Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sometimes an Idea Lies Around

Once an idea comes into general use, it is often possible to trace it back long before it became popular. This has led to theories of history and science which declare that the discovery of a principle is not enough to bring it to use – it must arrive in a context that can use it. That may well be true, and I’ll likely read something on it someday (though I have been hoping to avoid encountering the phrase paradigm shift ever again).

But ideas seldom come out of nowhere. Einstein was remarkable in that his ideas truly did have less precedent than most advances, and much of his early reputation sprang from this. Newton, though he used much that was already lying around in the natural sciences, seems to have compressed decades or even a century’s worth of advance into about a year’s time. These are exceptions. The rest of us often find that our original ideas have been cooked up by someone else years ago.

Someone usually gets the credit. The Declaration of Independence is largely attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But Cardinal Bellarmine, writing almost two hundred years earlier, had such quotes as “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” and “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man.” Bellarmine is of course impossible without Aquinas preceding him, Aquinas impossible without Aristotle.

One cannot read anything which even touches on historical linguistics without encountering Sir William Jones comment in 1786, which is considered the beginning of Indo-European studies. I am already sick of it, but will pass it on to you as it is not well known outside that limited field. Jones was an English justice who went to India, and while there, noticed similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly be produced by accident.

But even among that small sector of people who have taken a linguistics course, it is not generally known that Sassetti saw a relationship between Sanskrit and Italian two centuries earlier. He noted that the words for god Deva/Dio were similar, and reflected that the older Latin Deus might be even closer. Alert observers had already noted the similarity of the words Deus, Zeus, Djeu ( as in Ju-piter, god-father or sky-father), and the Norse sky-god Tiw, from which we get Tuesday. The words for the numbers seven, eight, and nine also struck him as similar: sapte/sette, ashta/otto, nave/nova. Between Sassetti and Jones there were also Schultze and Cruciger, noting similarities between Germanic, Slavic, Romance, and Sanskrit languages. You’d think people would have put the whole package together earlier.

No. Sometimes ideas just lie around.

There is ample evidence that ideas just “lie around” for shorter periods of time as communication improves. Scholars used to have to rely on infrequent documents from others to see how things were progressing. Some found it necessary to migrate to the same universities, forming pockets of advanced learning in a subject; hence the phrase “schools of thought.”

Printing pushed the exchanges forward at what was then thought a breakneck pace, and electronic communication even faster, despite efforts of tyrannical governments to halt the flow of information. I was speaking to a young friend last night about Islamic terrorism in the Xinjiang province of China, which the Chicoms are attempting to keep secret, even internally. Even twenty years ago, how could I have known anything about events in northwest China that the Chinese government was keeping secret, except upon the wild chance of running into a person who had contacts there? Even in terms of this post, I had known about Sir William Jones, and remembered vaguely that there was some Italian before him who had seen the similarities with Sanskrit. (Something with lots of “s’s” in his name…maybe his first name was Ferdinand or Francisco. Scarlatti. Sousaphone. Samsonite. Maybe I’m confusing him with de Saussere. Suss… Sciss...)

With google it becomes easy: “Sir William Jones Sanskrit Italian” and I also get to learn about Schultze and Cruciger, who I had not known about. How did I ever survive without search engines?

Ideas may not lie around much anymore.

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