Monday, October 15, 2007

Orthographiae Ratio

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

That’s the title of a book my dad gave me when I was ten years old. It was printed in Venice in 1561, and was probably considered inscrutable even then. The patina of the centuries have only added to the mystery. It’s a 600 page list of Latin words, each followed, not with a definition, but with strange Latin phrases, transcriptions of Roman inscriptions that were ancient even when collected, and weird square tables of letters that look like a cryptographic puzzle, a whole collection of Rosetta stones artfully arranged for the edification of the viewer.

I hadn't seen the book in years and assumed it was safely locked away, but yesterday I found it stuffed in the back of a closet behind some old hats. The binding has been damaged, but that scarcely matters since the binding was done later. The pages are quite fresh, in better condition than some of the yellowing paperbacks I bought in college.

On a whim, I looked up the title on the Internet. To my surprise, I got quite a few hits, including an article in the fabled 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The author, it seems, was what the Britannica called an “infant prodigy”. He wrote that book when he was fourteen. It is an attempt to find rules for Latin spelling (which, of course, more or less has no rules). Those strange tables, done 450 years ago, were what geniuses through the ages have always done, or tried to do... to impose order on the random and unknowable, to deduce the rules of the universe from a grain of sand. An impossible, Quixotic quest perhaps, but a noble journey nonetheless.

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