A Philological Lament

In my research I read the old guard: D. H. Thomas, “Notes on some passages in Proverbs;” Crawford Howell Toy in the International Critical Commentary; Franz Delitzsch on the possible Arabic background of ‘aluqah; Mitchell Dahood’s Proverbs and Northwest Semitic Philology. Just how were these mustaches able to a man to master the whole horde of Semitic languages: Akkadian and Aramaic, Elabite and Ugaritic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Old South Arabian, Moabite, Edomite, Ammonite, and Phoenician, and last of all, as one untimely born, Hebrew? Scraping out hour after hour at my desk, I have barely been able to learn one of these tongues and gain the most rudimentary understanding of the relationships between them. (For example, from Aramaic to Hebrew /d/ turns to /z/, but don’t ask me what happens in Akkadian.) In reflecting on philological travails, I console myself with the thought that they lived in a simpler time. I’m not romanticizing the past am I? When these scholars learned to parse, Derrida wasn’t yet a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. Gesinius’s lonely Hebrew grammar circulated widely. Theology had been freshly demythologized and no one yet dreamed of re-mythologizing it. No admissions committee ever asked these budding scholars, “So what theoretical approaches do you bring to the text?” The internet—a blessing and a curse—means I research from my basement on a different continent from the school in which I enrolled, but it also means I shoulder responsibility for everything under the sun written about my subject in any language, time, or place. I imagine a world where writing my thesis might mean responsibility for every written thing about my subject within my own university library—everything that I can see with my eyes and touch with my hands. What an eminently reasonable task that might have been. Then I remember Tom Shippy reflecting that education has changed, and so there is probably no one alive today who commands as many languages as J. R. R. Tolkien. In this fact I both lament and find consolation.

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