Archive for History

Fraternité: A Vivid Snapshot of France’s Revolutionary History

A photo of the cover of the book, FraternitéSome books simply take you there. The minute you start reading, you’re not reading the story—you’re living it. And Fraternité, by Margaret Pritchard Houston, is exactly like that. Through several characters whose loves, griefs, and aspirations come alive before and within you, you are transported to Paris in 1848 and find yourself breathlessly experiencing the beginnings of the revolution that essentially brought to completion the earlier French Revolution of 1789-99 once and for all.

Sebastian Duval, the main character, doesn’t sense how momentous those beginnings are at first. While it’s true that he has been sent by the police to infiltrate the district of Saint-Antoine and report on any anti-government rumblings there, he gets more caught up in investigating the murder of a prostitute who has been one of his primary informants. But before long, his discoveries begin to alarm Allard, his superior officer, who recognizes their dangerous implications for the restored monarchy well before Sebastian does.

Sebastian, meanwhile, still struggling with the deep grief from losing his child two years ago, which has led to a partial estrangement from his wife Marie, finds that he must call upon the aid of an old friend and fellow undercover agent, Gilbert Montserrat, who was also deeply involved in that earlier loss. Soon these three—Sebastian, Marie, and Gilbert—gradually uncover the mystery behind the prostitute’s murder and her connection to secrets that could threaten the very future of France. And throughout his investigations, Sebastian finds himself emotionally torn: torn between duty and friendship, torn between guilt and desire, and torn between loves. As the final revolution gathers momentum and becomes inevitable, Sebastian works frantically to salvage and protect whoever he can and survive to fashion a new future with a deeper understanding of his own heart and the new world that his struggles have helped to create.

When it comes to this history, Ms. Pritchard Houston really knows her stuff. Between her knowledge of the underpinnings of the revolution and her extensive research into the layout of Paris and the living conditions of its downtrodden citizenry, she makes you feel as though you are right there in the midst of things as they happen. Yet it’s not just a matter of knowing the facts; those alone could be dry as dust. It takes great insight into the human character, a delicate and precise level of control and plotting, and, quite simply, terrific writing skills to bring characters and the events in their lives so vividly alive. Ms. Houston has all of that, in spades.

I really loved this book and read huge swaths without being able to put it down. I highly recommend it, both for the fascinating history it chronicles and for the poignantly real story of some of the people who lived that history.

Another Detour: a History of the Alphabet!

Language Visible

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am fascinated by the history of writing and by the alphabet in particular. I think the alphabet is probably the best invention ever. Or at least, I’d put it in the top five, along with things like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, and the discovery of mathematics and the laws of physics. It’s that significant and world-changing.

So imagine how excited I was when I discovered a book by David Sacks: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z! (Not its only title. It’s complicated. **) What the book is is a history of how the English language got the 26 letters it has today. In fact — we almost had just 24 letters, since “J” and “V” did not get officially accepted as part of the alphabet until the mid-nineteenth century. That’s just one of the many interesting (to me) facts that this book presents.

David Sacks, a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa in Canada, introduces the general history of the alphabet before getting down to the history of each individual letter. And right there, I learned something I hadn’t realized: scholars no longer think that alphabetic writing began with the Phoenicians! Those people took it up when it was already a thousand years old. It seems that even this can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where some workers or soldiers in the employ of Egypt grabbed hieroglyphs for words that started with certain sounds, and used those pictures to represent the sounds themselves. Egyptian inscriptions have been found that show this alphabet in use for a Semitic language.

Through the Phoenicians, who refined this alphabet, and then through the Greeks (via trade with the Phoenicians) and then the Romans (adopting Greek writing), and then the various societies that arose as the Roman Empire vanished, we can trace those original Egyptian shapes as they gradually change into the forms and sounds that most of our letters have today. And an even more fascinating fact is that in virtually every language in the world that uses an actual alphabet instead of pictographs or syllabic writing, its alphabet descends from that original alphabet created in Egypt, either through the Phoenician alphabet or a sister South Arabian alphabet. Isn’t that cool?

