I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Worlds in Words

Sean Sheehan
Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James Turner, Princeton University Press, 576 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0691145648 There is something about the word philology that grates on the tongue as well as in the mind. It has a lean, nitpicking sound to it and some uncool connotations. It will always lack lustre when put alongside a word like philosophy, which also comes from phi (from the Greek “to love”). Perhaps it comes down to the smoothing, soothing “s” sound in philosophy, deepened in “sophy” by the echo of the initial “ph”; “ology”, by comparison, sounds downright disagreeable. The irony is rich on two counts: philologically, the word betokens a love of words; intellectually, philology begat the humanities. The story of this begetting is told in James Turner’s book and it is a grand narrative that spans the cultural history of the West. It begins, as so much does, with the Greeks – specifically their libraries that expanded in Alexandria and Pergamum – where Hellenistic philologists invented punctuation – and the tale gathers pace when the Bible replaced Homer as a hallowed text in need of an authoritative version, one that could synthesise the older Hebrew scriptures with the Jesus-based Greek texts that Christians claimed as their own. Scholastics of the medieval age scorned philology, unlike early Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch who, by collecting forgotten manuscripts of Roman authors, became a model for scholars who came after him. In the early sixteenth century, Erasmus was establishing a dogma of textual philology: forced to choose between a confusing line and a clearer phrase a copyist will tend to tidy it up; the philologist sticks with the clumsy version. With the Reformation, ahistorical creed took precedence over the critical scrutiny of biblical texts and erudition was forced into a corner, but kept alive by antiquarians curious about inscriptions and issues of chronology. A fad for orientalism helped, but matters had to wait until the seventeenth century, the coming of age for British and Irish humanists, when philology branched out to new pastures while also deepening its own roots. Robert Wood (1717-71) postulated an illiterate Homer, giving birth to the theory of oral epic, while John Toland (1670-1722) helped ignite the Deist controversy by questioning the Bible’s authority as a divinely inspired text. Biblical textual philology took off as never before and the holy book began by some to be appreciated as a…

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