City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, by Peter Parsons

“Pythagoras the philosopher, having disembarked and teaching letters, advised his pupils to abstain from beans.” This nonsensical little tongue twister is a schoolboy translation exercise, discovered among huge trash heaps of papyrus in Oxyrhynchos (literally “City of the Sharp -Nosed Fish”), an ancient site 100 miles south of Cairo. It is a slice of life that proves that even in the 2nd century AD, language learning involved pointless sentences that nobody ever used – sort of a Graeco-Roman Egyptian version of “La plume de ma tante est jaune,” or (one that has stuck in my mind all these many years after first learning German), “Das aufschnieden des Stieffels ist zu vermeiden.” (“The cutting off of boots is to be avoided.) Good to know that some things never change.

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