2 May 2008

Transliteration for dummies

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Note to the College Board: the correct transliteration for 'þ' is 'th', not 'p'. I've finally started to go back to analyzing the SAT writing material to infer the College Board's views on grammar, and while flipping through the January 2008 SAT, my eye came upon this bit from a passage in a reading section about Ezra Pound's translation of the Old English poem "The Seafarer":
Moreover, there are unfortunately some mistakes, as when Pound misreads purh ("through") as pruh ("coffin").
There's something wonderful about a sentence that talks about mistakes while making two of its own. The source text, of course, must have printed þurh and þruh. When I saw this, I had a flashback to my undergraduate days looking at old typed papers on Old English where thorn was rendered as a p and a b overstruck. But there's no need for that with computers, since thorn is in the Latin-1 character set and so widely available in font sets. Clearly, in a test intended for high school students, þurh and þruh would need to be altered, since I'm sure fairly few American high school students would know how to decipher a thorn. But what, pray tell, is wrong with "thurh" and "thruh"? Could it be that the people who put together the test have no more clue than your average high school student? Is it the case that of all the people who worked on this test, from the question writer to the editors and the reviewers, none of them had even the most rudimentary understanding of Old English? Given the relatively scant attention given to Old English in many English departments, I wouldn't be surprised, but it's still a bit disturbing. I suppose the average English B.A. might not have any better clue than a high school junior, but the people who serve as content experts for major standardized tests ought to be real experts, not just average graduates.