Derived from my Hobson's Choice story, this article is about a subject that I think people frequently think is simpler than it actually is. It is my belief that down-timers who get their hands on purloined up-time books will generally have a hard time figuring out what is being talked about. Of course, in Grantville this is not too much of a problem since there are plenty of people who can interpret and/or answer questions. But a copy of a copy that makes its way to Spain (say) is going to be a whole different kettle of fish.
Some things to consider when examining a modern magazine from the point of view of a down-timer are:
1. linguistic changes including new words from foreign tongues (kamikaze, thug, gringo), chaynges inn spelinge, slang . . .
2. hidden assumptions of technology or science (e.g. electricity)
3. geographic changes (names of countries, regions, cities etc.)
Exegesis is defined in the dictionary as "Exposition; explanation; especially, a critical explanation of a text or portion of Scripture." It is the sort of thing that monks, theologians and other literate people of the seventeenth century did all the time and is a word they would understand even if it is somewhat less well known today. Interpretation of a text is effectively just a translation; exegesis attempts to put the translation into context. Exegesis is the piecing together of clues from a variety of sources to arrive at the "correct" meaning for an obscure piece of text.
When the King James Bible was translated it involved a large amount of exegesis. The translators attempted (with only indifferent success) to locate Greek, Aramaic and Latin versions of the Bible and then compare the different versions to try to determine what the original text was that should then be rendered into seventeenth-century English.
One thing that exegesis tries to solve is the case where there is a choice of meanings because a word has mutated over time or is a homonym. A good example of this is the seventy-two virgins that some interpretations of the Koran believe is the reward awaiting martyrs in heaven. Because of the way the Koran was written down originally there is considerable dispute about whether the relevant word really means virgins; it could apparently mean a lot of things, including a sort of white grape.
For historians in the 1632 universe, it will always be a problem because English will not develop in the same way as it did in this universe. For the majority of people, though, it is likely to be a shorter duration problem because eventually all the useful up-time literature will be translated into down-timer German and probably Latin and possibly English and French. Moreover, there will also be produced basic primers of up-timer English and culture that will assist those who need the knowledge in much the same way that we use phrasebooks and dictionaries when traveling today. But, of course, anyone who stumbles across an up-timer newspaper hidden in an attic in 1793 will need to go and find a professional historian to help translate or dig up his primer of up-timer English.
Undoubtedly, in Grantville and surrounding/allied territories such primers will be quickly available, however although they can help with problems 1 and 3 above (and explain the concept of 4), problem 2 is going to remain a problem for people who haven't been exposed to the relevant technology. Without knowledge of what an automobile is, for example, expressions such as "when the rubber hits the road," or "putting your foot to the floor," or "coming to a screeching halt" can be translated but the translation will lack much of the subtlety of the original and may therefore contribute to a cascading series of misinterpretations like the virgin/grape confusion mentioned above. However, such primers will never be able to list all concepts and phrases and will never be universally distributed so problems will remain. Scholars who are not allied with Grantville and lack direct access will undoubtedly study obscure up-timer texts for quite a few years and they will need the techniques of exegesis to do so successfully.
The greatest challenge is undoubtedly that the up-timer documents are in English. Thus the first requirement for a down-timer who has gotten his hands on some Grantville printed matter is to locate someone who can read English well, which is not as simple as one might think. Although Tudor and early Stuart England (and Scotland) had produced many works that today are universally recognized as classics, in the 1630s their fame had yet to escape the British Isles. English was, quite simply, not a language much learned in the 1630s by foreigners. The international language of scholarship was Latin and works not written in Latin were generally shunned. Thus most people would learn their own native tongue and Latin during their education. Further languages learned would generally be the ones of the major continental powers, that is to say, German, French and Spanish. Indeed this remained generally true for a considerable period. An ancestor of mine who traveled central and southern Europe in the mid 1800s had a number of useful conversations with academics and clerics in Latin since he did not speak either Italian or German and some of his conversants could not speak French (his other modern language). Merchants and traders would, of course, learn other tongues; thus countries with trade with England, such as Holland and France, might have significant numbers of English speakers, especially in cities and ports, but other lands would typically have extremely limited numbers of them.
The second related challenge is the malleability of English and the lack of reference materials. To understand this it helps to look at works published in English at the time. Consider, for example, Hakluyt's Voyages, which was produced near the end of Elizabeth's reign, or the various versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One is immediately struck with the lack of the letter J and the mixing up of U and V not to mention the usage of Y as the (Icelandic) thorn (þ = th sound) and the frequent abbreviation of common words. Today we have different idiosyncrasies, such as the acronym, which would appear just as peculiar to a seventeenth century reader. Spelling was quite radically different (and inconsistent) and although there was an English dictionary (Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, first printed in 1604) it only contained about three thousand words, many of which are not used (or used differently) today.
The third related challenge is the changes in handwriting. This will not, of course, apply to people who manage to get original books or photocopies, but those unfortunates who end up with handwritten copies or stolen notes will discover problems. Again this sort of thing is easy enough to figure out when you have someone to ask but it is a lot harder if you are stuck on your own without anyone to help.
Sometimes, of course, it is reasonable for down-timers to find it easy to understand up-timer literature. Exegesis is easy when the book is intended to teach. Encyclopediae are easy and school textbooks are generally easy because they will proceed in a logical fashion and will have diagrams and sidebars explaining things. In addition, the context of the words are easy to grasp and, generally speaking, refer back to things discussed earlier. Of course book 3 of high school physics (for example) may refer back to things in book 2, but in my experience there will be a short reminder section before anything that is complex and important. Even in the event of excerpts (such as a particular entry in an encyclopedia), the text will normally be simple and not require additional data. Consider a random article in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica for example: