Is it too Late? Was it never important?

In this paper I am considering the half-life of Comparative Philology, which was pioneered in the 19th century with great enthusiasm and success, and reigned unchallenged for a hundred years as Comparative Philology, or under a more modern name as Historical Linguistics. After the middle of the 20th century studies in Structural Linguistics began to change the playing field of language study, with many new branches and offshoots some of which are now being consolidated in the new field of Cognitive Science, which requires a solid linguistic base as a foundation.

But the word "Philology" has complex roles. It not only studies and interprets language texts in terms of the meaning and history of words but it also examines in detail the authenticity and origins of text materials. This constitutes a somewhat different line of investigation from the philology which concerns itself with problems revolving about texts, rather than the interpretation of texts as historical and linguistic data.

Philology is a word of ancient tradition, it emerged in the academic world of Alexandria over two thousand years ago, but went into a long coma when the Greco-Roman world slowly declined. The awakening came in the late 18th century, when the word Philology was brought into life again by F.A. Wolf who saw it as a discipline unifying many new methods of investigation which were emerging as the pioneer work of scientists concerned with electricity, biology, and mechanics. Precision of word and thought were early seen as essential in the world of the new sciences, and the Classical investigators fashioned their work with parallel seriousness and similar standards of accuracy.

In such an ambiance the New Philology developed myriad branches, with sub-fields developing under the aegis of Classics, in art and architecture, archaeology, papyrology, professional reading of MSS and inscriptions, along with a new approaches to scientific history, ancient economics and of course that mainstay of the Classical tradition, further studies in the Greek and Latin Languages.

It was Sir William Jones who grasped before 1780 the notion of the Indo-European "family of languages" as an inter-related and closely knit linguistic group, demonstrably related in terms of origins and history. Soon scholars began to note exact correspondences between words from as wide a range of languages as ancient Sanskrit and 16th century Lithuanian, formulating "sound laws" which showed regular changes in phonology. Before the 19th century was half through, scientific Historical Linguistics had become a serious field of research. Its results filled rooms of books and papers in every major library, and the rigorousness of a field which believed in "sound laws without exceptions" became part of the advanced study of every professional Classicist. By the beginning of the 20th century, being ignorant of professional etymologizing and the meaningful relationships of words in a dozen European languages, would be taken as professionally irresponsibility.

As the 20th century ended the classical studies found itself in a quandary. While still stressing professionalism for advanced degrees in the parent-field of Classics, we began to teach the majority of our college students their Classics in an English translation, with just a few strong students struggling with the tough fibre of the Greek Irregular Verbs or the niceties of Latin sentence structure in Ciceronian prose. To be sure much breadth of scope has been gained as new coursework in the general Classical Studies has been developed and there is now far more reading in the Classics overall than there was at the start of the 20th century - - - while work in the in the original texts of the classical languages is fast becoming obsolete.

So one might well ask at this juncture: What point in Philology? Isn't a grounding in modern literary criticism, with a wide awareness of the European literatures since the Renaissance much more to the point? And if our college students are more interested in the classics as background for social history, for studies on the role of women, slaves and of the various populations under Roman rule, isn't that a direction more worthy of pursuit?

Over the past years I have seen a new generation of Classicists who are by and large unskilled and often unaware of a philology which concerns itself with Historical Linguistics. The treasure house of words with their developed sub-meanings, cross-cultural associations and linguistic puzzles is largely outside their knowledge and disappears from what the teacher can pass on to students. If an eminent scholar demonstrates to a college class a series of words like Skt. panthas, Gr. pontos, and Latin pons/pontis and derives subtle distinctions and shadings from their comparison, a class of modern students will have no idea what he is talking about. Harvard's Prof. Nagy did talk to a class of mine at Middlebury about this very series some years ago; but later the students told me he was talking over their heads, which they felt was not proper teaching. I told them they were speaking out of ignorance, but I don't think they were much inclined to believe me.

How deep is the loss of linguistic philology as this millennium ends? Let me give you an example, one which makes me feel like a Rip Van Winkle of the Classics, but with a serious point. Going over old papers as preparation for this internet page, I found some final exams from years ago when I was a young doctoral student at Harvard, and found myself re-reading one exam in Sanskrit with Prof. W.E Clark and another from the redoubtable and fearsome Joshua Whatmough. My question is simple:

How many today could write out parts of such an exam and come away with a feeling about achieving a passing grade?

How many even understand what the exam in Osco-Umbrian is about?

Does anyone see value to studies which culminate in such recondite examinations, or is this the final stage of obscure academic specialization?

