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Five different voices behind him bellowed, "REDUCTO!" Five curses flew in five different directions and the shelves opposite them exploded as they hit; the towering structure swayed as a hundred glass spheres burst apart, pearly-white figures unfurled into the air and floated there, their voices echoing from who knew what long-dead past amid the torrent of crashing glass and splintered wood now raining down upon the floor -

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I don't quite get what "who knew what long-dead past" refers to in this context. Any ideas?

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It means a period in the past, so long ago it's dead, already dead a long time, and we don't know who even knows when it was:

  • The voices echoed from 1666 (just pretend)
  • The voices echoed from an unknown year (if we don't know)
  • The voices echoed from an unknown long-ago year (but it was long ago)
  • The voices echoed from an unknown long-ago past ("past" is a noun here)
  • The voices echoed from an unknown long-dead past (so long ago it's been dead a long time)
  • The voices echoed from who knew what long-dead past ("who knew what" = "no one knows which" = "entirely unknown")
  • I'm still not clear what that's supposed to mean. How come their voices could possibly echo from the past? I can't picture it. – dan Apr 25 at 21:36
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    "An echo from the past" is a common expression meaning something which reminds you of a long time ago; "voices echoing from the past" just means voices coming from the past. It's a book with lots of supernatural things, so voices coming from the past is ordinary in Harry Potter. – jonathanjo Apr 25 at 22:02
  • What about "long-dead"? Is the 'past' dead or 'voices' dead? – dan Apr 26 at 0:56
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    It is the past which is dead, and dead a long time. It's not just the past, it's a specific past -- by using countable "a past" it makes it refer to some specific (if unknown) period of history. In science fiction or supernatural fiction it might also be there are multiple different histories, this would mean a particular one. – jonathanjo Apr 26 at 1:02

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