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Tag: Septuagint

Eco: Before and After Europe


Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. 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. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

Commonalities Between Sargon and Moses

” … I will conclude this Lecture with a few illustrations of the extent to which the study of Babylonian religion may be expected to throw light on the earlier portions of Scripture. We have already noticed the curious parallelism which exists between the legend of Sargon’s exposure in an ark of bulrushes and the similar exposure of the great Israelitish leader Moses on the waters of the Nile.

The parallelism exists even further than this common account of their infancy. Sargon of Accad was emphatically the founder of Semitic supremacy in Babylonia; he was the great lawgiver of Babylonian legend; and to him was assigned the compilation of those works on astrology and augury from which the wise men of the Chaldeans subsequently derived their lore.

Moses was equally the legislator of the Israelites and the successful vindicator of Semitic independence from the exactions of Egyptian tyranny, and future generations quoted the books of the Hebrew law under his name.

As we have seen, Sargon was a historical personage, and popular tradition merely treated him as it has treated other heroes of the past, by attaching to him the myths and legends that had once been told of the gods.

Now the name of the great Hebrew legislator has long been a puzzle and a subject of dispute. In the Hebrew Old Testament it is connected with the Hebrew verb mashâh, “to draw out,” not, indeed, in the sense that Moses was he who had been drawn out of the water, for this would not be grammatically permissible, though Pharaoh’s daughter puns upon the idea (Exod. ii. 10), but in the sense of a leader who had drawn his people out of the house of bondage and led them through the waves of the sea.

The translators of the Septuagint, on the other hand, living as they did in Egypt, endeavoured to give the word an Egyptian form and an Egyptian etymology. With them the name is always Μωυσης, which Josephos tells us is derived from the Egyptian words , “water,” and usês, “saved from the water.”

But this etymology, apart from other imperfections, depends upon the change the translators of the Septuagint have themselves made in the pronunciation of the name.

Modern Egyptian scholars, equally willing to find for it an Egyptian derivation, have had recourse to the Egyptian messu or mes, “a son.” This word, it is true, when occurring in proper names is usually combined with the name of a deity; Rameses, for example, the Sesostris of the Greeks, being written in the hieroglyphics Ra-messu, “Lord of the Sun-god.”

But it is conceivable that we might occasionally meet with it alone, and it is also conceivable, though not very probable, that the daughter of the Egyptian king would assign to her adopted child the simple name of “son.”

It is much less conceivable that such an Egyptian name would be that by which a national hero would be afterwards known to his Semitic countrymen. It is difficult to believe that the founder of the Israelitish people would have borne a title which the Israelites did not understand, and which could remind them only of that hated Egyptian land wherein they had been slaves.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 43-5.

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