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Thursday, March 8, 2012

A man for all tongues (1)

In an earlier piece, I rabbited on about how the meaning of words has changed over time; notably, because of its appearance in a nursery rhyme, the ugly word 'slut'.

  I haven't quite finished with words, because this subject reminded me of a wonderful demonstration of how word meaning changes; a lesson given to me by one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered in academic life.

  Officially, he was a comparative philologist, but he was much more.

  If you don't know what a philologist is, here's a short definition. A comparative philologist does even more challenging things, but one thing they're really good at is showing exactly where and how word meanings are changed by circumstances, place and time.

  At least, if they're anything like Alan Treloar, they're brilliant, but he was one of a very rare kind. I'd put him in the unique category.

  When I began teaching at the University of New England, appointed as the new Lecturer in the History of South Asian Civilisation, the Head of the History Department (my boss), was Professor Arasaratnam.

  "Alan Treloar used to give some lectures for me when I was covering your course," Arasa said. "I'm sure he would do it for you too."

Alan Treloar
  At the time, I confess to not knowing much about Alan at all, but I was aware that he was regarded as an authority on Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language that scholars of Indian origin are best placed to speak and study.

  I was not a scholar of Sanskrit. Far from it. But it seemed like a good idea to me to take advantage of the expertise, were it on offer, of someone who was. I walked along the corridor and knocked on the door of his very modest study in the Classics and Ancient History Department, introduced myself briefly, and put Arasa's suggestion to him.

  "I'm happy to do that,' he said in his quiet measured tone, "on what subjects would you prefer me to speak?"


  What subjects would I prefer? I wasn't sure, but didn't want to look too much like a dummy.

  "Well.... it's cultural history rather than language, but if you could talk about Vedic literature, particularly the Epics, and the life of the Vedic Indian.... Indo-Aryan culture.... Oh - and the Upanishadic era?"

  "Yes," he said without the least hesitation. "Tell me how many lectures altogether that you would like. When do you want me to begin?"

  How many would I like? What say the whole term? No, I couldn't ask that much, even though it would have been wonderful - for me at least - to sit at the back of the class and learn from the Master. He was, as I was quickly to discover, a true scholar in the traditional sense; a sense that has been lost almost entirely in many universities today. He would have given a dozen lectures without blinking an eyelid, had I been so presumptuous as to ask that of him.

  But of course I wouldn't. I had other fascinating topics in Indian history and culture to talk about, and more than 2000 years of history to cover.

  We settled on six lectures, which was a task well beyond the call of duty. I had just completed my lectures on the proto-historic Harappan Civilisation, so the next week was a perfect time to start.

  Came the day of his first lecture, and he was there when I walked in, at 11.07 am. Morning lectures began at ten minutes past the hour and finished on the hour ahead; fifty minutes in all. His precision came as no surprise, but it was not punctiliousness. He simply left the appropriate minute or two's leeway.

  His dress was unexpected to the students as well as myself, though it wouldn't have been any shock for me had I known him better. This was the mid 1970s, and informality was the order of the day.

  Over his crisp white shirt and discreetly patterned tie, his tweed jacket, and tailored trousers, he wore a simple black academic gown. An Oxford cap, the legacy of his time as Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, lay on the lecture bench in front of him.

  No-one ever wore academic gowns to a lecture in the 1970s, except on the most formal of occasions. I introduced him to the class with practically no ceremony, and he began the lecture.

  But here I must pause, because my account, which was intended to have a brief paragraph on Alan Treloar and his tracing of just one word through a variety of related languages has decided to tell itself instead, and I can't think of a good reason to stop it.

  As it is, I'm going to have to cut it short, and leave out things I know to be true of his role in World War 2, which his official pledge to secrecy will probably leave untold for all time. Let me finish for now with this:
Colonel Alan Treloar ... went on to serve with the 2/14 Battalion in 1940-44, with overseas service first in the Syrian campaign, where he was seriously wounded, and later in Papua on the Kokoda Track.... then moved to the army's intelligence corps.

Background | 1 | 2 | 3


  1. Wonderful! My appetite is truly whet.It reminds me of the serials I listened to on the radio & each time one ended on the precipice it nearly killed me.

  2. I know it looks like I'm teasing, Debbie, but three factors come into play when I'm writing. One is stamina, which is less now than it was, the second is time, which also beats me daily, and the third is that I don't like making pieces too long.

    I better add that in spite of that last paragraph, I must stick to the task of what I know from personal experience, and not try doing a John le Carré!

  3. I am so happy you are writing about Alan Treloar. It made me smile to hear of him wearing his academic gown for a lecture.He was certainly a scholar from another era, perhaps one where standards were adhered to with more respect (than later -now?) and as happens often when someone is gone,I wish I could have conveyed to him the fondness and regard that arose from my brief acquaintance with him. Such a quiet and dignified man. And like Debbie, I'm longing for the next part of this story!

    Julie M


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