Thursday 31 March 2016


One of the questions which Gardner asked of the stakeholders in his enquiries about The University in the 21stC was "What one book would you give to all the students at graduation?".  He found that was really revealing about the interviewee and where they stood on what mattered.  It's rather like asking what is the book that you would preserve through Armageddon to stand as a beacon and foundation for any civilisation to arise from the ashes. Richard Feynman was famously able to take post-apocalyptic truth down almost to a a tweet "I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another."  I think that requires far too much base-line knowledge to be useful.  I'd put put forward "Mathematics for the Million" (1937) by Lancelot Hogben an extraordinarily comprehensively and accessible history of maths.  You can buy a more recent edition for 40c on Amazon.

Last year when library at The Institute was shedding some stock to make room for new books, I picked up The Mother Tongue . . . by Lancelot Hogben.  It's a bit schoolmasterish but gives an insight into where English came from; with asides about other European languages. We're not the only ones to have borrowed words [beef, pastry, craic] from our neighbours: French canife was absorbed from gothic knife, Irish seomra is clearly ripped from French chambre. If Hogben can write a killer book on maths, is he really qualified to write about language?  Well [duh!] yes, he can write books about language because he invented one Interglossa which was at one time a rival for Esperanto.  There's a revealing moment in Mother Tongue when Hogben takes time off for a swipe at Esperanto for retaining accusative case endings like Latin.  Well really, he says, it's always clear from word order which is the object in a sentence.  Interglossa: a draft of an auxiliary for a democratic world order, being an attempt to apply semantic principles to language design [phew!] was published as a blue Pelican paperback in 1943. The guff about democratic world order is from Higben being one of a group of high-profile leftist scientists in the 1930s, many of whom were formally members of the Communist Party. We've met JBS Haldane before, and JD Bernal in passing, Sinologist Joseph Needham was another who needs to be visited.

As it happens, Hogben's rep as a scientist is in neither linguistics nor mathematics but as an endocrinologist.  He was the man who put Xenopus laevis the African clawed toad on the map as a standard model organism. While working, briefly and in political pain, in South Africa he injected urine from a pregnant woman into one of his toads and noted that it immediately started to ovulate!  This procedure was developed as the Hogben Pregnancy Test and was the gold standard for several decades - it's the progesterone in the pee, silly.  You have to ask what combination of circumstances caused him to think the experiment was a good idea.

Back back to the Mother Tongue which is a germanic language overlain with Norman French, Latin. Greek and everywhere the Brits colonised: bungalow, chutney, gong, pyjamas, hammock. But little words are still patently from the same branch of PIE as Frisian, Dutch and Swedish.  Try reading this:

Se ealda man beneothan tham treowe neah thaere brycge wuneth on tham huse uppan than hylle begeondan tham streame mid his hunde and twa cattum. His wife is nu dead. He ne haefth bearn and friend ne cumath oft to his dore. On tham gearde behindan his huse beoth twa gaet feawa henne and beon. he maketh ciese to etenne of tham meolce fram his gatum and baecth his agenan bread. Hogben helpfully strips off the endings which we have shed in modern English.  For the things that really matter, we are still speaking Olde English from 1000 years ago.  Alexander Pope expressed the sentiment.
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
                            In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
                            In winter fire.

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