Thursday, June 5, 2014


Borges at age 22 in 1921

A few weeks ago I started talking here about the new English translation of class-lectures delivered during the 1966 academic year in Buenos Aires by the great and famous author Jorge Luis Borges – a transcript now published by New Directions under the title, Professor Borges : a Course on English Literature

Borges was better qualified than most to talk about the remotest reaches of English literature. All his life he loved and studied the surviving literatures written in Old English and in Norse. Some of his most vivid commentary comes early in the lecture series, discussing the earliest & most obscure stages of the languages that were turning into English. Following are a couple of paragraph-nuggets from class 4 

"When I was in York, I had the opportunity to speak with the art critic, Sir Herbert Read, and he told me that years before, a Danish or Norwegian ship  I cannot remember which  was shipwrecked off the coast of Yorkshire. Naturally, the people who lived in the town went to help the shipwrecked sailors. He spoke with the captain, who spoke English, like all educated Scandinavians  in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, English is taught in primary school  but the sailors and the less educated people did not speak English, though they managed to communicate with the fishermen and farmers who came to help. And this is remarkable, if we consider that at least ten or eleven centuries had passed. Nevertheless, there were still enough remnants of the Norse language in English for these common folks to understand each other. He said that a Yorkshire farmer would not say, "I am going to York," but rather "I'm going till York," and that "till" is Norse."

"Besides one word, sölr, which means "yellowed" and is used to describe fallow fields and the sea, the Norse have no colors. The snow  is often spoken of, but they never say the snow is white. Blood is spoken of, but they never say it is red. They talk about the fields, but they never say they are green. We don't know if this is the result of some kind of colorblindness or if it was simply a poetic convention. The Homeric Greeks said "the color of wine." But we don't know what color wine was for the Greeks; they don't talk about colors, either. On the other hand, Celtic poetry that is contemporaneous or prior to Germanic poetry, contains an abundance of colors  it's full of colors. There, every time a woman is mentioned, they speak about her white body, her hair the color of gold or fire, her red lips. They also talk about the green fields, and specify the colors of fruits, etcetera. In other words, the Celts lived in a visual world; the Norse did not."  

The Sage