To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: “for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?”
We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as “king of the sciences.” Turner’s study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: “The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language.” In the beginning was the word.