Let me cite from the Whatmough examination paper, now about half a century old:

1947-8 HARVARD UNIVERSITY Comparative Philology 140

Answer question 1) and not more than three others:

1) (a) Transliterate and translate the first five and the last five lines of the inscription of which a facsimile is supplied, with brief comments on points of linguistic interest.

(b) Translate the following passages, assign each to its locality and dialect, give its approximate date, indicate the character of the object, and write brief notes on matters of linguistic interest.

1) puponehe.x.orakoh.e. kupethari.s

2) metelui maesilaui uenia metelikna asmina krasikna

(3) dacta moroanaproditahipades

(4) klevieva.l.tikinuasua

(There are twelve such sections, I need not go on, obviously).

2) Examine the case terminations in nouns of (a) long -o- stems in the sg. in Oscan, (b) consonant stems in the plu. in Umbrian, and explain their history, comparing the relevant Latin forms.

3) (a) Discuss the O.U. treatment of the following I.Eu. sounds:

long -a-, long -e-, -bh-, -dh-, -gwh- (I lack the diacritics here, WH)




7) Mention (with illustrations) any five of what you consider to be the most striking general characteristics of Oscan as contrasted with Latin in respect of (a) phonology, (b) inflexion. How does Umbrian correspond with Oscan as regards the phonetic characteristics which you have quoted under (a)?

From the vantage point of modern studies in the Classics, one might well ask: What kind of an examination is this? And what kind of a teacher, working with students in what kind of a class, would be writing such an examination?

Let me explain:


Professor Joshua Whatmough was a roundish, ruddy-faced Briton with a shock of white hair, speaking with no trace of American accent or wording after thirty years in this country. He was an aggressive publishing scholar in his field, starting years before with Conway in work on the Prae-Italic Dialects, and ending decades later with his definitive Dialects of Ancient Gaul completed just before his death. His classroom method was to focus on a word or a significant part of a word, at the same time expanding the range of cognate information in relevant detail on the widest Indo-European scale, while also sub-documenting any exceptions and scholarly objections which might bear on the subject at hand. Everything was in place in his mind exactly as he had worked it out in his view of the subject and the outline of his notes was his unique intellectual property, not materials to be found in available manuals on the subject. He had everything in his mind and at the tip of his tongue without notes, he gave the impression of creating the lecture entirely from current memory as against the lecture-read professorial class notes.

A typical lecture: Joshua Whatmough at the board, talking volubly about exact linguistic data with elucidation on the fine points as handled in the wide range of his scholarship. He was writing with right hand on the blackboard at a frantic pace, every so often erasing with swipes of the eraser in his left hand, while we students scrambled with our pencils to get it all down. His role was to give professional information and he spoke on his own level as if to lecturing to scholars and equals. There was little explanation of what it all meant and how it was to be understood as in an introductory course. Some of his students started and ended the course in confusion, those who survived ended with monumental piles of notes with no evident organizational scheme. For some this was a challenge, for others a terrifying experience.

I recall, as a mere Sophomore admitted by to the Indo-European course permission, when reading over my notes in the days before the final how confused I was, not seeing what it was all about or where it was going. Just words and cognates, an interesting word in Sanskrit, and a parallel (he said "quite remarkable!") word in Lithuanian, or a problem with Old Irish phonology. I asked some graduate students what they thought, but many said they felt the same confusion. But suddenly after hours poring, the light somehow shone through. Whatmough was providing examples of sounds and forms in an orderly but not apparent fashion. For each detail he wanted to examine, he went through an involved proof of all sub-data involved in the rest of the word, with all cognates in a dozen languages before returning to the next item. It was complex and voluminous but ultimately perfectly clear. There in those notes was the finest professional statement of a very obscure topic, done in accordance with the highest standards of available academic scholarship.

A note sent me from a former student of Whatmough in the Class of '65 is appended at the end of this article subter. . .

Whatmough was primarily concerned with the validity of what he was presenting, less with how we as students were faring. He assumed we could understand him then or that we would figure it out later. He was clearly a scholar and master of his field, and he certainly did not picture himself as a Pedagogue. In our eyes he was a great man lecturing brilliantly in class, the absolute master of a difficult discipline. He had a reputation of being irascible to some, to me he was a perfectly civil academic gentleman, he was very sharp, clear and expected other to be the same.

But out of the classroom he was different person. His students at the once-a-year invitation to his home found a nervous little man telling the same incomprehensible jokes year after year, apparently trying to make some effort at a social contact in a milieu where he was not at ease or in control. We forgave him his jokes, remembered the excitement of being in a classroom with a man who was absolute authority of his field. I think graduate students in other academic fields must have felt the same excitement about Richardson, Fleming, Bohr, Einstein, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. There is nothing that can replace the experience of being in direct contact with a master, whatever the discipline and whatever the difficulties we have in understanding and following his pace.

