of hope for those who see the inherent value in the diversity of spoken languages can be found in the revival of the Cornish language in the United Kingdom.

Cornish, considered extinct for decades, has undergone a rebirth in years, with a small but steady increase in speakers as cultural awareness of the distinctive nature of the Cornwall region has been recognized and celebrated.

Today, London is home to a vibrant group of Cornish speakers and it’s estimated there are today in Britain hundreds of fluent Cornish speakers and thousands with at least some ability, according to The Independent.

In addition, a small number of children in Cornwall have been brought up to be bilingual native speakers, and, in a development unheard even of a century ago, the language is taught in many schools.

Continue reading

Ancient tablet shows undiscovered language

Amid the ruins of a Middle Eastern palace dating back nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, archaeologists believe they have discovered a previously unknown ancient language.

Working in southeast Turkey, a team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan recently unearthed a 2,800-year-old clay writing tablet.

Cambridge University archaeologist John MacGinnis discovered the unknown language – which was likely spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – while deciphering the tablet, according to The Independent.

“The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations,  the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq,” according to the British newspaper.

The clay tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced-population transfer program.

But when MacGinnis began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45, or three of every four, bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.

Continue reading