Speaking Volumes: Frederick Bodmer's The Loom of Language

June 6, 1997

On Frederick Bodmer's The Loom of Language

I have always had a thing about collecting books, encouraged no doubt by my father who, from an early age, would take me around junk shops and second-hand bookstalls at jumble sales looking for first editions and the odd bargain. A favourite port of call was Thorp Pearson's, with its miniature cannon on the forecourt and a ground floor piled high with the bric-a-brac of Empire. The first floor was stuffed with books from floor to ceiling, and it was here that Father picked up The Loom of Language: A Guide to Foreign Languages for the Home Student (George Allen and Unwin, 1944).

It was the third in a series that Lancelot Hogben was editing, called Primers for the Age of Plenty and followed on from Mathematics for the Millions and Science for the Citizen, written in that curious age of struggle and optimism somewhere between the Beveridge Report and the Butler Education Act.

It was austerely produced to war economy standard, and although it was nearly 700 pages long, the editor lamented that the scope of the book had been curtailed by what he referred to as "exceptionally difficult conditions". Even so, the book is quite jaunty in style. The introduction refers to the imagination being fired by a vista of future possibilities - it somehow believes that "travelling facilities are becoming cheaper and daily less inconvenient or time-consuming". This must have been published at the time of D Day when my Aunty Doris was nearly hit by a flying bomb while going 20 miles by train.

More prophetic is the statement that "if the states of Europe are ever united under common domestic government, with its own air service, many of us who had never expected to travel far afield may hope to see more of the world before we die" (a hope undoubtedly shared at the time by Aunty Doris).

The book was less daunting than it may sound: the illustrations contained a wealth of information in themselves and provided more questions than answers. There was the Rosetta Stone, of course, not to mention an ancient inscription from a mine shaft in the Sinai peninsula, and a cuneiform tablet recording the Babylonian version of the Great Flood. But who was King Arnuwandas II of the Hittites, and why should his seal be bilingual? There were also copious charts ranging from Arabic loan words in Spanish through to the Lord's Prayer in ten languages.

This awakened my curiosity, not to mention the gift of tongues (something I inherited from my father who faithfully signed up for BBC language courses to the end of his days). I found myself drawn to the Teach Yourself series and even acquired my own copy of Teach Yourself Zulu (the 1936 edition) from the bookstall at the All Nations garden party.

It solemnly assured me that in order to learn Zulu it was important first to find a Zulu with whom one could converse - not very practical advice for a child growing up in a small cathedral town. But visitors did come from all over the world, so languages seemed even then to offer the widest possible horizons.

Only some years later did I come across a magazine called The Incorporated Linguist, from which it was evident that there were people who could speak several languages at once and who found them an endless challenge.

This suggested that the long haul up to O-level in French, Latin and Spanish could lead on to genuine opportunities - in my case a British Council scholarship to the National Autonomous University of Mexico after I had graduated from Oxford with a degree in mediaeval and modern languages. And all because of a book my father found in Thorp Pearson's junk shop.

Tim Connell is director of language studies, City University.

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