The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A man for all tongues (3) FINAL

Now to the final part of my saga, the point where I intended to start. What reminded me of Alan in the first place, after talking generally about word meaning changes, were these lines of a poem I happened to be reading from a fascinating collection of newly-available old Serbian verse and tales:
  So the warriors were prepared for battle,
  And the Turkish hosts approach Kossova.
  The word that matters here is "host".

  In one of his lectures, Alan Treloar made a rare aside and picked up this word, transliterating it through a series of languages I can't remember (I think through the Cyrillic script languages - Russian, Serbian and all that); one to the next. Rather like the old game of Chinese Whispers, he traced its variations through to modern English, yielding its meaning as an enemy, as in the Serbian poem above.

  Then he started in the same place in time and geographically, and traced this same word in a westerly direction through to Greek-Aryan-Germanic to English, and so we acquired one word with two opposite meanings; host as in enemy, and host as in friend; those who look after you when you come to their house.

  Hey, what about that? Not two words accidentally the same, but the same word, transformed. In fact, through the Arab world, you can go to your "host" - your enemy, and he must offer you food and protection according to that custom. He is your host in both senses of the word simultaneously!

  "Hostage" is similar. It was common in many cultures to give an enemy a daughter in marriage, or have a son live in an enemy court, to show good faith. Same derivation. Sadly, hostages these days are rarely given the privileges of the hostages of more ancient custom.

  A book came out recently on, dated 1892. It's entitled Villainage in England: Essays in English Mediaeval History. This book itself has a fascinating history... but stick to the point, Wright! OK?

  The point is the spelling of "Villain". These days we have a meaning for that word which is "low scum". Someone who would stoop to any meanness and, well... villainy!

  But Vinogradoff, the eminent Russian scholar who dared to lecture the English about English serfdom, was talking of people who worked the land but didn't own it; not wicked people, but "low". Simply because of class notions, "villain" acquired its modern meaning - a reprobate you wouldn't associate with for quids.

  Historians since tried to get around this abuse of the poor landless peasant, the serf, by spelling it "villein." That's the way we spelt it at high school, so our Pythonesque Holy Grail characters slopping about in the roadside mud being scorned by knights of the realm could acquire a bit more dignity.

  All this started with my finding the word "slut" in a nursery rhyme! I had a couple of other words with an interesting etymology, but why do that when googling "etymology" would tell that story so much better? All I'm doing is to connect my thoughts via a truly amazing genius I had the great good fortune to know personally.

✺     ✺     ✺

  I asked Alan to come back every year to lecture my Indian history students for as long as that was possible. I sat at the back of the theatre enjoying it more and more every time, taking in fresh insights I hadn't the nous to pick up earlier. 

  Sometimes it was the same lecture, because nothing in the research on that topic had changed. At others, fresh pages of neatly written script pointed to subtle or tectonic shifts in the philological research on a topic.

  Some students loved it, especially the Distance Education students up in Armidale for Residential Schools. They were generally older than the Internals and realised they were getting a totally unexpected treat.

  Others, sadly for them, thought it all a gigantic waste of their time. So be it.
✺     ✺     ✺

  I have one final story to share with you concerning Alan Treloar; one that deserves its own piece because of the extraordinary man it brings into the story, but I'll try to reduce it to a virtual footnote and move away. Just be aware that I do not use the word "extraordinary" lightly.

  His name is Nitya Chaitanya Yati.  He died in 1999.

  In the late 1970s, this man, who had nine million dedicated followers around the world, came to Armidale. That's yet another story, but suffice it to say now that he met me at the university and he came to my house for one or two meals. Once, he cooked, in my kitchen, a beautiful South Indian vegetarian meal for us - a party of about ten. Focus, focus! This isn't about food....

  Scientist, philosopher, poet, writer. I wrote for his journal about mysticism, and have his books still. He was the most intelligent, serene man I ever knew.

  One evening, I told him about Alan Treloar and that he was lecturing to my students the following day, and he expressed a desire to go to the lecture. Alan was fine with this. He read his lecture to the class in the same manner as always. I think the lecture was on the major Vedic texts and how they influenced Indian society from top to bottom.

  Nitya sat with me and listened with complete absorption. At the end of it, he quietly congratulated Alan on its quality and they spoke for a little time;  two great minds needing to exchange only a few words, as great minds do.

  To me, Nitya quietly said as we left the lecture theatre:

  "That is the second time only I have ever heard a lecture by a Sanskrit scholar who is not an Indian deliver a flawless lecture on Sanskrit and its society."

  Whoever the other one was, some scholar at the University of Hawaii whose name I can't recall, must have been awfully good. And Sanskrit, I say again, was a sideshow for Alan.

