22 May 2010

Multilingual literature really old

If you think multilingual literature is a relatively new thing, you've got another think coming.  Read this account of Phoenician Semitic literature:

"The Byblos Syllabic texts is the earliest known example of mixing a Semitic language with modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters. It appeared as inscriptions (eighteenth century B.C.), from the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast. This script is described as a 'syllabary [that] is clearly inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, and in fact is the most important link known between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet.'"

Of course, it might be argued that we are looking here only at the method rather than the content of writing, but since the method of writing is itself part of the language (think Chinese, where the visual appearances of characters themselves signify their meanings), we can say that the ancient Phoenician writers were thinking and writing in two languages.

Sadly, the account also tells us what happens when an international language kills a vernacular language:

"During the period of the Roman Empire the native Phoenician language died out and was replaced by Aramaic as the vernacular. Latin, the language of the soldiers and administrators, in turn fell before Greek, the language of letters of the eastern Mediterranean, by the 5th century AD."

Will English (or Mandarin Chinese) have the same effect today?  Let us hope not.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I just discovered your blog. Keep writing it! I'm stoked to find anyone thinking/writing about multilingual subjectivity!