Sacks also researched the history of each individual letter (and even some letters that no longer exist) and gives each letter its own chapter in the book. So as well as learning things like how the letter “F” actually began as the “W” sound and how it got changed, we learn how some letters have taken on a certain character over the centuries. (“A” means top-notch or top of the class, while the kind of lacklustre “E for effort” got a new lease on life with the development of the Internet and things like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” And we know the various naughty things that “F” gets up to, while “V,” and “W” can thank their lucky stars that they had the mother they did — “U.”)

Along the way, we also learn some of the history of the societies through which the alphabet passed. We find out just how the trade between the Phoenicians and the Greeks moved the alphabet westward. (Imagine! If the Phoenicians hadn’t ventured as far as they did, we might be expressing things in very complicated, cumbersome pictographs at this very moment. Imagine a blog written like that.) And we realize that many of the Greek names for letters, which we are so familiar with through mathematics and other disciplines, are simply a translation of the original Semitic letter names into more Greek-sounding words. So the Semitic “daleth” became “delta.” “Gimel” became “gamma.” “Lamed” became “lambda.” “Kaph” became “kappa.” And so on.

We aren’t that far away from that very first alphabet, whatever we may think. Thanks to a rudimentary Egyptian picture=sound system picked up by groups of soldiers and transferred to their own Semitic language, there is a vast world of information and literature out there, in almost countless languages and dialects, that would have been much harder (if not impossible) to develop or to express if that ancient alphabet hadn’t existed.

If you love history and especially if you love the intricacies and history of language, I bet you’d really love this book.

(** See, regarding the book title, the thing is, according to Sacks, that he “took some bad advice.” Which is why the hardcover has the name of the book I read, while the name of the Canadian paperback is Letter Perfect: The A to Z History of our Alphabet, the name of the U.S. paperback is Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z, and the U.K. hardocver and paperback are both just called The Alphabet. Like I said above–complicated.)

(And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend another post of mine on one of my writing blogs: Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever.)

Going Beyond the Fairy Tales with Jacob Grimm

Photo of Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

I recently got to download a Grimm book!

No doubt we’ve all heard of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a collection of German tales compiled by the “brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm, originally published in 1812. This collection has been reproduced and reprinted and added to and told and told again, over and over for two centuries, now. While many of the tales have now been sanitized, removing their original darker elements, in their original form, they reflected something of the true depth of real myth. It’s a collection everyone should become familiar with.

But this is not that book.

In university, years ago and to my joy and wonder, I discovered a set of four volumes entitled, Teutonic Mythology, translated from the original Deutsche Mythologie, put together by Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two brothers. He was a philologist — a studier of words and their history — as well as a jurist and mythologist. And his extensive studies of many languages and customs allowed him to trace links between the myths and mythical tales and practices of many European countries.

I have been a fanatic about myth since I became conscious. And as in all things, the older the traces of myth are, the more fascinated and enchanted I am. So I read as much as I could of the four volumes, back in my university days. And I have spent a couple of decades since then, trying to find them again. Somewhere, anywhere!

And now, through various downloading sites for more historic and even ancient books, and through Google Books, which seems to have been the main digitizer, I have finally found them. Hurray! I’ve downloaded all four volumes and am well into the first.

But here’s the thing. Two things, actually. First, Grimm was one of those who just assumed that the people reading his work knew the languages he quoted. So as he gives examples of ancient god names and sacred terms that seem to carry through from one language and culture to another (Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, etc.) — he doesn’t often make a translation. So I’m picking out a few words I recognize here and there or tracing the links I can detect, without actually knowing what the quotes are saying. Ah, those nineteenth century scholars. (Theologians and philosophers did the exact same thing.)