  Sometimes I wish I'd told Alan about that, but... you know what? I don't think it mattered in the least.


Background | 1 | 2 | 3


  1. I wonder if Alan's lecture, as it was written, is still available to be read?

    While on the subject of words and meaning, weren't you going to write about the meanings (or interpretations) of the idea "God" sometime? Or have you, and I missed it?

    Julie M

    1. I would be very surprised if all the lectures haven't been kept by his family. It seems to me a good project for everything to be scanned so that there is a permanent digital record. For all I know, this may already be in hand, but it's a challenging and time-consuming task.

      There is a tribute site which I found only when seeing what information was available about Alan online:

      I confess to not having searched it thoroughly but I will now add a reference to these memories of him on it, if they are accepted.

      Yes, I am aware that I began that and have yet to add the part(s) you are talking about re interpretation of concepts of God. Things seem to come in their own time. I can link it all together like other segments written at different times.

      The virtue of a wiki style of blog!

  2. Of course you wrote about mystical experience. I've just re-read the post referred to in the link above (Religion, Philosophy and Me: mysticism and dogma). I must have been distracted at the time:) Everyone should read that, it's wonderful.


    1. The start of that thread is

      I now see there were some great comments on the third one of those that I never got to respond to. I think I must have believed I was about to answer them in the next part, but as we know, that is still to be written.

  3. Thank you Denis your final installment was fascinating. Your recounts remind me of the exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors that visited our shores last year. Truly extraordinary but just a glimpse of the magnificence of the whole story. Like your tales Denis give us a hint of the richness, a tantalising aroma, a little of a mystery revealed. I am grateful Denis
    Debbie Green

    1. Maybe one day you'll go to Xian and visit the entire Entombed Warriors site! I have taken two tour groups to China and of course the site was a must-see on the itinerary. It gives you a better picture (though only a small portion of what lies beneath.)

      The story of the human race is so large, so viewable through all the academic disciplines, that no matter how much we get, it's just a tiny series of slivers. It's what we've got. I've spent my whole life trying to disentangle a few tiny bits of it. But it's fascinating and a great privilege to have been part of that exploration.

      Thank you for your kind comments!

  4. I spent the better part of an afternoon reading Denis's earlier blogs on Mysticism (last September) and the above link to Nitya Chaitanya Yati. I'd really recommend both - wonderful.

    Julie M

  5. Julie alerted me to these blogs on Alan Treloar. I was very busy with work when they were posted and unfortunately missed them. I studied Sanskrit with Alan Treloar in 2001 for several months. The text we used was written in the 1890s and Alan's teaching style was straight from the same period.

    We studied one chapter a week, and in a 2-hour lecture on Fridays, Alan would stand at the front of the class are read the lesson from the book, word for word. No gown, though. When he wanted to explain a term more clearly, he would write on the white board in classical Greek.

    Well, it was all Greek to me, and despite studying every day for at least 3 hours and completing up to lesson 18, I learned very little and came away not being able to read the most simple of Sanskrit sentences. I think the other students were finding it an uphill slog, too. Alan was accustomed to students from another century, not today's students with a million other things on their minds.

    Alan gave me some very good advice, though. After he stopped teaching, for health reasons, he advised me to translate one sentence per day. For a long while, I left my Sanskrit work to two weeks per year, when I take retreats. I was going backwards, forgetting more than I remembered. So I took his advice, and for the last several years, I have translated at least a few words out of a sentence every morning, and gradually, gradually, I am learning this "insane" language, as language scholar, Mun Keat Choong, termed it.

    While I am hopeless at reading it outright, I have embarked on a project of comparing translations of the Yoga Sutras. I have 3 translations in English, and where they differ, I translate the original Sanskrit for myself and decide which, if any, is the most suitable translation. This is the best I can hope for in this life. At a few words per day, I think I'm doing okay.

    1. Joan - I just found your interesting comment. You were the person I hoped would respond because you had more to do with Alan than most of us. I've no doubt he would be demanding (in that quiet way of his!)

      That does sound like good advice about acquiring the language if unable to devote your entire life to it. Although I learned Hindi and Bengali, I don't think I could have coped with learning these languages through Alan's technique.

      Sanskrit is also different in that it has brilliant structure and needs to be learnt with thoroughness - it's almost all or nothing.

      You're probably aware that when the European scholars, notably the Germans philologists (who had a closer affinity with it than anyone else) 'discovered' Sanskrit in the C19, they were so enraptured by its precision that this study laid the basis for all modern comparative philology.