In those days Whatmough's department was called Classical Philology, as the title on my old examination paper reads. This was a type of linguistic philology closely connected with the Classics, but a few years later it was renamed Comparative Philology as better describing the methodology, and later as it broadened it became Comparative Linguistics, although elsewhere called Historical Linguistics. Already we could see the tendency for a split into separate fields between formal literary Classics and language study based on comparative and historical analysis. Perhaps one reason for this division was the human instinct for political marking out of academic territorial boundaries. Another factor may have been the fast growth of the Classics at Harvard after 1950 as it developed in its General Education format with popular literary and cultural courses, beside which the hard craft of Indo-European studies may have seen highly specialized and narrow. In similar fashion Classics at Harvard stiffly distanced itself from George Sarton's important program in the History of Ancient Science, and sent him none of the students who could read Greek and Latin which he needed for his nascent program. After Sarton's death his work was recognized as ground-breaking and Ancient Science Programs appeared in most universities, but as a separate discipline from the traditional literature-based Classics.


Now to come back to the question: What point in this kind of Philology? Is it obscure to the point of nothingness? What does one learn from it?

I can answer that for myself in two ways:

First, the careful reading of obscure and at times inscrutable texts, done word by word and hour by hour, gives the kind of close-reading technique which is absolutely needed if one is going to read an ancient Classical author. We have learned to skim-read the vast and exponentially expanding written materials which our society has collected, especially now in the days of the Internet. We are expert at getting the ideas out of written texts while we discard the actual words, their forms, sounds and arrangements as the disposable chaff. But it is in this chaff that the art and artistry of the writing lies, that is the matrix for support of the meaning, and meaning is not complete or significant without the matrix. The slow reading craft of linguistic philology gives us the capacity to pore deeply on a text. Unless you have pored with care you are not authentic, you are not reading in the tradition in which Plato or Vergil wrote. Philology, without saying so, confers on modern readers that requisite degree of intense concentration.

Second, when the teacher exposits and passes along material of high scholarly value, he functions at the level of great authenticity. But if the teacher is expected to be a monitor who is watching how the students access his material, noting what questions they ask and where they have difficulty, then he is functioning in a different pedagogical role. In the teaching of a master like Socrates the slow eliciting of ideas is enlightening. But in the hands of a professor who goes to a college class with few thoughts to "profess" and nothing but a willing eagerness to participate in the students' discussions, we have a friendly and well-meaning kind of teaching which loses the connection with serious knowledge. I know this may sounds hard headed and insensitive, it is the students who are the core and aim of the teaching profession. Over decades of teaching I have always avoided talking over the heads of students and loading them with inaccessible information. But as teacher I must insist on teaching Something, preferably something that is academically solid but at the same time specifically my own thinking and materials. I must have information with a significant point of view but at the same time information with the full supporting materials. If a class involves a discussion, then I want feedback. But it is perhaps later after class or over coffee that I want to hear how it is going and what the students are getting. But I must have something important to project first, with the full supporting information which backs up my lecture. Even beyond the scope of authentic materials, I insist on leading somewhere; and if I fail on either side of this equation I am giving a false impression of the world of learning in which I work as a practitioner.

In later years I did all final exams orally, which gave me a one-on-one chance to find out what each student thought, what was absorbed or lost and what kind of a results from the coursework each person had. This was grueling for me with only twenty five students, with more it would have been impossible; but at that time I was fortunately able to limit enrollments. If the Harvard weekly private tutorial of my time is now in practical terms seen as an academic luxury, these oral exams were for me an indispensable luxury; but they are clearly not economically feasible in the tight economics of the new century.

Teaching technique in Law School is in many ways similar to my description of Whatmough and his philology lectures. The teacher can be the helper and aid of his students, but the material of the lectures based on the books of the field is the final authority. There is a lot to know and you have to know it very well to work in the Law. There is so much encoded there that if you can't make your personal order out of it, you won't be able to operate within the legal system later. The same is true for medicine where the teaching may be tough and even brutal with little time to ask where you are going. But that is the challenge: You have to get the material ordered in your own mind, because if unordered you are not going to be able to use it.

In this case of Historical Philology you are not likely to use the material in the Classics except incidentally. But the focus from those hard philological studies is something you need in reading every word in Horace or Homer or Shakespeare. Reaching a focused state of 'close reading' takes time, effort and imagination, but that is the way you have to read a classical author. If not thus, don't read it at all.

