This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Saturday Rave: the extraordinary William Wotton.

William Wotton was born 350 years ago today.

Who? you may ask.

William Wotton was an extraordinary man. He could read English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew before he was six, and instead of dying early, as you'd expect, he graduated from Cambridge when he was thirteen, having acquired a knowledge of Arabic, Syriac and Chaldee on the way.

He became a clergyman, translated scholarly works, and threw himself into the controversy about whether modern or ancient learning was finest (he took the part of the moderns: hurrah!). Then, perhaps to prove he knew what he was talking about, he wrote a history of Rome and some career-advancing works in support of the Church of England.

During this time, and long before anyone else (though sadly his ideas weren't published until after his death) Wotton was also developing theories about a proto-language from which all other languages developed. He did this by comparing Icelandic, the Romance languages, and Greek.  His ideas were eventually published as A discourse concerning the confusion of languages at Babel.

Now, have you got some idea of what kind of man William Wotton was? 

Well, I'm afraid your impression of him is probably quite wrong, because Wotton, as well as being a great scholar and linguist, was stupidly extravagant, a brilliant preacher, a drunkard, and a man of what used to be called immoral character. 

After Wotton had caused a really ridiculous number of scandals his friend the bishop of Lincoln at last gave up on him, and as soon as people found out about that Wotton's creditors pounced, and Wotton was forced to go and live in Wales for seven years under an assumed name.

But Wotton was never predictable. While in Wales he became a reformed character. He made a translation of Mediaeval Welsh law, much of which was written in a lost form of Welsh. Wotton even managed to repay his creditors and move back to Bath, and then to London.

By that time, sadly, he was very ill, and died still at work on his book of Mediaeval Welsh Law.

But what a guy, eh?

Word To Use Today: babel. The story is that when people tried to build a tower to reach heaven, God frustrated the building process by giving to each of the builders a different language. Nowadays babel can also mean any confusion of voices. The word comes from the Hebrew Bābhél, from Akkadian Bāb-ilu, gate of God.

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