The Painted Books Of The Maya: Surviving By A Hair

Sometimes the precious things of this world survive by just a hair.  Just a hair.  The difference between victory and defeat, between survival and ruin, between conquest and destruction, between glory and despair:  these are not differences of tremendous magnitude.  They are fine-line distinctions.  And when I say fine-line, I mean very fine.  Fortune loves to play games with us, and when she casts her dice to predict our fate, the outcome often hangs by a hair.  By such threads does the fate of man so perilously hang.

Continue reading

To Comprehend, You Must Have The Desire To Comprehend

If you want to understand someone, you must have the desire to hear that person.  You must have the willingness to open up your mind,  to open up your heart, and be prepared to receive the communication that he or she is sending out.  If this open-mindedness is not there, you will not hear the other person, even if he happens to speak your language.  You will close your mind, and no words uttered by the other party will make any difference.

Continue reading

Forensic Linguistics: The Footprint Of Language

There is a very good miniseries playing on Netflix right now called Manhunt.  It is a drama about the pursuit and capture of Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber” who confounded law enforcement for decades until he was finally captured in 1996.  His case had been the longest and costliest in American law enforcement history.  The drama closely tracks real events; the producers of the series (which stars Sam Worthington) made a conscious effort to reproduce the facts of the case with fidelity.

Continue reading

Sometimes One Must Speak In An Indirect Way

There are times when one’s communications must be protected from the unwelcome attentions of third parties.  The richness of a language’s vocabulary, and its embedded metaphors and cultural allusions, are powerful assistants to this end.  I was recently reminded of this when reading an anecdote related by that most colorful of biographers, Ibn Khallikan.  We have related many of his stories and wise sayings here in past articles.  The story I am about to relate here is linguistically oriented; it can tell us much about the power of speech in the hands of those who can deliver it with nuanced subtlety.  It will be of interest to any enthusiast of language, philology, and culture.

Continue reading

Some Humorous Epitaphs

Many forget that we should learn to be wise enough to laugh at the world and ourselves.  Without laughter–the universal tonic for all melancholic maladies–it becomes ever easier to take ourselves too seriously, and to retreat into comfortable recesses of our own minds that promise nothing but stagnation and sterility.  This may be the unconscious message of the humorous epitaph:  a warning to the living that our time here is not unlimited, and that unless we appreciate the idea of memento mori, we are living in delusion.  Few things are so grim that we cannot make light of them somehow.

Continue reading

The Dream Of Maxen: A Celtic Myth Of “The Mabinogion”

The Mabinigion is a name given to a collection of medieval Welsh tales drawn from the rich mythology of Celtic Britain.  The earliest manuscripts date from around 1325, but it is certain that the tales on which they were based have roots that go back centuries before this time to an age in which Welsh and Roman elements blended to form a unique oral tradition.  I have recently begun reading these tales, and it has been a refreshing experience in the literal sense of the word:  they are unlike any other myths I have encountered.  They conjure up a strange, almost hallucinatory dream-world, where heroism and great deeds exist alongside magic and surreal alternative realities.  Consider this strange yet transfixing passage from a tale called Peredur Son of Evrawg:

Continue reading

Language Mastery As A Secret Code: How Sadid Al-Mulk Was Saved From Danger

Mastery of language is indeed a powerful tool.  This is especially true when the speakers hail from the same cultural background, and can make use of all those subtleties that would be lost on the non-native. This point is brilliantly illustrated by an anecdote told about Ali Ibn Munqidh, who became emir of the district of Shaizar in northern Syria in 1081.  His surname was Sadid al-Mulk, and this is how I will refer to him in this article.  We will see that words effectively deployed can literally save lives.  This story is adapted from Ibn Khallikan’s short biographical sketch of Sadid al-Mulk.

Continue reading