There were two ways in which pre-moderns sought to understand cultures different than their own. They were both types of approximation. One was cultural, the other linguistic. The first sought the closest equivalent and proceeded to what is called an interpretatio, which is a kind of equivalence. Their cart is different than ours, but it’s still a cart. An interpretatio graeca is a means of explaining Roman deities, for instance, with reference to ancient Greek ones: Jupiter for Zeus, Juno for Hera, Diana for Artemis. An interpretatio germanica may attempt an equivalence between Roman and Germanic deities or days of the week: Thursday, Thor’s day, corresponds to Jovis, the Roman Thursday named after Jove, Jupiter. And so on.

Another type of approximation was linguistic. This happened when someone hears a word from an unknown foreign language but approximates its spelling and/or pronunciation. Most Arabic words which made a career in European languages during the Middle Ages submitted themselves to this kind of treatment: algorithm, for instance, comes from al-khwārizmī, a shortening of the 9th century Arab mathematician’s name Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. The Arabic word sifr for zero became cifra in medieval Latin, the English word ‘cipher’ and a word meaning ‘digit’ in other Romance languages.

Approximation was and remains a tool for cultures to make sense of each other, to communicate and exchange with each other. Next time you ask for two cannolos, remember that you’ve practised approximation. Note: the plural of cannolo is cannoli.

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