Ideas that add up #43

Dictionaries alone aren’t responsible for the thingification of natural languages, but they crystallized a peculiar modern view of what it means to have a language. The spread of the printed book is also a major factor in the converging circumstances and technologies that gave us the ideas which have dominated modern language study ever since, and profoundly affected our understanding of what translators do.

General purpose dictionaries, from Samuel Johnson’s to Webster’s and from Brockhause to Robert, list the words that are part of the language. In so doing they also tell us that the language we speak is a list of words. From its origin in the Hebrew Bible, the nomenclaturist understanding of what a language is was given a huge, definitive boost by the emergence of the modern typographical mind.

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

Reading the last sentence I understood Bellos to mean typological, as in the classification of types according to their characteristics, eg Linnaean taxonomy, and thought he must be referring to our scientific tendency to atomize organic complexity into notional basic units. This would fit with what he writes about the relatively recent emergence of the word-list (and grammar-primer) perspective on language, and the accompanying political effort to standardize national tongues. Interesting to speculate that the typological mindset could be something we acquired over recent centuries, something that we educated ourselves into adopting, and not necessarily innate.

Later I realised that the word is typography, the design and arrangement of printed text, itself a sort of modern lens through which the literate “we” absorb and project knowledge.

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