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Bopp! Rapp! Kersplat! Gak! On:2008-09-04 17:20:40

When I was young and naïve, I loved to study languages, then as I (sort of) matured I discovered how much more interesting it was to study the history of languages. Then at last with wisdom came the realisation that the study of the history of the study of the history of languages was the most interesting of all and even more fun and, as it turned out to my absolute delight, much noisier and more onomatopœic.

For example that great and (relatively speaking) ancient hero of the trade, Jespersen , started one of his books with a run down (in more senses than one) of his predecessors. He had a lot to say about their fascination with the Ursprache, which is not (as you Rochesterians might guess) what they speak at the U of R nor (and more forgivably, as the rest of you might guess) the language the Chaldees chatted in at home, but is actually the supposed original language---always supposing there was an original language. Those Jespersenian predecessors had all sorts of more-or-less unprovable, probably improbable theories of people grunting and being under the stress of strong emotions or doing animal impressions or indulging in wild bouts of onomatopœic abandon. This last seems to have been quite popular, and as I read through his run-down and saw the names of the early linguists I started to conclude that there was a subtle environmental influence on them which must have led them to their choice of career and to their theories about the simple sounds of what they considered our distant ancestors’ violent world. A list of their surnames might lead you to the same conclusion:- There were for example Rask, Schmidt, Dietz, Paul which aren't too bad, but then suddenly the list takes a turn for the horrid, with Grimm1, who's immediately followed, in a totally Mikado-y horror of punishments fitting crimes (metaphorically speaking), by the onomatopœicist group of Pott! Rapp! Bopp! Which collection sounds less like a roll call of scholars than the blows exchanged in a fight in an episode of TV’s old and special-effects-challenged Batman series. One can only lament that the putative Dr Pow! Professor Kersplatt! or Herr Gak! didn’t adopt the trade.

But then, returning to real life, while still thinking how names might influence the choice of career, I remember as a child that we had in Beccles a barber called Barber--- Ah! Barber the Barber's. That takes me back to the days when, young and naïve, I never realised exactly what was going on when he would ask the older customers "Will there be anything else, Sir?" (nudge, nudge, wink, wink---but that's a story for another time).

And going back a bit further from there I wonder if Mr Barber chose his profession because of his name, or if (and here we're going really back from there) he hadn't inherited the trade with the name, and as we follow this inheritance up through his ancestors we will eventually meet his surname coming the other way, in the procedure that gave us such workaday names as Smith and Fletcher, Potter and (of course) Barber: because, presumably, some ancestral Barber, back in the middle Ages, (when barbers with more etymological sensitivity than today concerned themselves largely with large beards) actually was one and was so named and so completed the circle, though (in spite of the overwhelming evidence of some of the magazines they kept for the customers) I don't think that my avatar of Barber the Barber's was quite that old-established. And anyway we don't even know what the Ursprache for barber was, and anyway-er the Ursprachers were (if they were) probably not noticeably clean shaven.

So finally, now that I am myself finally getting older and jaded, I've decided to take up the study of the history of the study of the history of the study of the history of ... of ... damn short term memory loss ... what was I going to study?

Oh! Well! ... What'll it matter in a couple of hundred years?

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


1 Both of him

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