Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is about the science behind monsters, or how we can trace the origins of some of our most classic horrible creatures. The book does a good job in that regard, but it also makes some interesting claims about language. One of these seems to be a simple slip up, while a second follows some unfortunate tropes of describing languages that aren’t in the Germanic or Romance families. The third one is a side note about a claim made by Carl Sagan and it’s very interesting. Let’s look at these in turn.
This one bites
I’ll start with the easy one. In discussing the history of vampires – where the idea comes from and why people would come up with such a thing – Kaplan says
Finally, after hundreds of years of terrorizing Europe, all these walking corpses and ghosts earn the name ‘vampire’ in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1745.Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite, p. 141
This is a strange claim for several reasons:
- The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, so it would be strange if the second edition were published 133 before that. And that first volume in 1888 only covered the letters A and B. The volume of words starting with the letter V wasn’t published until 1928.
- This is probably confusing the earliest known use in English of the word vampire, which the OED does indeed state is 1745 in a work by J. Swinton. At least until an update antedated the word to 1741 (in a different sense though).
- Even stranger is that the OED clearly gives the etymology of vampire as a loan word “of Slavonic origin occurring in the same form in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, and Bulgarian”. The term vampire came to English via French. So it wasn’t the English that named vampires in Europe. They just took the word from other people, who in turn had taken it from others. The OED cites a suggestion that the word could come from Turkish.
So what we have here seems to be a case of someone misreading the dictionary.
Don’t exoticize people because of their language
Let’s move on to something more serious. In a chapter on demons, ghosts and spirits, Kaplan describes the language of the Hazda people with tropes that are common in sloppy journalism:
The Hazda in northern Tanzania have had limited exposure to the ways of the outside world, and their traditions are much the same today as they were thousands of years ago. They don’t mix with other tribes, rarely paid attention to Europeans who tried to make contact, and their language, which involves a number of click sounds, is a challenge for Westerners to learn. They are thus rather well isolated from many of the ideas floating around in the rest of society.Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite, p. 126, bolding mine
Yeah, not so good here. Why is it important that the Hazda language has clicks? Because this exoticizes it and therefore exoticizes the Hazda people – it removes them from being “normal”. The idea is that a “normal” language does not have clicks.
But you could do the same with European languages. For example, English has a voiced dental fricative sound, or the “th” sound in words like this and those and bathe. According to Wikipedia, this sound is lacking from “almost all languages of Europe and Asia”. In addition, the voiced dental fricative is very difficult for learners to master, especially if their first language lacks the sound. But we don’t talk about English as being a challenging language for Westerners to learn.
Don’t be fooled by descriptions of languages like this. A language isn’t strange just because it has a feature that English or German or French doesn’t have (and vice versa). Instead think about how languages like English and Spanish and Russian are not usually described like this – and there’s a reason for that. Because however unintentional it may be, these descriptions force us into using the big languages of Europe as measuring sticks for other languages. And that’s not what we want to do.
And indeed it seems that the Hazda people today are mostly bilingual. You know, like how a whole metric ton of Europeans and Asians and South Americans are bilingual or trilingual or even-more-lingual?
Also, do you think there might be a different reason that a group of people in Africa have always been wary of Europeans throughout history? I mean, come on. It ain’t because the Westerners wouldn’t learn their language.
I’ll post a link to the part about Carl Sagan’s claim in a couple days. I thought I could fit it into this post, but it got a bit too long.
Update: Here’s the link: https://andreadallover.com/2022/02/18/the-language-snakes-on-carl-sagans-plane/