Friday, 25 January 2013

Of Cabbages and Kings

Meetings. Today was a day of meetings.

At one of these, there was much discussion about treaties signed more than a hundred years ago and what they mean today.

I think of treaties in a modern context and might define them as Google does:

A treaty is an official, express written agreement that states use to legally bind themselves.
A treaty is that official document which expresses that agreement in words; and it is also the objective outcome of a ceremonial occasion which acknowledges the parties and their defined relationships.

So when talk arises about interpretation, I turn to the use of language. Yes, language changes, old words go out of fashion, new ones come in. Some of the things to which words refer no long exist; in other situations, we need to create words to mean the things that have hitherto not existed and therefore have had no name.

But if those words that have been present from what we might suppose to be the beginning, the beginning of language and dialogue, at least, the must be understandable across time. And if we are reading what was put on paper 100 or 200 or 500 years ago, and the tongue is the same, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, whatever, then wouldn't the words mean then what they mean now?

Why would interpretation of words change when words mean something. They are  not shape-shifters and meanings are fairly straight forward. If a word is this thing then that is what it is and what it means.

I came across an interesting treatise written by Dwight G. Newman about modern interpretation of
treaties. It is convoluted and I need to read it again to see what it is he is saying about the interpretation of words written in English in 1877 and what those same words mean today. Of course, some people may not have spoken English but there were interpreters present and, something not many refer to, there was coverage by the local press at the time. I think it is safe to say that objectivity no doubt meant more then than what it means now. The press would have been present to reflect what both sides understood about the treat process. This, then, is the place to look for understanding and help with what is going on today. What a grand project this would be, sifting through information copied by a scribe's hand, edited by an expert of the times and endlessly discussed at family supper tables.