The Stability of Meaning in Written Texts – 1

Stability of meaning

Discussing some of the reasons why written texts cannot be assumed to transmit either reliable or stable meanings. Pt1.

A text appears definitive and stable to its reader. Such certainty is associated with written language that the phrase ‘in black and white’ has become idiomatic.1 Any properly considered analysis must acknowledge however that the evolution of language, as well as the respective contexts of reader and writer, give the written form an ephemeral nature.

The ambiguities of context are apparent throughout history. The runic inscriptions of the golden horns of Gallehus are applied interchangeably and inconsistently, with scholars differing in their interpretations. If Moltke (1980) is correct that the inscriptions are the work of an illiterate copying a design, we may multiply the uncertainty of form by the unreliability of the inscriber.2 The horns were destroyed in the early nineteenth century, leaving us reliant on drawings. If a writer has no appreciation of the words he writes, should we apportion any meaning beyond the aesthetic? Are the drawings faithful reproductions, or the evolution of inscriptions that are likely themselves an interpretation of an original source? Beer (1970) states Hlewagastiz was ‘thoroughly acquainted with the Late-Hellenistic astronomy and astrology’.3 We might therefore reasonably assume the intended meaning of the inscription was very well understood, challenging Moltke’s assertion he was a ‘dunderhead’.4

Discerning meaning from the inscriptions of the Franks Casket is similarly problematic owing to the presence of several languages. Page (1999) believes the shifts between Old English and Latin as well as those between the formal, vernacular and classical, can be explained by method; namely that the inscription was being copied from a source requiring translation and transliteration, with sporadic reference made.5 In contrast to Moltke’s assessment of Gallehus Horn inscription accuracy, the inscription inconsistency of the Franks Casket suggests virtuosity of language providing the freedom to start a phrase in one language and end in another.6 That same virtuosity could, however, undermine clarity.

Click HERE for Part II.

1  ‘in black and white.’ Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. 2006. Cambridge University Press.

2   Moltke, Erik, Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere (Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1980), p.89.

3   Beer, Arthur, ‘Hartner and the Riddle of the Golden Horns’, in Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol.1(Cambridge: Science History Publications Ltd, 1970) p.141.

4   Moltke, Erik, Runes and their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere (Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1980), p.89.

5    Page, Raymond. I, An Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999), p. 176.

6   Webster, Leslie, The Franks Casket, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000) pp. 194–195.

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