The close-connected linguistic school of Philology still exists in a several universities with a few specializing students. Developing fast in the early 20th century, it has largely disappeared from the American college system. Gone also is that generation of nit-picking pedantic students who thought the detail inherent in the study of the classical texts was the message of the field. We have lost many close readers and close thinkers as our public eye has become loose, accustomed to glancing at two second flash-shots on block-buster film and TV. We tend to get overall meanings, we think and buy on impulse and we don't read the fine print on our personal and political contracts well. But that may be the nature of the world we live in. We are crowding the world with our citizens, our global dollars, our international schemes and schedules. We don't seem to have time for anything that moves along hard and slow.

And so farewell, Philology! You have been a useful tool for me, I did learn a great deal of important ideas there before I was twenty five, and have used it as ancilla to my thinking in the passing years. I learned above all there is a need for concentration and craft, and I got a strong dose of that discipline very early from the years of my philological studies. I found out when young how hard any subject is going to be, if you take it seriously and you want to learn it in depth.

Maybe there is something of regret in my feeling about the loss of serious Language Philology as preparation for teaching the classics. I regret the weakening of the authentic language based Classics by study of ancient writings in English translations. The hard-studied traditional language-based Classics in past times were a wonderful preparation for the Law or Science or for Medicine, and they served well as a preparation for the close reading and close thinking which we need throughout life.


I wantr to link to a note from Steve Cotler which arrived Feb. 08. At this point few of us who remember Prof. Whatmough are still around, so it seems worthwhile to link to Steve Cotler on his website, in conjunction with this paper.

Another note on Whatmough from my old friend Prof. Lewis Ware Middlebury '60 who went after graduating to Harvard in Comp. Phil. but afterward changed to Russian, before going into Arabic studies.

"Whatmough was talking in class about the Indo-Celtic relationship and stopped a moment to remark that once, when he was returning to England before the war, he sailed on the Cunard liner, The Celtic. He reminded us that the word Celtic was not pronounced with a soft C like the name of the basketball team but with a hard C like the language and the people. And then he mused that when one of his students found out on what ship he was sailing the student quipped (the student seems, not surprisingly, to have been British) : 'I say, there goes old Whatmough and he's sailing on a hard sea.'

This joke was met in class with suppressed groans mixed with polite titters. "

Addendum from William Harris to indicate that the Professor did have a nice sense of humor:

One evening when he had all the graduare students over for a visit, he was tellina a story which went like this: During the war when sugar was short, the Bishop's lady invited her friends to an afteroon tea. After the tea ws served with suitable decorum, she searched into her ample bosom where the precious sweetener was stored, and drew out two little cubes for each cup, receiving happy smiles of thanks. But then as she took out the last cubes, she added: "And would anyone like milk?"

Addendum from idem:

It was in l955 when Whatmough was at Berkeley under the Sather Fellowship, that I came over from my office at Stanford to see him and hear his Sather Lecture on Latin Poetry. After the lecture we walked around a bit, until he inquired where the Mens Rom was, adding as he read the letters MEN over the door "unde omnes cogimur". You would have to know your Horace well to get the full sense of this capped quotation.

The Sather Lecture discussed the use of rare or hapax words in poetry as an intentional way of fixing focus on that moment in the poem. This has been used by modern poets following Pound as a common daevice, but this use had not been documented in Roman Poetry. Whatmough went through numerous examples with his usual witty commentary, until he came on Catullus 97, which had the rare and probably Gaulish word "ploxenum", which he translated as "night soil cart" rather than American " manure wagon" or as we can now say "shit spreader". For Whatmough as a boy raised in North England in the first years of the 20th century, the mention of manure woudl not have been forbidden, but I wondered at the time why he passed so easily over the rest of the poem.

Catullus XCVII

Non (ita me di ament) quicquam referre putaui,
utrumne os an culum olfacerem Aemilio.
nilo mundius hoc, niloque immundius illud,
uerum etiam culus mundior et melior:
nam sine dentibus hic: dentis os sesquipedalis,
gingiuas uero ploxeni habet ueteris,
praeterea rictum qualem diffissus in aestu
meientis mulae cunnus habere solet.
hic futuit multas et se facit esse uenustum,
et non pistrino traditur atque asino? 10
quem siqua attingit, non illam posse putemus
aegroti culum lingere carnificis?

Now some good fifty years later, I think to myself that if my old professor could touch this odoriferous word in an ill-smelling and worse-tasting poem without dirtying his hand, I can do my part by trying to clear up the text of the poem a bit.

In line 10 I propose an emendation of the meaningless word "atque" to change to "utque". This word is not in the OED dictionary, but used (not as serial ut. . . ut que) by Vergil in the late books of the Aeneid, with the meaning "as. . .". Here is stands in the Double Dative construction: Do librum illi dono (to him. . . as an gift). So trnaslation would be: "He is turned over to the mill-jail. . . . for/as a work donkey". Since Catullus is now so widely used in the high schools, it is important for the teacher to be able to present at least a textually clean version.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College