Eco: The Etymological Furor

by Esteban


Conrad Gesner (1516-65), Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum Walderbeere, Zurich: Botanical Garden zur Katz, published in 1750. Photographed by Roland zh, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Postel’s was a clear and unambiguous demand for the restoration of Hebrew as the universal language. Few, however, made this demand in so radical a fashion. For others, it was usually enough to demonstrate that Hebrew was superior because it was the first language from which all others had derived.

One example is the Mithridates of Conrad Gessner. Published in 1555, the Mithridates is a book that draws parallels between fifty-five different languages.

Having dwelt briefly on the happy condition of some legendary beings with two tongues, one for human speech and the other to speak the language of the birds, Gessner immediately passed to the claim that “all existing languages had retained words of a Hebrew origin, though in a corrupt state” (1610 edn: 3).

Other authors–in order to demonstrate such a parenthood–started a mad etymological chase.

This etymological furor was not a new condition. Between the sixth and seventh centuries, by a fanciful account of the seventy-two existing languages, Isidore of Seville (Etymologiarum) elaborated a series of etymologies that has made him the laughing stock of scholars ever since: our corpus (body) comes from corruptus perit as our body goes to corruption; homo (man) derives from humus or mud from which he is born; iumenta (mare) comes from iuvat because horses help men; agnus is a lamb because it recognizes its own mother . . . These are examples of hyper-Cratylian mimological hypothesis, and we shall see that they were taken up by the supporters of Hebrew.

In 1613 Claude Duret published his monumental Thrésor de l’histoire des langues de cet univers. Using the Christian kabbala as his starting point, Duret set forth a vast panorama that swept from the origins of language, to an examination of all known tongues, including those of the New World, to a final chapter on the language of animals.

Duret started from the premise that Hebrew was the universal language of the human race; it thus appeared to him as self-evident that each animal name in Hebrew should include an encapsulated “natural history” of that animal.

Thus we are told that, in Hebrew:

the Eagle is called Nescher, a word formed by the combination of Schor and Isachar, the first meaning to look and the second to be straight because, above all others, the eagle is a bird of firm sight whose gaze is always directed towards the sun [ . . . ]

The Lion has three names, that is Aryeh, Labi, and Layisch. The first name comes from another which means tear or lacerate; the second is related to the word leb which means heart, and laab, which means to live in solitude.

The third name usually means a great and furious lion, and bears an analogy with the verb yosh, which means trample. [ . . . ] because this animal tramples and damages its prey. (p. 40).

Hebrew had managed to retain this proximity to the world of things because it never permitted itself to be polluted by other languages (ch. x). This presumption of Hebrew’s natural affinity to the world of things is also demonstrated by its magic potential.

Duret recalled that Eusebius and St. Jerome had ridiculed the Greeks because they had exalted their own language but were unable to find any mystic significance of their alphabet.

Only ask a Hebrew child the significance of the letter Alef, and he will respond “discipline,” and so on for all the other letters and for their combinations (p. 194).

Duret is an example of retrospective etymologizing, aiming at showing how the mother tongue was harmoniously related to the nature of things. Other authors engaged in prospective etymologizing, projecting Hebrew words forwards to show how they transmuted themselves into the words of all other languages.

In 1606, Estienne Guichard wrote his L’harmonie étymologique des langues, where he showed that all existing languages might be derived from Hebrew roots. He started from the premise that Hebrew was the simplest language because in it “all words are simple, and their substance consists of but three radicals.”

Manipulating these radicals through inversion, anagrams and permutations in the best kabbalistic tradition, Guichard provided his etymologies.

In Hebrew, the verb batar means to divide. How can we prove that Latin dividere comes from batar? Simple: by inversion, batar produces tarab; tarab then becomes the Latin tribus and, from there, turns into distribuo and dividere (p. 147). Zacen means old. Rearranging the radicals, we get zanec from which derives Latin senex. 

A further rearrangement and we have cazen, from which derives the Oscan word casnar, which is the root of the Latin canus, elder (p. 247). By this method we might equally prove that the English head comes from the late Latin testa, since the anagram of testa gives eatts.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 80-2.