Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Aethiopicae Lingvae 

I went to the Book House today. I only stayed an hour and a half. my husband starts school tomorrow, and he's been dreading it. I wanted to spend time with him before he went off with a few friends, help give him "one last happy night" before the drudgery of law school begins anew.

I'll go back tomorrow.

I had enough time to confirm that "my" bookstore was all in order. I talked with the owners about my Africa trip, the corrupt inefficiency that is Zimbabwe, the beautiful potential of Botswana, and the unstable suspension of South Africa. And I wandered the shelves.

My latest prize: an introduction to the basics of Ge'ez (Ethiopian) written in Latin, printed in 1630. It's called Chaldeae sev Aethiopicae Lingvae Institutiones, published in Rome. The covers are marbled, and the paper feel like linen. From what I've been able to read of the Latin (based on too many years of Latin in school plus too many years in choirs and a brief obsession with the Latin Mass that made me mourn pieces of Vatican II) and from the state of the book itself, it's a block printed guide to the language of Ethiopia for Catholic missionaries to the Coptic Christian churches there. I don't know when Christianity officially split in Africa, and I don't know how close Coptic Christianity is to Roman Catholicism, either then or now.

The book begins, as it should, with the Coptic alphabet, then a list of words common to church Latin, given in Ge'ez script, then pronunciation, then a Latin definition. There are sections about declining nouns, verb tenses, translation of common prepositions, numbers. The end of the book is a translation of the beginning of the Gospel of John (In principio erat verbum: & verbum erat apud Deum: & Deus erat verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. ... Et illud verbum caro factum est: & habitauit in nobis.)

The book is slender and small, very easy to carry. The pages are a bit water-stained. I like to imagine that, given the date, the expense of printing, the type of wear, and the missionary zeal of Rome, that this book was actually taken to Ethiopia, that it wasn't made just to stay in a monk's cell. I imagine it travelled with some missionary, from Europe to Africa, in the 17th century.

I wonder what stories it could tell.

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