Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Nicholas Ostler's "Passwords to Paradise"

Nicholas Ostler is the author of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. He is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a charity that supports the efforts of small communities worldwide to know and use their languages more. A scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, Ostler has degrees from Oxford University in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from M.I.T., where he studied under Noam Chomsky. He lives in England, in Roman Bath, on the hill where Ambrosius Aurelianus defeated the Saxons for a generation.

Ostler applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-invented World Religions, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Passwords to Paradise opens a new section in the chapter “Every man heard… his own language”: the section is called Other Language Communions.

The chapter as a whole is a review of different churches which grew up all round the eastern Mediterranean, each characterized by its own language. One contention of the book is that these congregations – and the specific heresies which characterized each one - would not have existed without the language differences, even though the Scriptures all spread among them originally in Aramaic or Greek. It was as if the languages created conscious communities, and the communities looked for their own distinctive confessions, to reinforce their identities.

On page 99, I extend the narrative to Gothic, the medium of the Arian church, and the first Germanic language to be written down. The language work was done, and the Bible translated (minus the war-like passages in the Books of Kings!), by its heroic first bishop, Wulfila — i.e. “Wolfie”— a young man consecrated (in 341) by the very same bishop who had baptized the emperor Constantine on his deathbed. Gothic as a language went extinct after the 6th century; but had it survived, so might Arianism, highly popular in the Roman empire in those early years. For Arians Christ was a creature of the Father, and so a man, not a part of God himself.

Page 99 also introduces the Armenian church, the first national one. Tiridates III, who had grown up as a political refugee in Rome, began his reign in 287 (with Roman support) as a great persecutor of Christians. Curiously enough, he was then converted by Gregory, the last survivor of the family which had assassinated Tiridates’ father. Tiridates went on to become Armenia’s first Christian king – It would take a few more generations before Mesrop Mashtots (362-44) did for Armenian what Wulfila did for Gothic, giving the language its own alphabet and translation of the Bible. Armenia, alone in its region, went on to host a Miaphysite church, holding Christ’s nature to be single, not a mixture of the human with the divine (as Greek, Latin and Georgian speakers have insisted).

Page 99 is just one brick in the wall. But it witnesses that in the world of religion – as Benedict Anderson memorably pointed out more generally – “Much the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities [ in a book of the same name], building in effect particular solidarities.“
Visit Nicholas Ostler's website.

Writers Read: Nicholas Ostler.

--Marshal Zeringue