0: Introduction

Source Documents

Orbis Pictus @ Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is an invaluable source of knowledge of humanity. Here we find numerous books from the public domain. Many have been translated into html for easy online viewing. You may also download many works in formats appropriate for e-readers. I primarily used the html version for the easily accessible text.

Orbis Pictus @ Wikipedia

Wikipedia provides background knowledge. Here you may get an overview of the impact of a text and place it into its historical context.

MDBG Chinese Dictionary

Where I have needed context on a word, I have used this dictionary. It is the best resource for English-speakers learning Chinese characters that I have encountered.

William Whitaker’s Words @ University of Notre Dame

A useful tool for decyphering Latin words into their constituent pieces.

Latin Dictionary

A slightly more modern take on a Latin-English dictionary that gives root words and helps decide meaning.


the translator’s preface to the reader

I came into language learning admittedly rather late in my life. I spoke only English until I was eleven years old, whereupon I was enrolled in a six-week introductory French course at my middle school. We did construction-paper cutouts reinforcing rudimentary elements of the French language; invert the letters to receive bleu and recall some arcane title to remember that the blackest of things may be called noir. We perhaps hinted at the easiest of passé composé but memorizing irregular forms was far in the future.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned just centuries prior, understanding multiple languages was understood to be part of anyone’s basic education. And certainly, in parts of the world, it still is. Most countries around the world employ an education in English like our European ancestors did in Latin. The phrase lingua franca makes one think of French – (Mais oui) – French was the language of the élite of England for many centuries. But today, many Americans have a start not dissimilar from mine, wherein a student is sheltered from inheriting the world’s diversity of expression during their young childhood.

I continued my education in French when I went on to high school (funding difficulty eliminated offerings in my seventh and eighth grade years), where I chose it instead of Spanish or German. German was a bonus offering – it was not available to all of the high schools in my district, and in the later years our Frau was forced to serve a half-day at our school and a half-day at another. The other two district high schools had no such luxury. While I was happy for what I was offered (for I knew of other local school districts that had even less), I knew it was a paltry offering for young people thirsty for knowledge of the world outside of their suburb.

I fell in love with language when I began to realize the power of words. When we learn language as children, we see it as a tool and acquire phrases in order of utility. ‘More milk’ states a desire. ‘Boo boo’ describes a bodily feeling. ‘Whatever’ exclaims, like adults use curses, that the speaker dismisses the authority of the Other. When my French teacher taught us about the subjunctive mood, an entire world of poetry became quantified. On the other side of the building, my calculus teacher gave me a copy of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. In this world, the narrator describes the world in which he is born, where he can see only points and not-points; from which he extrapolates lines that imply shape. He has a single eye that moves within a land of only two dimensions. But through serendipity, he learns to look up and go above. Suddenly, understanding the existence of subjunctive meant an idea was not just related to myself with a true or untrue state, but its existence was parallel to my own. With the subjunctive, I could speak of an idea in its wholeness instead of simply describing the surface facing my vantage point.

There is something pure about the subjunctive mood that has endeared itself to me over the years. Its existence suggests that language was invented by humans as a way of preserving not just what happened, but also what was thought and felt. ‘If I were a unicorn, I would have granted your wish’ can’t be expressed without this very special verb form. The syntax ‘if I were’ separates the real from the imagined that is obscured in the now too-commonly accepted ‘if I was’. The verb was belongs in the world of the real and not-real, whereas the verb were belongs in the world of idea-space, where things are neither true nor untrue; they are as we make them. Humans did not invent meat-space nor did they invent the chain of causal events we call History. But when our bodies and intellect die, so too will idea-space, survived only by patterned etchings on stone tablets. History will continue on without us and erosion will reclaim the tablets in the name of entropy.

But I digress.

For a few years during my high schooling, I moved around various areas of my hometown. For nine weeks I was enrolled at another school district that didn’t have quite the funding difficulties of my previous. This school was able to offer more than one section of calculus, numerous AP sciences, and, to my astonishment, more foreign languages at a public high school than I thought possible. I even took a class on ‘Etymology’, which was probably the first time I’d encountered the word. For those nine weeks, I enrolled in a first-year Japanese course that served as my homeroom. Later in the afternoon, I continued my language study with third-year French. I could have alternatively enjoyed instruction in Chinese, Latin, or Spanish – and I don’t think their German teacher had to split time between schools.

I satisfied my college-preparatory foreign language requirement with French, and though I continued to study the language in college, the experience made me question the way in which Americans study foreign words. I was disillusioned with how optional the discipline was treated. I don’t blame my particular school district for removing language courses when funding was reduced; certainly being able to compose an essay in English is more fundamental to the typical high-schooler than reading The Second Sex untranslated. And at fifty minutes of instruction a day, it was going to take me many many moons to understand Neon Genesis Evangelion without subtitles.

We must stop treating languages other than our native tongues as superfluous. To develop the mind is to give it tools. The human soul yearns to understand and be understood. There are words and concepts that exist in one language that are only translated in facsimile. Many high-schoolers, myself included, listened to the Avenue Q song “Schadenfreude”, wherein a cast of puppets sing about personal joy invoked from witnessing the misfortunes of others. Not a concept society needs to put at its forefront, but an idea that should be acknowledged and processed, for it is a real part of the human experience. Words are conceived to describe what we see in nature; a word cannot predate its domain, and when a concept dies, its words wither and become forgotten. While fluency in German is not necessary to understand this particular term, knowledge rounds it out. What does it mean that the Germans have given this idea its own transmissible noun and the English only steal it as a loan-word? Perhaps nothing.

I came across the Orbis Pictus while researching written works in the public domain. It was proclaimed to be the first illustrated children’s textbook, and here it was, translated into numerous languages within decades of its release. And so simple was the concept to teach vocabulary to young people. Show them the world in which they live and give them names for each thing, so they may understand.

nanos gigantum humeris insidentes
   - Bernard of Chartres, 12th century
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants
   - Isaac Newton, 1675

In each of our souls is a poet waiting to sing. We find a word and set it to music, giving it pitch and harmonizing it amongst its peers. A word cannot be separated from its history; each time we invoke an idea, that idea takes on weight from association. We spend each day eating and drinking in meat-space, but it is our dreams that shape the future. Each dream starts with a color that we give name. One day we shall all be gone; may our bones melt again into the Earth, but let our Words stand for eternity.

- Paige Krsnak, January 30, 2020