Philology in the Future

Imagine that it’s two thousand years in the future, around the year 4000 AD or so (assuming that dates in that year are still figured in AD or perhaps CE), and imagine someone at that future time who is a professor of Ancient English Language and Literature, with a specialization in the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. A lot has happened in the two thousand years from 2000 to 4000, just as a lot happened in the previous two thousand years: a new world religion or two, some major empires created and collapsing, some plagues and famines, a dark age, climate change, and perhaps nuclear war. But in the year 4000, civilization is beginning to revive, and scholars are interested in recovering the knowledge of earlier times.

Languages have changed, of course; in the year 4000 what we think of as English is a dead language, studied only by a few specialists, and most of the books have been lost, as well. Let’s say that 90% of the ancient English language literature of the 20th and 21st centuries is gone, just as in our time, something like 90% of classical literature has been lost.

Our future philologist has the job of preparing new editions of ancient twentieth and twenty-first century books that are still in existence in the fortieth century. The problems she faces two thousand years in the future as she tries to read the books of our time can help us understand the problems we face reading books from two thousand years in the past.

One book which has miraculously lasted until the year 4000 is a twentieth century novel, The Man in the High Castle, written by an ancient writer named Philip K. Dick (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation; 1974 [1962]). This is an alternative history novel based on the premise that Germany and Japan won the Second World War. Our philologist is doing pretty well reading and understanding the book until she reaches page 212, where she finds the following sentence, which describes an action by a character named Juliana Frink: “Getting back behind the wheel of the car, she backed out into rtaffic.” This sentence puzzles our philologist. She doesn’t recognize the word “rtaffic”. English is a dead language in the year 4000, so she can’t ask a native speaker what the word means. She consults all of her dictionaries of ancient English, and none of them lists this word. It could be a rare word, she thinks, and just by accident no other ancient English book with this word has survived. Perhaps she has discovered a word that should now be listed in the vocabulary of ancient English. But our philologist has studied historical linguistics, and she remembers that there are no words in ancient English that begin with the letters “rt”. They can occur in the middle of a word—“fertile”—or at the end—“squirt”—but never at the beginning. This is a rule of English phonotactics. So our philologist can confidently conclude that “rtaffic” was never a word in ancient English.

There is a further possibility our philologist has to consider. The word “rtaffic” doesn’t exist in English, but perhaps it’s a word in some other language, and Philip K. Dick simply borrowed it. Here, for example, is the very next sentence in the novel: “In a short time she had found her way out of downtown Denver and onto the main autobahn going north….” The word “autobahn” also doesn’t exist in English, but it’s a perfectly good German word. You may remember that the book is based on the premise that Germany and Japan won the Second World War, and Dick uses a number of German and Japanese words. But after some consultation with scholars of ancient German and Japanese, our philologist finds that this word doesn’t exist in these languages either.

So there must be an error in the text. What should our philologist do? How can she correct the error?

From our 21st century perspective we know right away what the error is and we know how to fix it. We know without consulting dictionaries that there is no word “rtaffic” in English. We can easily see that the word should be ”traffic” instead of “rtaffic”, but the first two letters of the word have been transposed. We see the error and the solution without thinking about it, just because we know English. But we might find it hard to explain exactly how we see the error and the solution.

The explicit reasoning our future philologist uses may help us to understand our own implicit knowledge. She depends on knowing the vocabulary of English—which tells her that there is no word “rtaffic” in English—and the rules of word formation in English—which tell her that there can’t be such a word. She also determines that this word doesn’t exist in German or Japanese—but “autobahn”, for example, is a German word, so she leaves that one in her text. She argues that the transposition of two letters is an easy accident; and the word “traffic” fits the context of driving a car. We unconsciously go through something like this thinking process when we see instantly what the problem is and how to fix it.

In her new edition of this ancient text our future philologist will confidently print the word “traffic”. If she is very scrupulous she may add a little note at the bottom of the page to indicate what she found in the text and what change she made; such notes are called the “critical apparatus”; if you look at a scholarly edition of an ancient Greek or Latin text, you will find a critical apparatus at the bottom of the page.

All of this may seem like a lot of work for a minor point. You might think that this particular mistake doesn’t matter very much to the total meaning of the novel. And you would be right. You would probably get the point of the novel without correcting this one small mistake. But you don’t know in advance how important a mistake might be. And any mistake like this is like a wrong note in the middle of a piece of music—it grates on the ear and diminishes the experience. That’s why proof-readers try to eliminate typographical errors in books.

But the bigger point here is what this example tells us about how we read and understand. What the future philologist does explicitly, we do automatically. We have a good knowledge of the words in English, and we have a feeling for which sound combinations can occur and which ones can’t, even if we don’t know the rules. Our sense of the context of the passage prompts us to search for a similar word that would fit, and we quickly call to mind the word “traffic”. This word fits the context, and we can see how the error could have happened. We say that Dick intended to write the word “traffic”.

The process we go through without thinking and the process our future philologist goes through more consciously have the same goal. We are trying to recover the original intention of the writer. Philip K. Dick must have meant the word “traffic”, and it was only by mistake that the word “rtaffic” was printed. If we can confidently detect an error and correct it, then we must be able to know the author’s intention, at least to some extent. In our ordinary day-to-day reading, we depend on unspoken arguments pretty much like these as we look for the meaning intended by the author.

Next time I will look at some more complex examples, including some where the intent of the author is not so clear and obvious.

5 thoughts on “Philology in the Future

  1. I read it when I was in high school, and I liked it a lot. Science fiction was an important part of my education. I used to do a variation of this thought experiment with my ancient culture classes. I would draw a point in the middle of the black board and label it 2000 AD, then a time line back to 2000 BC (which is roughly when the Greeks arrived in Greece, so it was an appropriate date for my classes). I would have the students fill in with say ten or a dozen important dates. Then I would draw the line forward to 6000 AD, four thousand years in the future, and I would ask them to fill in the important dates on the same kind of pattern. I would ask, “When do you place the next Dark Age?”, “When do you place the next nuclear war? Oh, you think we can get through six thousand years without a nuclear war?” I think they found it kind of unsettling, which of course was the point. I think one of the most important lessons of studying ancient history is developing a sense of the long duration of time. (To say nothing of paleontology.) Of course the threat of climate change makes a big difference to this little thought experiment.

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  2. Your focus on rtaffic—which the computer corrected after I typed it—reminded me of the butterfly on the bottom of the space traveler’s shoe in a Bradbury (?) story. A small thing causing tumult.

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  3. I’m sorry to say I don’t know this story. Do you have a title or a collection that it’s in? Yes, I had trouble convincing my computer that I wanted “rtaffic”. If only the computer would correct all the other mistakes I make in life!!

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