      My belief about learning a language is that the best way is to do it the way most people do in real life outside of formal teaching. They learn nouns, acquire some verbs and adjectives, make heaps of mistakes but eventually get a working knowledge of it.

      This is all driven by motivation. So, your method has merit. Picking up 20 new words a week, and revising the ones you know, would soon allow you to make yourself understood.

  6. Oh hello! I came here to post this I read today:

    It's about people who are born, it seems, with a languages gift. They are called 'polyglots'. The article is very interesting, especially the last paragraph regarding testosterone levels in the womb.

    You're doing very well Joan, esp considering all else you do!


    1. It's interesting and to me confirms my own feelings about language learning. It's both heredity and environment, different proportions for different people. Tracey and Christian, e.g., have an amazing facility for music - not surprising with their background, both in genes and experience, but some of it just can't be taught. You either have it or you haven't, and this applies to so many skills and talents.

      Then you get the 'geniuses' in some field, or the freaks, who might remember the telephone directory or do unbelievable computations effortlessly.

      Part of what sets the Alan Treloars of the world apart is to be able to relate diverse things in unique or complex ways.

      As to the testosterone, I have to leave that one to the researchers!

  7. Did you read that left handedness is related to this testosterone issue?

    PS My mother always proudly relates that I could speak whole nursery rhymes aged one. So there. Are you surprised that I talk so much :)


  8. I know this discussion has left Sanskrit far behind, but I thought I might explain why it might be an insane language and the most difficult to learn.

    First, it's an inflected language, which means that each noun and accompanying adjectives have 7 cases which indicate direction -- to, from, in, at, subject, object etc. No prepositions. Each noun has 3 numbers - singular, dual, plural. So for each noun, that means 21 different endings.

    Now, nouns are not so simple. They come in 3 genders - feminine, masculine, neuter. Each has its own ending, and for each ending, there are 21 different case endings.

    Now, that's not as simple as it sounds. Each gender has numerous endings, such as short "a", long "a", short "i", long "i", short "u" -- you get the picture. Both vowel and consanant endings. Each of these endings, and there are many many many, have 21 different case endings.

    This is becoming exponential and logarithmic. And these are just the nouns!!

    Also, endings of words change with the beginning letter of the next word. For example, "as" becomes "o" or "ah" or stays "as" depening on the first letter of the next word. This is called sandhi and it applies to both vowel and consanant endings. Fortunately, there are convenient charts which help you work out what the hell is going on.

    And then there are the gunas, which determine other changes to word endings, and I won't bore you with those because I don't completely understand them after all this time.

    And then wordsarestrungtogethersoyouhavetoknowquiteabitbeforeyoucanworkoutwhereonewordendsandthenextbegins.

    And finally, it is written in a completely different script.

    "Insane" seems to be a very mild description of this language.

    1. I first met up with Sanskrit from A L Basham's The Wonder That Was India (still, in my view, one of the best books ever for an intro to Indian culture), and was blown away by the chapter on classical Indian literature, particularly the example of an entire poem composed of 1-syllable 3-character words. And that was in translated form. (Oh, I have some great stories about meeting Bash, too!)

    2. 'The Wonder..'has just been reprinted in India by popular demand after being unavailable for some time. That's how well regarded it is.


  9. Heavens! Well explained, Joan. However, 'insane' as Sanskrit may appear, it contains some of the most profound,satisfying philosophical concepts known to humankind. Thus, it makes available thoughts we couldn't otherwise have! So people keep plugging away at learning it after these thousands of years:)

    PS No Denis, I'm not left handed but you are, along with all those other South Asianists. Maybe that paragraph gives one seed of an idea why (except for the South Asianist bit).


  10. Precisely why I'm studying it, Julie. Some of the English translations can be very misleading as they are interpretations based on the understanding of the translator. I was very fortunate to have been schooled in Hindu philosophy by a former Hindu monk who came out to the west to teach a simple, ancient Tantric form of meditation. He had the amazing ability to explain Hindu concepts in ways that westerners could understand. I had no idea I was learning Hinduism until I studied it much later. So I feel sometimes I can detect when a translation is not quite accurate, although I may be fooling myself.

    And yes, I will have to plug away at learning it for thousands of years. Fortunately Hindu philosophy allows me to do this and to take my time :).

    1. Yes. By the way, that poem I mentioned was more a demo of what you could do writing in Sanskrit, and Bash remarked that in content it wasn't all that great. I get that....


Some iPads simply refuse to post responses. I have no idea why, but be aware of this.
Word verification has been enabled because of an avalanche of spam. SAVE or compose a long comment elsewhere before posting; don’t lose it! View in Preview mode first before trying to post.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.