The blue haze of distance

There is a common belief among superstitious people (and nearly all modern people are superstitious, for they persist in believing in newspapers and advertisements) that we are continuously watched by spy satellites that can make out the numbers on the licence plate of our cars. No point of this claim is quite false, but it adds up to a gigantic untruth. In the first place, the number of spy satellites is relatively small, and they have only tiny parts of the globe under detailed surveillance at any one time. It takes months or years to compile a set of satellite photographs as comprehensive as those used by Google Earth — and most of their so-called satellite photographs are actually taken from low-flying aircraft. While the satellites can indeed make out objects as small as a few centimetres at perigee, they are also travelling in the neighbourhood of 30,000 kilometres per hour at perigee, and consequently remain there for only a short time. Surveillance satellites travel in highly eccentric orbits; they are not artificial moonlets so much as artificial comets. Then, too, the plates on a car are typically mounted on vertical surfaces, to wit, the front and rear bumpers; and the camera of a satellite is generally pointed straight down. No doubt they could read our licence numbers if we were good enough to mount the plates on top of the car for their benefit.

But these are frivolous objections compared to the fundamental problem of information loss. The earth’s atmosphere is not quite transparent. The same optical distortions that make the stars appear to twinkle, and make distant objects shimmer in the heat of a summer’s day, work just as well when you are looking down through the atmosphere. As any amateur astronomer can tell you, perfect viewing conditions are extremely rare in this nitrogen-oxygen soup. Most of the time, even if a spy satellite could train its camera on your licence plate, it would be an unreadable blur in the blue haze of the atmosphere. Larger objects are of course easier to photograph. A car, or a tree, or a house, is a pretty distinctive object even in the older and more primitive kinds of satellite photography.

In much the same way, the details of ancient languages are lost in the blue haze of time. Ancient Hebrew, despite abundant records going back continuously for nearly three thousand years, contains many words now uncertain or obscure in meaning — an endless vexation to the translators of the Old Testament, as also to Judaic scholars. Proto-Indo-European can only be reconstructed rather vaguely and approximately, and the arguments over details of its grammar and syntax are endlessly entertaining (to the participants). Nostratic, being at least twice as far back as PIE, is correspondingly vaguer — which makes my job much harder.

I am, as I said in an earlier post, trying to assign all the Nostratic roots in Bomhard’s book to words in the Fair Tongue, as far as possible without using the same word twice. This is infuriatingly difficult. According to Bomhard’s timid guesses, the Nostratic root bar- (or perhaps ber-) means ‘to swell, to puff up, to expand, projection, bristle, point, to bear (children), to carry, to bring forth, to twist, to turn, to shine, to be bright, to be kind, charitable, beneficent, to do good, seed, grain, to scrape, to cut, to carve, to whittle, to trim, to make a sound, to utter a noise’. This is its narrow and exact meaning; if you start tacking on all the legitimate suffixes and infixes, then, as Mark Twain said of the German Schlag and Zug, there is probably nothing whatever that it does not mean. I almost find myself transported into Pierre Berton’s Secret World of Og.

There are in fact no less than nine different Nostratic roots that Bomhard spells bar-. Of course this cannot be a perfect reconstruction; but the finer differences between them, if any, are now lost. I suspect that the r is an interloper in some cases. For instance, bar- ‘to shine’ has a counterpart bah-, also meaning ‘to shine’. Likely the two roots were one, and I can assign it to the consonant pair BH instead of BR. But I defy anyone not on cheap hallucinogens to come up with a good reason why one word should have all the twenty-six wildly divergent meanings assigned to it by the good Herr Doktor Bomhard. A word may mean twenty-six different things; it may mean them easily; it may mean them before breakfast; but a word that means both ‘to whittle’ and ‘to bear children’ is not doing its job. A word should not be a Jack of all trades, but a master of one; and then it may be allowed hobbies in its spare time by the judicious.

I am quite sure that most of these nine bar-s were differentiated in the good old days of Proto-Nostratic, some 15,000 years ago. But we shall never discover all the details now. Like the licence number of your car as seen from orbit, they have been lost in the blue haze of distance.


  1. At last, a use for Bomhard other than lining bird cages!

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