How Dead Languages Work, by Coulter H. George (Oxford University Press; 240 pp., $25.00). If, like University of Virginia classics professor Coulter George, you find dead languages an “endless source of intellectual delight,” then perhaps it’s time to explore Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Old Irish, and Welsh. Admittedly, that esoteric list won’t help you find a restroom overseas, though if you’re traveling in Israel, he does include a chapter on Hebrew—albeit of the biblical variety—as the only language in his book from outside the Indo-European family.
As in many scholarly texts, pragmatism goes AWOL in this slim tome. Donnish etymologic, syntactic, and historic asides spice up an abstruse topic. By the end, George achieves his main objective: “to show readers just how much they miss when they read the great works of ancient literature in translation—no matter how good the translation.”
Before the vultures finally devour the linguistic carrion, let’s deal with the doubting Thomases who will belittle the volume’s primary aim as academic carping. Remember the foundational Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden story about the Fall of Man, when Adam and Eve ate the apple after the serpent tempted them? You do? Then you must have read a bad translation.
George explains that, in Latin, short-a mălum means “bad.” Long-a mālum...