Monday, June 29, 2015

The Ancient Words We Use Each Day: An Attempt

In order to describe the novel techniques and devices of modernity, it was necessary to employ the terminology of ancient (if not dead) languages. 

Thus, we have the telegraph (a construction from ancient Greek meaning, “writing at a distance”) and telephone (“sound at a distance”) and television (which combines the Greek “tele-” with the Latin, “to see”). 

Because "tele-thea" would sound too awkward...

Indeed, the words “technology” and “engineering” are derived from ancient sources. 

In this, however, there is a puzzle. Most words used for technology are Greek in origin, whereas the ancient language associated with Western Christianity was Latin. 

The latter survived as a father tongue, long after its native speakers had died out, because it was useful to communicate in script between clerics of different mother tongues. 

After it disappeared as the scholarly language, Latin evolved into the language of scientific taxonomy, again to overcome the problem of categorizing different species for researchers speaking different languages. 

Yet, when scientific principles were applied to practical ends, to produce engineered technology, inventors and investors in these novel, automated techniques, turned mainly to Greek, rather than Latin, to provide the nomenclature for them. 

This preference for the Greek over the Latin was witnessed not only the applied arts. The academic fields that developed within the nineteenth century university, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so on, took on Hellenic monikers, instead of the Latin, in spite of the fact that the latter was the language of classification in the biological and chemical sciences (both “biology” and “chemistry” are terms derived from ancient Greek). 

Too dry: a sample of ancient Greek script.
(c) Asafta |

This is probably the result of the revival of classical Hellenism as the university grew during the nineteenth century. In their battle against the ecclesiastical masters of the medieval university, the classicists preferred the old Greek language over the Latin, as a tongue untainted by Christian influences. 

In spite of the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek, western European scholars were far enough removed from Eastern Orthodoxy, such that their view of the language remained not jaundiced by clerical influences. 

Although classical Greek never became, for the nineteenth-century university don, the language of international scholarly intercourse that Latin served during the Middle Ages, it did obviously exerted its influence upon the academic specialties that grew (paradoxically) under their influence. Even religious teachings became specialized as “theology” (another ancient Greek term).

No comments:

Post a Comment