Ideas that add up #31

In the late Middle Ages … traders and poets, sailors and adventurers moved overland and around the inland seas picking up and often mixing more or less distantly related languages as they went, and only the most thoughtful of them even wondered whether or not they were speaking different ‘languages’, or just adapting to local peculiarities. …

It’s unlikely that Columbus even conceptualized Italian, Castilian or Portuguese [each of which he used] as distinct languages, for they did not yet have any grammar books. He was a learned man in being able to read and write the three ancient tongues [ie Latin, Greek and Hebrew]. But beyond that, he was just a Mediterranean sailor, speaking whatever variety of language that he needed to do his job.

David Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything

Bellos notes that on the Indian subcontinent nothing was ever translated directly, until recently, between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and so on, despite these communities living cheek by jowl on a crowded continent for centuries. A degree of intercomprehensibility exists between several of the languages, and in any case people traditionally spoke three or more languages. Similar must have applied to Zhou dynasty China, where multiple regional tongues don’t seem to have been a block to communication for the itinerant sophists and statesmen who continually expatriated themselves among the competing kingdoms.

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