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Tag: seventy-two languages

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), an excerpt from p. 157 of Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio. confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. A table portraying ancient alphabets, in which Kircher asserts that modern alphabets resemble ancient versions. Courtesy of Stanford University. 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. 


“Another alternative was to accept that Hebrew had been the original perfect language, but to argue that, after the confusio, the crown of perfection had been bestowed upon other languages.

The first text which countenances this sort of “nationalistic” reconstruction of linguistic history is the Commentatio super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium of 1498 by Giovanni Nanni, or Annius, which tells how, before it was colonized by the Greeks, Etruria had been settled by Noah and his descendants.

Nanni is here reflecting on the contradiction between Genesis 11, the story of Babel, and Genesis 10. In 10:5, the sons of Japheth settle the “isles of the Gentiles  . . . every one after his tongue.”

The notion of a lineage ascending from modern Tuscan through Etruscan to the Aramaic of Noah was elaborated in Florence by Giovann Battista Gelli (Dell’origine di Firenze, 1542-4), and by Piero Francesco Giambullari (Il Gello, 1564).

Their thesis, fundamentally anti-humanist, accepted the idea that the multiplication of tongues had preceded Babel (citing what Dante had had to say in Paradise, xxvi).

This thesis was passionately received by Guillaume Postel, who, we have seen, had already argued that Celtic had descended from Noah. In De Etruriae regionis (1551) Postel embraced the position of Gelli and Giambullari concerning the relationship of the Etruscan to Noah, qualifying it, however, by the claim that the Hebrew of Adam had remained–at least in its hieratic form–uncontaminated throughout the centuries.

More moderate were the claims of Spanish Renaissance authors. The Castilian tongue too might claim descent from one of Japheth’s many sons–in this case Tubal. Yet it was still only one of the seventy-two languages formed after Babel.

This moderation was more apparent than real, however, for, in Spain, the term “language of Babel” became an emblem of antiquity and nobility (for Italian and Spanish debates, cf. Tavoni 1990).

It was one thing to argue that one’s own national language could claim nobility on account of its derivation from an original language–whether that of Adam or that of Noah–but quite a different matter to argue that, for this reason, one’s language ought to be considered as the one and only perfect language, on a par with the language of Adam.

Only the Irish grammarians cited in the first chapter and Dante had had, so far, the audacity to arrive at such a daring conclusion (and even Dante–who had aspired to create a perfect language from his own vernacular–made sarcastic remarks on those who consider their native language as the most ancient and perfect: cf. DVE, I, vi).

By the seventeenth century, however, linguistic nationalism had begun to bud; this prompted a plethora of such curious claims.

Goropius Becanus (Jan van Gorp) in his Origins Antwerpianae of 1569 agreed with all claims made about the divine inspiration of the original language, and about its motivated and non-arbitrary relation between words and things.

According to him there was only a single living language in which this motivated concordance existed to an exemplary degree; that language was Dutch, particularly the dialect of Antwerp.

The ancestors of the burghers of Antwerp were the Cimbri, the direct descendants of the sons of Japheth. These had not been present under the Tower of Babel, and, consequently, they had been spared the confusio linguarum.

Thus they had preserved the language of Adam in all its perfection. Such an assertion, Becanus claimed, could be proved by etymological demonstrations. He produced a string of arguments whose level of etymological wishful thinking matched those of Isidore and Guichard; they later became known as “becanisms” or “goropisms.”

Becanus further claimed that his thesis was also proved by the facts that the Dutch had the highest number of monosyllabic words, possessed a richness of sounds superior to all other languages, and favored in the highest degree the formation of compound words.

Becanus‘ thesis was later supported by Abraham Mylius (Lingua belgica, 1612) as well as by Adrian Schrickius (Adversariorum Libri III, 1620), who wished to demonstrate “that Hebrew was divine and firstborn” and “that Teutonic came immediately afterwards.”

Teutonic here meant the Dutch spoken in Antwerp, which, at the time, was its best-known dialect. In both cases, the demonstration was supported by etymological proofs little better than those of Becanus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 95-7.

Eco: The Etymological Furor


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.

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