Reading an old copy of The Guardian’s Review section over breakfast, I found this that I want to remember:

When Marco Polo first saw a rhinoceros on Java, he recognised it as a unicorn. The creature had a single horn and the word for a one-horned animal was already in the language – in Europe a “rhinoceros” did not yet exist. (Hustvedt, Guardian Sept 6, 2003)

Siri Hustvedt (who’s practically Norwegian, we’re all quite proud of her) writes that she used this conundrum when teaching writing. It’d also be a good anecdote to explain why it’s necessary to consider and develop new vocabularies to describe new media. Otherwise we’ll end up thinking that rhinoceroses are unicorns.

Perhaps we already did.

[update, 11:12 am: You must read Anders’s continuation of this thought: not only does he recognise the Marco Polo story as one of Umberto Eco’s favourites, he adds platypuses and whales to the mix and has a well thought out argument for the usefulness of calling a whale a fish – for many purposes. This, of course, all figures in the how-do-we-study-new-media and what-do-we-call-it debate. Lovely.]

5 thoughts on “thinking a rhinoceros is a unicorn

  1. Norman

    I could be wrong, but I didn’t think Polo visited Java, only Sumatra? More importantly, the rhinoceros was known in Italy centuries earlier, so although it makes a delightful post modern tale, I’m inclined to question its veracity. The Sumatran rhino had two horns, which at least may provide an explanation of why Polo’s “discovery” needed to be transferred to Java?

  2. Jill

    Really? Oh dear. Another anecdote ruined by fact. What a sad demise… 😉

  3. Norman

    Never, Jill. In our postmodern world, surely “demise” applies only to things we don’t wish to believe?

  4. Jill

    Ah, so I can just keep right on believing this, then? Cool 🙂

  5. Anders Fagerjord

    Keep on believing, Jill!
    At the time of Polo’s visit, Sumatra was a part of, depending on the year, either the Singhasari kingdom or the Majapahit kingdom, both based in Eastern Java. “Java” may be the name of the country, not the island.
    Whether on Sumatra or Java, Polo described the unicorn he saw in a way we recognize as a rhinoceros, ending with the phrase “It is not true that it may be captured by a maiden. But it is the other way around.” At least, this is what Eco writes in Kant and the Platypus (Danish version, p.64), citing Marco Polo’s Millione, p. 143.
    If it is true that the rhinoceros was known in “Italy” (a country that didn’t exist at the time) around 1000 A.D., I still think it is unlikely that Marco Polo ever heard of it. He lived two centuries before print, and zoology was not a big part of the schooling of a Venetian merchant’s son, I assume. Furthermore, Marco only lived in Venice until he was twelve, then he travelled to Cathay the first time. Returning three years later, he lived in Venice from he was fifteen to seventeen, then he embarked on the long journey.
    That is the point in the story: what Polo thought he saw, when he saw an animal he hadn’t seen before. He categorized it according to his previous knowledge, which included unicorns, but apparently not rhinos. Even if all other Venetians laughed at him for not having heard of rhinos before, that was how he interpreted his encounter.

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