Tone of voice, and audiences


Around 1975, while “studying” at Cambridge, I somehow managed to get an invitation to tea with Sir Harold Bailey (see also here), eminent scholar of ancient Central Asian philology. I guess it was Laurence Picken, or Denis Twitchett, who made the introduction.

Sitting me down at his side, Sir Harold at once embarked on a lengthy discourse about medieval Khotanese texts, peering at a jumble of manuscripts on the desk before us. His only companion was his cat, whom he also addressed periodically, without modifying either his gaze or his measured academic tone.

“Here I found a clear clue to a syntactical link with the Sogdian manuscripts that had been excavated some time before… And I suppose you want another saucerful of milk.”

Before I could assure him that I was fine with my cup of tea, he went on,

“It may take some time to map the linguistic links between the various medieval oasis towns… It’s no use rubbing up against my legs like that, you’re not going out into the garden again, we can’t have you bringing in any more birds…”

It took me some time to get the hang of this.

From his obituary:

A task now facing Bailey’s colleagues is the elucidation of his rhyming diaries. When told at our last meeting that the course of a lifetime had transformed these into an epic of over 3,000 verses in a private language concocted from classical Sarmatian inscriptions, I asked Bailey why he was so fond of obscurity. “Well, the diaries are not really so obscure,” he said. “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century.”

For another story about context sensitivity, see here. And do read Compton Mackenzie meets Henry James!

8 thoughts on “Tone of voice, and audiences

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