Book Reading Groups Recommendation: The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer

For book reading groups with a special interest in foreign languages, this is one to read over time and to use to inform discussions rather than be discussed itself.  See what you think.

To this day, castaways on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs are asked what book they would choose to take with them, apart from a given Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.  It’s a little-known fact that the (in)famous Dr Beeching who, fifty years ago, slashed our railway network, selected as his book The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer; a book I adore.  So, spurred on by taking it down off the shelf and discovering the bookmark is a boarding pass for Air New Zealand’s flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti (NZ25), spent reading Proust, here is the first of a trio of books that I might choose if I knew I were to be marooned on a lighthouse for a month and wanted to return not only informed but educated and entertained.

In the dark days of the 1930s when the global economy was in recession and the prospect of war loomed in Europe, a Marxist academic called Lancelot Hogben conceived the idea of a series of “Primers for the Age of Plenty”; an age he felt was coming, thanks to the inevitable victory of communism over capitalism – so you can see that, already, we are starting off on the wrong foot. He wrote the first two primers himself: Science for the Citizen and Mathematics for the Million, this latter having an interesting and elegant Chinese version of Pythagoras’s theorem about the square on the hypotenuse.  My father bought them both and in due course I inherited them.

My mother bought the third primer, The Loom of Language: A Guide to Foreign Languages for the Home Student, published in 1944 though written by Dr Frederick Bodmer over the previous ten years or more.  It is one of the few books I know I have read more than four times; so much so that my mother’s copy fell apart and I had to buy the facsimile edition published in 1987 by the Merlin Press in order to go on reading it as I travelled, Business Class, around the world.  The very first illustration, placed at the start of the book, is the famous Rosetta Stone which was discovered during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.  The Stone has inscriptions in three languages.  Working upwards they are Greek, then a demotic form of readable Egyptian writing where the old ideographic script had lost its pictorial character and, most importantly, above this was the same text written in the ancient pictorial language of the Pharaohs and their priests.  Here at last was a reliable crib that enabled Egyptian hieroglyphics, dating back thousands of years, to be decoded and translated.

By now, I’ve said enough to whet your appetite or to put you right off the book so I will add only a few words more.  In very readable prose, Bodmer looks at the natural history of language; the very hybrid heritage of English; and the problems of communication in a world with so many thousands of languages. For anoraks like me, there is also a fabulous language museum in which I could wander for weeks at a time.  This book is certainly coming with me to my mythical lighthouse; but I need a couple more for my first visit there.  Look out for these very soon.

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