But there’s something funny too. Something that shows why not everything can be automated and why humans will always be necessary. I guess Google Books’ digitization process is meant to be kind of automatic. But the print may be faded or slightly unclear in places, in whatever books were used in this particular process. Or the digitizing program just didn’t recognize a symbol and came up a sort of “best guess.”

So take the word “Roman.” Much of the time, it reads “Eoman” in this book. Or, occasionally, “Boman.” It took me a while to recognize what was going on; I mean, this is talking about Germanic, Teutonic, Scandinavian stuff — remember Eomer and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings? Yeah. So it took a few times before I realized, “Oh, ROMAN!”

Then there is “aU.” Which, it turns out, is a frequent instance of the word “all.” And what the heck is a “Uack hull,” which is being led to sacrifice?? Why, a “black bull,” of course. So here I am, trying to piece together words from fairly ancient Teutonic languages while also trying to decipher Google’s digitization mistakes. It’s kind of funny.

But for the most part, though, I’m doing it. And I am just loving finding out anew all those ancient linguistic connections and the earliest cultural traces of what are probably my favorite deities from any pantheon! (Loki is my patron god, after all; his ancient day is my birthday.)

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for Google’s digitization of a set of books I have looked for, like, forever! Rediscovering all these things is really wonderful. Or should I say, “reaUy womerful!”

A new Chicago Manual — Demotic Egyptian Style!

Louvres-antiquites-egyptiennes-img 2713

Photo from Louvre Museum, by way of Wikimedia Commons (see “Demotic” Wikipedia page for link)

Chicago Manual of Style, move over! The New York Times brought news yesterday of a new dictionary that’s just been published. Why would the Times carry a story about a new dictionary? Well, this one is different from your everyday Merriam-Webster’s, and it isn’t quite like your school French-English or English-Spanish dictionary. This is a dictonary of Demotic Egyptian.

That’s the language that was spoken (and written, when they were literate) by everyday Egyptians while their royal masters were carving monuments in hieroglyphics. Here’s a description from the Times article, Dictionary Translates Ancient Egyptian Life:

These were the words of love and family, the law and commerce, private letters and texts on science, religion and literature. For at least 1,000 years, roughly from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, both the language and the distinctive cursive script were known as Demotic Egyptian, a name given it by the Greeks to mean the tongue of the demos, or the common people.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has published the Demotic Dictionary online. If you know the script–go for it!

I had forgotten that Demotic was one of the three scripts on the Rosetta Stone. So that means that when archaeologists and scholars got insight into what the hieroglyphs meant, comparingi them to the Greek on the stone, they also got a lot of insight into Demotic script as well.

One thing that always thrills me is discovering how certain modern words or place names have really, really ancient roots. The Times article describes some of our modern words that have been discovered to have ancient Egyptian roots.

Although Egyptians abandoned Demotic more than 1,500 years ago, taking up Coptic and eventually Arabic, Dr. Johnson said the dictionary showed that the old language was not entirely dead. It lives on in words like “adobe,” which came from “tby,” the Demotic for brick. The term passed into Arabic (with the definite article “al” in front of the noun) and was introduced into Moorish Spain. From there adobe became a fixture in the Spanish language and architecture.

I always love hearing about these linguistic connections from the ancient past to the present, but a great thing about Demotic is that the words were used in actual everyday life. So this will tell us a great deal about how ordinary Egyptians, not connected to the royal court, lived each day. For example, an interesting thing shown in documents in Demotic script is a surprising equality between men and women:

Dr. Johnson, who specializes in research on the somewhat more equal role of women in Egyptian society, said Demotic contracts on papyrus scrolls detailed a husband’s acknowledgment of the money his wife brought into the marriage and the promise to provide her with a set amount of food and money for clothing each year of their marriage. Other documents showed that women could own property and had the right to divorce their husbands.

I’m very excited about this, even though I can’t read a word of Demotic. Ancient language! Being deciphered and understood! Very cool.


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