The Inkhorn & The Last, 2013, watercolour on paper mounted on ply, 3 x 15cm x 21cm


The Inkhorn & The Last

by James Bridle

In 1989, the Science Fiction writer Poul Anderson released a short text entitled ‘Uncleftish Beholding’: an outline of the basic tenets of atomic theory, written almost exclusively with words of Germanic origin, and replacing loanwords from French, Latin and Greek with new compounds and coinages.

“For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess,” wrote Anderson. “With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.” Poul breaks down the “firststuffs” (elements), “from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest” – Ymir being the Norse god closest to Uranus, eponym of uranium. Having broken down the natural world, fusion and fission, he concludes: “Soothly, we live in mighty years!”

Anderson was following in a well-worn path, a discipline sometimes called Anglish, or Roots English, which goes back at least to the 16th Century, as Middle English matured into Early Modern. At the time, English was replacing Latin as the main language of science and academia, and so calling into being, or borrowing, a huge number of words that had not been spoken by the English before. Detractors called these borrowings “inkhorn terms”: pretentious coinages where no such obfuscation was needed. The poet William Barnes (1801 – 1886) created his own “Pure English” including terms like “starlore” for astronomy, “wortlore” for botany, and “sun-print” for photograph – what language might have been, as the title of a recent book puts it, “if the English had won in 1066”.

It’s no accident that many of these terms are scientific, chemical, practical, because language follows thought and practice, it flows into the spaces made by new inventions and technologies, and, like those technologies, it both enunciates something new, and reveals something which has always been the case. It reveals that people and ideas are wanderworts too: spread among and moving between languages and cultures.

Vanessa Hodgkinson’s work follows the the flow of one such wanderwort, or wandering word: ‘calibrate’, which enters the English language in 1864, during the American Civil War, the verb form of caliber, the diameter of a gun barrel. The word most often used now in conjunction with desktop printers and computer monitors emerges from the mouth of a cannon, much like many of of our contemporary technologies. The Second World War and ballistics gave us the digital computer, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear bombardment gave us the internet. In turn, ‘caliber’ comes from the old French ‘calibre’, which flows from the Arabic ‘qalib’, meaning a mould or last, the model of a human foot used by shoemakers. Further back, the Arabic follows the Greek καλάπους, literally “little wooden foot”.

The appropriateness of this Arabic root to a technological, scientific word cannot be overstated. Alchemy (and thus ‘chemistry’), algebra, alkalis and elixirs, benzene and borax, azimuth and zenith, all derive from Arabic and antiquity. One of the greatest mathematicians in history, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who toiled in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the Ninth Century, gave his name to the process at the heart of the networked world today, the algorithm.

In other contexts, the origins of technological language remind us of who is doing the work here, where we have come from. “Computers” used to be people, with pen and paper and slide rule. There is nothing alien about the computer, or the algorithm: it’s a formalisation and acceleration of what any of us could do, given enough time.  (Although, ‘enough time’ is a perennial problem. In complexity theory, NP-complete problems are those for which solutions are verifiable, but the time to find that solution may exceed the lifetime of the Universe.)

Technical language, like all jargon (an Old French word meaning “chatter of birds”), works as much to obscure as to illuminate. In an increasingly complex world, where the network takes on the appearance of a macroscope, a field too large for any single person to grasp the whole of it, language becomes a tool not of understanding but of obfuscation. When people cannot describe a system, they are more easily victims of it, whether that system is technological, social, cultural, or political. George Orwell, in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, takes vague and meaningless political language to task for its tendency to mask deeper horrors: “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” It’s the inkhorn argument all over again: why this word and not that one; what’s wrong with the words we have?

The epistemologist Condillac observed in 1782 that “Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.” Science is a language-producing machine, and language, like science and technology, is a continuous process of discovery. Encoded within all languages, and flowing freely from one to another, is all human experience and history, a story we keep telling ourselves. A language without loanwords and wanderworts, without borrowings and adaptations, calcifies; stuck in the past and unable to articulate, and thus shape and evolve, the present. When the traveller returns from the mountain, wrote Rilke, he brings not a handful of earth, not the thing itself, but that far rarer and more powerful thing, shining in the mouth: a new and hard won word.